By MATT FLEGENHEIMER
Published: August 10, 2012
The secret can be traced to a few tottering rides in Lower Manhattan, with a father and his boy and the afternoons that eventually dissolved their patience.
It survived puberty and high school, first loves and first jobs. It crossed state lines to Pennsylvania, for college, and returned to New York City without incident, until this year.
“Hey,” one boss said to another after my ill-advised confession. “Did you know our transportation reporter can’t ride a bike?”
He knew then, of course, and now you do, too. I cannot ride a bike.
For years, this has been a source of slight embarrassment. Over the last several weeks, as I began covering the city’s transportation system full time, it has become a career issue.
I needed to understand what has become perhaps the city’s most polarizing transportation topic: how a bike-share program, which was scheduled to begin in July before being delayed, might transform the city’s transit system; how Broadway, that emblem of congestion, had morphed into a two-wheel haven; how even the platform of the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the calm of the harbor, had become ground zero for a clash between camera-toting sightseers and whirring commuters who curse liberally from their seats.
The city of my youth, not so long ago, cast the bicycle as neither a moral symbol of environmentalism and fitness, nor the manifestation of roadway anarchy. It was just another way to get around.
But after childhood false starts, adolescent indifference and a lengthy effort to conceal my deficiency as an adult, the time had come for me to catch up, and not just because the phrase “like riding a bike” had long struck me as a cruel dig.
The quest began on Saturday, with an adult education class offered by Bike New York, the city’s education partner for the bike-share program. My family was dubious. My parents’ efforts had failed after all, though they had done their part, buying me my own bike as a child and giving me lessons on the esplanade in Battery Park City. I never saw the point. I could already walk to the park from our apartment. As a last resort, teaching was later outsourced to a friend’s father, who failed at least as miserably.
“You know I love you and think you’re great,” my mother said in a recent interview. “You never really did well with the turning.”
My indignity is not unique, of course, though it is not far off. According to a federal survey conducted in 2002, 3 percent of Americans 16 or older who did not use bicycles said they abstained because they did not know how to ride.
The class on Saturday was held on East 25th Street, on a block that had been closed to traffic for the morning beside Madison Square Park. My dreams of attending a children’s class, à la Kramer in karate training on “Seinfeld” — “We’re all at the same skill level, Jerry!” — would go unrealized; Bike New York offers separate sessions for children. But I did stick out in another way: I was the only man in a group of about 15.
At first, this, too, appeared to be a disadvantage. As we gathered to affix name tags to our shirts, our instructor, Lance Jacobs, said riding might be easier for those who ski, dance or do yoga. Several classmates smiled.
I do none of these things, and it is perhaps worth noting at this moment of driver-cyclist acrimony in our city that I have also never owned a car — a symptom of a life lived only in northeastern cities.
After matching us with helmets and bikes, Mr. Jacobs directed us to walk the bikes in a small circle. I completed this task expertly. In the distance, a girl no older than 8 zipped toward Park Avenue, sans training wheels, with blue streamers hanging off her handlebars. She grinned tauntingly through her baby teeth.
“How was that?” Mr. Jacobs asked the group as we returned. “Was that fun?” It was then that I noticed my bike had no pedals. These would be earned later, Mr. Jacobs said, once we proved we could sit astride the bike and balance ourselves while pushing off the ground with our feet. I enjoyed brief success at this, too, enough so that as I passed an older classmate, she huffed that I was “like, already riding.” She would have her revenge. She had not yet seen me turn.
Some background: In May, I covered the city’s announcement of its sponsor for the bike-share program. Some sample bikes were on display at the event, and when the news conference ended, a few television reporters pedaled around City Hall Plaza for their taped segments.
It was here that I first met Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner. She insisted that I take a quick ride, too.
I thanked her, but said I had to complete some interviews. It would only take a minute, she said. I countered that I was holding a bulky laptop in my bag — not my strongest excuse, in hindsight. She lifted the bag off my shoulder.
I slid uncomfortably onto the bike, setting a simple goal for myself as cameramen and reporters began to pay closer attention: make the thing go forward.
This I did, for a wobbly 20 feet or so, before deciding, in a fit of hubris, that I was nimble enough to complete a turn. I leaned sharply. This is apparently not advisable. The bike gave out beneath me, thoroughly enough that I began to see City Hall on an incline. I stepped off, catching the bike before it hit the ground. Cameramen chuckled. I walked the vehicle back, and Ms. Sadik-Khan handed me my bag. Mercifully, she did not say a word.
I regret only one decision from that day: recounting the episode for an editor when I arrived at the office.
Which returns us to a side street outside Madison Square Park. With about 45 minutes left in the two-hour class, I earned my first pedal. Most classmates had already earned both. An hour earlier, in happier times, I had wondered if I was overqualified for the course.
“Yeah,” Mr. Jacobs told me later, as I teetered to the left, “this is the right class for you.”
I would rally, slightly. As it turns out, it is easier to balance with two pedals than one. I began to ride from one end of the block to the other, successfully turning about two-thirds of the time.
After the class, Mr. Jacobs congratulated me on my progress. I would return to future classes, I told him, but could not resist asking already: Was I allowed to tell people I knew how to ride a bike?
“You had one lesson,” he said.
I promised to take more.
“I wouldn’t send you out on the streets,” he said.
Nor would I dare send myself yet.
But if someone asked, I pressed, could I credibly say I knew how to ride?
Mercifully, he did not say a word.