I can still remember my first ride on a two-wheeler. It was a hot, sticky summer day in New York and my brother and I were out in the front yard, my brother tooling around on his Evel Knievel big wheel and me riding in circles on my prized possession-my very first bicycle, a pink number, with training wheels, a sparkly banana seat and rainbow-colored ribbons coming out of the handlebars. For weeks, I had pestered my mom to take the training wheels off of my bike and it was on this summer day she finally capitulated and carefully unscrewed those little wheels. When the deed was done, I took hold of my new and improved bike, swung my leg over the seat and got ready to start racing the big kids on the block up and down our stretch of jutted sidewalk. Before I could put my feet on the pedals, my mom gently explained that this was like a new bike and I had to learn how to ride without training wheels. She suggested we practice riding with her holding onto the back of the seat to help me. I found this to be a ridiculous notion, and tried to tell her that I was big enough to do it by myself and didn’t need any help—that was for babies. She ignored my protests and wordlessly took hold of the back of my seat and told me I could start pedaling.
With the first stroke of the pedal, I felt something different than usual in my well-worn bicycle. It felt wobbly and unsteady. I wasn’t sure I liked this. I was used to a smooth, unadulterated ride. It was then that I started to feel afraid. Without those two extra little wheels, my world was unbalanced and I would have to learn on my own how to stay upright. I yelled to my mom that I wanted to stop, that I was going to fall, but my bike kept moving forward, and after a few seconds, the wobbling stopped and I was cruising along the sidewalk. The fear dissipated and all I could think about was how far I could go now. I yelled back at my mom that she could let go now, but I could no longer hear her behind me, or smell her perfume. When I realized she had already let go, there was a distinct moment of panic that was overcome by the newfound freedom that comes with navigating your own way.
And it was in that way that cycling always seemed to mimic the contours and challenges of life from childhood to the transition to adolescence and finally adulthood, and somehow the milestones of my own life transitions are marked by memories of biking.
Long after I outgrew my wonderous banana seat bike, I began to covet my older cousin’s sleek, baby blue Schwinn 10-speed. By then, we had moved out of the city and into the suburbs on Long Island, with wide, flat, tree-lined streets, nature preserves, a bike route to the beach and of course, shopping malls. As a pre-teen (what we call “tweens” now), oh how I thought a 10-speed would change my life. With it I could travel great distances far and wide on this island we lived on, no more begging rides from my mom or failing that, the dreaded slow pace of walking to get to where I needed to go. And then one day, the unthinkable happened. My cousin came over to our house, gliding into the driveway, already swinging one leg off the bike of my dreams before it had come to a stop. She gave the kickstand a whack, so I could get the full view of the bike standing tall in all its splendor. She told me the bike was mine if I wanted it. Mind-blown, I couldn’t even stammer out a proper thank you before I climbed up on it and asked if I could take it for a spin. She started to explain to me how the brakes were different than on my bike—they were on the handlebars! And that this bike had gears. So much information, much of which was important, I would later learn, but I waved her off. I know, I know. I can do it myself. And with that I pedaled out of the driveway and down the street. I tried to remember how my cousin would hunch down low over the handlebars, gripping the curved bars, with fingers fluttering over the brakes, just in case. I adjusted my position, into something that seemed like what I had seen, and gave the brakes a little tap to make sure they worked, and then pedaled flat-out. The speed at which I travelled seemed faster than a car and it was glorious. This was the bike that I would ride with my friends down to the mall, to the beach, to school, to wherever we could go that was away from our parents to our own world. This was the bike that ushered me into my teenage years and allowed me the freedom to explore. I loved the simplicity of this freedom. Just grab your bike and go out into the world—no plans, no responsibilities, no limits on what you could do.
Many years later, after I moved to San Francisco and became a lawyer, I was bike-less and living in a concrete world, with hills like mountains and traffic that was unrelenting. It didn’t particularly seem like a hospitable place for riding but I saw bikes all over. When I decided to buy a new bike, I was certain that I would ride only within the safety of car-free trails, too afraid of the traffic congestion, but once I got on my new bike, (and put on a helmet, of course) it was like being transported to childhood—a few minutes of riding released my worries and made me feel free from the heaviness of my day-to-day obligations. I slowly started venturing out on short rides close to home, and then farther, plotting out my routes to take advantage of the growing number of bike lanes, and minimizing my interactions with the dreaded MUNI busses. It was a different kind of riding, one that was less care-free, but energizing, nonetheless. It was then that I got involved with the local bike coalitions, and began representing cyclists injured by drivers. The work felt important, as each case made small changes to the way the driving world viewed cyclists and the ways in which cities decided to prioritize traffic. 20 years after my first bike ride through San Francisco, the cycling infrastructure there is a pure amazement, connected bike routes, segregated bike lanes, and people ditching their cars for bike-only living.
After moving to Paso Robles, I had to readjust my riding once again. Riding through the rural areas of North County is serene, with horses, cows and farms replacing honking horns, truck exhausts, and angry bus drivers. I still get surprised when a grape harvester passes me by or when I have to slow down for my neighbor riding her horse in front of me. It reminds me of the peacefulness of my teenage riding days on Long Island. In town, here and there, I see the glimmers of bike advocacy creating change in the form of bike lanes, and marked share lanes, but we have a long way to go before catching up to the work that has been done in San Luis Obispo, with the help of Bike SLO County. I’m looking forward to someday being able to bike to my office in downtown Paso through a secure, connected network of bike lanes.