I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike that wasn’t in spin class. I do have a distinct memory, however, of being chased around my neighborhood by a yappy dog nipping at my heels as I tried to get away from my imminent death by ankle biting when I was no older than 10. I don’t know if that scared or scarred me, but my fear of biking was solidified each time a friend of mine was injured on the streets of Chicago. One was hit by a car rounding a corner on Western Avenue and screamed at her for being in his way. She came to my house crying and cradling her arm, which ended up needing a sling for months. Another was rear-ended in Bucktown in a hit-and-run, thrown over her handlebars and onto the concrete, sending her to the hospital with all kinds of lacerations.
I have lived in two cities that tout themselves as bicyclist-friendly but I have avoided any reason to ride. So when Julie and I went to San Francisco for our second wedding anniversary, I was hoping she would forgo her idea of renting bikes and taking them over the Golden Gate Bridge. As the planner of the relationship, I was trying to keep our itineraries mildly busy and tiring so that perhaps biking eight miles wouldn’t be ideal during a relaxing vacation. But Julie was intent on heading down to the tourist trap that is Fisherman’s Wharf and renting a pair of wheels.
I passively complained, reiterating my fears of falling, being hit, killed and ultimately having a terrible time being out of control on the roads a foreign city. Julie listened but thought I was being overdramatic. “You’ve ridden bikes before!” she said, like she’d seen it happen with her own eyes. She had more faith in me than I did.
“OK, fine. But can we do a tandem?”
There were only a handful of tandem bikes at the shop where two Frenchmen helped to show us how to ride. Julie eyed the other single, lighter, cooler rides in the shop as she felt how heavy the tandem was in comparison.
“Ze front person will be doing all ze work,” the frenchman explained, as if I’d be sitting in a basket. I still had to pedal and try to keep balanced so we didn’t tip over. Luckily I wouldn’t have to combine that with navigating the streets and bike paths as well as shifting gears.
I chose a helmet that was too small first, then put another on backward before I was properly outfitted, but Julie and I were soon taking the tandem out in front of the shop and learning how to step onto the bike at the same time without tipping. We struggled shakily to stay upright as we rode down a slanted hill, Julie leading the pedaling but my feet following, stopping and starting without warning, my left shoe threatening to fall off with each sudden halt. It was frustrating, and I felt unstable and nervous.
“We need to communicate,” Julie said at a stop. “Let’s both step on at three. One, two, three.”
We both pushed off on our right and were pleased with our success. “Can you tell me when you’re stopping?” I asked, and she did. It gave Julie something else to have to worry about as the driver, but she would remember to say “Stop” or “Go” to help prepare me for our next move. We stopped to have a burger and a beer in Cow Hollow and I felt more relaxed when hopping back onto the bike.
By the time we had made it through Presido and Crissy Field I found myself forgetting I was on a machine o’death and was singing songs while enjoying the sculptures dotting the greenery on the way up to the bridge. We stopped to have our photo taken at Fort Point among the rest of the pedestrians and riders, taking turns with an Australian couple who also wanted at least one non-self taken photo of them together on their vacation. We smiled in front of our tandem, the famous bridge we’d soon be crossing in the background.
Before we could get up to the Golden Gate, we had to traverse a big hill that I was determined to do by bike, putting my spin class skills and strong calves to use, but I could only get us half way because Julie couldn’t do it. “I have to stop,” she said, and I had to listen to her and get off the bike to help her walk it up the rest of the way. It was steep and we weren’t alone, other tourist cyclists lining the side of the road like we were making our way up to the top of a roller coaster. But where the day had started with the scary part, I was now just anticipating the pay off in the way down.
“I survived!” I proudly announced to the Frenchman when we returned the rental.
“Of course you did,” he said. “You were along for the ride!”