I'm capable of doing some complicated things. I can read and watch TV at the same time. I've riverboarded. I know how to do my own taxes. But coming to my 34th birthday, I still hadn't mastered a skill that most 7-year-olds have down cold: riding a bike. Although this had been the case, obviously, for decades, this year, after making some pedal-happy friends, I finally decided to get my wheels.
Turns out, while basic maintenance and road etiquette lessons are plentiful in this area -- just call your local bike shop -- ground-floor, get-on-the-bike classes are not so easy to find (or cheap). This may be because there just aren't that many non-riding adults; a 2002 Department of Transportation study estimated we're only about 3 percent of the U.S. population. Or it could be that most adults choose the do-it-yourself method: You, your bike, a grassy slope -- voila, you're biking!
Teaching yourself has certain advantages -- it's free, for one. But it has disadvantages, too -- like falling. Since I cringe while getting a manicure, I thought a pro should help me on my weebly, wobbly road less traveled.
What to Expect: I decided to go with College Park Bicycle's instructor, Chad Kayser. Chad's taught much harder cases than me -- autistic kids, grandparents -- and guarantees results. Before the lesson, he checks out your two-wheeler to make sure it's the right size and to get a general gauge of your abilities. I was happy when he said teaching me would be "easy," though in the end I did need two classes to get wheel-borne. (Many folks learn in one.)
I was riding an old metal horse of a bike, given to me by a 6-foot ex-boyfriend who clearly never quite got my 5-foot-5 dimensions. Chad pronounced it good enough -- borderline too big, but so close, he said, that "I couldn't in good conscience ask you to buy another one." Many other sources, though (including Bicycling magazine), recommend you start with a bike small enough that you can put your feet on the ground if you feel yourself falling. (And definitely follow this advice if you're teaching yourself.)
My lesson took place on the University of Maryland campus. For an hour and a half, I launched myself up and down a thin asphalt path, with Chad running gamely behind holding my seat. As with many newbies, my challenge was balance. To help with this, Chad punctured our pedaling with drills in which, standing behind me, he'd tip the bike to one side or another, and I had to turn the handlebars the opposite way.
As I started getting the hang of it, he'd sometimes put his hand on my back as I rode and say, "You're doing it!" -- at which point I'd start weaving. I only fell once, though, and that was when I was walking my bike through a turn and got tangled up in it.
What to Wear: A helmet, bike gloves, sneakers and a pair of thick-material pants, neither flowing (which can get caught in the gears) nor restrictive (ouch). DIYers should add knee and elbow pads.
Cost: $25 to $125.
Sandy M. Fernandez
Where to Spin Your Wheels
College Park Bicycles. 4360 Knox Rd., College Park. 301-864-2211. Store manager Kayser guarantees results from his "soup to nuts" lessons. Most appointments are Sunday mornings; call or visit to arrange one. Price begins at $125 but includes as many sessions as you need.
League of American Bicyclists. 1612 K St. NW, Suite 800. 202-822-1333. www.bikeleague.org. Director of Education Sami Fournier says some of the league's instructors teach individual beginners. Riders should bring their own bikes and equipment, but arrangements to borrow can be made. Lesson times and prices vary.
Washington Area Bicyclist Association. 733 15th St. NW. 202-628-2500. www.waba.org. Allen Muchnick (firstname.lastname@example.org), a certified instructor, teaches private lessons for novices. These classes are for the hardy -- he doesn't have much patience for newbie fear. Arrangements can be made to borrow a bike and safety equipment. Lessons cost $25 per hour.