My first bicycle was a garish pink contraption my dad had picked off someone’s curb, with colored spoke beads that went “plink, plink, plink” as he wheeled it towards me. “It doesn’t have training wheels,” I said. “I’ll hold you,” he assured me.
I should’ve known better. He wheeled me forward, broke into a run while still grasping the back of my bike, and suddenly let go. “Pedal! Pedal as hard as you can or you’ll fall over!” he shouted.
I frantically pumped my stubby 5-year-old legs, shrieking down the street. Three doors away, I flopped over unceremoniously and sucked in as much oxygen as my lungs would take. Dad ran over, beaming: “Wasn’t that fun?” I scowled at him, but I was hooked.
Over twenty years later, my latest bike is a cheap single-speed from Taobao. My colleague and I had to assemble the front wheel and handlebars ourselves; the latter ended up backwards on the first try. The bike was a demure minty color in the seller’s pictures, but in reality it was closer to puke green – the kind you might find on hospital robes. When I rode it for the first time that night, I overheard some guy declare it was “too green.”
Though “Princess Buttercup” – as the same colleague promptly dubbed her – had more style than substance, it wasn’t long before I fell in love with “her” speed and weightlessness. I went everywhere with her, including far-flung locales like Xiangshan, Wudaokou, and Hegezhuang.
I can’t count the number of times Princess Buttercup has broken down or lost parts – barely any of the original components remain – but I can’t bear to get rid of her. I bought her three years into my time in Beijing, at a time when I’d largely lost interest in exploring the city.
True to character, Princess Buttercup got a flat tire barely an hour into a 50km ride last summer. Luckily, there was a bike repairman just around the corner and I was back on track within 30 minutes. Over the next few hours, I rode around winding mountain roads. A farmer invited me into his house and offered me cigarettes, which I declined – but I did buy a jar of organic honey. At one point, I stopped to let a flock of sheep pass and struck up a conversation with the shepherd, who asked me about the price of milk and livestock in Canada.
I realized on these bike excursions that I enjoy physical activities that bring me closer to nature and my immediate surroundings, like hiking, practicing yoga in the park, running outside, and scuba diving. Living in Beijing allows me to pursue all of these and more. It’s also the city where I first tried Heyrobics, rock climbing, Muay Thai, and Pilates, meeting many people in the process (for more on where to do these, turn to p50).
Pretty soon I’ll be shopping for a “real” bike, but I’ll always remember Princess Buttercup as my “gateway bike” – not the first one I ever owned, but the one that reminded me cycling can be more than just a mode of transportation. In fact, I’m mulling over a bicycle trip along the east coast of Taiwan based on a friend’s recommendation. I hear you can rent a touring bike at any of the Giant shops, ride it up the coast, and return it to any other Giant shop; I’ll let you know in six months or so.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.