Run­ners and rid­ers

There’s no plea­sure in bik­ing at first – it’s stress­ful. The free­dom of mov­ing through the world on your own terms, that comes later.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - LEAH MCFALL -

For a bunch of rea­sons, we’ve been slow to get our kids on bikes. But now Maddy is 6, Ge­orge is 5, and we live on the flat, it’s time. I can’t tell you how old I was when I first wob­bled along on two wheels, but I can re­call the low buzz of my fear. I had blonde plaits and prob­a­bly wore stripes. It was the 70s, after all. My bike was new; my dead grand­dad had gifted it to me in his will.

Ev­ery­where was flat near our house; our sub­di­vi­sion was still be­ing built. The bricks smelt new, the tar was freshly black, there were newly dug saplings and piles of pav­ing stones wait­ing to be laid. We lived in a traf­fic-calmed zone, with un­der­passes and over­bridges priv­i­leg­ing peo­ple on foot or on wheels. It was a par­adise for kids and bikes.

Still, there’s no plea­sure in bik­ing at first – it’s stress­ful. You feel cross with your par­ents for putting you through this. The ex­hil­a­ra­tion, the coiled power of your mus­cles, the free­dom of scis­sor­ing through the world on your own terms – that all comes later. For now it’s just you, a scrappy kid, tus­sling with grav­ity. You don’t un­der­stand that for­ward mo­tion is your friend be­cause speed, at this point, ter­ri­fies you.

It’s ridicu­lous to pro­tect your child from this part of learn­ing to ride. This is learn­ing to ride. What they’re go­ing to find out is that a kid earns their lib­erty in chafed hands and scuffed knees, the odd nasty clash of skin and bike, and a pot­hole they didn’t see com­ing.

I won­der if bikes meant more to us back then. We could ac­tu­ally use them, for one thing, trusted and un­su­per­vised. Six blocks in ei­ther di­rec­tion, that was our do­min­ion and for once, we – pint-sized, with gappy teeth – were in charge.

Any­way, did you know there’s now a whole genre of in­ter­net video teach­ing you how to teach your kid to ride? The most mem­o­rable of these fea­tures a plain­speak­ing, mid­dle-aged Amer­i­can Dad in a base­ball cap and blue jeans. With his swag­ger and a slight paunch he looks like a Repub­li­can, so let’s call him Mitt.

“Check out this guy,” I told my hus­band. “He says you can teach a kid to ride in un­der five min­utes.”

Mitt ad­dresses the cam­era and says his method is guar­an­teed; plus, you won’t need to run along­side the bike.

“You could be a sin­gle mother, you could be hand­i­capped, you could be blind, you could be overly large… what­ever it is, this way you’ll be able to walk along­side your kid, ask them to ride a bike, and teach ’em to ride a bike.” Mitt isn’t ex­actly like­able, but he has our full at­ten­tion.

Mitt picks a boy out of a knot of kids at the play­ground. He tells us, and the kid, that he’s been rid­ing a bike for 50 years with­out a hel­met, so a hel­met is not re­quired. He then jacks up the ten­sion.

Mitt: Rule num­ber one, are you ready to ride a bike? I’ll ask you again. Are you ready to ride a bike?

Kid: Yes.

Mitt: OK, he’s ready to ride a bike so he’s go­ing to be able to ride a bike.

Mitt then in­structs the kid to strad­dle the bike and prac­tise shift­ing his weight from his planted left foot, to his planted right foot. The kid obeys. Then Mitt grips the back of the bike seat, tells the kid to start ped­alling, and pushes him off.

Against sci­ence, fairness, and all odds, THE KID RIDES THE BIKE.

At the park, Ge­orge and his dad pair off. I do Mitt’s left foot, right foot thing with Maddy. I can’t bring my­self to jet­ti­son the hel­met.

I grip the seat and cup her waist with my other hand. We be­gin rolling for­ward. Mitt has his arms crossed, tut­ting, but it feels pre­ma­ture to push her away. She’s wob­bling a lot and yip­ping with anx­i­ety.

A plain-speak­ing Amer­i­can Dad in a base­ball cap and blue jeans... Mitt isn’t ex­actly like­able but he has our full at­ten­tion.

We be­gin our first lap of the park and I can’t help it, but I’m run­ning along­side her. My right hand holds the bike and I tuck the other hand un­der her armpit. I’m sweat­ing and my heart is wild, so we keep stop­ping. I take off my jer­sey and sur­vey the park, pant­ing.

“That’s it, that’s it!” I gasp to Maddy. Other par­ents eye me and smile fondly. Some­times her bal­ance is al­most per­fect but most of the time, it’s off. We do a sec­ond lap.

Mitt says, Let go! The kid’s 6! She doesn’t need a wimpy Demo­crat mom!

Maddy says, Don’t let go, Mum.

Don’t worry, I tell her. She has plaits and a gap in her teeth. I know it’s time, but I’m not ready to let go.

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