Confidence on wheels: Brooklyn’s bike classes for grown-ups

This story ran on June 3, 2019 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

The instructor spoke in choppy sentences that made little sense out of context.

“Two feet. Two feet. Going forward. Stronger. Pushing that forward. Back.”

But John LaPolla’s words worked the way a snake charmer’s might on a group of 20 adults in McCarren Park wearing bright green helmets, awkwardly teetering atop bicycles.

“Eyes forward. Don’t look down,” he said to a large man sitting astride a much smaller bike. The man stopped wobbling and streamlined forward.

LaPolla teaches an adult cycling class to those New Yorkers for whom the hackneyed phrase “it’s like riding a bike” does not apply. This Sunday class, hosted in northern Brooklyn, is one of a series put on by Bike New York, a nonprofit aimed at broadening the city’s network of cyclists.

People of all ages and sizes biked wobbly laps on a closed street. Some were completely new to bike riding. Others were trying to recover from past trauma.

LaPolla, shown demonstrating how to properly wear a helmet, has been a bike instructor for x years. Eagle photo by Rachel Rippetoe
John LaPolla, shown demonstrating how to properly wear a helmet, has been a bike instructor since 2015. Eagle photo by Rachel Rippetoe

The rules of riding are simple, LaPolla said. Make sure the bike is moving before you pedal. Always look forward. When you turn, less is more. Have confidence.

The last is the hardest for most. Danna Cohen, 35, took the class after a bad fall kept her off a bike for years. Cohen, who learned to ride in her 20s in her hometown of Tel Aviv, didn’t break any bones. But the shock from the accident stayed with her.

“It’s a phobia,” she said. “It’s a mental block.”

So on Sunday, she said to herself, “I have to do it.”

Cohen, like most of her fellow riders, started on her feet. She straddled a red bike that stood no more than two feet off the ground, dug her soles into the pavement and pushed back. After gliding for a few seconds, her feet kissed the ground and she came to a shaky stop.

“I kept telling myself, ‘You did it before. Just do it. Just take your feet off the ground,’’’ Cohen said.

The classes, hosted by Bike New York, are free. Eagle photo by Rachel Rippetoe
The classes, hosted by Bike New York, are free. Eagle photo by Rachel Rippetoe

It had barely reached noon when more than half the group began pedaling. For Teona Lazashvili, 27, it was the first time.

When her family immigrated to Manhattan from the country of Georgia, Lazashvili said her parents deemed the city landscape too dangerous to learn how to ride.

It only took her a few laps to get it right.

“Once you have the pedals and you start gliding, it’s the most freeing experience,” Lazashvili said.

Only two people fell. One scraped her knee. Almost everyone was smiling in the end, even the few who didn’t get to pedal.

“You don’t want to let anyone walk away and say, ‘I didn’t get it,’” LaPolla said. “There is no fail here.”

Cohen said she plans to return. She’s hoping to one day feel comfortable riding on her own, maybe even on Brooklyn streets.

“It’s something in your mind,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t know how to do it, I’m just afraid. But not anymore.”

The free classes are funded with the revenue from Bike New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour and other events. The next class in McCarren Park is on Sunday, June 9 at 11 a.m. There are several classes in other boroughs and one in Linden Park listed on Bike New York’s website.

Rachel Rippetoe is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She regularly covers housing and gentrification and also writes features. You can follow her work on Twitter

 

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