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The week before everything changed, on a primary school athletics track a few blocks from our house, my daughter rode a bike for the first time. Like a lot of moments in parenthood seem to be, it felt like it was a long time coming and was simultaneously a total surprise. One moment, I was hobble-running beside her, hunched down to reach her seat, and the next, she had taken flight.
I don’t have a video of that moment, but if I did, it would show you something like this:
As my daughter’s perfect little legs turned jerky circles, I exclaimed “you’re doing it!”, barely believing how quickly she’d taken to it. For the length of the track she motored forward, dipping side to side every so often and correcting herself. Then she called out “catch me, Dad” as I jogged beside her, and I reached down to grab the handlebars as her momentum slowed. On the windswept fake grass, for a few seconds that felt like a few hours, we just looked at each other beaming with pride and joy and the enormity of everything.
Bikes are important to me and precisely because of that fact, I’ve spent the three and a half years of my daughter’s life trying not to let them define our relationship. They keep sneaking in at the periphery, though. She helps me fix flat tyres. She asks for bikes for Christmas. Now that I’m not commuting anywhere, she wakes up in the morning and, still rubbing her eyes, comes to the garage to watch me ride on Zwift. Hanging from the girders is a string of bikes, now including two of hers, which feels like the way it was always meant to be.
Her “big girl” bike – the one that she first pedalled on – was a non-destructible-rubbish find from a street on the other side of the highway. The plan was to buy her something new for her fourth birthday but that’s half a year away, so I grabbed it on the off-chance she’d have a growth spurt and get sick of her balance bike in the meantime. That night, as she slept inside, I got it ready – fixed the brakes, cleaned the chain, fitted new grips, put the seat down.
When I showed it to her the next day, she was struck silent with delight. She didn’t see the scratches some other little girl had left behind. She just saw her big new bike and couldn’t wait to grow into it.
Since the day my daughter learnt how to ride, things have been up and down. She had a couple of little crashes that shook her confidence, and then the world changed. The school with the athletic track has started locking its gates, and my daughter seems less into the idea of riding.
I wonder if that reluctance is a subconscious response to the uncertainty of everything else at the moment, whether it’s easier for her to cocoon herself in what she knows and feels comfortable with. I hope she remembers that it was something she could do once, but I don’t want to push the issue because I know how fragile self-belief can be.
Life rolls on. We’re finding a new norm, and there’ll be a time when she rides again – with me, with her friends, and eventually, all by herself. For now, on our outings around the block, it’s her purple balance bike that she reaches for, and at the intersection at the bottom of the hill she rips corners in a way that makes me feel both younger and older than I am.
There are moments of joy I want her to experience from bikes – the giddy feeling of weightlessness, of self-propulsion, of mental and physical balance – and there are memories I hope she keeps. I hope that the day she learnt how to ride is one of them, because it’s one that I hold onto on the days when it feels like an impossible weight is pressing in around me.
The week before everything changed, on that day my daughter rode by herself for the first time, we rode home from the local primary school on our cargo trike together. My daughter’s hand rested on her bike beside her on the seat.
As we cut through the park a pair of cockatoos flew screeching out of an oak tree hanging over the path. Together we watched them surf the air, their compact white bodies rising and falling against a grey sky. In that moment, I swear, I felt so light I could have floated away.