Backstory: Finding midlife balance – on two wheels

From Harvard scholar to Caribbean islander, many adults share an embarrassing secret: They can't ride a bike.

Tucked away behind a three-story house on a quiet street here is a big red barn filled with bicycles, bicycle tires, helmets, knee and elbow pads, and lots and lots of bicycle parts. This is the home of the Bicycle Riding School where, for more than 20 years, Susan McLucas has taught nearly 2,000 adults how to ride a bicycle.

On a golden Indian summer day last month, seven students, ages 24 to 56, meet for the first of four Sunday sessions in front of Ms. McLucas's barn, each nervous and self-conscious. Cycling, for most, is a skill learned in childhood and never forgotten. But cycling eludes people for various reasons – a fear-inducing fall at an early age is a common one – and for many who never learned to ride, there's a secret shame.

When friends invite Janaki Thomas to join them riding on Cape Cod, she has always had an excuse, but she never shared the real reason – that she didn't know how.

The composition of this group is typical of her classes, says McLucas: six women and one man, four were born abroad.

In Ms. Thomas's Caribbean homeland of Dominica, bike riding was frowned upon for girls. "It wasn't considered ladylike," says Thomas.

For Dee Smith a native of St. Lucia, a similar bias prevailed.

Smith is clear evidence of what might be called The Lance Effect: a surge in interest in cycling spawned by seven-time Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong. "When I saw Lance Armstrong pedaling down the Champs d'Elysées after winning the Tour," says Smith, "I just wanted to learn to ride."

She also admired Mr. Armstrong for overcoming cancer to become a world champion.

Asked a week before her first class what she expected the sensation of riding to feel like, Smith paused for a moment. Then, in her lilting Caribbean accent she gushed, "I think it will feel like dancing!"

Fear of falling and embarrassing themselves in front of others are the major obstacles for most adults just learning to ride. One of McLucas's former students is Laurence Tribe, the famed constitutional scholar and Harvard law professor who has argued dozens of cases before the US Supreme Court.

"I'm anxious and nervous before each one," says the sixty-something Mr. Tribe, "but in many ways I was more nervous about learning to ride a bicycle."

McLucas begins by removing the pedals and having the students glide down a very gentle slope at a nearby playground. It is chaotic at first as the new cyclists seek to avoid one another and a fall to the pavement. Sweat beads up on faces. But, within an hour, most, like Gilbert Arenaza, a native of Peru, have replaced the pedals and are making their first tentative circuits around the schoolyard.

Three weeks later, on a cold and very blustery Sunday in late October, the group meets for the final session: a ride along a nearby bike path and a picnic. They have, in a few short weeks, conquered their fears and felt the pleasure of the breeze in their faces. Some are riding easily, some still struggle, but all have a sense of accomplishment.

"Riding seemed like a fantasy, an impossibility," says Smith, obviously thrilled.

"But it doesn't feel like dancing. It feels the way I feel when I dream that I am flying."

A slide show of photos from the four-day class can be viewed at bicycles/index.html

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