A First-Timer's Guide to the World is our bid to make life in quarantine a little less monotonous. Here, VICE Asia Editor Therese Reyes tries random challenges for the sake of content.
Bikes demand from their riders a set of attitudes that make me deeply uncomfortable. Never stop putting one foot in front of the other. Be in the moment. Balance. And most of all: don’t be afraid to fall. I’ve managed to avoid behaving in these ways for 29 years. I’ve always been the kind of person who picks flight over fight if given the choice, overplans for the future, and spends weekdays in a mode of all work and no play. The same goes for biking, which is a skill that has eluded me into adulthood. It scares me.
To me, falling from a bike is not unlike falling from a skyscraper. I have a serious fear of heights and, even though my feet can easily reach the ground, the idea of my body essentially suspended in air, hanging on to a 19th-century invention that only stays upright if I keep moving is too much. But then 2020 hit and I thought it’s now or never. It wasn’t so much an existential realization than a pang of jealousy seeing friends bike around Manila. Nearly a year into the pandemic, I had a deep longing for conversations with people I don’t share a roof with. I needed to talk to strangers, travel, form a new pack, and — yes — post photos from anywhere outside my room. All while social distancing. So biking it was.
“I needed to talk to strangers, travel, form a new pack, and — yes — post photos from anywhere outside my room. All while social distancing. So biking it was.”
To start my biking journey, I turned to an expert and called the Philippines’ “Queen of the Trails,” Ariana Dormitorio. At 24 years old, she is a three-time national mountain bike champion, two-time overall champion in Asia, and part of the Philippine national team. She is vying for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics but still, somehow, had time to get on a call with me.
I was a total noob but she was incredibly gracious, answering questions like how often she trains (six days a week), what time she wakes up (around 5:30 a.m.), and how long training days are (about five hours, plus gym time). Ariana’s tips were practical and to the point. She told me to start with a mountain bike first, wear a helmet, keep the saddle height low, start in a secure environment, and breathe. She gave me a seven-item checklist that her dad-slash-coach had taught her:
- Balance the bike with your hips
- Lead and steer the bike with your eyes
- Set things in advance
- Keep momentum
- Fuel up
- Control your excitement
Then Ariana said something I’ll never forget. She told me to celebrate the “small wins.”
“You should not rush your progress. You know, as simple as trying on a hump or doing this small downhill, [just] accomplishing that. And when you compile those small wins … it’s gonna be a big win. In other words, it will add up,” she said.
Armed with Ariana’s wisdom and my new gung-ho attitude that emerged in quarantine boredom, I ventured out of my house, face mask and all, and went down to the public park for the first time in months. I borrowed my cousin Cookie’s mountain bike and asked her to teach me. It was a Saturday morning and while most people were socially distancing, the place was pretty full. I avoided the oval where people usually jog and bike, and stayed in a small open space by the entrance where elderly ladies sitting on plastic chairs gossiped beside parked cars. I didn't want to accidentally hit anyone so the fewer the people, the better.
As I sat on the saddle, all my fears rushed back in. This can’t possibly work, what if I fall? Or worse. What if I never learn and have nothing to write about? But before I could overthink further, I placed my right foot on the pedal, then the left. I can do this, I thought, seconds before the bike fell to its side. My feet, thankfully, now planted on the ground. The bike didn’t even move.
I was worse than I thought, so beginner lessons it was. I did drills with my feet down, tip-toeing to move like a toddler on a walker. Cookie played TV dad and held on to my handlebars and seat as I pedaled. The theory was, if I knew how it felt to balance, then maybe I could do it too. Muscle memory had to come over me, some way, somehow. I threatened her not to trick me and secretly let go, or else, but, of course, she still did it. And, just like on TV, I was, suddenly, miraculously, biking. More like zig-zagging with no destination, but still. It felt like walking on sand, sinking to the right on one step, then stumbling on the next. High schoolers whooshed while standing on their pedals, butts off the saddle, as if to challenge me. You guys are cool, I get it. My unstable cycling felt just as impressive and I started imagining cheesy bike trips around the city with the cool December air touching my face. I only knew how to go in one direction but that’s fine, I could now ride a bike.
The confidence didn’t last.
The next week, I tried to learn how to turn. I could bike straight but whenever I got to the end of the road, I’d stop, put my feet down, and turn the bike around with my entire body to get to the other side. Very inconvenient and not at all how you’re supposed to bike. Whenever I tried turning the right way, it felt like a split second of me floating, unbalanced, just waiting to crash. And of course I did. On my Nth try, while trying to turn left, the bike hit the sidewalk and pushed me down to the ground. I checked my knee to assess the damage. A scrape and some blood. I took it as a sign that I was done for the day so I got up and headed home, body scratched and ego bruised.
I didn’t want anything to do with that bike anymore. If I wasn’t writing about this, I honestly would have just given up — gone back to my life on foot, found a new hobby, finished binge-watching another TV show. But I had no choice but to see it through, so I trained with my cousin Cookie again, in the same neighborhood where I fell. I’m not sure what changed but suddenly, I was doing it — turning the way I should, all on my own. Maybe it was my mindset, or the desire to accomplish something before 2020 ended.
The new year rolled around and it was like hitting restart, so I came up with the scariest, most challenging activity I could think of and booked a class at a pump park.
Bans Mendoza, a former national athlete and mountain biking “legend,” entered The Bike Playground with a bike on one hand and a Belgian Shepherd on the other. He started competing in the late 90s, won a series of championships, and continues to join events today, but now dedicates most of his time training young athletes and beginners like me. Sitting on a bench as cyclists flew through the rollers and banked turns of the pump track in front of us, he told me exactly why he finds the sport so exciting.
“In a pump track ... when you go around, it’s tiring because you use your whole body, but it also gives you adrenaline. You’d want to hold the speed. When you’re tired, it’s like you want to push even more,” he said.
In a pump track, cyclists rarely push on the pedals. Instead, they pump the bike with their entire body and move through the track with sheer force and momentum. I came clean and told Bans about my fears and he didn’t seem fazed. “Don’t be dismayed because it’s normal to be anxious, because you’re entering the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Somehow all my training sessions turn into therapy.
Before I could pump, I had to learn how to bike standing up, just like those guys at the pump track and the kids at the park on Day 1 of my training. We went to the road beside the park and there, Bans told me to sit on the bike, level the pedals, and stand. I did and he pushed me while holding on to the handlebar and seat as I pedalled, just as my cousin did the first time. It felt completely foreign, like I had to relearn everything.
My legs weren’t moving like they used to and balancing was a challenge once again. Perhaps noticing that my body had frozen up from anxiety, Bans said I might be better off practicing what I could do. He took an orange traffic cone from the side of the road, placed it in front of me, and said I should try to make my turns there. And that’s what I did. First, just going around in a loop, then forming “S” shapes on the road, turning left and right. “Celebrate the small wins,” I remembered Ariana saying.
I spent that Saturday morning biking on that one street, feeling the wind in my face, just as I’d hoped when I’d first started. I can do it now, I can bike, I thought. The road to get here was a bumpy one, with a lot of literal humps and metaphorical ups and downs.
“The road to get here was a bumpy one, with a lot of literal humps and metaphorical ups and downs.”
But it brought back the joy of being a beginner, of having no control and being OK with it. They say you never forget how to ride a bike. Well, I’ll definitely never forget what it took to learn.
Think I can handle more? Challenge me at email@example.com.