Tour de Park

  • Barbarella

Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.

-- Mark Twain

This was a bad idea, I thought, guiding the two wheels beneath me in a wobbling maneuver to avoid the cement pillar in my path. My forearms were beginning to ache from the way I was hunching over the handlebars, even though I'd traveled only once around the parking garage. It's not like I'm new to this, I told myself. But it has been over ten years , I answered.

"What?" David looked at me, first perplexed and then in alarm as I came flying toward him. I'd been talking to myself out loud. I managed to come to an awkward stop by dragging my feet on the cement. "All right, look," said David, in his patient, speaking-to-a-mentally-challenged-and-emotionally-disturbed-child voice. "This right handle brake controls the back wheel, and the left one controls the front. You want to slow down with the back, because if you slam on the front brake, there's a chance you'll flip forward."

The last time I had ridden a bike, it had a banana seat and all I had to do if I wanted to stop was pedal backwards. David snapped his spiffy blue bike shoes onto the pedals of his 15-speed Cannondale 700. His helmet was the same shiny black and gray as the one he had helped me pick out for myself a few days before.

"Okay, I'm ready," I said, only half meaning it. "I want to walk my bike up to the corner and then we can start pedaling."

Unlike my sisters, I have never been into sports. I was ecstatic to have mononucleosis in the ninth grade when I learned it meant that my swollen spleen would keep me out of Phys Ed for the rest of the year. In high school, I took dance because my counselor promised it was the lowest impact option. Despite my long-standing indifference to all things athletic, I had somehow gotten it into my head that it would be fun (and healthy) for David and I to pursue a hobby that required the movement of our bodies.

When I first brought up the idea, David, who had been an avid cyclist, was overjoyed. He'd recently been researching bike tours around Europe and had already requested brochures and DVDs from bike-tour organizations, hoping to find one that would interest me. I was wary, and quick to point out any potential downsides. But over the past few months, affected by David's enthusiasm, I've been having pleasant visions of a young, attractive, sporty couple pedaling past fields of sunflowers and lavender with the Tuscan sun warming their faces.

When he was 16, David rode a bike, along with three friends, across four countries from Geneva to Amsterdam. We were making plans for a European vacation next year, and my darling is adamant that traveling by bicycle will enhance our experience. Though it sounds fun, I'm a practical woman -- before considering the option seriously, I needed to find out how well we traveled together on bicycle and build up my cycling muscles.

Taking into consideration the possibility that I might not enjoy the activity, David suggested I try before I buy. My mother offered to give me the 21-speed mountain bike that had been languishing, unused, in her garage since she brought it home from the store. Mom is one of many who fall victim to their own good intentions -- when David and I collected the mountain bike, we happened upon another recently purchased contraption with three wheels that will most likely graduate from where it sits in Mom's living room to the garage, where it will join others of its kind.

I couldn't wait to take my new toy to Balboa Park. I assumed I would just hop on and go, but reality was not as simple as my memory of carefree, childhood days pedaling around the cul-de-sac. During my second trial run around the parking garage, my pants kept getting caught in the chain.

When I went back upstairs to find more suitable attire, I had a wardrobe epiphany -- all of my pants flare at the bottom, I don't own one pair of shorts, and I have no casual skirts (not that I'd wear a skirt for this maiden voyage to the park anyway, since I was convinced I would be on my ass at some point before returning home). I found one pair of black pants that were not as wide at the ankle and headed back downstairs, but not before checking out how my ensemble looked in the mirror -- red sweater, black pants, black sunglasses, black helmet, white sneakers. I said a silent prayer to the fashion gods that I wouldn't be spotted by anyone I knew, took a deep breath, and set out.

It was a warm, sunny day, with cool breezes from the ocean making their way east into Hillcrest. David and I walked from the garage up the hill to Park Boulevard, got on our bikes, and headed south on the sidewalk. I rode my brakes until we reached the first light, at which point I forgot all of my training and dropped my feet in order to stop. Because the seat is so high, I actually had to slide off of the bike and to the side to keep from falling.

"Okay, get back on and when this light changes, we're going to go off of the sidewalk and onto the street," said David. I looked at the skewed intersection before us and freaked out a little in my head. What if I started across and then fell and got run over by a car? I held the handlebars in a death grip that transferred some of the black rubber onto my chafing palms.

When I was seven, I had a traumatic fall from a bicycle. I turned too hard, too fast, fell, and skidded beneath the bike, with both of my knees and my face in contact with the rough asphalt. When I stood up, my lips were shredded, one of my two front teeth was chipped, and the other had been ground to a nub. The way I saw it, I could not be too careful.

The light changed, and as I cast off across the intersection, my ass was aware of every bumpy tread on the thick tires that had been designed for rugged terrain. I could feel the expression of horror and fear on my face each time a car passed. I would think, this is the one that will hit us , and then for a moment I would live the tragedy in my mind, all the way to the hospital in my imaginary ambulance.

We made it to the path in Balboa Park by way of the zoo's parking lot. Because it was Wednesday, there were few people around whom we had to navigate. We rode past the fountain, past museums, and past bright flowers, the smell of which rode the wind to my nostrils, causing me to breathe deeper and smile at the air itself. As we pedaled our way over the Laurel Street Bridge, I delighted in the sensation of gliding by pedestrians, moving fast enough to keep a steady breeze on my face but slowly enough to appreciate the patches of color -- blue sky, green grass, yellow daffodils, and pink cherry blossoms, the palette of spring.

I insisted, by waving one arm wildly, that David ride behind me as we embarked on the most treacherous part of our journey, Sixth Avenue. No bike lane, a few blind spots, and, in my experience, many distracted drivers -- it was the perfect formula for my demise. David had mastered the skill of looking over his shoulder while riding; he would be able to warn me if I needed to move one way or the other.

To my surprise and relief, we made it home without incident (if you don't count the old friend I ran into who did, in fact, see my questionable outfit).

"See? That wasn't so bad," David said. I was busy cursing at the stupid cable he had handed me to lock up my bike. It just wasn't cooperating.

"This lock is fucking annoying," I snapped. But then I finally wrangled it in to place, stood up to face my optimistic biker buddy, and took a deep breath. "No, it wasn't so bad," I said. "A little scary at times, but I bet I'll get the hang of it in time for Europe." David was all dimples and smiles. He reached for my hand and held it in his as we traveled up the elevator and down the hall until I needed it back to unlock our door.

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