They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, which is true but not the whole story. Getting back on my bike after a three-year hiatus, I didn’t expect adventure, but I got it, from an elevated heart rate to saving turkeys.
I don’t know why I stopped riding, especially in a bike-friendly town like Davis. I made excuses: the weather was too hot, my tires flat, my air pump inadequate. The car was handy and, if I had to carry anything, much more convenient.
But when the weather turned crisp a few weeks ago, I got the pump working, fixed the tires, and found my pants clip.
Getting on — swinging my leg over my seat (my bike is a male model) while pedaling forward — was nothing short of terrifying, and for a moment I felt as if I were trying to balance on the head of a pencil.
My next sensation, however, was a pleasant one, wind blowing through my hair, but it set off an alarm bell. A familiar voice — my own when I used to scold my children — said, “You forgot your helmet.” I dismounted and retrieved it.
From my home in West Davis I planned to bike through campus to downtown.
Everything was working fine, bike, legs, balance, when I noticed my hands were hurting. They were wrapped in a normal position around the handle bars, poised to brake if needed. What was wrong?
I soon figured out that my thumb joint arthritis was squawking about this new pressure in exactly the wrong place. I hate the way old age sneaks up on you when you least expect it, like a cat purring in your lap that suddenly coughs up a hairball.
I kept going.
As I approached campus I went on “high alert” swiveling my head frequently to check for other bikes as I changed lanes and piloted through roundabouts. Thanks to my whitewater kayaking, my head still swivels well. On campus, this skill is essential.
I arrived during the passing period between classes. Every kind of person and every kind of technology was fully active. IPods, phones, and ear buds were all in use on the heads of the young people around me. What I didn’t see were helmets.
California law requires people under 18 to wear bike helmets. This law was instituted in 1994, meaning that every rider I saw on campus must have worn a helmet as a child. Grownups think this ingrains a habit, like wearing seatbelts in the car.
But seatbelts don’t mess your hair or make you look like a bowling ball with teeth. As far as I can tell, nearly every college student has “lost” that bike helmet from Mom and Dad. In 10 minutes of cross-campus cycling, I saw only two students in helmets.
I wanted to stop them for a quick interview but I didn’t. How would they feel when I confirmed for them that the only other person with a helmet is 66 years old?
Even wearing my helmet, I began to feel afraid. I mean this seriously. As I biked on roundabouts and twisting paths and areas choked with pedestrians, I literally felt frightened. I couldn’t keep track of all the people and all the moves they might suddenly make.
This tension increased around the Memorial Union, where traffic came from every direction and pedestrians struggled simply to cross the street. My sore hands grabbed frequently for the brakes. My heart rate went up. My eyes darted everywhere. I almost got off and walked.
I know there are frequent accidents at the beginning of the school year at UC Davis. It’s not just me; the rhythm of the road has not yet been established. Students themselves are trying to figure it out. I was riding in the middle of chaos theory.
Over the next few days, I kept riding and my vision shifted. The stream of bicyclists began to look to me like, well, a stream. The constant motion of legs and bodies reminded me of water as it rushes downriver when I’m in my kayak.
Bicyclists turning this way and that started looking to me like rocks, moving rocks, more unpredictable than what a kayaker encounters, but avoidable nonetheless. That’s the whole game. You look way ahead, anticipate danger and prepare for it.
If I can put on a helmet and paddle Class 3 whitewater on the South Fork of the American River, I can ride a bike. It’s exciting, in fact. How could I have forgotten?
Now, several weeks later, I’m ready to ride my bike anytime, even during changing period on campus. I realize students have learned, too. Is it my imagination, or has the number of helmets risen slightly?
Last week I encountered 25 large turkeys getting ready to cross Russell Boulevard. I jumped off my bike, ran into the road, signaled to oncoming traffic, and then ran across the median strip and did the same on the other side.
The turkeys didn’t seem particularly appreciative, but they all survived the crossing even though they weren’t wearing helmets.
I went back to my bike feeling satisfied, useful, part of the Davis flow. I like thrills. I like to rescue. I want to ride.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org