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Cycling is supposed to one of those things we never forget. So the author tried her luck after a 15 year hiatus, in a country where cycling was almost mandatory for everyone. What happened?
My late summer Northern Europe itinerary included a three-day cycling tour of the Swedish-speaking Äland islands in Finland. To any normal person, this would have sounded exotic and wonderful except for one thing: I hadn’t been on a bicycle for about 15 years.
“How is that possible?” asked Suraj, one of my Estonian hosts. Truth be told I really didn’t know. In those 15 years I had mastered two different types of headstand, done extensive acrobatics whilst balancing on another person, and was making reasonable progress towards a handstand. And yet, the prospect of doing something that was part of my childhood, something that tons of people found easy, was absolutely terrifying.
We had a week in Tallin before our tour, so, Kati, our hostess, borrowed cycles for my travel companion, Manu, and I to practice before the trip.
The first moment I sat on the cycle, feeling my toes barely graze the ground, I concluded that this was a huge mistake: I have a tendency to be clumsy and accident-prone.
Those first few hours were comic, in hindsight. I could not manage to pedal consistently: I was paralysed by fear. Andre, who had lent us the cycles, tried to look encouraging when he saw my plight, but I feel like I could see an anxiety below the surface, that perhaps this would be a disaster.
For reasons that I still don’t understand, right turns were nearly impossible. I found that as soon as I turned to look in any particular direction, so did the cycle, which was not the best strategy if I was looking in the direction of an oncoming car.
After a clumsy few rounds, Manu and I cycled back towards the house on a bicycle path that hugged the waterfront. So long as there was nobody else around me, I was absolutely fine. But suddenly there in the distance emerged a troupe of sportily-attired cylists on what appeared to be a tour, zooming towards us, and taking up three quarters of the lane.
I slowed to a snail’s pace and averted my eyes, wondering if they were judging my lumbering lack of athleticism. I managed to get past one group, but my relief was short-lived, because soon thereafter there was another. But I managed to make it through the four-kilometre ride home with no damage to myself, anybody else, or the bicycle. My heart was pounding in my chest, and my arms trembling from gripping the handlebars so tightly.
I turned to Manu and said, “I want to practice again tomorrow.” I wish this was because of bravery, but the truth of the matter was that I did not know Manu, Suraj or Kati all that well, and I had this terrifying thought that I might ruin their cycling tour if I didn’t gain some confidence and speed soon. So, it was largely social anxiety (what if everyone hates me?) that made me keep trying.
The second day was a bit better: we managed to get to a museum in the middle of a park. On the third morning, I finally had the courage to go out with Manu and Suraj (Kati was working). After a nice relatively stress-free ride by the water, we turned back.
We passed the house without stopping. With mounting horror, I realised we were going into traffic. Whispering prayers under my breath (to no particular God since I’m not religious), I followed. I got stuck in a few places, but for the most part, I managed to follow them. I was encouraged to “use my gears” but this just seemed overwhelming, so I just pedalled as hard as I could.
On the fourth day, I managed a 7 kilometre ride to the zoo. I saw nothing of the scenery, and was unable to make conversation with anyone, so just to irk me, Manu would go out of his way to chat. On the way back, we took a detour, and ended up on a 13-14 km ride home, through rather rundown bicycle-unfriendly neighbourhoods, with poor Manu navigating while cycling.
I practiced each day, until the Sunday we were leaving. A week later, we took a ferry from Tallin to Mariehamn, the main port of Äland. From there we had to cycle to the other end of the island to make a 4pm ferry. Inevitably we spent too long loitering, drinking coffee, buying food and generally wasting time so we found ourselves on a marathon race to reach the other port in time.
In the middle of all this, we reached a huge stretch of unpaved road. Now our rides became difficult and laborious because there was no grip, just rough reddish sand beneath us. To make matters worse, everything was uphill and downhill, rarely flat.
Rolling hills: beautiful, though clichéd romantic description, but horrible to cycle on.
Dodging traffic on one side, and paving machines on the other side, we managed to struggle up and down and make it back to paved road. We barely made the ferry.
We cycled 30 kilometres that day, and 30 kilometres the next day. I managed to keep up: the uphill parts were torturous, while the downhill bits were a little frightening because I felt like I did not have control of the cycle when it was going that fast.
There was a point, towards the end of the second day, when we were beating the sunset to get to this beautiful bed and breakfast that I actually found myself enjoying it the ride.
It was on the third day that my real test occurred. We split up: Manu and I went to see an old castle, while Suraj and Kati decided to go straight back to Mariehamn, the original port. Our ferry to Stockholm was at 5am the next day.
On the way back, I was on a particularly steep downhill slope, and trying to brake to control my speed, when my cycle slipped on some gravel, and I fell. Pain flooded my knees and arms.
I felt awful, like I had failed. I had grown overconfident. Maybe I needed to quit trying to be an active type of person, maybe it was just all wrong. Yes, in retrospect my reaction was a tad bit dramatic, but it felt very valid at the time!
As it so happens, I’m clumsy but fortuitously clumsy – as I had happened to fall outside the one store, we had seen for miles. Manu bought band-aids and disinfectant, and dressed my wounds.
I realised, with mounting dread, that we still had an hour of cycling left to go before Mariehamn, so, I had no choice but to get back on my cycle. My body was very shaky after the fall, and every pedal stroke excruciatingly painful, but I tried not to focus on it, and keep pedalling, albeit rather slowly.
The real test of my frazzled nerves came on the highway. The wind kept blowing me towards traffic speeding past us from behind. Manu correctly told me to stay right of the line that delineated the shoulder from the road.
But battling physical exhaustion and anxiety about being run over soon got the better of me, and I stopped and told him I could no longer go on. I told him to leave me there and go, in a rather excessively dramatic fashion.
He was super patient, and told me calmly: “I’m not leaving you here, we’ll go slowly okay.” Finally, I nodded and got back on.
In fits and starts, we managed to cycle to the end of the highway. We made it back without further incident. The cycles were returned, we got back on a ferry, and headed to our next destination.
In retrospect I’m glad I fell, and I’m glad I had that episode on the highway. It showed me in the most basic way, the trouble I face in dealing with stress and anxiety and trying to overcome it. It taught me an important lesson – sometimes it’s better to just keep going even if you’re crawling along – than to panic.
A few months later, Manu and I decided to do a midnight cycling tour in Mumbai. While I had grown to feel reasonably comfortable in Europe, with its evenly paved roads and its cycle lanes, Mumbai’s potholes were another story.
The mild apprehension I had about how it would go, swelled into near-panic as the event drew closer. I remembered the lady I had read about in the news that had been cycling, hit a pothole and flew off to come under a bus.
As we sped towards South Mumbai, my apprehension gave way to full panic. What if something happened?
I thought about the blog post languishing in my computer that was due the next day, and about my novel. I thought about my parents, imagining them cursing my clumsiness and the yoga class I wouldn’t make it to the next day.
Before you ask yes, I have an overactive imagination. All I wanted to do is get through three hours of cycling without injury to myself and anyone else.
After I started, I realized that I was being ridiculous. The tour was absolutely safe and was actually a really amazing experience. I went slowly, after my previous experiences I did not want to push my luck, but I realized that it was okay, and for the most part, I seemed to have conquered my fear.
I won’t let another 15 years go by before getting back on the cycle, but I’ll probably not do a 30 km/day rolling hills adventure either. Somewhere in between is just about right for me.
Image source: pexels
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Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
Great story Mira. Maybe I will take it up too!
Hehe you cannot possibly fall as gloriously as I did! 🙂 But thank you!
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