Look ma, no hands!

#bikes #life

Have you ever tried taking your hands off the handlebars while riding your bike? Scary, innit? The bars start wobbling all over the place, and images of the front wheel suddenly becoming perpendicular to the rest of the bike–followed immediately by you making like the payload of a catapult–start flashing through your mind in great big neon lights.

A couple of years ago I resolved to learn this skill for myself. I kept seeing people around town or on tours, looking all fancy and cool as they zipped around with no hands, and I wanted to do it too1. I was afraid it was something you had to learn as a child growing up, but (as I keep repeating in every post it seems) “what one man can do, another can do”, so I would either learn or crash trying (or maybe both).

I won’t bore you with the mechanical details of learning to ride with no hands, because the Internet is already full of those. What I do want to tell you about is the mental process of learning, because as I started doing it more and more, I had the weirdest realization: I already knew how to do it. The knowledge was already there, it just had to be brought to the light.

You see, when you learn to ride a bike normally, you learn to do it without hands as well, you’re just not aware of it. If you’ve ever seen a bike or motorbike abandon its rider to go off into the sunset by itself, you already know that two-wheeled vehicles want to stay upright, and that the faster they go, the more stable they are. The physics behind the phenomenon is terribly complicated and beyond my understanding, but the takeaway is this: user input on the handlebars is far less important for balancing the bike than you think. Balance (and the majority of the steering!) is achieved by subtly leaning your body left and right, and by letting the forces that are acting on the bike do their thing to keep it upright2.

This is fascinating to me, because it means that, unlike learning any other skill, which is a process of addition (of new knowledge, muscle memory, etc.) learning to ride with no hands is a process of subtraction, and the thing you subtract is fear. Once I was able to relax and stop overthinking it, it suddenly became possible. It’s like a switch being flipped, and it weirdly feels like unlocking a skill in a video game.

The flip side of this is that I have more trouble with it on days when I’m more stressed out. The skill is still there, buried just under the surface, but I can’t access it. My conscious mind can’t quiet down enough to let the lizard brain take over, and the moment I let go of the handlebars, it starts trying to correct the balance, it overcorrects, then it tries to correct the overcorrection, and so on until I have no choice but to grab the bars. This happens less and less the more I do it because confidence accumulates with repetition, but I still find it interesting how closely connected to my current state of mind the skill is.

Now, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to read some deeper meaning into it, or if I didn’t try to extract some lesson about life from it, but the truth is that overthinking can be a debilitating problem in all kinds of sports, and something I struggled with myself in archery and life in general. Learning to let go and allow the subconscious and muscle memory to take the reins can be hard, and once you fail to do it a couple of times, you risk going down a negative spiral that can be incredibly hard to climb out of. This self-reinforcing spiral is how most anxieties feed themselves, so I’ve found that having a mental pattern to fall back on can be very useful. Letting go of the handlebars is a liberating experience, and recalling and reproducing that liberating serenity when confronted with other fears can help.

I’ll leave you with this, although it shouldn’t need saying: if you do decide to ride with no hands, you should obviously not be an asshole about it. Don’t do it when there are others around you, and don’t do it around moving cars. Even if you have 100% trust in your abilities, you shouldn’t give others reason to fear or worry. Don’t ever put yourself in a position where a mistake on your part might hurt anyone other than yourself, or where you can’t do anything to avoid a mistake somebody else already made.

And now, I wonder how hard riding a unicycle is. Hmm…

  1. Though really I’m only joking about the coolness factor. Riding with no hands is quite useful on long trips to give your hands some rest, move them around to keep the blood flowing, straighten your back, etc. It’s nothing that you couldn’t just stop for a couple of minutes for, but it’s nice to know you can do it if you want to. ↩︎

  2. Incidentally, it’s also why children should not learn to ride with trainer wheels. ↩︎

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