There’s a woman ahead of me on her cell phone. Her pace is slow. So I follow her. An old man zooms by us both, pleasantly ringing his bell. Another woman pulls up behind me, saying something in Dutch. Most likely I’m doing something wrong. So I assume she’s alerting me to the fact that my tires are on backwards or something. Then she pulls up beside me, causing me to panic at the thought of veering straight into her. “dutch…dutch…dutch” is met by my blank, nervous stare. “Oh, you’re not dutch! I was just saying you have really awesome dreads!” I offer a winded response. Something like, “hank-uh.” Then she zooms off at three times my speed.
Cell phone lady must have turned. Because now I’m at the intersection alone. Every muscle is tense. My hands are tightly clenching the handle bars. And every ounce of my concentration is on the peddles. When the bike light turns green, I’ll need to have a plan for how to push off smoothly, in spite of my exhaustion, frozen fingers, and runny noise. A pitiful scene. And a typical one.
So yeah. I got a bike. But look, people. No one can be good at everything. And I am comfortable with owning this as one of my more obvious weaknesses. I’m even able to see the humor in the misery of it.
Before purchasing the bike, I watched the bikers really closely. Aside from the fact that I hadn’t seriously ridden a bike since I was very young, I was most concerned by the laws of bike traffic. Stopping, merging, navigating – there was definitely a system. And although it continued to baffle me, the cost and slow pace of the trams compelled me to put on a brave face, buy a bike, and learn by doing.
I was told not to spend more than 60 or 70 euros on a bike, knowing that it has a high likelihood of being stolen anyway. Some people even recommended going straight for a stolen bike for the lowest price guarantee. But since I feel too new to engage in criminal activity, I went to the Waterlooplein flea market, which usually seems to have a good selection of used bikes. I looked through the first guy’s selection, which seemed to be mostly the more expensive, fancy-type bikes. He walked up with a bike in tow to ask me if I needed help. When I told him I was just looking at the bikes, he said, “how about this one?”
A typical dutch bike – brown, rusty in plenty of places, and absolutely no frills. But it seemed like a good bike with the potential to be cute if I could figure out the right accent colors. As I considered the bike’s aesthetics, the guy said, “it’s a good bike. Try it.”
Internal panic. I didn’t think I would have to take my first ride in years in front of an audience – at this crowded market. But it was important to me to be cool. So I said, “okay, great.” Adjusting my gloves and shuffling things around in my bag, I stalled a bit. Then I took a deep breath and pushed off into the street behind the market. I wobbled into a turn on the sidewalk to avoid running into real traffic. Then I leveled off to go a few paces down the street. I hadn’t fallen off, so I got off before I could. 60 euros, including a new lock and some dinky lights, I bought the bike.
Although I had gotten over a huge hurdle by getting up the nerve to purchase the bike, I still didn’t have the nerve to ride it home. So we walked halfway, making a stop in the park. And then I practiced, going in circles, back and forth through the park. I felt silly. But I needed the confidence boost before I could go into the street.
Finally I forced myself to leave the park, coming to a complete stop before I had the courage to enter the bike lane. Then I was in the mix. A few people passed me. And one of those tiny cars honked at me when I didn’t know I was allowed to turn at a light. But I managed to get myself home, exhausted and relieved.
The next morning was Sunday, when hardly anyone is on the street. So I decided to take my bike to the central library, which took me about 15 or 20 minutes after getting a little lost. Two days later I took it to class. And since then, I’ve just been forcing myself to keep getting back on. I’ve come home so exhausted that I can’t even take my coat off (yeah, I’m out off shape); I fell off once in front of about 10 people waiting at a tram stop when my tire got stuck in the track (only because construction forced me out of the bike lane); I still scream out loud when other bikers merge into my lane; I sweat in spite of the freezing temperatures; and I have yet to ride at night. But each time I feel slightly calmer and less tense, which in itself makes it easier to ride. I understand how the lights and intersections work. And I haven’t run into any pedestrians (well, almost – but not really).
Once the cold weather eases up, and I can steer the bike with anything less than a death grip, I’m pretty sure my bikeriding skills will resemble my approach to driving down Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn – carefree, reckless, and impatient. But until then, I’ll be testing the limits of my comfort zone every day.