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“I am most impressed with Shahreen, who has gone from fearful to (almost) fearless. She talks of that feeling of freedom, the extra energy after a bike ride."
In late May 2020, during the early days of the COVID-induced Great Bike Shortage, I stood in line with a neighbor to buy a used bike. Her first bike. My neighbor Shahreen is in her late 30s and didn’t know how to ride a bike, so she asked me to teach her. And so began my Great Bike Summer.
First stop: Bike Exchange of Trenton, a nonprofit that refurbishes donated bikes and sells them, with all money going to the local Boys and Girls Club. We walked out $150 lighter with a white, six-speed aluminum bike donated by Zagster, the company that had run the bike-share system at Princeton University. She picked up an orange-and-black helmet to go with it—Princeton colors.
My teaching technique comes straight from Bike New York, where I’ve occasionally volunteered. So off came the pedals and down went the seat, as low as possible so Shahreen could just sit on the bike. First, she walked while sitting, then she raised her feet for a second or two as she learned balance—and then braking! The street has a slope, and she’d get nervous if she picked up speed. We practiced most evenings for 30 minutes or so. After a couple weeks, she was coasting down the hill. Back on went the pedals, and with a bit more practice, she was pedaling on her own. Success!
But Shahreen wasn’t my only “student.” Zariya, her 6-year-old, was learning to bike, too, mostly with her dad. Zeba, her 8-year-old, was freely offering her mom riding tips based on her two years of experience. They decided I was their teacher, too, and have taken to regularly knocking on the door to see if I will bike with them. That means a lot of loops around our suburban block, interspersed with admonitions to bike on the right side of the road. And, for me, the best excuse ever to step away from the laptop.
Sharing the Joy of Biking
Another neighbor needed help fixing a flat bike tire. The wheel rubbed against a brake, and I know nothing about fixing brakes. That led to a conversation with a local bike advocate whose new pandemic business, RoadMaestro, offers mobile bike repair. He came to my driveway five times in 2020, and each time there were more neighbors with bikes that needed work. Neighbors kept asking when he’d be back.
A 5-year-old agreed to letting me remove her lone training wheel. She was so close to riding independently when the sky darkened and the rain came. Two days later, she came running down her front yard screaming, “Miss Silvia, Miss, Silvia! I can ride my bike!” Such pride!
Then there was another mom that I’d offered to teach how to ride, but she always said no. But then she started sneaking admiring glances at Shahreen’s progress. Her resistance wore down as I organized an outing to Bike Exchange for a couple of other moms interested in bikes. Her husband picked out a Zagster like Shahreen’s, and the next day I saw her riding her new bike with her two daughters. It turns out she knew how to ride, something she had never admitted, and just lost confidence somewhere along the way.
Riding Is Child’s Play
I later discovered a new way to entertain the neighborhood kids: bike relay races. I’d divide the participants into two teams—one day we had as many as 12—and explain the rules. There were no handoffs and no need to turn around; they’d just cross a line, and then their teammate would go. Back and forth they went, kids ranging from 5 to 13, many of whom rarely played together before this.
My neighborhood is small, just three streets forming a U and a fourth that creates a triangle with two of them. Most kids are only allowed to ride their bikes in the street on that small loop. The two ends of the U connect to a busier street, Cranbury Road, with no shoulder. To boot, the sidewalk peters out just outside the neighborhood, so there’s no kid-friendly access to the 2.5-mile Trolley Line Trail, only a mile away.
But traffic on Cranbury Road is down thanks to COVID-19, so Shahreen and I tested it out early one Sunday morning, and that led to other test rides to parks and schools.
Some have ventured even further. On a Sunday morning, the two new mom riders, their daughters and I headed out on what became an 8-mile ride of the entire Trolley Line Trail and beyond. Zariya needed plenty of water breaks but pulled it off. “The best ride ever!” Zeba proclaimed. Now they’re old hands at it.
Free and Fearless
School here has been on a hybrid system since March 2020, and now the kids get a “screen-free” afternoon once a week. On a summer-like day in early spring, I offered to take kids down the Trolley Line Trail. One mom dropped off her kindergartner—and this little girl was not going to accept that she couldn’t come. I gulped. On that road? The whole trail? Six miles total? OK, but then follow directions—and no crying. The lesson I learned: Never underestimate little kids, especially when there are some older ones they want to impress.
Then there was the evening I took an 8th grader and her 5th-grade sister along on an errand. We biked past the trail entrance, followed the bike lane and then continued through a residential neighborhood to McCaffrey’s, a local supermarket. I think it’s the first time either of them had been out of our neighborhood without being in a car or school bus. “This is so cool,” the 5th grader kept saying. After that, whenever we’d discuss whether to bike around the block or gather kids for a bike relay race, she would slyly say, “We could go to McCaffrey’s.”
But I am most impressed with Shahreen, who has gone from fearful to (almost) fearless. She talks of that feeling of freedom, the extra energy after a bike ride. And she keeps asking whether we can get somewhere by bike. The big goal: biking to work once we are back in the office. I’m so proud to have supported her in her biking journey.