For three years I lived in the beautiful city of Oxford as a student, where the vast majority of students travel around on bicycles. Unlike where I live in Yorkshire, Oxford is relatively flat and caters for its many cyclists with cycle lanes; the cycling rate in Oxford is triple the UK average, with 36.6% of people in Oxford cycling at least once a week.
There was just one problem. I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. This skill, usually acquired by children before they leave primary school, had completely passed me by (which is actually a polite way of saying I had lacked the determination and desire to learn.) I had had a bicycle with stabiliser wheels as a child, but had never graduated to riding solo without them and had managed quite adequately in Yorkshire without a bike.
For the first year I lived in Oxford, I was based in a college that was at a walking distance from anywhere I needed to go and so I walked everywhere. But in my second year, I would live out in rented accommodation, which was further from the city centre, and unless I wanted to spend money on bus fares (which I didn’t have) or spend most of my time walking long distances, I needed to get cycling. So, in the summer holidays before my second year started, I had the unenviable task of learning to ride a bicycle at the age of eighteen.
The principles of learning to balance well enough to ride a bike were exactly the same at 18 as they were at 5 or 6, so what was the difference for me? Fundamentally, the difference was motivation. I now had a reason to learn this skill, whereas before, the indignity of falling over regularly as I learned had seemed greater than the pleasure of independent riding.
My Dad took me to the local park (just as he had done when I was a child) and we started the process again. This time, there were no stabiliser wheels to lull me into a false sense of security. This time, it was just me and the bike.
I can’t remember how long it took, but I learned to ride a bicycle. I learned to balance and pedal. I returned to Oxford and rode on the streets filled with traffic there just like any other student.
Learning to ride a bicycle is considered one of those life skills which (like swimming) is fundamentally important. Both these skills must be learned; they are not natural or instinctive. Some people grasp them more easily than others, but all of us learn to do these things through trial and error. All of us have to overcome fear to do so – the fear of falling, the fear of drowning.
These skills, once learned, become part of us. No matter how long we go between doing these things, when we return to them, we don’t have to re-learn from scratch. We remember how to do them, to the extent that ‘it’s like riding a bike’ has become an idiom for saying that once you learn something this fundamental, you never forget.
In the Christian life, there is much we have to learn by trial and error. A life of faith is not without its falls and trips. We can land on our faces, spattered with mud, just as we do when we first learn to ride a bicycle, and at that point, we have two choices. We can either get up again with God’s help, learn from our mistakes, ask forgiveness when we have sinned and be transformed by the incidents… or we can give up, as I did as a child, preferring the false security of stabilisers rather than the freedom that comes from a learned skill and the freedom that comes from faith.
Paul says that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Rom 5:3-5) After a fall, cyclists are urged to ‘get back on the bike‘ and start again. We need to be the same in faith, not allowing suffering and sorrow to be the defining framework of life, but allowing the grace, hope and love of God to define who we are and how we live. Get back in the saddle and get riding!