In the midst of a long bout of depression, the low-grade kind that gnaws at your bones until you have no shape, I was feeling like a tattered quilt — old skin draped over the sofa. One day Leigh, my Ottawa daughter who sometimes bikes the Ottawa River Pathway to work, suggested I take the bike out for a spin to change my routine. Janice and Allison seconded the suggestion.
We have a bike but I hadn’t been on it for well over a year, and then only to pick up a DQ sundae a block-and-a-half away. We’d recently tuned it up and replaced the hard narrow seat because I was going to offer it to our son Gerard who could use it to commute to work in the city.
A few evenings went by before I thought about the conversation with Leigh again. I unfolded myself from the sofa and biked around a couple of streets.
The effect was almost immediate. The breeze pushing against my face dispelled parasites from my head, freeing up memories.
Summer of ‘66. I was about to turn eight and there was a turquoise CCM bike in the window of the hardware store on Central Avenue. My parents and I walked by it every time we went to the OK for groceries. My dad was going to university at the time and I had three younger brothers, so even at my young age I knew the likelihood of my first two-wheeler was only a dream. Yet one day Dad took me for a walk and we ended up at the hardware store. Dad told me to sit on the bike in the window to try it out for size. I could hardly breathe. Back then excitement could charge in my body like an electrical storm. We wheeled the bike home, only a few blocks down, but my elation was short-lived when I realized I could not simply jump on and cruise down the street.
Dad walked in endless circles on the grass in the backyard that summer, holding me upright while I struggled to maintain balance. It might have been my first indication that finding balance was going to be a lifelong challenge.
But every kid learns to ride a bike and I was no exception.
In high school there was another turquoise CCM, but no girl’s bike for me this time. It was a 10-speed racer with curled down handlebars covered in white tape. I was tough. I was cool. One of our friends had a green glider with a carrier basket in front and a wide seat, and I secretly envied her ease with looking so dorky. My cool uncomfortable bike spent more time in the garage than it did on the street. When I left home to attend university I forgot all about biking.
Six years later I received my very first Mother’s Day present, five months before the birth of our first child. It was a red bike. That summer I felt elegant upon the high seat, my neat little belly nestled on my lap as I drove and tiny baby Janice rocking within as the pedals went round. It’s probably why Janice is so at home on a bike, even in dresses and heels.
The next summer a child seat perched behind me and Janice and I rode all over town. It was the pre-helmet age. These days if I tried that I’d probably be arrested for child endangerment. Maybe we were foolish, but I never even considered the possibility that we’d fall.
Lately I’ve spent far too much time worrying about falling. Or is it failing. So careful I am almost comatose. Like my cat Linus when he hears an unfamiliar sound at the door, I hide from adventure.
Fear and depression ride in tandem. If you let them, they’ll conspire to keep you off the road, making you believe you’re too old, too tired, too . . . nothing.
Recently CBC Radio’s Wiretap announced the end of its 11-year run with a video on how to age gracefully. It features a series of people, from young to old, who share their wisdom. The first kid tells us that training wheels are for babies. “Just let go already.” She’s right, and not just about training wheels.
Rather than let go we grasp — at schedules, intensity, reps and mandatory maximums. Exercise in a gym with no windows on a sunny summer day. Walk the route with a pedometer and grim determination. Ten thousand steps a day.
But there’s something about getting on a bike that makes you let go. No set route. Pedal and see where the wheels take you. Maybe it’s the speed and breathlessness that’s so exhilarating. OK, speed is relative, but I did pass a nine-year-old on a scooter. Or maybe it’s that coasting with your feet off the ground and the wind blowing your mind makes you feel like a kid — less like exercise, more like play.
One of the last pieces of advice in the video was from someone much older: “It’s never too late to try something new.” Even if it’s as old as getting on a bike.