Learning to Ride a Bike (Again)

How is it possible that, at the age of 37, I didn’t know how to ride a bike?   

I’ll get right to it: I grew up cross-eyed. Yep, until I was 16 years old, one of my eyes was always turned toward my nose.

Growing up Cross Eyed

Growing Up Cross-Eyed

The problem was that each eye saw its own image, stubbornly asserting its independence and refusing to merge into one. So, my choices were to see double or to cross an eye. I started crossing one eye or the other when I was about three years old.

I tried to disguise my eyes behind thick bangs and thicker glasses, but it was impossible to completely hide. As I got older, I avoided children because they would point at me and ask, “what’s wrong with your eyes?”

I hated the early 90s band Kriss Kross (remember the guys that wore their clothes backward?) because it was the mean nickname snickered behind my back in my middle-school hallways.

One of my middle-school crushes asked me if, as a child, I had been kicked in the head by a donkey (I abruptly stopped speaking to him.)

It wasn’t so bad when I was younger. I knew that I was different because I had to do something called “eye exercises” – literally an eye workout aimed at strengthening the eye muscles – every night when I came home from playing with my friends; otherwise, it didn’t much faze me.

I learned to play softball with one eye closed, I could read in the car with no problem because I just crossed the eye that might catch peripheral movement, and I squinted when I took pictures so that the “lazy eye” was less obvious.

A Childhood Rite of Passage

There was one childhood rite of passage that I just couldn’t master, however, and it irked the neighborhood kids something fierce: I could not ride a bike.

Can you imagine riding a bike with double vision? I sure couldn’t. In fact, when my parents surprised me with a black bike with training wheels, I stated, “I can’t possibly ride it since I can’t even sit on it standing still.”

Disappointed, my mom complained to my eye doctor who just laughed and told her that kids with double vision won’t ride bikes because it’s visually terrifying. He said, “she can’t even tell where the curb is!”

With that disturbing knowledge, my mom didn’t mind so much that the bike sat in the garage for years.

But the neighborhood kids minded. I would gamely run alongside them as they rode, but they couldn’t really ride with me tagging along that way. So, they launched a project to get me on a bike.

My mom remembers walking to the top of the hill that I grew up on to find the neighbor kids swarmed around me cheering, while my friend Hollie and her older sister balanced me as I tried to ride. The goal was to get around the block twice. It took hours. My mom brought up lemonade.

Finally, I made it around the block twice – and I just kept riding.

The Freedom of Riding a Bike

With the newfound knowledge that riding a bike was maybe not the best idea for a kid who saw double, my parents hoped that the bike phase would end, and that I would park the bike back in the garage.

Instead, a friend’s dad saw me on my kids’ bike, and he proudly presented me with a “big-girl bike”. Pink with a banana-seat and streamers that trailed from the handlebars, this bike was everything.

I kept riding. There was so much freedom with that bike. Hollie and I would zip around the neighborhood, parking to pick wild blackberries, or to hide in one of the many forts that we built in the forest areas that surrounded our wooded Pacific Northwest world.

Then Came The Fall

That is until I failed to see the rock. It was a big rock, kicked up by some form of yard work, and Hollie saw it easily as we zoomed down the steep hill toward home, pedaling as fast as our feet could turn. Ahead of me, I saw Hollie swerve suddenly. I had just enough time to wonder why she swerved before I hit the rock square-on and flew over the handlebars.

I broke that fall with my face.

The wreck was so bad that I went into shock. I vaguely remember a neighbor carrying me home. I was dripping blood from where my glasses had cut a deep gash into my forehead. I do have a distant memory of asking her “where are my teeth?”

I was 10 years old and I would never find those missing front teeth. And I wouldn’t ride a bike again for 28 years.

Getting Back on the Horse

The first time that I traveled to France’s Loire Valley it was winter and, before I returned from sightseeing, my Airbnb hosts, Marc and Sarah, would light a fire in the chalet that I was renting on their property to keep me warm. They also warmed my heart by helping me locate the real family of the heroine who inspired the book I am writing and then hosting us all in their home for an unforgettable night of storytelling and absinth toasting.

