On a bicycle I’m a human being


It is a very odd thing, but psychologically important, that you feel different in different circumstances, depending on how you see yourself and society sees you.

It’s probably built into the brain we have that is evolved from millenia of those who survived to pass on their genes: we automatically evaluate those we see for signs of weakness, even when we don’t plan to eat them.

Where is this going?

On a bicycle you can’t tell that I’m disabled. That I can’t walk properly, or for more than a few steps without a walker. I just look like a woman out for a bike ride.

I know many people who can‘t ride a bike because their knees won’t let them, or because their balance is challenged, or because they can’t sit on one for very long due to many problems.

In some sense, I’m better than them.

We judge automatically, instinctively, and if we’re not careful, permanently.

On a bicycle I’m a normal human being.

Not something which botched back surgery back in 2007 has condemned to pain every time I stand for more than a few seconds, and who can’t push off on a stride, but only swing legs from the hip.

Why am I thinking about riding a bike?

Because I have had a major crisis of self-confidence this year, earlier, what with the chest pain and the stents, and the recovery.

And a couple of weeks ago, I got the bike out, did the ritual (helmet, cellphone in the bag under the seat, make sure the hair doesn’t get in my eyes, clip on the pants leg…) and scared myself even though I managed to go out for a spin around the neighborhood.

Forgot my bike gloves, which I later regretted, as my palms were definitely tingly by the time I got back.

First time this year. First time since the approaching winter made it too cold last year. First time since the horrible viruses of November which lasted for three months. First time since I was last myself… You get the idea.

Getting on the bike was NECESSARY to prove to myself I was still myself.

And it failed – in the sense that I felt shaky and uncertain and scared. Because I knew that I was afraid to stop if I had to, because the side effects seem to have emphasized that I’m vertically challenged. Because one of the young college undergraduates in our choir was wearing a cast because she fell off her bike. Because a friend who has CFS fell and broke his foot.

For any number of reasons, that first bike ride didn’t make me feel ‘normal.’ Even my normal, which is a lot smaller than many people’s ‘normal,’ but better than the normal of my friends who are bedridden. I wasn’t back to just hopping on a bike and going for a spin, even the short ones I take.


Well, giving up riding a bike seemed premature (though if you’d felt as unstable on that bike as I did, you’d be seriously considering it).

Buying a new bike? This bike I have is ancient, and rusted, and in need of serious maintenance. A recumbent bike? Or a nice, stable tricycle-for-grownups?

We are looking for a retirement community, and a move to another state is a possibility, and I’m trying not to acquire more stuff now or make permanent decisions about things like this until we are settled.

So, don’t ride the rest of the time we’re in suburban NJ?

The odd physicist’s solution

Or should I say, the physicist’s odd solution? Because it involves physics of stability.

Bicycles are stable, more or less, IN MOTION. 2-D stability, as it were. That’s why they have the kickstand. In motion, they have that gyroscopic effect that they resist falling in the direction perpendicular to their motion. Ie, sideways.

Tricycles have proper 3-D stability. Because there’s something in the perpendicular direction that keeps them from falling over, with or without you on them, whether they’re in motion or not.

Training wheels achieve this effect when you’re learning to ride.

We’re thinking constantly about all the stuff in our house and garage, because a 4 bedroom house with basement and garage has a lot more areas to stuff stuff than a 2 bedroom apartment in a retirement community, which is what we’re aiming at.

One of the things stored in our garage for AGES was a bright yellow cart meant for pulling two small children behind your bike. And that’s what my brain kicked out: stability. A cart intended for small children was designed to be inherently stable: the bike + cart has to be stable while you’re putting those little ones in the back and fastening the seatbelt. Fairly heavy duty for its job: those are your kidlets, and they are small and precious. And HIGHLY visible. With its own reflectors, even.

This time I didn’t fail

Almost didn’t get it attached – that was work. And the attachment mechanism has a plastic pin which went through the snap lock around the bike’s pole – which was maybe not as flexible as it was twenty years ago (plastic seems an odd choice, but that’s what it was). I couldn’t get it through the hole.

So I went and found a nice solid metal bolt of the right diameter, with a nice nut, and have attached this sucker pretty permanently to my bike. It can be removed, but I’m not planning to.


I put the helmet – and gloves – and bike clip on, stored the cellphone in the little bag, and found that my combination made it much easier for an unstable old rider to get started.

It may have been a placebo effect; or partly psychological (that self-confidence which had decided it found a solution). But I didn’t care. I was up and going, only a little shaky.

I put it to the test on our court: I tried stopping – it felt more stable, not as it had the last time, because I could trust the bike not to fall over, so I could afford to lean on it a bit. It was easy getting started again – I didn’t have to be on a safe place, like our driveway. I was just a woman on a bicycle, stopped. Phew!

All I needed was to not worry about killing myself or damaging something.

I rode around the neighborhood a bit. I stopped to see an old friend I haven’t visited in half a year. She didn’t even think about the cart on the back, but instinctively understood it was more stable.

And I got that little bit of self-confidence up and running: losing the ability to ride a bike was in the same category as when they take your keys away and don’t let you drive any more.

Because, you see, on a bike I’m my normal human being, and you can’t tell how many things I can’t do.

Then I went in and took a nap.


20 thoughts on “On a bicycle I’m a human being

  1. Janna G. Noelle

    Just to be clear, you are always a human being, whether you’re on a bicycle or not. Anyone who denies a person this simply because that person is disabled – and I know there are many out there who do – is a bit deficient in humanity themselves.

