The phrase 'it's like riding a bike' became a common analogy to describe how skills learned become cemented in place. Maybe it was because bikes were so different from horses or carts when they first showed up that they just represented this massive brain crusher. However it happened, the saying became the go-to for knowledge that becomes reflexive and immune from unlearning. Once you know how to do it, the analogy goes, you always know how to do it. I was having a conversation recently with a man who had never learned to ride a bicycle at all. He was 42 years old, and whenever he heard the phrase, he said, feelings of confusion and inadequacy roiled through him. If he had learned to ride a bike when he was a kid, when most of us learned to ride bikes, he would have that skill in the bag and would therefore understand fully what the saying meant. Instead, 'it's just like riding a bike' might as well have been translated as 'it's just like skinning a dinosaur,' or 'it's just like slinging a lasso around a comet.' Without context of actually knowing how to ride a bike, the saying becomes meaningless.
A couple weeks ago, I had to build a bike for a friend. Frame in a box, big pile of parts, slap it together and go. Having been a decent enough mechanic for a number of years, I figured it'd be a pretty straightforward affair. It was a bike, right? And since I used to be a bike mechanic, the act of building up a bike would be pretty much 'just like riding a bike,' right?
I have this particular way of building bikes up from frames, drilled into me during the shop years, back when we would cut and face the bottom-bracket shells and headtubes of every custom bike we built. Once the frames were prepped and the alignment was spot on, we'd thread in the bottom bracket and press in the headset. This was always the first step. Back then, with the exception of one or two universally loathed French or Italian road bikes, there were no internally routed cables. Nor were there hydraulic disc brakes, and the idea of an internally routed, hydraulically operated dropper post was a couple decades from being even a concept. So I stared at the bike for a long time, hoping that maybe all the cables and hoses would figure out among themselves how long they needed to be and then maybe feed themselves through the frame. The hydraulic dropper post, according to the instructions, had a quick disconnect that makes for hassle-free routing. Except this one didn't, because that's apparently a $15 upgrade. I disconnected what I thought was the quick-disconnect, slowly, oil belched out onto my hands, then dripped down onto my feet. Oh well. I went back to scowling at the frame, suffering this chicken/egg paralysis while trying to anticipate how to route all these hoses without a stem or handlebar in place to determine their lengths.
Flummoxed by the cables and hoses, I decided to prep the wheels. The sweet carbon wheels for this build had svelte black spokes that disappeared into the rims. No visible spoke nipples. Hmmm. Off with the proprietary UST-ready tape that looked a whole lot like strapping tape, find a uniquely sized hex head buried deep in the rim cavity that was not the same size as any of the random pain-in-the-ass hex head spoke drivers I'd accumulated over the years. Deep Sigh. Spin the wheels in the stand anyway–round enough, true enough, taut enough, fortunately. Grease the cassette splines, install the cassette, disc rotors, carefully replace the rim tape, spoon on some tires, fill them with goop, fire up the compressor and scream unintelligible angry ape noises for the next 15 minutes while failing to get the tires to seat or inflate as flecks of latex coat almost everything in sight.
Roughly two hours into the day and I had achieved absolutely nothing. Two hours was about what we used to allocate for a frame-up build back in the shop days. And here I was, a formerly competent bike mechanic, standing between a puddle of 2.5-weight dropper-post oil, a puddle of brake fluid and a puddle of latex, in a state of almost apoplectic impotent rage, in front of a bike frame sprouting a forest of too-long cables and hoses.
It was at this point that I realized I would need to go buy some hydraulic barbs and fittings, since all these hoses were about to get a lot shorter, and that maybe a nice little spin down the valley to the bike shop would do me some good and clear my head. This worked wonderfully. Filled with optimistic resolve, I stepped purposefully up to the bike-shop counter. The hydraulic barbs, which are roughly the size of a small goathead thorn, cost $4.99 apiece, as did the compression fittings. Gasping in shock, I bought a half dozen and a pair of tubes, and decided that lunch, dinner and a congratulatory beer was not going to be an option. Rode home, muttering darkly.
The ride was enough of a reset, though, and the bike stopped fighting me after that. Things smoothed out once the bottom bracket and headset were pressed into place, and the old patterns began to assert themselves. I remembered how to build bikes again, and even the tires played nice after another layer or two of tape got wrapped around the rims. 'It's just like riding a bike' is about the same in my head as 'it's just like building a bike.' And even though the rest of the build went smoothly, there was a chunk of time there where that old saying had turned to dust in my mouth. It's not always just like riding a bike. Sometimes we have to hit the pause button, dig around in our memories, remember what we learned and relearn it all over again.