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Matters of Life and Steph: “Like Riding a Bike”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

Socrates once wrote, “Falling down is not a failure. Failure comes when you stay where you have fallen.”

Anyone who’s learned how to ride a bike probably understands Socrates’ lesson about falling—most likely from actually falling. 

I’d venture to say that learning how to ride a bike is one of the most frustrating, yet ultimately triumphant experiences for a person of any age. But just because you’ve succeeded in learning how to ride a bike doesn’t mean you’ll never fall again. Life has no such safety guarantees.

That’s where the life lesson I learned comes into play: the fear of failing (or falling) shouldn’t be the reason to avoid doing—or not doing—something. Perseverance counts for a lot in life.

(I should include one caveat here, which is that you should always strive to be careful and safe; harm caused by reckless behavior doesn’t apply to this life lesson.)

I have learned the falling-and-getting-back-up lesson more times than I’d like to remember throughout my life. And as it applies to bike riding, I’ve got plenty of scars to prove it.

Here’s my story…


My first “big kid” bike was a yellow Schwinn bicycle with a banana seat. It was a 1970s classic. My beautiful banana seat Schwinn was a hand-me-down from a nice neighborhood boy named J. As soon as I saw this bike, I immediately fell in love with it. (Mind you, I was about five years old. My love for this bike would later prove to be fleeting.)

The only problem with the beautiful banana seat Schwinn was that it was a two-wheeler. I was still riding a bike with training wheels.

There was no greater incentive needed for me to shed my training wheels. That beautiful banana seat Schwinn parked in our garage was beckoning for me to ride it. If I were the Steph from present day, I’d probably worry that letting the bike sit around was an invitation for dust and cobwebs.

But five-year-old me had different motivations. 

It took about twenty-four hours for me to suddenly hate my red, training-wheeled “baby” bike. (I’m guessing my parents knew that would be my reaction before presenting me with the beautiful banana seat Schwinn.) I begged my dad to immediately teach me how to ride a two-wheeler.  

In a world before YouTube instructional videos, my dad taught me the way he probably learned: by holding onto the seat and running beside me before quietly letting go. I, too, know of no other way to teach a child how to ride. (Perhaps that’s why I asked someone more experienced for help teaching my two kids.)

Let it ride

Invariably, as soon as my dad let go of me, I fell. We were practicing on a street with no sidewalks, mind you. Thankfully, the cars passing by gave me a wide berth. A few drivers even honked their support.

I’m sure most of us can remember those wobbly early moments when first learning how to ride a bike. I recall how frustrating it was to want something so badly, yet not having success come easily.

I don’t know how many attempts it took, but I’m guessing that it took several days before I finally figured out how to stay balanced. Those few precious seconds before I fell (repeatedly) were my incentive to keep going. 

At some point, my dad had run out of energy… or patience. That’s when he suggested that I practice riding by myself in our backyard.

My dad’s parting words before he likely took a nap was, “Once you can ride without falling, you can go back on the street.”  

Practicing in the backyard without falling immediately became my sole goal in life. (Again, I was five so I didn’t yet have loftier ambitions.) I didn’t care how long it would take. I was going to learn.  

Easy rider

My determination soon led to innovation.

I discovered that I could use a tiny hill in one part of our backyard to gain some momentum. Then I’d pedal, pedal, pedal as if my life depended on it. Soon enough, I was riding. It was like I’d discovered electricity. That is until I realized I hadn’t yet figured out how to turn. I think I may have permanently dented a set of my parent’s bushes. Thank goodness they’ve since moved.

It took countless more falls before I finally figured out how to turn. But I did it. The same went for braking, though the grass was far softer to fail (and fall) on.

Eventually, my obsessive practice paid off. Soon enough, I could ride my beautiful banana seat Schwinn in a loop around our entire backyard without falling. (If I could share a picture of our modest-yet-respectably-sized backyard, you’d realize this may sound more impressive than it was.)

It didn’t take long for me to expand my backyard loop into a full loop around our house, including the front yard. (The front was a sloping hill, so a bit trickier). Our lawn soon had tire tracks all over it, much to my dad’s dismay.

Shifting gears

Before I could destroy our yard any further, my parents declared that I was ready to venture out onto the street. With nothing more than a “watch out for cars,” “stay in the neighborhood,” and “be back before dinner,” I was set free on my beautiful banana seat Schwinn. 

Bear in mind that 1970s suburban parenting rules generally meant that once children shared their planned whereabouts, they could disappear for hours without cause for concern. As a parent, this seems unfathomable now. (It was certainly a different place and time than the present.)

My bike-riding adventures around the neighborhood were generally uneventful. I loved riding up and down the hills for hours on end, and my parents loved not having to entertain me. Everyone was happy. Things were perfect for a while.

But, just like life, good things don’t always last forever.

Going downhill

I was generally a cautious, conscientious kid. But sometimes you let your guard down. One day, our neighbors down the street got their driveway re-graveled (or whatever replenishing the gravel on a driveway is called.)

With several months of bike riding under my helmet (actually, there were no helmets in the 70s, so perhaps I should just use the original “under my belt” saying), I was now a speedy, confident rider on my beautiful banana seat Schwinn.

I didn’t yet understand the impact of loose gravel and a bicycle tire.

I remember riding over the excess gravel that had spilled out onto the street. I felt the tires of my beautiful banana seat Schwinn give a little. Before I knew it, the wheels came out from under me, and I was lying in a heap under my beloved bike. My first thought was whether I’d knocked out my teeth. I ran my tongue across both rows of teeth and decided everything was in its place.

But I felt a vicious throbbing in my left elbow and knee. I looked down and saw blood. Despite the pain and gashes in my appendages, everything bent correctly. I knew I needed to get home ASAP. It hurt to walk so I tried to ride my beautiful banana seat Schwinn home. Even though it had betrayed me. But gosh was I in pain! I decided to pedal with my right leg, leaving my bleeding left leg to dangle listlessly.  

Given the steep front yard, I couldn’t ride my bike up our driveway. I limped up the hill, and burst into the house, sobbing. I’m not sure if it was because I was in pain, shock, or disappointment that my beautiful banana seat Schwinn had somehow failed me.

Insult to injury

My mother immediately went into “nurse mode” (she had likely consulted with America’s pediatrician from a worn copy of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book Baby and Child Care).  I remember laying on our playroom daybed because it was right next to the bathroom with all the medical supplies. With my head in my mother’s lap, I clutched the brown polyester comforter as my mother poured hydrogen peroxide onto my wounds. The peroxide bubbled up like an erupting volcano.

The worst part was that there was gravel stuck under the skin of my elbow and knee. I will spare you the gory details but just know that there was a washcloth, lots of scrubbing, and perhaps a gallon of peroxide involved in the procedure. It hurt like h*ll.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride my beautiful banana seat Schwinn for a while.

Spin cycle

Eventually, the Band-Aids came off. The ugly scabs started to heal. I had a difficult choice to make after my bicycle accident.

Did I dare get back on my beautiful banana seat Schwinn, quietly parked in the garage? Or should I take up another, safer activity? While I loved bike riding so much, what if I fell off it again?

If my life were a movie, there would be a voiceover that quoted something Albert Einstein once said:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep on moving.” Since this was real life, I must’ve come to this conclusion myself.

In the back of my mind, I knew that I could fall off my bike again (which I did). But I’m glad to have realized that however hard I fall, I am a person who always gets back up.  

While I won’t be signing up for the Tour de France anytime soon (or ever), you can count on me not to run—or bike–away from challenges.  

Could you relate to my story? Subscribe to my blog and be the first to hear more of the tales that shaped my take on life.

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