My foster sister Katherine taught me to ride when I was 10. I was the only kid in standard 4 at St Joe’s Primary School who could not ride a bike. It was embarrassing. The cops came to school to do a bike safety thing. They put witches hats up on the netball courts and then everyone had to ride their bikes in between the orange cones. Everyone did that except for me. I had to walk.
In 1970s Taranaki, families did not ride bikes together for fun. Mum grew up on a farm and she rode horses. Dad grew up in the city and he had owned a bike, a beautiful shiny red two-wheeler given to him for Christmas when he was five, but then someone nicked it and dad never got another one. “I can’t ride a bike,” he said.
Katherine was the only one who could teach me. She had an old red bunger with weird handlebars. Instead of sticking out sideways the handlebars had been twisted around so they poked straight up like two joysticks.
Katherine took me up to the racecourse and made me hop on. Her bike was big and my feet could hardly touch the pedals. She ran along next to me with one hand on the crossbar and the other on the back of the seat. “Pedal,” she yelled. “Pedal!” She was running pretty fast and the gravel was flicking up from the tyres and on our left the white railings on the racetrack zoomed by, one after another after another.
Her left hand shoved my back and I was on my own, riding fast on the air, but then I realised what was happening, tensed up, wobbled, lost my balance and fell off. I landed on one of the joysticks and the rubber gripper jammed itself right up under my ribs and winded me.
Katherine stood over me. She was the toughest person alive. Orphaned at 12, she got rid of her warts but cutting them off. I had seen her do it.
I was in a pathetic state, too breathless to even cry but my desire to impress Katherine – who was 14 or 15 by then – was so strong that it killed all pain. I got up and hopped back on the bike. By the end of that day, I could ride.
Fear was what got me there. I was afraid of being teased again at school and then I was afraid of losing face with Katherine and to make these feelings go away I had to ride that bike. Perhaps it was a bit brutal, but I still love bike riding. It was the right lesson for me, or so I thought.
I have spent many hours of these summer holidays encouraging my children to ride their bikes. It’s been a long haul.
At the start of the holidays, the oldest two were confident if reluctant riders but the youngest one, aged 7, was terrified and her terror made her so cautious that it was dangerous. She would stop 20 metres before an intersection and topple off. She would put on her brakes at the start of the most minor incline you can imagine and her bike would veer off the path and get bogged in the grass. The speeds she reached were unimaginable in their slowness. The other two would race off and leave me with her. I would ride 20 metres or so in front – a safe distance – and look back every so often to check that her bike was not actually in reverse. But no, she would still be moving forward on the blue ‘Petal Power’ machine, her little back ridiculously erect, her white blonde hair scragging out from under her helmet, her strong legs operating with a languor more common in the water when, laps over, you might indulge in a lovely easy breaststroke.
Great stuff love, I’d shout out to her. You’re doing so well. Keep going. That’s the way to do it. All lies. Her stubbornness enraged me but I was stubborn too. I insisted that they do a bike ride each morning. I was determined that by the end of the holidays, they would all be able to ride to the netball courts in the next suburb along.
Keep going! I’d shout to her and she would shout back angry, contradictory statements: This bee helmet is for babies! Wait for me! Get going! I said go! Go! Don’t stop there! You could at least help me! I hate bike riding! I will never ride a bike again! Mummy, mummy, you go first! And my favourite: Stop encouraging me!
Katherine had never encouraged me on the bike and nor had my parents. This was the only connection I could find between my experience and hers. I stopped cheering her on but I kept riding with her and as the days went by she got better all by herself.
One afternoon we went along a different path to a local landmark, “the thousand steps”. It was a longer ride but the little one did not complain. I looked behind and caught her riding with her bum off the seat. She had a gentle smile on her beautiful face. Later, I watched her speed down a gravel path, hair flying back under the bee helmet, knees pumping. “That was fun,” she said.
Fear is a potent teacher but patience is a better one. Thanks kiddo, you taught me well.