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I learned to ride a bike when I was about six years old. I remember climbing on, being pushed and told to pedal. Other than a few run-ins with gravity and physics, I rode like a champ from that point on.
Fast forward a few decades. I decided to take up the “sport” of triathlon and discovered two things right away: First, I don’t ride “like a champ” anymore and second, I had no idea how expensive and complicated bicycling had become.
The first thing I did was price new bikes and realized that good ones cost more than the first three cars I owned, combined. When the shock wore off, I called my friend Lee to see if he still had his old 12-speed Trek. I had borrowed it from him once in 1989 to ride the St. Marks Trail, a 32-mile trip I made to impress a girl who was into riding. (For the record, it didn’t work but it did give me a new appreciation for the internal combustion engine.)
Once Lee finished laughing, he told me I could use it but that I would need to take it in for a tune-up. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But despite my better judgment, I listened to Lee and I took it to the local bike shop.
Ninety dollars later, the bike was as good as new. But I was still a guy in my mid-40s, taking up an activity that would have been challenging even in my 20s. So I asked my friend John for some advice on how to make the experience less painful. He told me that I probably ought to invest in some really good bike shorts.
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Yeah, like I’m going to cram myself into some ridiculous looking spandex pants and go out in public,” I said. Of course, that was before I took my first long ride in 20 years, sitting on a bike seat roughly the size of an ax handle. Afterwards, I was back in the bike shop happily forking over $40 for shorts with the padded seat. And right then I didn’t care if I did look like sausage bursting out of its casing. It was a choice between self-respect and comfort, and comfort won out by a wide margin.
With the bike tuned and my butt padded, all that was left to do was start riding. Fortunately, I live across the street from my friend and boss, Joel, who’s an accomplished bike racer and he and I started going regularly. Joel taught me a lot about riding in traffic (without dying), drafting behind other bikers (without crashing) and riding up steep hills (without crying.)
One day, though, Joel told me that he was getting a new bike and asked if I wanted to borrow the really nice bike he had been riding. I was thrilled. His Felt was a great bike and, after riding Lee’s old Trek, it was like graduating from a Ford to a Porsche. The only problem was that Joel’s bike had clips rather than cages on the pedals. That meant I had to wear special shoes (which he also loaned me). And it meant I would have to learn to twist my feet to the sides in order to get them free.
I practiced several times on the grass before taking the bike out on the streets. It was an unnatural process, but after several tries I was able to pop my right foot out pretty quickly when I came to a stop. Still, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the arrangement so I mostly tried to avoid stopping unless it was absolutely necessary.
And it became absolutely necessary one Sunday morning at a busy intersection with cars in front, behind and on either side of me. I had no choice but to come to a complete stop.
About 50 yards from the light, I started trying to free my foot, becoming more and more desperate as my speed decreased. Finally, with my bike wobbling and me shaking my leg like a mad man, I managed to get my right foot free just as the bike stopped. What I failed to notice, however, was that all my effort had caused the bike to lean to the left. So while I was quietly celebrating the release of one foot, the bike was actually falling to the other side.
At that point, it was too late to do anything except let gravity have its way with me.
I hit the ground with a thud. A guy in the car next to me asked if I was okay and I noticed a few others laughing.
I got up quickly, dusted myself off and rode away with the tiny shred of dignity I had left. But even that disappeared when I realized how this whole scene must have looked to a casual observer, especially one who didn’t know my feet were clipped to the pedals.
I can just imagine someone on the other side of the intersection seeing the bike slowly topple to the left as my right leg flailed wildly in the air.
In my mind I could picture them saying “Other foot, idiot! Use your OTHER FOOT!”
I pedaled off thinking that this seemed so much easier when I was six.