In February 2020, as my 50th birthday loomed, I rather predictably felt compelled to remind myself that age is just a number. What better way than to learn a new trick on my mountain bike? I had decided on the desired trick, I had a deadline – 25 May 2020 – plenty of time. But then, Covid-19 struck, five weeks of hard lockdown followed and the whole world changed. Oh boy! Would I still be able to do it?
Wheelie – easy. Seated, pedal to maintain momentum.
I learned to wheelie bicycles from the age of 10. It was 1980 and I’d got a bike for my 10th birthday. Not just any bike, a Raleigh Grifter! It was the best birthday gift I could have wished for because it sparked my passion for riding bicycles and got me keen to learn a few tricks.
Christmas 1981 and Father Christmas brought this 11-year-old a Raleigh BMX bike! Next level I tell you! I never got off it. I raced BMX and rode the bike every single day, including to school and back – 7km each way – mostly on the back wheel.
Endos, back and front wheel pogo-ing, 180s, 270s, 360-attempts, fakies, quarter-pipe stuff, bigger jumps, riding backwards and lots and lots of wheelies became a big part of my identity between the ages of 11 and 14.
And then life happened – high school, move to new town, new high school, girlfriend, national service, studies, early career, marriage, first child, career, move to new city, career, move back to old city, career, move to current city, second child, career, early mid-life crisis, start own business, parenthood…
Before I knew it, I was in my late 40s and I was teaching my youngest son, Cade (14), how to wheelie. It reminded me of my youth and learning new tricks. It didn’t take him too long and he was able to wheelie on demand. Then he started learning how to manual…
Ah, the manual. I have always been able to do a short manual, you know, to maintain speed over or through an obstacle. But a long, meaningful manual is something I’d never mastered and with my 50th birthday approaching in four months, I decided to make my goal to manual on demand for at least 50 metres on 25 May, 2020.
I like that a manual is a fairly low-risk trick. At my age, injuries take a while to recover from. And they can affect my ability to work and earn an income.
As with any new trick on a bicycle, you need to understand the physics around the trick, then you need to know how to do the trick, then you have to practice plenty, then fine tune and practice, practice, practice more!
My first few attempts were admittedly quite feeble. It was demoralising. How could I, someone that can wheelie so damn effortlessly, struggle to do a manual for just five metres? I started doubting myself. Then Cade said I should try lean back and downwards more on the lift. Bang! That was it! That’s what I wasn’t doing. But I could only do this with confidence by using flat pedals.
It made sense. Flat pedals are what I did all my tricks with as a youngster. Clip-in pedals are fine for racing, but have no real place in tricks, especially when you’re learning a new trick.
Manual – not so easy. Standing (off the saddle), no pedalling, just a slope to achieve momentum.
When learning to manual (and wheelie for that matter) you have to lift the front wheel high – higher than you might expect. But in order to reach this height, you have to be prepared to flip off the back of the bike. Flat pedals allow you to do this reasonably easily as you basically just put your feet down as the bike scoots forward from under you.
Our garden isn’t big enough to be able to practice manuals – you need a good 100 metres of gradually downward sloping surface – ideally a smooth, firm consistent surface, like tar. So, for five weeks, I was unable to practice as Lockdown Level 5 saw me housebound as I did my bit in flatting the curve. Not one to waste time, I used the opportunity to get really fit https://www.treadmtb.co.za/overcoming-my-zwift-obsession/ with my Tacx Neo 2 smart trainer and Zwift!
Level 4 arrived on 1 May and I was able to begin practising my manuals – 24 days left. But only between 06h00 and 09h00 each morning. It’s difficult to learn new skills on a bike when you’re cold, because you tend to tense up, so most mornings, when it was a bit warmer at around 08h15, I’d roll out of my gate and spend 40 minutes trying to master a meaningful manual.
Progress was slow at first because I just wasn’t getting the technique right. I was using my arms too much and my hips too little. Gradually that changed and I was starting to get the technique right consistently. But it wasn’t without some issues.
To ‘launch’ a manual, you need to lean back and down behind your saddle – purposefully. This puts strain on the hamstrings and I felt some pain in both hamstrings on different days. Understand that 49-years-and-11-month-old cyclist hamstrings – especially mine – are far from supple. The injuries seemed relatively minor and I was able to resume after a couple of days’ rest. But 25 May was looming ever nearer.
Cade and I marked out 50 metres with chalk lines every five metres. My manuals became more consistent and by 18 May I had done 35 metres. Just another 15 metres and then to be able to do them on demand. Still a week to go. I was feeling confident and in control and then BOOM! I got sick. On Wednesday 20 May I was hit by a sore throat, headache, dry cough and fatigue.
Was it Covid-19? I didn’t really have a high temperature, so I hoped not. But man I felt grim! My wife, Joanne, brought back some medication from the pharmacy and I dosed up, slept, dosed up, slept and dosed up some more… I started thinking about how I was missing vital manual practice time.
Saturday 23 May I woke up feeling okay. Not great, but not terrible. Two more days until D-Day! Another practice session and I did more than 50 metres. I was so stoked!
But in two days time, I needed to be able to do the 50m-plus manual on demand – and on video!
Sunday 24 May I felt even better. Still had a dry cough, but that was about it. I did about 60 metres, but it wasn’t captured on video. It did help my confidence though and I was both excited and nervous about 25 May.
The morning of my 50th birthday was overcast. This was different for me because every other practice session had been sunny. What was missing were the shadows in the road from the surrounding trees and electricity poles. Would this help me or hinder me?
I’d become so accustomed to specific, familiar shadows during my practices that they’d become subconscious markers. Today there were no shadows and it felt a bit ‘freer’…
We placed two big orange traffic cones to mark the beginning and the end of the 50 metres. Joanne was ready to capture it on video.
I was prepared to spend all morning trying to achieve my goal, even if I had to break the 09h00 government exercise curfew, but this brand new 50-year-old did it almost immediately! Twice. Both caught on video, both from different angles. Damn, I felt soooo good! What a great way to celebrate my 50th birthday! A meaningful manual as planned – twice, both times longer than 50 metres.
Cade was almost as stoked as I was. He’d been my practice buddy from the beginning. He’d seen my early faltering and watched me progress. He learned how important commitment and practice are at any age. We both learned that an old dog can learn a new trick…
I decided we needed one more video clip, but shot by Cade riding behind me. Just for a different angle.
We headed to the top of our road for what would be one more manual to be captured on Cade’s iPhone. I rolled down as usual, with two short little tester manuals before the big one. As we reached the traffic cone that marked the start, I leaned back and down hard as usual, but as I did so, I felt an excruciating pain in my outside right hamstring! Aaaargh! I immediately aborted the manual and came to a stop, reeling from the pain. I could tell it was a tear of some sort. So sudden and so damn painful. I couldn’t pedal. I struggled to even walk. Damn! Ecstasy to agony in minutes.
It’s been more than two weeks now and my hamstring is still sore. Luckily Joanne’s sports massage rubs have helped the tear to begin healing. I can ride, in light gears, but I haven’t tried to manual again. I will though. Once it’s healed. I know I can do it now; I just need to make sure my 50-year-old hamstrings know it too…
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