Getting Back on the Bike

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.

Image Description: A view from Toronto’s Rail Path on the West End, near the Junction. The photo features a bright blue sky with abundant clouds, some development and small businesses. In the bottom right corner, two cyclists bike side-by-side. One of the highlights of urban biking is views like these.

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.

Image Description: A view of the Don Valley Parkway from the subway. One side of the highway is full of cars while the other side is empty. This photo was taken during rush hour and everyone is driving to get out of downtown. Commuting in a big city can be really exhausting and it doesn’t help when you’re stuck in traffic.

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??

Image Description: My new bike, a yellow “Linus” bike with brown leather seat and handles. 

8 thoughts on “Getting Back on the Bike

  1. Congratulations on the new bike– it’s a beauty! I loved this post. You’re so right that getting comfortable requires some thinking and planning; it doesn’t just happen organically. Buying a bike that is functional, comfortable, reliable and a delight to ride is an important step. As for getting used to urban cycling: I like the idea that you pick routes that are fun or comfortable for you. I do this myself. And I pick routes that appeal to what I’m looking for– maybe efficiency, maybe ease, maybe scenic views, etc. I do it when I drive. Why not do it on the bike too? Definitely keep us posted on how things are going.

  2. Congrats on the new bike! Just today someone asked me if I was going to go back to doing triathlons….I haven’t done one in 8 years. At that time I borrowed a bike from a student of mine to train on and then had to ride an old bike of my sister’s that had no pads for the aero bars and was too short for me. I had sold my tri bike to help pay for my first wedding in 2001 and I considered the magnitude of the question…..and I responded, “first I’ll have to get a bike”. That’s not in my budget right now (I have a mountain bike….not ideal for training) and so it waits. I love the idea of finding the right kind of bike to set yourself up for success! I wish you the most amazing summer of commuting!

  3. I really appreciate this! We’ve recently moved to a new city and gone to sharing a car, so I’m strongly considering more urban cycling. But I’ve never been a road cyclist, there’s lots of traffic on the roads near me, etc., etc. So I have been considering how to make it easier for myself.
    This weekend I did a ride that started in a local park, then transitioned onto the local sidewalks. That was a new experience for me, but went very smoothly, so I look forward to testing urban riding more!

  4. Congratulations on the new bike! What a lovely color.
    For me, the biggest barrier to bike commuting was figuring out how to transport all of my stuff. I already had/have a short commute (~3 miles/5 km) on a fairly safe bike path (no cars except for the few streets I have to cross) – but it didn’t matter! Several of my friends bike with backpacks, but my regular backpack was too big for me to wear on a bike (I’m a petite woman and it hangs past my back) and a smaller pack wouldn’t hold everything I wanted to bring with me.
    For my birthday this year, I asked for and received a fancy pannier (in my case, one that converts between backpack and bike bag). I felt a little frivolous getting such a nice bike accessory when I’m pretty much the opposite of a “serious” cyclist, but it worked – I’m excited to use it, and I’ve biked to work more times in the past month than I had in the few years prior to that.

  5. I always found it easier to start early in morning when cycling in Toronto where I lived, biked and worked for over 14 years. I did work downtown and commuted from Scarborough. So make sure you did design a route if possible that includes a blend of bike path and streets. Mine was about 80% bike path…and it’s not horrible at 6-7:30 am in the morning on the paths. That’s how I became a morning person via cycling. Weekends worked out well when starting off early….after 10:00 am I had already done a 50 km. ride Then I went grocery shopping in the ‘burbs..where hardly any shoppers. 🙂

  6. Make use of TTC and bus bike racks …to cover off lousy cycling sections or weather. Just know which stations have elevators.
    Your tax dollars and your cycling advocates are supporting you to offer flexibility for active transportation modes.

  7. Love this post. Sounds like you’re doing everything right. Enjoy! Toronto is a great cycling city.

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