Autumn 2008: Coda
Courtesy Alex Pollack
Back on the Bike
Far from the safe cul-de-sacs of his childhood, ex-cyclist Alex Pollack 07C dares to ride again
By Alex Pollack 07C
I haven’t ridden a bicycle since Full House was on the popular Friday-night lineup TGIF. That’s fourteen years. Maybe fifteen. I’m not sure, but I know it’s been a long time since I’ve pedaled outside an exercise room.
When I was eight, I powered up and down the driveways and cul-de-sacs of suburbia. I lost my training wheels, but I never got cocky. No twisty tire tricks from me, just simple riding before Mom would call me back for chicken nuggets.
It was fun, but there came a moment when I just stopped riding bikes. It happened after my next-door neighbor kicked me in the groin. We were scrambling for a football when his leg swung like a dart to its target. He meant to kick me there. I knew it.
He’d once been my bike-riding buddy. Like the boys of the movie Goonies, we’d round the neighborhoods, but after that kick, I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. Biking slipped away from my life, replaced by tae kwon do, soccer, basketball, and tennis.
Not until years later was I ready to hop a banana seat and ride with a pack of friends to Baskin-Robbins.
But there were problems. The seat felt high, the brakes felt impossible, the steering felt unpredictable. I dragged my feet against the ground.
“Dude, you don’t forget how to ride a bike.”
“Nobody forgets how to ride a bike.”
They were wrong. I had forgotten how to ride a bike.
My friends rode to Baskin-Robbins, and I ran after them. They beat me by fifteen minutes, and my buddy’s dad drove me back. Not my proudest moment.
When I told people I couldn’t ride a bike, they would gasp, as if I’d just told them I had six toes. I’d try to laugh it off, but they were reluctant to laugh with me. Did they think I was a freak? Did I need to start a support group of brothers and sisters for We-Can’t-Ride-Bikes Anonymous? Forget pink ribbons; we’d sport pink helmets.
Now I’m teaching English in South Korea for a year. New foods, new people, new sights, new sounds. I was ready for all that, but the last thing I expected to accomplish here was relearning how to ride a bicycle.
Until I went to Chuncheon.
Chuncheon is a small, mountainous town in the Korean countryside. In the fall, its landscape calls to mind east Tennessee, all lush greenery and dense slopes, but come winter, it’s a hotspot for skiers and snowboarders. The town’s a few hours outside Seoul, so I made the trip by train, bus, and car with a group of teachers from work. The plan was to ride all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and bikes. My plan was to ride an ATV, but the women had other ideas.
“Get on the bike!” they said, hands on their handlebars, waiting at the side of a busy country road. Was I really going to do it? If I couldn’t make it to a Baskin-Robbins in suburbia, how was I going to make it on a winding, foreign road in Korea?
I got on the bike. “If you fall,” one said, “fall into the bushes; don’t fall into the traffic. That would be bad.”
Faster. Faster. I didn’t fall. They laughed at me because, while they soaked up the gorgeous mountain scenery, all I could stare at was pavement.
“Stay steady,” I muttered, weaving through traffic like a pizza delivery man. I peered up at the mountains. The cool air nipped my cheeks.
Usually I’m the guy who analyzes a moment too much, who weighs it down until it can’t breathe on its own. But this time, with the green mountains looming on the horizon, with me pedaling and staying steady, the only thing I could think was: wow.
No support groups, no pink helmets, no more. I found that chicken nuggets-eating kid. He’s still in me, and he’s ready to ride.
Alex Pollack 07C recently returned from teaching English in South Korea. This essay originally appeared in The Hub magazine.