Although it’s true that you never forget how to ride a bike, it’s also true that you can forget how to ride a bicycle well.
This is what has happened to me.
For a good chunk of my life — well over a decade — I lived without ever getting on a bike. I guess I thought I was done with them, and then suddenly my wife gave me one for my birthday. It’s a beautiful piece of art, this bike, elegant yet sturdy, conjuring the romance of a distant era of picnics by the lake. (You know, tweed, repression and big skirts, that sort of thing.) No matter, we immediately dubbed the bike, Linus The Sinus — in honor of my seasonal allergies — and then my wife and I headed down to the shop to buy all the necessary accoutrements, including a helmet.
Rachelle looked at me, “Really, is that the helmet you’re going to buy?”
“Yes, it’s fun.”
The helmet in question was purple and decorated with decals of yellow caution tape.
“It makes you look like you’re not all there, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean.”
“I am special.”
“Yes, yes you are.”
“I’m special like a gold medal cycling champion made out of sharks.”
“Ring your bell, honey, see if it works.”
I rang my bell and it worked.
“Do you see what I mean?” Rachelle asked.
Toronto, like most big cities, is a dangerous place to ride a bike. There’s a climate of unremitting guerilla warfare between cyclists and vehicles, the streets are a congested, unpredictable frenzy of insane people driving cars, insane people riding bikes (often kicking cabs or attacking them with bicycle locks. I actually have a friend who grew so furious at a cab that she got off her bike and threw it at the still moving vehicle.), insane people on skateboard or on foot, buses, streetcars and a variety of other danger zones, like freshly dead (skiddy!) pigeons and streetcar tracks which often feel like they were designed to capture bicycle tires and then catapult the rider into oncoming traffic. It’s a treacherous landscape, and it requires some attention, and so, after a dozen years being off a bike, I’ve been tentative in my approach, often taking to the sidewalk in particularly hairy zones.
I’m aware that this is wrong, and I’m very conscious of moving slowly and apologetically when I do this. It doesn’t much matter. If you have a disposition to be pissed-off, you will be pissed-off when you see me, and if you don’t, well, you’re likely to be satisfied by my apology, weak grin and enfeebled, breathless pace.
The other day while pausing on the sidewalk waiting for Rachelle — who was in a store shopping — another cyclist came up behind me. He was pulling a little cart behind him and his eyes were large, as if in the midst of a roller coaster panic.
“Space!” he shouted at me.
I did not know exactly what that meant, but figured it must be a common expression used by cyclists. I moved my bike onto the street and tried to make myself as small as possible.
“Space, space!!” he shouted again.
And then he stopped his bike exactly where mine had been, took off his helmet and said, “Sir, where can I weld? Do you know the welding place? It is here, no?”
We were maybe ten yards apart and so I had to yell back to him, but my voice, thin and raspy at the best of times, was lost to the industry of the city. So I got closer to him, but still found myself yelling and for whatever reason, over enunciating each word, as if I had to really concentrate in getting my words right.
“I know nothing of welding!” I yelled back, “I am waiting for my wife!”
“I like to rest in the sun, too! Do you like to weld?”
It was apparent that the man I was speaking with had a mental disability, and it was while I was in the midst of this exchange that my wife came out of the store with our groceries. As I was putting on my new cycling gloves, Rachelle looked over at me, “You know how this looks, don’t you?” I told her that I did and we cycled home in silence, her on the street and me, occasionally ringing my bell to alert pedestrians, on the sidewalk. Ever since, I have been a lone, cycling wolf.
The other day while riding down a sidewalk in an expensive residential area of the city known as The Annex, a man who was passing by stopped and turned to me.
“You shouldn’t be doing that, you know.”
Irritated, feeling as if it was impossible for me to catch a break, I turned and looked at him. It was Ryan Gosling.
Ryan. F-cking. Gosling.
It’s not enough that he breaks up street fights in Manhattan, but now he has to be the cycling police in Toronto, too?
I have no idea why I said this, but before I knew it I had sneered, “Give me a break, Gosling!”
At this point I was hoping that the faint momentum I had going for me on the bike would keep me gliding by him and that nothing further would come of our encounter. It would become a grand story, a part of my mythology. I would recount again and again for rapt audiences the story of me telling off Ryan Gosling, mister superhero movie star.
But no, he jogged toward me.
“No, I won’t give you a break. Either walk your bike or ride on the street like you’re supposed to.”
I stopped my bike and gave him a sour look, trying to think of something to say.
“Look, I just have one lung, okay?” is what I came up with.
Gosling looked at me, kind of like the way his character in Drive did, “Did you hear me or not?”
I was going to give him the dismissive “Sheesh” sound and ride away, but he’d put his hand on my bike.
“No, no, you’re not going to ride away from this. Now just get off the sidewalk, okay? You’re a grown man, do the right thing.”
I got off my bike and sighed.
“George Clooney wouldn’t be so difficult, ” I said.
Gosling looked at me and raised his eyebrow, “Oh, yes he would. Have you ever worked with him?” His eyes twinkled and I felt a little bit like I might be falling in love.
“I’ve written him a few times,” I responded dreamily.
“Well, you should just take my word for it and move along.”
Slowly, I began to slink my bike away. It was humiliating, this. I turned around and looked back, hopeful that something devastating and witty would come to me, but all I saw was a superstar standing there, still watching me, his hands on his hips.
What a dick.
What a f-cking dick.
I would throw my bike at him.
It would be a sudden Ninja move.
It would hit him first in the throat and then he would respect me.
And then we would be best friends and my love for him would be filial and not creepy.
Life would be good.
However, throwing my bike at him proved difficult as my allergies were bad and I was hyperventilating a bit (RYAN F-CKING GOSLING!), and so I just kept walking my bike away. I didn’t want it to end this way though, and so I stopped and turned around, fully planning on yelling, “The Notebook was a f-cking Jokebook!” but Gosling was gone. Even though the star was nowhere to be seen, I felt his presence and continued to walk my bike down the street, now the slowest, saddest man in the world.