When I was learning to drive, my instructor would always say, “Set yourself up for success.”
By this she meant, don’t make driving harder on yourself than it has to be. Especially as a new driver. Park in places that are easy for you to pull out of (i.e., forwards instead of backwards), drive routes you’re comfortable with, drive at times you’re comfortable with, have things in your car that allow you to enjoy your time driving (e.g., music you like or picked out yourself, etc.). I started driving young—you sort of had to where I grew up. And eventually I became someone who not only loves to drive, but who is also pretty good at it (if I do say so myself!).
I’ve been thinking about this advice now that I live in Toronto and no longer drive—or rather, refuse to drive in a city of this size and level of congestion. For so many reasons, I know that biking is the smart thing to do. And yet I have my serious hang-ups and anxieties around it. (Read here for more.) The gist of it is, urban biking scares me. I’m intimidated as a cyclist (by cars, streetcars, buses and other more experienced cyclists) and I probably just haven’t gotten enough hours in for it to feel very natural to me. More than that, having to take up urban cycling in Toronto of all places can make one feel as if they’ve been thrown in the deep end.
Sure, I know how to bike. And heck, I’ve even biked around Toronto as a commuter a good handful of times. But now that summer is in swing, I find myself timid to get back on the bike…but at the same time, the last place I want to be is on a crowded subway car when I could be outside, and above ground.
And then I remembered my driving instructor’s advice: Set yourself up for success.
What would this look like with regards to cycling?
First of all, my bike was a couple years shy of being an antique. Someone had given it to me when I had no bike, and I happily accepted. It was better than no bike!
But it had its share of issues. It was rickety and rusty, and while it was pretty cute, it was never fun for me to ride. It was uncomfortable. The seat was hard and even with a cushy soft cover, it still hurt one’s sensitive areas. Any time I’d ride over the slightest bump, everything would rattle (much like my first car, actually. An ’83 Ford Mustang that ran on about 3 and a half cylinders). Beyond riding, it was difficult to adjust anything on my bike—gears, the height of the seat or handlebars. (The bolts and screws were rusty and nearly stripped—probably as old as the bike itself.)
I don’t know why I didn’t realize sooner how little I enjoyed interacting with this bike. Maybe it’s the kind of thing when you decide to get rid of something, its flaws become glaringly obvious to you.
However, even with all these issues as I saw them, it was still a decent and functional bike. I listed it online and a handful of people were eager to take it off my hands. It was a great fixer-upper, or even decent enough to commute for someone who wasn’t too fussy. On Monday, I sold it to someone who was more than happy to buy it. (One person’s trash is another person’s treasure has never been truer!)
And by Tuesday, I’d tracked down a shiny new (not-rickety) bike at the Bikes on Wheels in Kensington Market. It jumped out at me as soon as I got there: a beautiful bright yellow bike with my name on it.
By Wednesday it was mine to ride home.
And WHAT A DIFFERENCE! A smooth ride, gears that shifted easily, a low bar (which makes it easy for someone short like me to hop on and off), lightweight (easy to pick up), and easy to adjust.
From the first test ride around Kensington Market I could tell that my reservations about biking weren’t all about Toronto traffic. A large part of my resistance was around having a bike that was difficult to deal with. It was like I didn’t even know that biking could be enjoyable.
Getting more comfortable on the road will come over time. That I’m sure of. I know that I’m still “too slow” as I often get passed by other cyclists. I’m cautious, but I’m lacking in a bit of confidence and certainty. But that’s what I was like as a new driver too. And over time, I became better, more confident, and developed a sort of sixth sense about driving.
I’ve made the first moves in setting myself up for success as a city cyclist and it’s opened up the city for me in a new way! I don’t feel beholden to transit, I can get places more efficiently than walking, and I’m excited to develop as an urban cyclist.
I’d love to hear your tips and stories about urban cycling. What do you do to set yourself up for success? What struggles have you overcome? Or what do you love most about it??