Do you remember feeling bored or restless as a kid and being told you just needed to “get outside”? When you got outside you slumped around for a while, grumbling about the ancient people indoors who used to play with sticks for entertainment, until magically being outside turned out to be exactly what you needed. Someone else turned up to talk to, run around with, or you just got on your bike.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and getting on my bike is my magic mood-lifter. It’s my scene-changer, endorphin pick-me-up, and retro free entertainment. Yes, it’s socially distant but it’s not lonely; you’re never far from a friendly hello when you’re on your bike.
I spent my birthday this year on an inner-city Melbourne bike trail, with my husband leading the way and my toddler, Ray, in his seat on the back of my bike. People often say that I’m brave for cycling with him or his older sister, but I don’t feel scared with them at all.
It wasn’t always this way. Like many women I felt intimidated at the thought of heading out onto the road on two wheels. When I lived in London, and now Melbourne, cycling seemed to a be a group activity for competitive men in body-con half suits. Between the men on bikes and the men driving a car, it seemed like the safest space for me was on the bus.
My obstacle 10 years ago wasn’t that I didn’t have a bike to ride to work, but that I was afraid to ride to work.
The problem is that public transport is sedentary (if you’re lucky), and the kind of work I do is also very sedentary. I was spending most of my day sitting down and then coming home too tired to exercise. Whereas if I could cycle to work then I’d start my day with exercise, something that I’d literally never done before.
My obstacle 10 years ago wasn’t that I didn’t have a bike to ride to work, but that I was afraid to ride to work. I Googled around this topic and found that my local council was offering cycle courses for adults, focusing on particular routes that you wanted to use more confidently.
I signed up for a course, sourced a second-hand bike from a friend, and met a friendly guy called Carlos who hailed from Barcelona. He quickly told me that my fears were misplaced, I had every right to be on the road, but I needed to “own my space” and communicate my intentions clearly to other road users. Being confident on the road was the safest thing I could do.
Carlos and I started off in a road that didn’t have a designated cycle lane, but he showed me how to calculate a safe distance from parked cars (enough for a driver’s door to unexpectedly open and not send you flying) and to hold a steady line down the road as I pedalled. As I gathered speed, I felt happier. I had loved riding my bike as a child; why had I stopped?
Carlos encouraged me, told me my speed was decent, that I was holding my place on the road. Next, he said, I had to turn around to see who was behind me before indicating if it was safe for me to turn. I was instantly terrified, but having another person there gave me the confidence to do this.
I was instantly terrified, but having another person there gave me the confidence to do this.
I envisioned my head turning and the rest of the bike following, but my centre of gravity held, and I was able to not only turn but then lift my arm to clearly show the direction I was turning in. Understanding that this made other road users feel more confident around me was a game-changer.
My next challenge was eye contact with other road users, keeping watch for who was going to try and push through the red lights, or who was going to give way to me at a turning. I was scared by male drivers, I guess I’d been catcalled too many times as a teen not to feel that their wheels gave them anonymous power. Yet, on my own two wheels, I’ve never had anything but courtesy from blokes who drive.
The danger spot are the people you can’t lock eyes with, the ones who are texting while driving or hosting a conference call with a car full of kids. I’d like to see more car drivers understand how unsafe their distracted driving is, and the police get tougher on texting.
Back to my birthday. It’s now 10 years, a husband and two kids after my lesson with Carlos. It was life-changing, especially once we dismounted and I saw just how much taller I was than him and realised his praise for my cycling was strictly professional. It had never occurred to me that I might be good at cycling, just that I wanted to know how to do it safely. But if you consider slow and steady to be good, then I’m good enough.
Riding along with my son behind me and the love of my life ahead, I feel truly happy. It’s never given me tightly toned thighs but cycling around town puts the wind in my hair and the song of birdsong in my ears.
And, after I’ve bought myself a good lock and a funky helmet, it’s free.
Fernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer.