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The Ride of Her Life

Have you ever done something you were sure you’d never do? For 2011 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Dorothy Fortenberry, that moment came when she faced down her worst childhood fears and, at long last, started pedaling.

By Dorothy Fortenberry
A man and a woman biking in the countryside Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Plenty of people tried to instruct me: family friends, uncles, pretty much any middle-aged man in the vicinity when my ignorance became evident. But I declined. I was afraid of falling and afraid of looking stupid, and besides, I wasn’t that easily fooled. Teaching me to ride a bike was my dad’s job—various sitcoms, movies, and bank commercials affirmed this—and, sorry, well-meaning family friends and uncles and random middle-aged men, you weren’t my dad.

Once I was in high school, the whole thing mattered less. Communal bike outings waned, and I was rarely excluded from group events because I didn’t know how to ride. I was still excluded, mind you, but more for reasons like being a giant nerd, joining an after-school Wiccan club, or bangs.

None of this changed—until I was 19 and sitting in a courtyard in Avignon, France, and watching my hand go up as if by its own volition in response to a question that began, “Si vous voulez une bicyclette…” I had gone there to study French between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I knew enough to understand what the nice lady was saying: Anyone who lived outside the city walls could borrow a bike for the summer to minimize the trek to campus. Did I want one? (Did I…what?)

To be clear, I didn’t raise my hand because I had suddenly become brave or tough. No, I simply hurt. I was suffering from extreme pain in my knees that year. The official name of the condition was chondromalacia patella, but what mattered to me was that my knees ached so badly that I couldn’t walk up stairs without weeping. The only thing the orthopedist said would help? Riding a bicycle. (The unpredictability of the universe, part II. Special heading: Irony.)

Here are some vocabulary words I learned in French that summer. No. 1: crème antiseptique, antibacterial ointment. No. 2: pansement, bandage. No. 3: genou, knee. I also got really good at an arm-waving, head-shaking gesture that translated as “I’m fine. No, really, please ignore the tears on my dirt-streaked face and the gravel embedded in my leg. I am totally peachy and do not need you or your moped, and I will be hopping back on this bicyclette any second now.” Then I would look down at the bandaged lumps in the middle of my legs and think grimly of how I had started teaching myself to ride a bike solely to reduce wear and tear on my knees. Irony indeed.

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