Thursday, December 29, 2011

The joy of falling

I wrote this earlier this year, and I thought of it again when I was knocked off my bike last week:

The joy of falling

Falling over always makes me cry. This is not ideal when you are naturally clumsy. I am forever slipping over that tiniest smear of grease on the kitchen floor, or that one squashed grape in the fruit and veg aisle. 

I don't know how to land gracefully or safely, and it seems that all the rolls of flab in the world won't protect your bony protuberances when you land on them from a great height.

What smarts even more, though, after a comedic (to everyone else) tumble, is the feeling of having lost control, of losing one's grip on the ground, of being powerless and prey to the laws of gravity and pain. Once you are falling, there is nothing you can really do to stop it. When I have fallen, I am left with a lingering feeling of panic, of vulnerability, of shaken confidence in my ability to stride across the world.

When I bought proper cycling shoes and cleats, my sister told me, "You will fall off." When I tried to get on my bike in the back yard and figure out how clamping my feet to pedals on this inherently unstable thing called a bicycle was actually going to work, I cried, and I hadn't even fallen off yet. How on earth was I going to do this? How was I going to manage when the prospect of a fall, and not just from my feet onto the kitchen floor, was a certainty?

I found that the only way to get going and figure that out, was to commit to the clamping, and to the inevitable fall; not to timidly push my bike around the yard, but to get onto the street and get up some momentum and trust that the advice I'd been given and the skills I'd developed thus far would keep me upright for at least a time. 

I pushed my right foot onto the cleat, and lifted it to the top of the stroke. I pushed down hard, simultaneously engaging the clip with the pedal and driving the wheels forward. I had no choice but to follow suit with the left foot, clipping it in with a chunky click and feeling the bike leap forward. 

I rode around the block. 

I didn't fall off. 

I unclipped before I came to a stop at my drive way, and still I didn't fall off. I felt a great wave of hubris wash over me, and it was still with me when I set out for work the next day. I exulted in the feeling of doubled power as my legs pulled up on the pedals as well as pushing down - the dread Mega Hill of Death became a mere molehill and I smirked as I whirred past cyclists who were struggling as I had done just the week before.

Just before my destination, cyclists must negotiate a dreadful intersection near the Arts Centre where they have to cross right over a lane of traffic in order to go straight ahead. At peak hour, the cars are impatient with the bikes, who must weave in and out of them in order to position themselves safely. I am used to darting around and sticking my feet wherever I need in order to jostle for my own rightful position. I did this, but underestimated how much time I would need to free my foot. It stuck fast, the bike slowed, wobbled, and then in a graceful motion of surrender, keeled over to the side, taking me with it, fortunately onto the grassy verge. 

With no physical damage, and cars and snickering pedestrians everywhere around me, I managed to extricate my feet, and walk, duck like in my treacherous shoes, over to the footpath. My bravado had completely left me and my whole body was shaking. I knew that I had to get to my destination and I wasn't going to get there clattering around on cleats. I had to get back on the bike.

The rest of my ride was tentative, but I got there. I had learned that I needed to give myself time to get my feet down, to anticipate that I was in a situation where I might need to just click out and stay out for a while, that I couldn't rely on my quick reflexes to absorb my lack of planning. I felt a larger lesson seeping into my bones.

On the way home, I fell off again. This time I was trying to do a standing start up a steep hill, and I couldn't get enough momentum. My free foot slipped on the pedal rather than clicking in, and I toppled, this time onto the road, and I fared worse than in the morning.

The next day, my legs and hips were a mass of bruises, and I had wrenched my ankle hard enough for it to swell badly, and ache. I began to wonder if I had done the right thing in investing in these shoes.  Sure, the hills were easier and the snazzy equipment made me feel like a real cyclist, but wasn't it easier just to keep on with the sneakers and old pedals? Maybe I should just give it up. My sister was doubly right. And what if I fell of again, and again, and again? What if I could never get the hang of it? How stupid would I feel then? How incompetent! Uncoordinated! Because, after all, that's what I am!

A couple of months ago, I would probably have admitted defeat. The pain of falling, and the possibility - heck, probability - of it happening again would have put me off. The phrase "comfort zone" has real meaning here.

However. I've been having dreams about clipping in and clipping out. Whilst lying in bed I've been noticing my feet practicing the motions. Every time I stand up or sit down, the aching bruises prompt me to think about how not to fall off. I've rehearsed intersections and hill starts in my head. I've mused about how less humiliated I felt than I thought I would be, and I've remembered the kind hands reaching out and the smiles of solidarity from other cyclists who've been there and will probably do that again themselves.

This morning I rode in again. I planned ahead. I was cautious and careful. I respected my limitations, and the bike's. I became mindful of my feet melded to the cranks, and aware of how my body and my bike were moving through space. 

And I didn't fall off. But somehow, I don't think it would have mattered if I had.