There’s a serious point to this pun, which some of you have no doubt heard:

A bicycle can’t stand alone; it is two tired.

Yesterday an author friend of mine, Myra McIlvain, sent me what I saw simultaneously as a funny story about an event in her life this week and a similar event in mine. Here’s what Myra wrote in part of an email message to me:

I bought a really nice used bike today. For two months I’ve had tendonitis in my foot and have not been able to jog; walking has been a challenge if I must go more than a short distance. So, I’ve decided to bike around the neighborhood.  It’s only been 45 years since I’ve ridden. And that wasn’t very much. I did the trial run knowing the bike seat was too high. When I pulled up in front of Stroud [her husband] and the fellow selling the bike, my feet did not reach the pavement quickly enough and I landed on my well-cushioned butt.  I leaped up to keep Stroud from demanding that I forget biking, and tonight I’m easing around so he won’t notice that sitting is my new challenge. Tomorrow I’m getting a helmet. Do they make butt pads?  —Myra

I immediately recalled that my son-in-law Luke Stollings had recommended a wide, well-padded bicycle seat to Ellen when she bought a used bike several years ago, so I passed along that recommendation to Myra. I explained to her that Luke and a college classmate had ridden bikes right after graduation from the coast of Oregon to the coast of Maryland, so he knew the importance of a comfortable bike seat.

Now I’ll describe my bike experience that came back to mind like a video running through my brain. It’s such a clear memory.

Some background is needed to explain the situation clearly. As small boys, our parents forbade my older brother Nolen Robert and me from having a bike. A 12-year-old cousin on Mother’s side of the family was riding his bike along a country road when he was struck and killed by a car that did not stop. This probably happened before I was born, but the tragedy sent an understandable chill through our family. So Nolen Robert and I did not learn to ride bikes as young boys.

A complication for me is that I had a lot of ear infections as a child that apparently damaged my inner ears enough to mess with my ability to balance. As I was growing up I was never able to roller skate in local rinks, and practice at home was not possible with only gravel and dirt roads around our farm. I was completely inept at ice skating on our frozen farm ponds in winter, tending to flop around on the ice much like a grounded fish.

As a young parent, I helped my children Joy and Robert ride their bikes when their training wheels came off by running alongside them to help them stay upright. As they learned to ride, they wanted me to ride with them as well. I borrowed a bike from a neighbor to see if I could learn as an adult, but balancing myself seemed as impossible as it was when I was a boy.

My daughter Joy with me helping balance her bike, mid 1970s.

My daughter Joy with me helping balance her bike, mid 1970s.

After more than two decades and my first marriage were behind me, I married Ellen at early mid-life when we were both forty-two years old. She had loved biking in her years living in Chicago, and she brought her beloved white Peugeot bike when we moved into our new home after we married.

Moving the story along, in the early years of our marriage Ellen kept urging me to learn to ride a bike so we could bike together. I told her of my family history with bikes and my balance problem, but she still believed I could learn to ride if I tried hard enough. Maybe she was right. I’d give it another try!

So I bought a good used bike. We hauled our bikes to a remote part of a large park near our home because I didn’t want to demonstrate my ineptitude publicly. With Ellen’s coaching, I got to where I could bike for several yards on a straight stretch of road, but I could not ride in a straight line because of veering left and right to keep my balance.

Over a few weeks of regular practice, I actually got better! We decided to bike into other parts of the park where the roads and paths curved.

One Sunday afternoon we were riding side by side in a quiet part of the park. We turned down a gentle slope toward some trees where the path turned to the left, as Ellen held back to stay out of my way.

Coordinating my balance, braking, and slowing for a turn suddenly overloaded my brain. Forgetting my brakes, I was headed straight toward an oak tree that was about eight inches in diameter at the stump. Picking up speed down the slope, I realized I was not going to make that turn as I rapidly approached the tree trunk. Moments before I would have hit the tree head on, I dove off the left side of the bike and hit the ground as my bike landed on its right side. I found a YouTube video of a middle-aged guy’s wipeout, without an oak tree immediately in front of him. The dramas are similar. 

Ellen had stopped her bike and she ran down to where I had fallen. With hurt pride, but only a few scrapes and scratches, I got up and brushed myself off. We walked our bikes back to the car and called it a day.

The following Sunday afternoon, I told Ellen I wanted to go back to where I had crashed and try that same turn again. I had been thinking about this for a week and thought I could do better.

Riding my bike back to that point, I paused and collected my thoughts. As Ellen watched, I rode down that same slope toward the small oak tree, applied my brakes, and made a nearly flawless turn without incident. This was a small victory to celebrate, but I celebrated it.

After that, Ellen said that if I were still basically uncomfortable on a bike, she would understand if I gave it up. I was and I did. She knew that I gave it a decent try.

Myra McIlvain likes to tell our mutual friends that she’s the same age as my brother Nolen Robert, and that her sister Doris is my age. While she and I are not related by blood, she seems like an older sister to me at times. I look up to her, admire her spunk, marvel at her good humor, and appreciate her goodwill—just as I did Nolen Robert’s.

If Myra masters her bicycle seat and the rest of her bike, I will admire that, too. But she is not likely to persuade me to ever try riding a bike again. My goal is to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.

Related notes:

Myra is author of several books, including Legacy and the forthcoming Stein House.

She prefaced her note above by referring to my “folly on a cliff side,” which is described in Pride Before My Fall