Waving at strangers: The bike that changed how I see cycling

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Confession: my happiest riding experiences this year haven’t been off in the forests or the hills. They haven’t been accompanied by the hum of gravel under my tyres, or the rustle of fern fronds in the wind. They’ve been ordinary rides – to the shops, on errands, around the suburbs. Perfectly mundane, except they aren’t.

We got married, my wife and I, over the Christmas break. We’ve been together a decade, long enough that we own everything we need. But our friends and family wanted to be generous, so we decided to put their financial gifts toward something that we’d always wanted.

And so, a few weeks later, after a lot of test rides and a lot of deliberation, we bought an e-cargo trike. I figured we’d use it for daycare drop-offs for our daughter and take our car off the road for those annoying local trips that suck petrol and sap joy. What I didn’t expect was that it would be a lens through which I’d begin to see cycling differently.

They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but I can confirm from hard-won experience that it takes a while to learn how to ride a cargo trike. The steering’s all different, and the subconscious shifts of weight you make on a conventional bike are mostly futile to staying upright. Ours is a bit flighty at pace, a bit unsteady when it’s rough, and rides much better with a load up front.

The plan was only ever for that ballast to be in the form of our single child, but on warm summer nights we found ourselves experimenting. Friends and friends’ kids (once, four of them). Loads of shopping. Picnics in the park; date nights at the local bar. With the botanical fizz of a good G&T or two lingering on our palates, we glide home together in the golden twilight, my wife and I, and are ten years younger.

It’s big and it’s ponderous, our trike. It doesn’t like to be rushed – I spilled enough sweat in the first summertime rides learning that. Now, I don’t rush. I especially make a point of building extra time into the outings I have with my daughter, two and a half. Time for us to have a good chat about how psyched we both are to be riding to wherever we’re going. Time to take the quieter, less bumpy way. Time to slow down, to look for dogs and cats and other kids riding bikes. Most days, there aren’t enough of any of those things – especially the last one – but every ride is another chance to hope that’ll change.

There’s another thing we do when we ride, something that I don’t do enough when I’m not with her. We wave. She started doing it whenever she saw a bus, but now she’s less discriminating. Cars, buses, trains, pedestrians – they all get a wave.

And then, 90% of the time, something funny happens. People wave back. Drivers slow down, and smile, and pass with care. They hold our lives in their hands, softly, like they’re cradling an eggshell. I’m always grateful about that when I look down at the back of her head, strawberry blonde hair poking out from under her spotty helmet, and her hand flapping back and forth trying to forge a human connection with a stranger.

They say that there’s an innocence in children, and they’re right. All she knows about drivers and cars is that they’re something to say hello to. I wish I still had that fragile faith.

As we ride, we talk, my daughter and I. About our days, about what we see, about how we feel. And whilst we do that, I think about my other interactions on the bike. I wonder, when I’m all kitted up and riding as hard as I can to make things calm, whether I do enough to bring joy – or at the least, humanity – to my interactions with others. Whether I’m present enough for my family, or for those who come into my orbit. Whether I should wave more.

Four months ago, when we picked up that e-cargo trike, it felt a bit like shoehorning a personal passion into an experiment in sustainability. But now, when I wheel that lumbering machine out of the garage and three-point-turn it down the driveway, it becomes much more than that. It’s an action, a choice. An opportunity to slow down, to spend quality time with my daughter, to humanise cyclists to those we come into contact with, and to wave.

This story originally appeared in a modified form in a VeloClub newsletter.

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