Learning to Ride

As a kid with cerebral palsy there were things causing apprehension. Wondering about being included in the things my friends did. The activities taking place in the neighborhood would be more challenging. One of those challenges during my early life would be riding a bicycle. The question would become whether the skill for riding would be present. It was one of the first tests of my ability that I remember. The journey wouldn’t stop at the ability to ride the bike with training wheels. Riding with training wheels was learned at a good pace. The question would remain around riding with two wheels. These memories seem to be resurfacing in part because of the times. We have been under orders to stay home. Keeping ourselves, our families, and others safe. During the unprecedented time, we might look for ways to remain active. Biking has been one way for me and judging by the elevated number of cyclists on the roads, it would appear I’m not alone. The time involved with learning about riding a bike was also pivotal around my disability. It was one of those situations shedding light on my differences. The skill wasn’t learned with the speed of someone typically developing. Learning to ride my bicycle brought about the emotion of feeling different.

Riding was something friends around me learned before me. The challenges of balance brought on by cerebral palsy causing the delay. The training wheels remained on my bicycle for some time in comparison to others my age. My bike with training wheels couldn’t execute the maneuvers they could on just two wheels. The speed was reduced for me and corners simply couldn’t be taken at an accelerated pace. The entire time leaving me to wonder if the training wheels would ever be removed. My emotion of looking at them with wonderment can still be felt. The other option open to me was continuing to practice. While the idea of riding a bike with just two wheels remained scary. It felt easy at times to fall even without riding a bike. The idea of remaining balanced on two wheels felt unachievable. The other factor bringing about complication was becoming comfortable. Having already learned how to ride with training wheels. The bike with four tires had become safe and comfortable. Why take the chance of getting hurt, the bike was working with the configuration? These things we tell ourselves when anxiety has taken hold. However, this was the teacher of one important lesson in life. We learn to take on challenges even when they seem scary.

Something also causing hesitation around learning to ride was the unknown. I didn’t grow up with much exposure to others who had CP. There wasn’t anyone around to provide an example of riding a bicycle. Most kids grow up with others who looked like they did. There could be some discrepancy in skill level. But, when most kids watch older siblings or older friends accomplish a challenge like removing training wheels. They would seem to understand the capability lies within them as well. In my life, we simply did the best we could. Taking off the training wheels was the next step. Very cautiously to my recollection, the small supportive tires were removed. It seemed the age was right around seven, which happens to be toward the older range. The extra years helping to build up balance and courage. There was a flat section of my childhood driveway. Probably 100 feet, just before the driveway runs into the neighborhood road. The grass on both sides of the driveway could brace my fall. So, attempting to hover near one side or the other made sense. My feet were able to touch the ground from my seat, providing extra balance points. With caution the process began with slight coasting along the short strip of driveway. My father was alongside to help with any loss of balance. Through much practice and some tumbles, the skill of riding a bike on two wheels was learned. However, remembering the feelings while moving across the flat part of driveway can be challenging. The process taking place many years ago. However, there has always been one vivid memory sticking with me from those moments. That feeling of actually learning how to ride. When my feet could finally be placed on the peddles and balance maintained. It was quite the feeling of accomplishment. Being able to steady myself after years of wondering if it could ever happen.

There has been someone recently going through a similar learning process. Who shares the disability of CP, while striving to learn riding a bike with two wheels. They have come through the skill of riding with training wheels. Working on the transition into the next challenge of their journey. There might be plenty of kids in the mist of this challenge today. Interestingly to me was learning of an extra tool involved with the process. It sounded like a middle step between the training wheels and two-wheel bike. The seemingly middle step has been the strider bike. Something unfamiliar to me until a couple days ago. Looking at this bike through our technological connection brought about feelings of excitement. My first being, “man, those would have been helpful as a kid.” But, then thinking over how helpful they might be for kids with cerebral palsy today. The bike appeared small in size and void of peddles. Lending itself to being totally controlled by the feet and legs of the rider. Allowing for lifting feet off the ground to attempt balancing as long as comfortable without the obstacle of pedals. Providing the ability for the rider to quickly lower their legs, regaining stability, without interruption. The bike would seem to provide hope for someone getting past their fears of a two-wheel bike. Gaining the comfort through taking on a middle step. This would hopefully add confidence more quickly around balancing. Helping them accomplish a goal seemingly important in the life of someone young.

