In the beginning, I rode a tricycle, my gateway bike.
I grew into a confident, fearless bicyclist who rode my blue Schwinn all over downtown Redding.
I rode on sidewalks. I rode in gutters. I rode through creeks and culverts. I sped through cross walks and vacant lots. I raced down East Street on the way to Cypress School.
I do not remember cars, or even an awareness of traffic. I do remember the joy of wind in my hair, and the unbridled exhilaration of riding as fast as my feet would pedal, with zero thoughts of danger.
It was just me and my Schwinn, full speed ahead without a care in the world.
In retrospect, I think I must have had a burly angel poised on each side of the handlebar, which is why I’m here to write about it.
The speed, and wind in my hair, those were the things I mentioned on the first day of spring as I sat in a circle of women there for our first Women on Wheels class inside the Caldwell Recreation Center, better known to many as the former Redding Museum of Art and History.
That first night I cursed as I approached the Caldwell Recreation Center and realized the class would be held inside the old Redding Museum of Art and History. Crap! Not THIS place!
This was where I’d met husband No 2. This was a place filled with vivid memories and major baggage-triggers about how our “perfect” relationship had ignited and crashed and burned beyond recognition, despite flaming red flags I’d ignored, starting with our first meetings in that very building some 18 years ago.
For all those reasons, for me this was the perfect place for this Women on Wheels class.
That first WOW encounter inside the Caldwell Recreation Center, when we went around the circle and talked, felt a bit like an AA meeting.
Hi. My name is Doni. I am a business-owner, journalist and online publisher. I teach cooking. I have not just survived but thrived, despite some life-quaking personal setbacks and heartbreaks. I am comfortable standing and speaking before hundreds of people. I have done overhead welding and caught my hair on fire with falling sparks. I use a blow torch to make creme brulee. Hate mail doesn’t scare me. I eat my steak cold-in-the-middle rare. I sometimes sleep with my windows open. I baked more in one Mother’s Day weekend than some people will bake in a lifetime. But I’m terrified of riding a bike in traffic.
Thought it. Didn’t say it.
I felt off my game that whole night. It didn’t help that as I looked at the instructors, decked out in trendy bike attire beside their beautiful, well-oiled bikes adorned with cool accessories and special storage, I felt embarrassed that I’d lugged along my huge yellow purse, and that I’d worn jeans, so the cuffs had to be rolled up later to keep from getting caught in the spokes.
I felt self-conscious about my sad old bike (bought at an elderly neighbor’s yard sale for $10 a few years ago) that had rusty spokes, soft tires and was covered in spider webs and dust. It had a basket on the front (thank God, a place to keep my purse) and a rusty bell that had a bad habit of dinging spontaneously with the slightest jiggle, even as I walked my bike up to the Caldwell Recreation Center. Dinga, dinga, dinga, dinga ding.
Actually, even getting my bike to class was a bit of a miracle, because I later learned that I had not secured it properly to my new bike rack, or, for that matter, properly attached my bike rack to the car, either. In fact, as I drove there that night, I kept looking in the rear view mirror as I watched in horror as my bike’s wheels spun madly and my bike settled lower and lower out of my view.
But as I listened to other women around the room, I felt relieved to realize I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one who’d brought a sorry-looking bike that needed immediate medical attention. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t ridden a bike in earnest since childhood.
Best of all, I wasn’t the only one who’d taken the bait to take the class, offered by Redding Parks and Recreation for a bike do-over, just for women, taught by women, all American League of Bicyclists Certified Instructors.
Even so, instructors Sherrie Brookes, Amy Pendergast, Sara Sundquist and Abby Webb had their work cut out for them.
Their task: to teach us women about bicycling and help us gain the skills to ride comfortably and confidently. Even in traffic. By the end of the four-week course we would know everything from how to change a flat tire to how to safely navigate an intersection.
During the first class the instructors spent a lot of time getting some of our bikes in working order before we rode in two groups from the Caldwell Recreation Center to the Sundial Bridge. We did a few drills first, things like braking and turning, so the teachers could see what they were up against.
I’m fairly certain I’d been identified as a potential special-needs student, the way any student knows when she’s not making the grade.
Our ride to the Sundial Bridge and back was a huge deal for me. I was probably a bit too enthusiastic in my bell-ringing and “ON YOUR LEFT!” announcements, partly because I was scared, and partly because I was so damn proud and happy.
Look at me! It’s Doni! I’m riding a bike!
I almost burst into tears in one section where there was a slight decline, which caused a small increase in speed. The wind blew into my face as my bike’s bell chimed to beat the band.
It was pure joy.
But not all joy. I couldn’t figure out the gears, which made the inclines difficult. So at one point I got off my bike and walked, rather than fall off my bike at a standstill, which made me feel stupid, because we’re not talking a major hill, just a tiny incline.
By the second class I noticed that some of the women from the first class had not returned. As I recalled, these were women who’d arrived wearing the “right” clothes, and had fully-functioning bikes, and sped by me on the river trail. Clearly, they didn’t need this class.
This time I’d secured my bike and rack properly to the car. I’d worn jeans, but had little clamps to hold them tightly against my ankles. I brought a light jacket because it was starting to sprinkle. I brought a travel purse for my basket.
The sky looked dark and ominous as our instructors announced that we’d be breaking into two groups for a ride onto streets.
The group broke up into those willing to ride downtown (NO WAY!) and those who preferred to ride in the neighborhood near the park. While I did not prefer going on any streets, the second choice was better than riding downtown.
Our instructors flanked our group, like pairs of protective mother ducks at the front and back, with us baby-duck bicyclists safely in the middle. Sherrie Brookes was at the head of our group, shouting instructions over her shoulder, reminding us to look over our shoulders, too, and to signal (who remembers how to signal on a bike?).
Brookes was a pedal-powered force of strength and confidence. As she led our group away from the “safety” of the skimpy bike lane and toward the center turn lane, she bellowed, when there was a break in the traffic, “TAKE THE LANE” … meaning not the bike lane, but the vehicle lane. I was right behind her, and I followed her instructions. My heart was in my ears, pounding, but not loudly enough to drown out the words screaming inside my head: SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!
I cuss when I’m nervous.
Finally, we rode into the relative safety of the neighborhood near the Elks Club, but as I heard a car behind us, I panicked and tried to pull over as close to the curb as possible. My tires hit one of those storm drains and stopped the bike, but I kept going. I fell onto the sidewalk.
My bike sisters huddled around, and asked if I was OK. I was scraped (and later had some impressive bruises) and sore, but nothing was broken.
The women cheered. Someone congratulated me on getting my “first fall” over with. Yahoo! High fives!
What strange people, these bicyclist women.
By the next class I’d ditched the purse and had bought a little satchel thingy to strap to the bike (so many bike accessories!). A friend who can no longer ride bikes gave me hers, in exchange for my catering a lunch for her and her friends. I bought a new bell that only rang on command.
Another cloudy night. Again, two groups. Group 1 and two instructors would go into traffic that included hills (no, thank you). Group 2 would do more traffic practice, including Benton, with narrow lanes. Again, if I’d had my druthers, I’d have said no to that one, too.
Not an option.
Again, Brookes led our group (I think she may have drawn the short straw). Again with the “TAKE THE LANE!” business. She later said she loves riding in traffic. She even gets a thrill out of it.
I’m not there yet.
But I can ride in traffic. And I am not afraid. (Very much.)
And I’ve even taken my grandson bike riding with me, around the track at Sequoia School when it’s not in session. He’s only 3. When he’s older I’ll take him in traffic, and teach him how to take the lane.
Really, there’s nothing to it.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.