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Child's play

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Illustration by Simon Letch.

It's never too late to break the cycle of procrastination and regret - as long as you're prepared to jump in at the deep end, writes Benjamin Law.

Linda van den Adel has lost control of her bicycle. At 54 years old, she is learning to ride one for the first time and is about to collide into a couple who are out walking.

"I'm a learner!" she screams at them. "I'M A LEARNER!"

Quickly, the woman hops off the footpath out of Van den Adel's way, but the man doesn't react at all. Instead, he stands, gaping. When you start riding a bicycle, your brain and body conspire to make you ride directly towards whatever you're looking at, and because Van den Adel is focused on the man, she's headed straight towards him.

In the split second before impact, she tumbles off her bike and rolls onto the grass, military drill-style.

You get to a certain age in Australia and people assume you have mastered certain physical skills, like riding a bike or swimming 50 metres without drowning.

People are constantly surprised when they discover Van den Adel can't ride a bike, especially considering her husband is Dutch. "They say, 'Everyone had a bike when they were young and can ride, can't they?' Well, no, they can't. Obviously. Mum and Dad never bought me a bike. Some kids rode to school, but I caught the tram."

Her riding instructor, a sassy brunette named Jan Stevenson, wears gear that means business - black three-quarter-length pants and slip-on shoes - while Van den Adel wears a bright red shirt. "Please notice me on the roads," the shirt seems to say, "or it's possible we'll all die."

Most adults, Stevenson says, only need about three lessons before they're riding.

So essentially, an adult who has never ridden a bike before will be up and riding in three hours? This seems staggering to me.

"No," Stevenson clarifies. "They'll be up and riding in one hour." The other lessons are more about practice and road safety.

Only a select few take longer to get up and cycle. Some people Stevenson has taught have medical conditions or a disability, or come from a non-English-speaking background. "For some people, it's a mental thing," Stevenson says. "They don't want to ride but someone's bought them a voucher. Some people are very nervous to push off. There was one awful time where I had to yell out, 'JUST PEDAL! KEEP PEDALLING!' They wonder why they're going like this" - Stevenson sits on her bike, inert, as though about to fall over - "and I have to scream, 'BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT PEDALLING!'"

In the three years during which Stevenson has been professionally teaching adult beginners to ride, only two men have joined her classes. "Blokes tend to want to do it by themselves, whereas ladies will look for someone who can help them do it." Adding to people's reluctance is that strange assumption that everyone was born with innate knowledge of how to ride a bike. "And swim," Stevenson adds. "We're always supposed to be able to swim like fishes, because we're a country surrounded by water."

Nearby, at a local YMCA, some adults are learning to swim properly for the first time. Phil Freestone is 62 and has been meaning to do this for ages. "I'd been promising myself I'd do it, probably for the last 20 years," he says laughing. "I try not to rush things."

Oddly, Freestone can sort of swim, but only in an ad-hoc, DIY sort of way. He can swim the entire length of his backyard pool, but only by holding his breath underwater, and only because he can come up for air by standing. "I never formally learnt to swim," he says. "My wife is a very good swimmer. My daughter was the swimming captain of her high school. But poor old me!"

One of the greatest fears adult learners have is local children making fun of them. It's why these swimming lessons often start out one-on-one in a secluded indoor pool, scheduled outside of the kids' timetables. "Here you are, a grown man, learning alongside little kids who can swim," Freestone says. "Do you join that class? But I can probably can get over the embarrassment. It's more the drowning part."

Freestone's goal is to be able to swim in public swimming pool lanes and lakes. He is about to retire and wants to go caravanning with his wife, swimming whenever and wherever it takes their fancy. Freestone was surprised by what learning to swim involves.

"Just the number of kicks to the strokes," he says. "When do you turn? When do you bring air in? It doesn't sound like much, but it's not a natural thing trying to co-ordinate all that. I'm still trying to get that rotating of the head to get that breath in."

Freestone's instructor is 22-year-old Laura Wilson, who is roughly the same age as his daughter. Wilson teaches children, too, but says there are special considerations when training beginner adults. "You can't treat an adult like you treat a kid," she says. "Some of them are a little bit embarrassed and want to come to the lessons when no one else is around."

Last term, Wilson taught an Indian couple in their late 20s who'd just had a baby girl and were learning to swim altogether. "It was really cute," Wilson says. "I'd be holding the little bub while they'd be doing laps." And how did they go in the end? "Hmm, well, they're not going to drown," she says diplomatically.

Meanwhile, Van den Adel, who has at last mastered cycling, reveals that she doesn't know how to swim either. She's not particularly interested. "No," she says. "I don't like public pools, or rivers with sharks."

In a way, it's a shame. With one extra skill, she could be doing triathlons.

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