    Having gotten that off my chest, I’m happy that you’ve found a way to get back in the saddle, as it were. As you may know, cycling is an important part of my life. I do realize how dangerous it can be, though, having had a fall myself earlier this year. I’m sure you look quite jolie wheeling around with your bright yellow cart. But more importantly, it gave you a sense of stability, and from that came inner security. The wobbliness will disappear with repeated excursions. It really is true what they say about never forgetting. You’re not out of the game yet.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I know that – having been disabled for a very long time – and I also knew SOMEONE would point it out for me, so thank you.

      Whoever we are, we can become pulled in, distressed, depressed, not ourelves – that was the only thing I was refering to: I had become so much less than what I was used to being, and that being was quite disabled already.

      There are people disabled before birth, and ones who seem to fade away without losing any major portions of themselves, or at least not very fast. And all of us are only disabled because society treats us that way.

      This part of myself I wasn’t ready to cede. It was taken from me by the meds which made me unable to drive home safely – and so presaged the loss of driving privileges. The meds which made me even more unsure of my footing and of what my own eyes were seeing, were a foretaste of what it might be to permanently lose those features – as my Dad did before he died, not being able to see properly (he defiantly got through a third of Moby Dick on my sister’s old iPad by blowing the text up BIG. At 91.).

      In the Bible is the story of the woman who lost one of her ten talents (coins), and swept the house until she found it, and rejoiced: that’s where I was going. I am rejoicing that I don’t have to lose these permanently. Not yet.

      Some of it was the fear and lack of self-confidence that has been the result of a lot of this mess, and there the work of recovery is mine, and if I can’t do it alone I will seek help.

      All this bravery aside, it has been very hard, sleep is still erratic, and there are days when I cannot write much. But I can work on the part that is attitude. The other part, I pray about.


  2. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Brilliant! I’m so glad you’ve reclaimed the bike-riding part of yourself!

    Your solution has me thinking. I used to love riding my bike, but I stopped after I fell and broke my foot back in ~2007. I didn’t feel safe anymore. I didn’t resolve to stop. I just…never…got on…the bike…again. But now I’m thinking I just need to get more creative about how to make bike riding safer for me.

    I won’t be doing anything about it right away. I’ve got too many other things on my to-do list. But I am going to move bike riding off of my “not an option list” and back onto my “maybe someday list.” 🙂


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Sorry you hurt your foot. Safe is a feeling – and as such, subject to manipulation, in principle. But hardened athletes break every bone in their body in spectacular bike crashes – and can’t wait to get back on one.

      Of course, the last time I rode a bike (almost as unstably) was last Fall (fall? fall! hmmm) – so it hasn’t been as many years for me as for you. But you can – and do – walk.

      I’m not likely to ever go rock climbing, and I don’t know about dancing (which I used to love).

      Riding a bike is very freeing – especially when you can’t walk very well (which I’m working on – I don’t believe either the physiatrist or the orthopedic surgeon that it’s pointless; they don’t know me).

      I think you have the right idea: how can I make it safer, assuming it’s possible. I have no trouble riding (except I run out of energy), but I worry about the stopping and starting because that’s where I’m unstable. And working on that – I have some ideas!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Have to keep probing at those tender spots.

      Some day I won’t be able to do these things, but I keep telling myself: the stents are supposed to give me better blood flow – and the cardiac rehab is supposed to make me fitter (debatable with CFS, but let’s go with that) – and the mental part is my job to work on.

      I was appalled at how low the depression and the PTS got me, and how easily I accepted some of these things – when I fought so hard to get my brain back. Buck up, Alicia! You’re not quite that old yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. joey

    Gawd, that was a great tale of problem-solving and determination! This is one of those posts that is a lil mental, a lil physical, a lil spiritual. Thank you for such an uplifting read 🙂
    My mother got a tricycle when they moved to Florida, and she enjoys it very much. I personally discourage recumbent bikes, because there are so many visibility-related accidents. It’s like wheelchairs, they need bigger flags, lights, bells, whistles! People just don’t see them as well.
    I’m just so glad you got out and did a thing! 😀


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I did a thing, and I’m FAR more visible pulling a bright yellow trailer meant for little kids – that should protect me! And the stability is lovely.

      Glad you said that about recumbent bikes – you’re absolutely right. People on bikes think that, because they can see the cars, the cars can see them. Ain’t so.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. marianallen

    ~happy dancing~ This is the best news I’ve heard in months! Three rousing cheers: for your trying, for your coming up with a solution using stuff you had, and for your success. !!! You are my hero. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The best part is that all of this is accompanied by WRITING. I have taken quite a hit to my sense of self this year, and I literally couldn’t affod to lose any more.

      Another simple piece was when I took the stepstool that I was using to sit on when taking showers OUT of the bathroom – and went back, a bit shakily, to standing up.

      I know I will deteriorate eventually, but it was all too soon and too much for a procedure which, while life-saving, had a lot more repercussions than I expected.

      I’m fighting back. And sometimes the person I’m fighting is me.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Yes – for a bunch of reasons. And I want to continue to ride a bike – I can move so much better on one. I’m seeing the opportunities in a bike with a cart – easy to carry things you need when you get where you’re going.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. benmcnevis

    I live in disabled housing. A bunch of contractors had been sizing up the renovations, and obviously my neighbours. “You’ll be the one with the bike then” was their response to me.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Will this be a problem for you somehow? Are they being sarcastic?

      Or are they truly wanting to accomodate a disabled person who can ride a bike?

      Being able to ride a bike says nothing about your true state – if you’re disabled, you’re disabled. I can’t ride long – no energy.

      To live in disabled housing, you must satisfy a whole laundry list of people and doctors that you need it.

      Within what you can and want to do, you need to push yourself as hard as you can. Even if it doesn’t improve you in any way, it’s good for your soul.

      Even if it means aggressive resting. Which I do.

      Liked by 1 person


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