When thinking about learning to ride a bicycle with a disability. The thought of the organization Outdoors for All comes to mind. When meeting with them earlier this year, riding was something prominent in our discussion. Watching a video about the organization taking different types of bicycles to a school gymnasium. Gathering kids with different types of disabilities and encouraging them to attempt riding in the safe environment. With many staff and volunteers present to assist them in the adventure. The greatest thing about watching the clip became the smile on the faces of each individual. Similar joy to the emotion I recall from overcoming the challenge of riding my bicycle without assistance. The exhilaration often accompanying an accomplishment that might not have felt possible. In the meeting, we went on to discuss many of the bike options on the market. How bicycles can be modified to fit their rider. There was the story of someone who came in to meet with the organization, in doing so, they found a bike working for them. The individual didn’t have a reason to reappear, as they had found the modified bike to provide the ability to ride. Biking seems to be one of those unique steps as we grow. Bonding us together with friends to enjoy the warmth of spring and summer. It could take some extra effort to learn with a disability, it did for me, but the effort was worth learning the skill. Biking has always been an exciting activity, providing the confidence often resulting in meeting a challenge. Even when getting on my bike today, I recall the excitement of learning to ride.

While growing up with the skill of riding a bicycle. There continued to be differences between myself and friends. Their skills on the bike continued to grow. The improvement coming more rapidly than mine. Even when it felt as though I was giving the most effort possible. An ability to balance well wasn’t part of my skillset. Taking just one hand off the handlebars became quite the accomplishment. While in doing so, the hand couldn’t remain off for too long. Balance was something that often felt as though it could be easily lost. Something friends could do when riding was remove both hands from the handlebars. While coasting downhill, they could sit up straight on the bike. It was one of the most impressive things I had seen on a bike. Making it even more impressive was watching people with me executing the move. The sight also left me feeling different. Along with the emotion of some sadness. Knowing that there wouldn’t be a way to ride any bicycle without hands. The difference of having cerebral palsy left me without the kind of balance necessary. Even with all the practice in the world, something like that wasn’t going to happen. It was one of the early memories of realizing the distinction of having my disability. On one hand, it was exciting to be included with the ability to ride. But, on the other, the challenge of learning the discrepancy between myself and others.

Riding the bicycle carries so many small meanings. The largest being a symbol of challenges overcome. As my riding progressed throughout youth more obstacles were presented. My first bike had an easy braking system. Pushing in a reverse motion on the pedal would bring the bicycle to rest. When beginning to grow out of that first bike, the larger bicycles presented new challenges. The braking systems would no longer reside in the pedal system. When pushing in reverse with the larger bike, the pedals would spin backward. The brakes being on the handlebars in a pulling system. Pulling on a lever to engage the brake and slow down the bike. Tugging on one side would engage the rear brake, while pulling on the left-hand lever engaged the front brake. With the impact of cerebral palsy on my hands. The new braking system with a more advanced bike became frightening. It had become clear by this time my hand didn’t work correctly. People around me seemed to have a far easier time using their hands. If my hands didn’t respond well while riding, it could easily lead to a crash. The saving grace was being right hand dominant. The rear brake being the most important and the suggested brake to squeeze first when slowing. Like many skills experimented with before, this was slowly integrated from the start. Taking it easy with short movements on the bike. Squeezing the hand brake not long after getting rolling to make certain stopping safely would be achieved. It took some time, but I began to form the muscle memory involved with squeezing the right-hand brake. I used the rear brake almost exclusively all through my youth. Even when riding today, engaging the left-hand brake gives me trouble.

Learning to ride a bicycle taught me a lot early in life. Things were going to be different for me moving forward. Taking on challenges might require extra time and effort from friends. Even with that time and effort, their skills would probably exceed my own. However, the unescapable fact didn’t mean giving up was a good idea. I would have the ability to meet most of my challenges While friends could ride without holding the handlebars. The images helped me begin to understand my limitations. Though still today the acceptance of those limitations brought about by cerebral palsy can frustrate. During those times, I started to realize life would carry a few more struggles to endure. Inside those struggles while growing up with bikes was also the tool of improvement. While not totally understanding the world around me or the depth of meaning involved with riding my bicycle. Each time we rode through the neighborhood something about cerebral palsy was gaining improvement. Balance was getting better from being on the bike. With coordinated movements improving by pedaling, working the hand brake, and shifting gears when needed. Each time I went riding for fun or as a mode of transportation to a friends’ house, CP was improving. The cool thing has been, thirty years later, the same can be said.


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