Sometimes I like to see myself as a “serious” bike rider. I ride in the rain and cold, maneuver adeptly in urban traffic, and participate in the occasional brevet. That’s right, people. Serious.
Another part of bicycling that I take seriously is riding no-handed. Ironically, riding no-hands evokes images that to me are far from serious. Rather, it’s joy riding that takes me back to the days of pedaling around my hometown in the rural Midwest.
When my middle sister and I learned to ride bikes, our radiuses expanded from a few blocks to as far as our legs and two wheels would take us. We rode pretty small bikes and had equally small legs so we didn’t go far, but they certainly got us from one end of town to the other– an entire half-mile!
Initially, that half-mile was quite an accomplishment. “Look at us go,” we thought. “We’re something now.” Little kids no more, our bikes graduated us to regular kid status.
However, you can only ride around a town that size for so long until it loses its thrill. In need of a new challenge, we set our sights on learning to ride no-handed. My bike, a sparkly purple steed with the name “Gypsy” painted on the chainguard, rode great no-handed.
Middle Gersemalina, on the other hand wasn’t so lucky. Her emerald green Schwinn Spyder with yellow grips was impossible to ride without at least one hand on the bars.
We couldn’t figure out why. I was certain it was because she was riding too tentatively. “If you just rode faster, Middle Gersemalina, you could do it. Here. Let me show you.”
I hopped on her Schwinn, pedaled as vigorously as I could, built up speed, and let loose of the handlebar grips. My theory proved incorrect and I immediately careened into a ditch. Wham. The no-handed project was put on hold.
Eventually, my sister and I upgraded to 10-speed Raleighs and resumed our no-handed efforts. Those bikes had no troubles balancing and we gradually built up our skills until we could do no-handed laps around town. We thought it a huge cycling accomplishment to ride from home to the other end of town and back, make a few turns along the way, and not touch the bars AT ALL.
After I went into the upper grades of high school, other activities took precedent and I lost those finely tuned bike-handling skills. It wasn’t until I had been riding again as an adult and evolved into this serious cyclist I noted above that I committed to relearning to ride no-handed.
I made Hains Point, a well-known 3.2-mile loop in Southwest D.C. my practicing ground. At first, it wasn’t easy. I’d lift my hands off the bars and the bike would veer to the left. Or to the right. Dang. This no-handed thing doesn’t come back right away.
I doggedly kept at it. I centered my body on the saddle and convinced myself to pedal fast enough to take any wobble out of the front wheel and handlebars. I gently lifted my hands off of the hoods, lifting my upper body to then use my hips to steer the bike.
Eventually, the feel for riding hands-free returned. The bike veering diminished and, with new confidence I then honed my no-hands skills while also having a pannier attached to the bike. After figuring that out, I taught myself the art of the danger panda, one of the sillier photos a person can take while riding his or her bicycle.
I watched other hot shots (like Felkerino) take off their jackets and stuff them into their jersey pockets, all the while going hands-free. Envious, I took to practicing that skill on pre-work laps around Hains Point. I can now remove my arm warmers while riding no-handed with confidence. The jacket? Well, I can do it, but I’m still practicing. I work best with a straight road and a gentle tailwind.
Relearning the skill of riding no-handed brought a joy to bicycling that I hadn’t felt for a while. Riding hands-free is a somewhat serious skill to master that also takes a bit of courage, but whenever I do it I’m reminded of the fun times spent growing up with my sisters in my little town, and how we could pedal from one end of it to the other without even brushing the bars with our fingers.