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June 3, 2011 > Never too old to ride a bike: one adult's story

Never too old to ride a bike: one adult's story

By Alicia Chang, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP), May 04 - We pushed off from the Bicycle District in East Hollywood, a mob of two-wheelers that for a few hours on a recent Sunday ruled a 7 1/2-mile stretch of car-free Los Angeles streets.

Pressing down on one pedal, I repeated the motion with the other. Before I knew it, I was zipping along with stranger cyclists, dodging the occasional pothole while soaking in a different angle of Los Angeles from my bike seat.

Six weeks earlier, I did not own a bicycle or know how to ride one. Yes, I am one of those adults who never learned as a kid.

Here I was at an organized event modeled after Bogota, Colombia's ciclovia, in which residents are encouraged to ditch their cars and take to the streets on bicycles, skateboards, rollerblades or their two feet for a day. As a novice cyclist, I worried. Do I have the endurance? What if I'm too slow? What if I get in an accident?

When one thinks of bicycle lessons, the image that usually comes to mind is that of a parent hanging on to the seat of a child's bike and eventually letting go. But some bike organizations that only catered to kids in recent years have added adult learn-to-ride classes.

The reasons for the surging interest vary: gas prices, exercise, the desire to check this off one's life list of goals.

``Lots of folks seem to have learning to ride a bike on their list of 100 things to do,'' says Glen Harrison of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which has taught more than 200 adults in the metropolitan D.C. region since 2008.

Students learn the basics, including how to start and stop, balance, pedal and turn. Many schools start off by removing the pedals and lowering the seat so that beginners can get the feel for bike-riding by scooting around with their feet. Once they can roll some distance and hand-brake to a smooth stop, the pedals are put back on.

``The rest seems to happen naturally, just like they've been riding a bike their whole lives,'' Harrison says.

Not that it's easy.

``Adults have a harder time relaxing,'' says instructor Rich Conroy of Bike New York, which offers lessons for children and adults. He said older students are urged to loosen their grip on the handlebars, and slacken their elbows and shoulders.

``Kids are less fearful. They'll take more risk. They're also more familiar with bumps and bruises,'' he says.

Conroy said he once had a student who was so terrified that she kept jumping off her bike while it was still moving. ``You've got to stop doing that because you're not in control here,'' he recalls saying. ``Quit bailing on the bike and letting it go down in flames.''

The nonprofit has taught a version of Bike Riding 101 to about 1,900 adults since 2008. It recently added an intermediate course for adults, too.

Adults who sign up for classes typically grew up in cities or countries where cycling conditions were unsafe or nonexistent. Conroy of Bike New York said more than 95 percent of its students are women, many of them immigrants who want to teach their own kids.

My foray into biking had been riddled with false starts. My parents never learned to ride themselves, so they never taught me how when I was growing up in New York City. As an adult, I tried several times to get the balance right, but never quite did.

It wasn't until this past winter that I carved out time to learn, in part because my husband had bought me a cheap mountain bike from Craigslist and fixed it up himself. Seeing it untouched in the apartment parking garage was a shame.

Under the tutelage of my husband, a cyclist and motorcycle rider, I pedaled slowly around the garage. The first few tries were wobbly, and I kept praying I wouldn't bump into parked cars.

Once I felt somewhat comfortable, we loaded up our bikes and headed to Griffith Park, where I looped around the spacious parking lot and then pointed my wheels toward a small downward slope. It was a disaster. Whenever I gained speed, I would get scared and brake so hard that I flew off my bike.

At my lowest point, I secretly wished for training wheels.

Every adult who learns to bike has to confront fears. My breakthrough came when I internalized a few things: Speed is my friend. A light squeeze of the brakes goes a long way. Shifting gears makes the ride more efficient.

An accident, however, was inevitable. After a month of practice, I felt ready for the Venice Beach bike path. Toward the end of a leisurely ride along a curvy, crowded section, a young cyclist crossed the yellow line and crashed into the rider in front of me. I braked, but got caught in the collision. Luckily, the only injury was a damaged derailleur on the other guy's bike.

A week after the spill, my husband thought it would be a good idea to join thousands of cyclists at the CicLAvia in April. We weaved through neighborhoods that we would normally breeze through in a car. Families on beach cruisers and mountain bikes towing children pedaled by. Teenagers on fixed-gear bicycles zigged in and out. Even carnie folks on double-decker bikes zipped through the crowd.

The terrain was mostly flat, but there were several dismount areas at the top of hills. I wondered for a split second whether to walk my bike, but pushed on.

The most nerve-racking part was waiting with a horde at the occasional intersections where motorists were allowed to cross, and pedaling in slow unison when the traffic lights turned green.

Eventually, we reached the park at the end of the route. I made it. Do we cycle back or hop on the subway?

We pedaled toward home.

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