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It's Time for the Rides of My Life

By Sara Sklaroff
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The little boy was eyeing me warily. "Mom!" he stage-whispered to the woman next to him. "What is that lady doing?"

I guess the sight was pretty strange: a 38-year-old in mismatched workout gear, trying to place her feet onto the pedals of a bicycle, wobbling crazily, stopping, getting off the bike, and then getting back on and starting again. But I had made a commitment, and I wasn't backing out even if the training-wheels set at the Palisades Recreation Center park didn't approve.

All my adult life I have enjoyed telling people that I never learned to ride a bike as a kid. Rarely does it fail to shock. The usual responses are something like, "Wait, really? Never?" or, "You mean you still don't know how?" or -- surprisingly often -- "But do you know how to swim?"

It had never seemed that odd to me. My parents didn't ride, either. And I wasn't a physically adventurous child; I was unathletic, and, if not routinely picked last for teams, I was usually drafted late. In college, some friends attempted to teach me to ride, but that ended with a flesh wound that scars my knee still. It also left me distinctly uninterested in cycling. No matter the context, I glowered whenever anyone said, "It's just like riding a bike." Is it? Really?

And so the matter would have rested, were it not for a confluence of factors. My daughter, Edith, will turn 4 this summer, and I am determined to teach her to ride. At the same time, I've been looking for a new, and newly inspiring, form of exercise. Since I have Type 2 diabetes, this is especially important. Exercise is terrific for diabetes because it makes muscles use insulin better. (Terrific, but also a bit tricky, since physical activity can cause low blood sugar in people with diabetes, which is dangerous.) But ever since I'd gone back to work after being at home with the kid, my previous routine -- very long walks -- was no longer feasible.

The motivation was in place. But the trigger came from my job at the American Diabetes Association. Every year the association holds a series of fundraising rides called "Tour de Cure." It's the kind of thing that I have admired from afar but considered to be way beyond my abilities, like marathon running or blow-drying my hair straight.

Then I heard about the Red Riders, people with diabetes who ride in Tour de Cure wearing distinctive red jerseys. In particular, I was amazed by the story of one Red Rider, a man with Type 2 diabetes who had turned to bike riding when his weight reached 340 pounds; through a dedication to biking (and to the Tour), he had lost close to 150 pounds -- and gotten his diabetes firmly under control. Frankly, I thought that if he could start riding, certainly I could.

So, in the middle of March I made the decision to join the National Capital Tour de Cure, which will take place in Reston on June 14. By committing to ride and telling other people about it, I figured that I would be compelled, by peer pressure and by guilt, to do the exercise that I had been avoiding. I also liked the idea of inspiring other people who had never learned (and yes, they soon crawled out of the shadows to confess to me). Especially people with diabetes; I had to figure that the things we do to stay healthy -- the constant vigilance that is life with this disease -- is a heck of a lot harder than learning to ride a bike. And if I was going to learn, I might as well raise some money for an important cause at the same time.

Once I'd made up my mind, I e-mailed my friend Andrew Curry, a journalist and cyclist based in Berlin. He suggested I take a look at the retro-cool Townie, a bike made by the Electra Bicycle Co. that is set low enough that you can put your feet on the ground while you're sitting on it. I chose a tangerine-orange seven-speed, with a white seat and white grips. Already, I felt that I was bringing my talents to bear: using my love of good design to propel me past the dread I was beginning to feel.

Since Andrew was reluctant to commute from Germany to serve as coach, I enlisted a local: my co-worker Jon Townson, another serious and experienced biker, who will be riding a century (100 miles) at the Reston Tour. Under his supervision, I started out by trying to coast on the grass outside our offices. Or rather, trying to just keep myself, and the bike, relatively upright without even bothering with the pedals, as gravity took us down a gentle incline. (Jon, acting in the role of dad, then pushed me back up the hill again.)

This was exhausting, and not particularly satisfying. Jon kept having to remind me to breathe, because every time we got back to the top of the hill I held my breath, terrified of the next run. I felt embarrassed that I was so anxious and even more so that I got tired so easily.

Back at home, my husband, daughter and I trekked over to a modest ring of tarmac between the rec center and the community garden. Edith was somewhat puzzled as to why I was having trouble: She had no problem riding her tricycle, after all. I tried coasting on the paved area and found I could get a little speed going. Then I returned to the grass to see whether I could get my feet onto the pedals. By this time I was seriously sore, unaccustomed to the seat of the bike, and my legs were getting scratched up by the pedals each time I inexpertly stopped. And I still had to remind myself to breathe. The whole thing seemed to contradict the laws of physics, and I didn't like it.

Edith had abandoned the trike for the nearby playground, taking Daddy with her. I figured I might as well try pedaling on the pavement. Then it happened: It wasn't pretty; in fact, it was pretty wobbly, but I was pushing the pedals and moving forward and mostly going in a straight line. I yelped, and then yelled; I was biking, and I was the kid I'd never been.

That was, of course, just stage one. I had to learn absolutely everything from scratch. What are the gears for? How do you find a trail to ride on? What do you wear? What do you bring? (Bottle of water, ID, a small amount of money, a cellphone and, if you have diabetes, your glucose meter and a fast-acting source of sugar, just in case.) And what do normal people -- people who learned when they were kids -- mean when they say they are going for a ride?

This was when my cousin Laura Pajor, a public school pre-K teacher, stepped in. We met up one day at the portion of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park that's closed off every weekend. It was a great venue, but there were just too many variables: bikers going in both directions, walkers, a dog -- I was terrified of running into all of them, felt I had to stop but forgot to use my brakes to do so. Down I went. The walkers came over to see if I was okay. They looked pretty puzzled when I tried to explain that it wasn't their fault, I was just new! But I emerged with less than a scratch.

Andrew, following the situation from afar, e-mailed me later: "I hate to suggest this out loud to anyone, but I think crashing (in extremely limited doses) can be a good way to see it's not the end of the world and shake off the nerves a bit." Laura concurred: "Now you know you can fall and you will be okay!" I felt a little like one of the kids in her class, but that wasn't a bad thing.

It was our next ride that sealed the deal. We'd been rained out repeatedly, so I hadn't been on the bike for three weeks. I was pretty shaky and admitted to Laura that I wasn't feeling sure I could go through with it. She encouraged me not to think about the Tour, or how many miles I was going to bike, or anything else apart from the next stretch ahead.

I bore down and cycled forward. And soon I wasn't staring at every rock in the road or gritting my teeth as we passed each jogger. Instead I was looking at the trees, feeling the breeze, chatting with Laura, and, most surprising of all, breathing normally.

It was just like riding a bike.

The National Capital Tour de Cure will take place at the Reston Town Center on June 14. Information about this and similar rides around the country can be found at http://www.diabetes.org/tour. Comments: health@washpost.com.

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