On Fear

As bike crashes go, mine barely registers as a crash.

A spill might be a better word for it. A tumble.

I was 15. I was riding with my friends to the mall, like we always did. Someone in front of me stopped suddenly, and I tried to stop too, and instead I went off a curb all wonky and my bike gears cut my ankle. I needed a tetanus shot and some stitches, but if I’m being honest, the only thing that upset me at the time was that I had to wear an ugly bandage and tall socks to the first couple of days of cheerleading camp.

In the moment, the crash was nothing.

It’s the years since that have made it something.

At 15, I biked everywhere in my little town — until the crash. A week after that, school was back in session, and within months, my friends were getting their driver’s licenses. Why bike when you could drive your older brother’s gross, beat-up car to the mall instead?

Suddenly it was college, and I hadn’t ridden a bike in four years. Five years. Six years. I was running late to a meeting once during sophomore year, and my friend said, “Oh, just ride my bike over,” and I walked out, straddled the seat, and almost fainted. I power-walked instead.

And then I remembered that panicked moment — that moment of looking at a bike, and understanding that I knew how to ride a bike, and yet not even remotely being able to get one single muscle in my body to decide that it was a good idea to get on the bike — more than I remembered the crash itself.

And then I hadn’t ridden a bike in 11 years.

I finally rode again the same day I went rock climbing in Maine. Ultimately, it seemed ridiculous that I could haul myself 150+ feet in the air using ropes and clamps and pulleys but couldn’t do something most six-year-olds do without hassle. So we rented bikes, and I spent the first hour of our three-hour rental crying in a parking lot while Pete told me over and over that we could take the bikes back, it was OK, it shouldn’t be this miserable. I don’t know what kicked in (shame? exhaustion? pride?) but I eventually rode in a circle in the parking lot. And then I rode on the street. I was terrified to start or stop, I wobbled like mad, but I rode that damn rental bicycle for an hour. Six weeks later in Michigan, I rode a different rental bike 20 miles around a lake, only freaking out over one patch of gravel and feeling like a general badass the whole way.

Still, I didn’t bike again for another three years — until last weekend.

The funny thing about deciding I want to do a triathlon is that it requires coming to terms with the fact that a big part of a triathlon takes place on a bicycle.

So that’s how I found myself standing in the parking lot of a bike shop last Sunday, fresh off a 10-mile run that made me feel like I could do anything, suddenly trembling uncontrollably next to a beautiful, sleek, completely terrifying bicycle. What right did I have to be there, standing next to a bike that cost nearly as much as my rent and that I was too afraid to even mount?

Fear wins, sometimes, still. Maybe that’s giving it too much credit. Maybe I let fear win. Fine. Whatever it is, it’s not something that can be willed away. I’ve spent now 14 years hoping to will it away, but the only thing that ever silences the fear is getting on the damn bike.

So: On Sunday, I got on the bike. Three bikes, actually, the pretty and rent-costing one and two others that are more legitimate contenders for a piece of real estate in my hallway. I didn’t ride faster than Pete could jog next to me, and I almost fell off trying to signal a left turn, and seeing a little kid pushing a scooter through a puddle in my (very) general direction gave me the shakes. But I rode. the damn. bikes. And tomorrow I’ll go back, and maybe I’ll bring a bike home, and maybe I’ll keep riding it until the good memories finally win.

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