My first life lesson from bicycling came when I accidentally learned to ride without training wheels. I had been so afraid to go without them that I’d beaten them all to hell, and one day a crash put them over the edge—from battered to worthless.
I lamented their destruction as I pedaled home, completely unaware that they were so bent up they weren’t even touching the ground. When I realized I had been riding without their help, I was mortified. And then extremely proud. And then fearless.
Lesson learned: my inability to ride without training wheels had nothing to do with my lack of ability—but everything to do with my own head.
I never got great at bike riding, and in fact eschewed the contraption in my adult life altogether until about a year ago, when my boyfriend (an avid cyclist for many years) convinced me to take it up.
Not long after, I discovered the Thursday Night Social Ride.
Every week at about 8:15 pm, the ride takes off from its meeting place—Plaza Saltillo for the winter—and winds through Austin, going to bars and parks and having fun until it wraps up around 10:30 pm (Click here for some tips on social cycling.)
The weekly event is hosted by the two-year-old Social Cycling Austin, but the massive group bicycle ride that draws some 300 bicycles in a giant, wheeling, hooting-and-hollering, music-blaring monolith each week has been in existence in some form for years before that.
It’s far from the only group ride hosted in this cycling-savvy town. It’s not even the only one hosted by Social Cycling Austin. But the TNSR is special. It is eclectic, and boisterous, a ride that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Now, the bike metaphors and life lessons come fast and furious. I learn something new every week—about bicycling, about other people, about life, about me.
In fact, all I ever need to know I learned on the social ride:
- You're never Just Riding Your Bike. Make no mistake about it, these massive social rides that wind through 8-20 miles of Austin neighborhood are much more than just an hour or two of exercise. It is downright A Movement. Every time our group gets cheers from neighbors enjoying the sunset on their porches, or jeers from cars that are forced to wait all of 10 seconds for our bikes to clear an intersection, or hassles from the police for no discernible reason, it turns into a political march. We are here. You can support us for our environmentally responsible and physically healthy choice to ride a bike. You can hate us because it makes your fat butt look even lazier at it sits in the driver’s seat of your gas guzzler. But you cannot ignore us.
- Pay attention to the bikes around you. If you don’t get out of your head once in a while, you’ll crash into one of the 300 cyclists within a few feet of you. It’s kind of impossible, and dangerous, to be lost in thought anyway when you’re surrounded by people blasting music from speakers attached to their handlebars and popping wheelies in front of you and wearing thongs and drinking beer and, well, riding right next to you. Instead of complaining about distractions, relish the moments when you’re forced to pay attention to the outside world instead of the inside-the-head world for a little while. They are beautiful and rare.
- Don’t judge a person based on his bike. The social ride has bikes of all persuasions: some are elite speed bikes, while others have banana seats and bells. Some are so short their riders literally squat on the pedals, while others are so tall that the pedals are at eye level. Some of the riders wear padded bike shorts and helmets. Others wear cut off blue jeans, combat boots and sequined cowboy hats. And they can all usually ride circles around me. You just never know.
- That ride isn't nearly as tough as it appears. The first time we ever went on the social ride, nobody could have convinced me that I would be able to ride 12 miles and still be ready for more when it was over. But I did. And it’s going to happen again if I can figure out a way to get on a 30-mile ride without knowing it.
- You aren’t the only one going up that hill. I thought I’d never make it up this hill on the St. Edward’s campus and was embarrassed as hell. Wheezing up an incline not even steep enough to warrant a rating, staring at the space between my handlebars, cheeks burning in my solitary fight, I reached the top of the hill and heard a roar of cheers from the group around me. I looked up and saw everyone high five-ing each other, and realized that we had all been going through the same struggle together.
- There are a few jerks in every crowd. Yeah, sorry, no metaphor there. (It's just too obvious.) We passed a group of Segway riders who were waiting for us to clear the intersection, cheering us on, when I began to hear some of the cyclists hurling insults at them. “Get a bike, lazy ass!” “Losers!” As I rode past, I and a few others raised our voices and hollered over them, much to their annoyance—and to the Segway riders’ delight: “Ignore them! They don’t speak for all of us!” And what did those obnoxious cyclists do in response to our admonition, besides toss a couple of sneers in our direction? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. In any big group, there will be These People. You are louder than they are.
- There will be bumps in the road. Few things in life go as smoothly as we’d like them to go, and that likelihood goes way up when you throw a few hundred people into the mix. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff. If you get disappointed every time you have to stop on a hill, or crash into another cyclist, or lose your water bottle, or get separated from your riding partner, or wind up at a park that has no benches, you will go through the ride miserable and angry.
And that’s just no way to roll.