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When Riding a Bike isn't "Like Riding a Bike"

As familiar idioms go, “like riding a bike” is so universal and randomly ascribed that its value can

be easily ignored. Think you can still back a boat trailer into a narrow parking space? Do you

still know all the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? Can you presently deploy the Spanish you

learned in high school when you find yourself haggling with a street artist in Barcelona? To

varying degrees, any of these could be passed off as “like riding a bike,” yet are pretty difficult

when actually put to practical use.

On the surface, it probably doesn’t seem all that problematic that the phrase is so recklessly

tossed about to represent any skill that, once learned, becomes second-nature. After all, not

every person can whistle or swim or juggle, but literally every human learns to ride a bike at one

point or another. It’s something we all can do until, of course, we’re no longer physically able.

Such was the case with my late grandfather. Shortly after his ninetieth birthday, my Grandpa

Gordon had his driving privileges unceremoniously revoked; the unholy combination of cataracts

and a hilariously failed driving test put a nick-of-time conclusion to his career behind the wheel,

leading to a particularly inspired request of his willing grandson.

“Tyler, I think it’s time that I buy a bicycle.”

And so kicked off the hunt for a new bike for my dear granddad, who could barely grip a pencil, yet was determined to continue his career as a mobile citizen of the planet on a two-wheel that would certainly hasten his looming death. Being totally honest, it felt like I was enabling something that was patently wrong, but talking sense to a strong-willed geriatric is a fool’s errand; instead, I just counted on the various workers at our local sporting goods stores to do the lord’s work for me.

At each stop, the response from the put-upon employee was similarly skeptical: “So, you’re

planning what, exactly? You need a bike for a nearly blind man, who will almost certainly hurt

himself or others?” They weren’t wrong, of course, since buying a ninety-year-old man a bike is

like sending a monkey into space.

On the drive home from the various stores, and with no bike in the cargo hold, a seventeen-

year-old grandson tried to break it gently to his disappointed grandpa. It’s over, man. It’s hard to

accept, and we’ll get through it together, but you’re a passenger now.

For each of us, if we’re fortunate to live long enough, our bodies will fail us in ways that seemed

impossible to our younger, invincible selves. The joints will get creaky, the bruises might come

more frequently, and a routine bike ride can lay a man up for days. The most general, all-

encompassing phrase -- “It’s like riding a bike” -- eventually becomes untrue.

After breaking the news to him, I made it my personal mission to treat Grandpa Gordon to one

last ride, no matter the foolhardy stakes. I took my mom’s bike, dropped the seat to an embarrassingly low level, and mapped a route where the only resistance we’d see was an occasional sprinkler head or rogue jump-roper. I’d ride along behind, doing my best to make sure that our brief trip didn’t end at the pearly gates.

As we prepared to leave, and as I explained the circumstances of our ride to Grandpa Gordon,

he broke in with a quick question: “You’re going to teach me, right?”

“What do you mean, teach you?” I asked.

“Tyler, you’re going to have to tell me what to do. I never learned to ride a bike.”

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