I didn’t know how to ride a bike for 26 years, despite growing up 106 yards from the Mount Vernon Trail! It wasn’t my parents’ fault—I have a twin sister who loves biking and even commuted on a bike when she didn’t own a car in Nashville—I simply wasn’t interested and gave up early. I tried to learn a few years ago, but I quickly realized that being given a push and told to pedal wouldn’t work for me. With sadness from being unable to participate in Bike to Work Day (I did the important job of picking up bagels for the bikers), optimism that trained instructors would be able to do the impossible, and hope that learning to ride would make me a better transportation planner, I signed up for a Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) adult learn-to-ride class.
WABA is an advocacy group with more than 6,000 members. The classes are free for residents of the state the class is located, or free for WABA members. I am a DC resident and could not attend the DC class, so I joined WABA and signed up for a class in Arlington at the (Metro-accessible) Washington-Liberty High School parking deck.
Earning My Pedals
There were 15 people in my three-hour class on a Sunday morning. We had four instructors, so three instructors took groups of five to practice drills on the tennis court.
The class was based around the premise of “earning your pedals,” so there were three stages to the class:
Bike with no pedals. This was like riding a balance bike—an alternative to a tricycle that kids can use to learn to ride. These drills, including Red Light, Green Light—a game I never thought I’d play again after elementary school—focused on how fast and how far we could glide.
Bike with one pedal. Once an instructor determined I was ready to move on, I moved to a new section of the court and received one pedal (on the side of my dominant hand, though the instructors said it didn’t matter much). This was a blow to my ego because I was feeling confident with some good glides in the first round and the one-pedal bike was much more difficult! We set up the bike in what they call “pedal power position” with the single pedal at a 45-degree angle from the ground and glided on just one push of the pedal. This stage was aimed at learning to accelerate from a stop and getting a feel for pedaling.
Bike with two pedals. Finally, once deemed ready after awkward step-glide laps with one pedal, I felt like I reached the Holy Grail when I received my second pedal! I spent the rest of the class riding laps around the tennis court – mostly stepping off the bike to turn it around, but every now and then feeling good enough to make an extremely wide turn. The best part of the class was seeing everyone bike around with huge smiles on their faces!
At the end of the class, the instructors help you take photos with your bike to see what height and models work best for you. I was so excited I bought a helmet in Arlington before I even hopped on the Metro home!
Left to My Own Devices
In the weeks leading up to my class, I was nervous that the lessons wouldn’t work, and I would ultimately not learn to ride. After the class, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up! I immediately purchased a Capital Bikeshare Annual Membership. The first weekend after my class, I went to an empty parking lot at American University to practice. The first 15 minutes were difficult – I struggled with balance and regaining momentum after having to step off the bike. I did manage to get some good laps in towards the end of my practice session!
After one more parking lot session, I felt ready to leave the parking lot but was still scared of cars and being around other riders. I was nervous after two weeks without practicing, but I bit the bullet and rode the Capital Crescent Trail on a Friday evening, one month after my class. The trail was quiet and flat which was exactly what I needed! I rode seven miles from Georgetown to Bethesda (with a pit stop to dock my bike and take out another) and I felt on top of the world afterward! I did encounter two hills—my first hills—that I really struggled with. Another biker passed me on the second hill and said, “Keep it up! You’re almost there!” which really lifted my spirits. To all bikers reading this, thank you for cheering each other on!
I am not yet at the point where I can relax and enjoy the scenery; I’m still clutching the handlebars for dear life and picking a spot ahead on the trail to stare at to keep my bike straight (if I look elsewhere I WILL veer off course and probably fall). But I’m so excited to try out all the different trails in the area and continue working on my biking skills!
Biking Resources for DC-Area Riders
There are so many fantastic resources for bikers in the DC area. Next, I plan to take the WABA Confident City Cycling class, which teaches bicycle handling skills—such as turning, weaving, scanning and signaling, shifting, and others—and gives strategies for riding on streets and trails.
I also can’t wait to bike my coworkers’ favorite rides! Thanks to tips from my coworkers, I can also use cycle.travel to plan routes using quiet lanes and off-street paths, or Adventure Cycling Association to plan longer distance routes. For riders in the DC area, goDCgo has a ton of biking resources on their website, including the 2022 DC Bike Map!
The Micromobility and Active Transportation service area at Foursquare ITP supports so many bike projects, and I can’t wait to work on improving bike infrastructure around the country! Contact us if you want to learn more!