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An Uphill Course With Downhill Rewards

I transitioned from fear to confidence on my bike, but when I moved to my wife's native Netherlands, I unexpectedly had to start the same process again

By Diane Daniel

I blew hard into the pink whistle hanging on a cord around my neck. Wearing cutoff jeans and a tank top, I wasn't dressed like a traffic safety officer. But that's the role I'd given my 9-year-old self that summer.

A woman on a bike path. Next Avenue, bicycling, bike tour, denmark
Diane Daniel biking in Denmark  |  Credit: Selina Kok

My dad had tried to teach me a few times, trotting just behind me while holding me up under my armpits.

In front of me was our red brick house, at the intersection of Dublin and Shawood in Eden Forest, our neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. Nearly every house had kids, and nearly every kid had a bike. So did I. Mine was a blue Schwinn Breeze standing at attention in the shed. Santa had delivered it two years earlier upon my written request.

But I was afraid to ride it.

My dad had tried to teach me a few times, trotting just behind me while holding me up under my armpits.

As soon as my feet engaged with the pedals and the handlebars started to swerve, I would scream.

"I'm falling! Stop! I can't do this!"

"Diane, I know you can," he said matter of factly, looking me in the eye. "Want to try one more time?"

I stared at the ground, shook my head and cried.

A Tentative Biker

To cover my shame, I pretended to love being a traffic cop. I stood firm, even when the Nicholson boys cut tight corners around me and shouted, "Get out of our way, you idiot!" Most of the kids just ignored me.

The next summer, when I was 10, I'd had enough of feeling stupid. I begged my dad to try again.

We stayed on the grass in the back yard, which had a slight incline.

"Pedal, pedal, pedal!" Dad shouted enthusiastically. "Don't stop pedaling!"

He let go. Somehow I stayed upright.

"I'm doing it, Dad! I'm riding a bike!" I shouted, not daring to turn my head to see his expression.

I pedaled up Shawood and turned down the Stones' driveway. My heart pounded. Tears filled my eyes. I didn't remember how to use the brakes. Eventually I rolled into Mrs. Stone's flower bed, which didn't hurt so bad, though I had to apologize for crushing her snapdragons.

Once I mastered braking, I joined the kids going up and down Dublin and Shawood. I would stay behind, riding tentatively. But at least I could keep my balance and stop when needed.


After I started driving, at 16, I rarely used a bike except to borrow one during college to get around the flat, sprawling campus.

While living in Boston in my 30s, I saw a used hybrid for sale and bought it for exercise. During the summer, I cycled the four miles to work. I loved starting the day feeling the sun and wind in my face. I worked hard to power up the hills and relished the sweet reward of coasting down. I enjoyed the admiration of my co-workers.

Hitting My Biking Goals

After that, I was all in. My calves grew along with my confidence.

I started cycling with my friend Kristin. In 1996, we declared that we would join that year's AIDS Ride from Boston to New York — a charity event that covered 275 miles over three days.

After that, I was all in. My calves grew along with my confidence.

For the feat, I upgraded to a sleeker Bianchi touring bike and learned to ride with shoes that clipped into the pedals. For months, Kristin and I trained nearly every weekend, cruising along the coast and over hills and even mountains.

After completing the AIDS Ride, anything felt possible. My friend Alice introduced me to bike touring, where we carried our own gear, camped and cooked for ourselves.

As a mostly unattached woman into my 40s, cycling became my constant companion. If I was invited to a weekend away, my bike came with me. I plotted my own rides and often rode solo, which magnified my sense of freedom and adventure.

On my first date with my wife-to-be, in 2003, I took her to my favorite bike shop. Lina had just arrived from the Netherlands to work in Boston. Like most Dutch people, she had grown up on a bike, and it turned out that she was as crazy for two-wheeled explorations as I was. Every trip we took included or revolved around cycling.

Lina and I moved to the Netherlands in 2014 because it was her turn to be home. I was up for the adventure, especially in a country that boasts the world's best cycling infrastructure.

An Unexpected Fear

But something happened that neither of us expected.

I got scared. But this time I was in my late 50s.

Instead of embracing the newness, I was overwhelmed by it. The language, the customs, even the cycling. The traffic rules were not always intuitive. At busy intersections, the crush of cyclists moved unpredictably, like wet spaghetti landing in a colander. Not only did I often lose my way, I lost myself.

When Lina and I went for rides, I slowed or stopped at every intersection she had already gone through, not knowing if I had the right of way. After I'd successfully crossed, my heart pounding, I would scream at her, "How could you just take off like that?"

Over the past eight years, life in the Netherlands has become familiar. As for cycling, I finally understand 95% of the traffic rules. At lights, I stay in the rear so the cluster of waiting cyclists can't engulf me when the signal turns green.

But something else had begun to gnaw at me. Lina was the one to always map out and lead our rides. I didn't even understand how to use the "fietsknooppunten," the Dutch system of bike routes that we always followed.

Making the Bike Route My Own

In the summer of 2022, I'd had enough of feeling stupid.

I started paying more attention to the route signage and asked Lina to teach me how to plot trips. One weekend I designed our ride and led the way. It wasn't the prettiest scenery, but I didn't get us lost. The next weekend I did the same thing just for myself. Finally, I was ready.

On a Thursday morning in July, I rolled out of the driveway for a four-day cycling tour of my own design. I fought back tears as I left because I was so nervous, but also so proud. At the same time, I was amused that, at age 64, I could feel this way. But I know that courage comes in many forms, at any age. 

I can't reverse the effects of aging, but I can stay active and keep riding.

Within an hour, I'd missed one of the numbered signs. I backtracked and found it. Every day brought frustrating and usually laughable mistakes. One afternoon, I cycled 10 miles out of my way to rejoin the route I'd lost, but I knew I was strong enough to go even farther if I had to.

But most of the time, on that little trip, I felt exuberant. I was a cowgirl astride my mechanical steed. I galloped atop riverside dikes, watching sheep graze and herons hunt for prey. I trotted across dark forests with few people in sight. I slowed to a walk through towns bustling with life. 

Over the years, my pace has slowed, and I have to pedal harder to get up the hills, but I always make it. I can't reverse the effects of aging, but I can stay active and keep riding.

When I think about cycling in the far future, I suppose my challenge will be to trade in my two-wheel bicycle for a more stable "adult trike." They're a common sight in the Netherlands. I admire the riders as I watch them pedal slowly, often carrying shopping bags in their rear baskets. I imagine them enjoying the sun and wind in their faces. I hope I'll be brave enough to join them.

Diane Daniel
Diane Daniel is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands and Florida. She has a bicycle for every occasion in both homes. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and National Geographic Travel, and she is a regular contributor to American Heart Association News. Her website is Read More
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