By the time I left, Marc and Sarah were dear friends, and I absolutely meant it when I told them that I would be back. I did not, however, mean it when I told Sarah that I would ride bikes with her in the vineyards behind her home upon my return.

It was nearly three years later, after the devastating death of my fiancé, that I reached out to Sarah as I packed my things into a storage unit in Chicago. I had quit my job and I planned to spend the summer in Europe – and I knew just where I wanted to start.

Though the chalet was booked for the first part of my trip, Sarah said she just so happened to need a house sitter for the Big House (and her Chihuahua, two kittens, six chickens, and a gamecock). Oh, and she hadn’t forgotten about the bikes.

All in all, I spent a bit over a month at Sarah and Marc’s, either at the Big House or in the chalet, and that gave Sarah quite a bit of time to warm me up to the idea of getting back on a bike.

She was patient with me, slowing her pace to a crawl for that first ride and teaching me how to use gears and brake handles. (The handles on my old banana-seat bike were for tasseled decoration; the brakes were employed by turning the pedals backward.)

There is a bit of terror behind that smile!

On our last bike ride through the vineyards, Sarah took me on a longer route that included a brief appearance on a real-live street with actual traffic. She checked the cars for me as I kept my eyes straight ahead, gripping the handlebars until my knuckles turned white. All the while Sarah was hollering “you’re on the road, Jen! You’re doing it!”

Sarah leading the way.

Is It Really Just Like Riding a Bike?

So, is the old saying true that re-learning a lost skill is “just like riding a bike?” Actually, yes. The skills did come back quickly, though I’m not going to be joining the Tour de France anytime soon.

Most importantly, the comradery found in riding a bike with a dear friend is exactly as I remember it.

Catching a sunset during an evening ride.

As for my eyes? After years of eye exercises and one failed corrective procedure that left me with a drooping right eyelid for three months, I underwent surgery when I was 16 years old.

I remember that it was Christmas Day and it was snowing (a rare thing in the Northwest), and I remember the moment when I opened my eyes and two separate images merged into one image for the first time – never to duplicate again.

When an Island Goes Dark

I didn’t plan it, exactly, but I am somehow following New Year’s celebrations around the globe. I joined old friends in Florida to ring in 2019 over champagne and laughter in January; lunched with new friends in Chiang Dao to celebrate the Chinese New Year over long noodles and warm red wine on the first…

Continue Reading When an Island Goes Dark

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    17 Comments on “Learning to Ride a Bike (Again)”

      • I’m glad you made it here, too! Especially since it led me to your blog, which looks great. And a good source of inspiration, since I am adding book reviews soon. Thanks for reading and reaching out, Nicole!

    1. Pingback: My Love Affair with the Loire Valley | The Lens of Jen

    2. very cool story. makes me want to conquer a bugaboo, or two, myself (Jeff’s Mom will understand)

    3. Pingback: Surfing and Sunflowers in Canggu, Bali | The Lens of Jen

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    5. Great article Jen. It isnt obvious to me how I can share this on social media or otherwise. Can you please educate me!

      Jim

      • I knew you’d like the bike post! And you really are so sweet to share. I’m trying to gather followers, so that I can turn this writing/blogging/traveling thing into a full-time gig, so I’m truly grateful. Thank you.

        So, the easiest thing to do is to go to my Lens of Jen Facebook page (please like the page if you haven’t already!) and then press share on the bike post. I posted it on Jan 18, so you’ll have to scroll a bit. The picture is of me standing in front of a farm house next to a bike that actually rode there!

        Thank you again for your support.

        All the best,
        Jen

    6. Jen, you simply amaze me after reading this. Now I understand all your
      pictures of bicycles. Deep down you always wanted to accomplish that challenge and you did!

      #YouGoGirl

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