Freedom, Balance, and my Bike by
(19 Stories)

Prompted By Riding a Bicycle

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When I think of my first bicycle, which my parents gave me at the age of 9, I think of two concepts: freedom and balance. Freedom because my bike automatically enlarged my world and my ability to travel it; balance because you can’t ride one without learning it.

Learning to ride a bike can teach you some key lifelong lessons. That's what my red rocket did.

Although we kids did a lot more walking in the 50s than kids do today — my weekdays started with the 5-block walk to elementary school, — a bike meant we could get their faster and take a long, circuitous route home if we wished. And on weekends, we fantasized our bike could take us to the moon if we wanted.

To my memory, my bike was my first taste of freedom.

My red rocket

That first bike was a sleek red Schwinn, pretty much the Cadillac of bikes at the time. I called it my Red Rocket. It came from the only bike shop in town, owned by Gary Wiedeman’s dad around the block. That fact that Gary’s dad’s world was bicycles automatically made Gary one of the most popular guys in the neighborhood.

As for balance, that was the challenge I faced in learning how to ride it. I still have a vivid memory of Dad taking me out on the driveway on Christmas Day and coaching me on how to keep my body from becoming one with the pavement. Of course I only half-listened, eager to give it a try, and of course I took a couple spills.

I quickly found that if I just stopped thinking about how to balance, and instead let my body become one with the bike on its own, it worked better. I was riding up and down the driveway by Christmas night.

A lifelong lesson

From that, I learned that I can’t just think things into happening. I have to trust my body’s ability to apply what I’ve learned. Throughout my life, I have found that to be a useful lesson, applied to many obstacles that need clearing from learning to play the piano and guitar, to swimming, platform diving, and SCUBA diving. Given a chance, our bodies can get along fine at times on nothing but an innate instinct and muscle memory.

When I let my mind direct difficult physical functions for my body, I’ve learned that my thoughts sometimes focus more on the fear factor: fear of falling, fear of failing, fear of looking foolish. So overcoming the physical challenge is made even harder by overcoming our mind’s flashing  warning sign of fear.

For me, I’ve found it better to follow the Nike slogan: Just Do It.

From bikes to life

Finding balance is a lifelong process, and I long ago learned that balancing on a bike is far easier than keeping our lives on an even keel. The same principles of learning to ride my bike often apply to this greater adult challenge, however.

So today I was out in the garage, looking up at my Trek 7100 bike, hanging from the ceiling, and I realized I haven’t been on it in well over a year. In fact, it serves another purpose now, as a hook to hang power cords on and as a collector of flying fur from our three dogs.

That saddened me, because that bike — like my first one — deserves a better fate. It has served me well, and I vowed to get it down, clean it off, hang the cords somewhere else, and take it out for a spin.

This patient teacher of balance and facilitator of freedom deserves that. And maybe I can recapture at least a bit of the wonder I felt as a boy with my shiny red Schwinn.


Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Well said Jim. And those themes of freedom and balance certainly resonate with me. Your observations about overthinking vs trusting your body and relaxing into the motion are good lessons too—athletic activities are as much psychological as physical (and after all—it is all one). Great story.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great life lesson about learning to balance and not thinking, but trusting to muscle memory, Jim. Then applying those to other aspects of your life. I love that you called your first Schwinn the Red Rocket. I had a nickname for mine too, but for other reasons. We did love those bikes, didn’t we? The afforded us the freedom of exploration when we young. It felt great.

    Get that bike down and go for that ride! It sounds enthralling.

  3. Thanx Jim, this prompt has certainly urged many of us to dust off our bikes and take a spin!
    And indeed finding our balance on a bike
    is indeed a metaphor for navigating that bumpy road of life.

    (My first bike was also a Schwinn! Red Rocket meet Victoria out there in bicycle heaven!)

  4. As someone who loves bicycles and bicycling, I do encourage you to take that wonderful Trek machine down and take it for a spin. It deserves a better fate than to be a set of hooks, and you deserve to experience again the wonderful combo of freedom and balance.
    I am also envious that you actually remember that first experience of mastery of bike riding. I retain quite a wealth of details about so many juvenile experiences–but not that one. Ride on, Brother.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Beautiful piece, Jim. I love how you apply the lessons of riding a bike to life. We all seek balance as we age. This has been especially true for me during the pandemic. Hope you did get that bike down and take it for a spin.

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