A couple of years ago I had a bicycle accident that left me on the ground with my foot cut open like a knife had sliced right through it. I started screaming at the sight of my pink muscle peeking through and yellow skin curling at the edges. I had the accident because at the time, I couldn’t ride a bicycle but had tried anyway, and consequently ended up having a little “disagreement” with a huge semi-trailer hurtling down the highway.
In retrospect it may appear stupid to attempt a bike a wine tour when one doesn’t actually know how to ride a bike. But I was in Argentina at the time and had met a cute guy at the hostel who was also going on the tour so it seemed less like a dumb idea. (You’d be surprised at how dumb I can be when there is a cute guy around.) I should note that at the time of the accident we hadn’t even reached the first winery, so alcohol isn’t to blame. I simply had never really ridden a bicycle, so an accident was inevitable.
Fast forward to Beijing, and it shamed me not to be able to ride. Because this is a city made for cycling. It’s very flat, and there are wide bicycle lanes everywhere. Plus the horrendous traffic simply makes biking such an attractive option. That said I still didn’t know how to ride, and now add to that I was, naturally, harboring some accident-related fear of biking. And for two years it wasn’t such a big deal because I was living in the sticks which meant to get anywhere I’d have to catch subways. But in moving to my current area ““ right in the center of the city where almost everything worth seeing is in biking distance ““ I knew it was time to finally bite the bullet. Everyone had told me biking would change my whole Beijing experience, and I’m not the type who likes to miss out.
My friend gave away a dingy grey bike she wasn’t really using, and the first time I was terrified. And bad. I was wobbling and crashing and constantly having to get off the seat and put my feet on the ground. At one point I was on a wide and empty street except for a young couple strolling arm-in-arm, minding their own business, and of course I rode straight for them. It was a replay of the semi-trailer accident, except, thankfully, this time with a much smaller target. As soon as I set my eye on something I seemed to head straight for it.
But I was determined, and the next day I got back on the bike (literally). I was still extremely nervous and extremely bad, still starting and stopping, but this time managed not to hit anyone. The third day something began to click. I realised that when I was heading uncontrollably one direction, swerving the other was a bad idea. Biking was about constantly making little adjustments, to-and-fro. When I told my friend this she looked at me like I was mad, because she simply didn’t understand how one couldn’t know how to ride a bike. The fourth day I took my new-found knowledge and finessed it. By the fifth day I was biking like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And now ““ two months on ““ have not improved beyond that, which is to say, it only took five times (around 30 minutes each time) to learn to ride a bike. I shouldn’t brag about that. I assume that was the same case for all of you, except that you were all seven years old at the time.
A friend of mine is a smoker and told me that when she was younger, she always put shit on people who smoked. “Hello, cancer? Are you guys fucking stupid?” that sort of thing. And the thing is, she says, that even then she knew, in her heart of hearts, she was a smoker and would one day take up smoking. Hilarious, and weirdly fatalistic.
That’s how I feel about biking. Even though my parents never taught me to bike, and I had a horrible accident and was even afraid of it for long time after that, I have always been in love with the idea of biking. I would always look jealously at those sitting atop two wheels, riding away without a care in the world. I thought it looked so romantic. Especially when I was in Barcelona and it was a beautiful Spanish guy with long, curly dark hair and his lovely, sun-kissed girlfriend sitting one-sided on the back.
And now that I am actually biking, that previously unrequited love has turned into something real. I have developed a relationship with my bike that exceeds those I’ve had previously with inanimate objects (such as my laptop or smartphone.) When my friend ““ the one who gave me the bike ““ said to me, “you never have to worry about your piece of shit getting stolen,” I felt bad that my poor bike had to hear such horrible talk and loyally told said to my friend (loudly so the bike could hear) that my bike was wonderful and even if what she said was true it only meant me and the bike were destined to be together forever.
Before I started biking, I’d always talked about how great I bet biking was ““ like having super long legs because you could travel really far distances quickly. But little did I know that it also meant that now when I don’t have my bike with me, I feel like I have leads tied around my feet. Walking is for suckers. It takes so damn long to get anywhere.
I know biking is sort of fashionable and trendy in a lot of big cities, but in Beijing it’s the opposite. Bike culture is slowly being eroded by a rapidly developing car culture, but nonetheless remains a common mode of transport. In that way, biking isn’t really a lifestyle choice here, or a hobby, or a trend. People don’t ride fancy, pimped out bikes (except for some of the hipsters on fixies) because bike theft is also outrageously common here. Biking is often simply the quickest, cheapest way to get from A to B.
I won’t live in Beijing forever, which means, sadly, it’s likely I will one day have to part ways with my lovely bike. (Assuming a thief doesn’t make that happen sooner rather than earlier.) But I know that biking will stay with me. And when you’re living in a country plagued by air pollution and haunted by stories of little girls being run over by vehicles and left to die on the side of the road, well you can’t help but wish there was a little more bike action in the world.
Ed note: Also see Miss Worded’s ode to learning to ride a bike. Persephoneers are fearless.