Learning to ride a bike is as easy as learning to ride a bike. Which is to say: pretty darn hard. Especially when you’re 6. And my daughter. And learning from a guy like me.
“Come on,” I coach as I steady the back of her bike seat, “you got this! It’s simple physics.”
“Simple what?” Eleanor asks, craning her helmeted head toward me.
“Never mind,” I say. “Eyes ahead!”
This is not our first lap around the block. Or our second. In fact, if my hunched back is any indication, we’re closing in on our own personal Indy 500. Somehow, all my careful instructions (“Don’t tip!”, “Keep pedaling!”, “Remember Newton’s First Law!”) have fallen on deaf ears.
Yet what we lack in bike riding success we make up for with our growing audience. The neighbors delight in our daily drama, which they watch from the comforts of their picture windows. Day after day, our faithful viewers tune-in for such classics as “B.J. Clownishly Rides a Child’s Bicycle”, “B.J. Spills Onto The Sidewalk Following A Failed Wheelie”, and the ever popular “B.J.’s Botched Bike Lessons Lead To Public Meltdown.”
One day, while walking her bicycle home during another less-than-successful lesson, I asked Eleanor, with all humble earnestness “What’s the hard part for you?”
“The hard part is the trying not to fall,” she explained.
I, too, know that fear. Back when I was learning to ride, I had my own regular run-ins with the ground — and the skinned knees to prove it. My most terrifying encounter involved a loose shoelace, a pedal crank arm, and the slow-motion disaster that followed.
From my place atop my seat, I’d watched in horror as the pedal crank arm snagged my loose lace, binding my foot tighter to the bike with every revolution. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, my inglorious toppling was inevitable. As was the bruised ego that accompanied it.
It wasn’t until I observed my daughter’s daily defeat that I began to realize that her own ego was taking a bruising. The cure, I knew, was a healthy dose of confidence boost.
For us, that boost came in the form of our “tagalong bike” — a single-wheeled attachment that affixed to the back of my own bike. I did the balancing and pedaling, she provided the subversive color commentary (“Hey Dad, remember Newton’s First Law!”). Eventually, her confidence was restored; at least enough to get her back in the saddle.
Throughout June, Eleanor crashed her bicycle into every lawn on the block. She knew which neighbors had the springiest grass and aimed her collapses accordingly.
“You’ve got me?” she’d holler as I steadied her seat.
“I’ve got you,” I’d assure.
But then I’d let go. And then she’d eat grass. And then, following several rounds of passing the blame, we’d take it once more from the top.
Always, she’d return to that bike seat with the determination of a rodeo rider. I’d tail her for what seemed like miles, shouting one encouraging slogan after another. When the slogans ran dry, I’d just shout nonsense, anything to assure her I was there.
Following another less-than-successful outing, I asked her what I could do better.
“Well,” she said, treading lightly. “Sometimes you kind of yell.”
“I don’t yell!” I yelled. “What do you mean I yell?”
Her eyes said everything.
For a month, I’d been teaching her to ride a bike without ever considering how she might prefer to learn. She didn’t need a physics lesson, or a seat-steadier, or a slogan machine. What she needed was a dad that let her lead.
And also, it didn’t hurt that I finally lowered her seat to the proper height.
As metaphors for growing up go, the ol’ “teaching-one’s-child-to-ride-a-bike” serves as pretty low-hanging fruit. You’ve got your hardships, your setbacks, and eventually, your moment of triumph. And that’s precisely how our story played out.
Only in our version, that triumph took a little longer than expected, and the lesson had less to do with her than me. I like to think I’ll get it right the next time around. That when Eleanor’s little sister places her feet to the pedals, I’ll listen a little louder, talk a little quieter, and trust my budding biker to find her own path forward.
Just as Ellie does one sweltering July afternoon.
“Did you let go?” she shouts from half a block ahead of me.
“I let go!” I confirm.
And then she is off, lurching down the sidewalk with the speed of a poorly thrown bowling ball.
I give chase, and as I pass my neighbors’ picture windows, I see them silently cheering us on. Arms raised, fists pumping, this is the season finale they’ve been waiting for.
But for me, it feels less like a season finale than the beginning of an entirely new show. One which remains unwritten. And one with plenty more drama to come.
Ellie pedals faster, harder, leaving me in her dust.
I lengthen my stride, I pick up my pace, sprinting toward that speck on the horizon.