I started biking late in life, or so it seemed when I was already seven years old and was the only kid in my neighborhood who didn't know how to ride. My daredevil friend Roe, who did closed-eyes back flips off her jungle gym, was the first kid I knew to learn to bike. I still remember the day she tried to demonstrate a wheelie for me but pulled up too much on her handlebars and did a sideways somersault dismount instead, landing on the hot summer asphalt with a walnut-sized gash on the side of her knee. I ran screaming all the way to her house, and I held her hand while the doctor sewed the stitches.
I was always a cautious child, and it wasn't for another 3 years( and a move from Calif. to Virginia) that the image of her accident began to fade like the surrounding scenery I'd left. I got over my fear of biking but can't really say I try out daredevil moves--in truth, I've remained a wimp. You've probably seen me walking my bike up the steep hill leaving Tennessee Valley Beach. I started out biking up the hill, but one day my foot slipped and in that defining nanosecond when my bike slid backwards, I panicked, envisioning myself rolling uncontrollably down the hill and into the ocean a good quarter-mile away.
Or maybe you've passed me biking down Mt. Tam: I'm the one with the white knuckles from gripping the brakes too tightly. My seat's a little too low, as an ever-so-helpful biker pointed out to me one day, but I like it that way. The closer I am to the ground, the less distance I have to fall. Although I've always been this way, I'm note exactly proud of my cowardliness,, so a few weeks ago I signed up for the WOMBATS Instant Finesse clinic guaranteed to teach tricks that "save skin and pride".
I knew little more about the Women's Mountain Bike & Tea Society than what I'd read on the website, where the founder, Jacquie Phelan, described her classes as "gentle introductions" to mountain biking. I'd never met Jacquie, but I recognized her immediately on the day of the clinic. She had on dalmatian-print sunglasses and was leaning up against her hot pink bicycle, a banjo slung over her shoulder. Her helmet bore a sunflower pattern, and the collar of a pink and blue pinstriped Brooks Bros. shirt peeked from beneath her caramel colored cashmere sweater sporting several holes. Her bike gloves had pink ruffles, and the only part of her getup that matched, and hence clashed with everything else, was her camouflage tights and miniskirt.
Jacquie offered me some chai tea and told me that she'd started biking for ecological reasons, never because she wanted to be a jock. She prefers the home-made to the hip, cheese sandwiches to energy bars, and thrift-store sweaters to biker jerseys.
There were five other women in the clinic, and as we warmed up outside the Sunshine Bicycle Center in Fairfax, practicing balancing and braking without putting our foot down, Jacquie harassed one and all.
"Today you'll burn up most of your energy on nerves" she said. She rode as close to us as possible, trying to catch us off guard so we'd brake but not have enough room to get off our bikes. The trick is to keep your feet horizontal on the pedals, which sounds simple enough but is easy to forget when a camouflage-print biker with a banjo is invading your space and yelling, "Pretend a volcano just exploded! Pretend the ground is molten lava!"
But it worked. Before long I was braking and standing up on my bike pedals, coasting along with something almost resembling "ease".
Next we learned dabs, in which you put on e foot on the ground for balance while keeping the other on the pedal, ready to take off again in a split second. We practiced stopping at a moment's notice leaning back while be braked so we wouldn't fly over our handlebars.
For me the greatest test came right before we hit the trails, when Jacquie demonstrated something that reminded me a little too much of Roe's botched wheelie.
Jacquie sat back in the saddle hovering on the pedals and leaned down on the bars. "Like a lizard doing a push up".
Then she pulled up to get the front wheel off the ground. "This is what you do to go over tree roots or logs" she said, pointing to the edge of a good-sized cement island in the parking lot, "curbs like that". We circled around once and then, one by one, did our wheelies over the curb.
When it was my turn, I rode fast and looked straight ahead. When I hit the curb, I stood up on my pedals, just like Jacquie taught us. It reminded me of jumping waves, where you do exactly what feels contrary to nature. Instead of pulling back or curling up, you leaf forward into what most frightens you and the adrenaline carries you past the breaking point. Wherever she is today, Roe would be proud.