How a $20 Bike Changed My Life

The author discovers joy in a $20 bike and learns it's never too late to start mountain biking.

I was 29 when I learned how to ride a bike.

Embarrassing? Perhaps. 

I’m from Delhi, India. The national sport is hockey, the sport of choice is cricket. But academics is considered the ‘sport’ that tops them all. Chaotic traffic, heaving crowds, constant pollution, no infrastructure for cyclists and the overarching issue of safety make Delhi a tough city to cycle in recreationally. In fact, growing up, no one I knew biked for fun. I didn’t have any exposure to the sport, or inspiration to look up to. 

Moving to New Zealand changed all of that. Every weekend I’d see lycra-clad roadies smashing climbs and impressive dust clouds blooming behind mountain bikers on local trails. Cycling was something I wanted to be able to do… only I’d spent so long building it up in my mind, that it had become the fear of the unknown. 

The fear of falling. The fear of failing…

Bikepacking the Old Ghost Road

One time my boyfriend (now husband) proposed a wine-tasting tour by bike. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t ride a bike, so I asked the rental shop to lower the saddle so my feet could comfortably touch the ground. The route was flat and seemed straightforward. But navigating people, prams, bollards and traffic proved to be too much; we didn’t even make it to the first vineyard! This abandoned trip is how Barry learned about my cycling prowess (read: lack thereof) and it’s still something we chuckle about today.

If you haven’t grown up riding bikes or playing sports, you don’t have any sense of balance or spatial awareness. My method for braking was to try and get both feet on the ground at the same time, without budging from the saddle. It was, unsurprisingly, super unstable. I’m amazed that I didn’t tip right over. 

I know I’m not alone and many other people who didn’t grow up cycling as kids have had the same experience and fears. 

But as I eventually learned, with all things that are new and scary, you just have to break them down into manageable steps. 

For me, step one on my cycling journey was to get a bike of my own.

Barry spotted one in a second-hand goods shop. It was old and a little rickety, but the perfect size. The bolt on the saddle was so rusted we could barely adjust it. It creaked and groaned but the wheels spun and the brakes worked. 

“This’ll be perfect for you to learn on,” he said.

It was $20. 

Luckily we had a cycle lane right outside our house. It hugged the coast and wound its way to a pocket of the city known for its beautiful surfing beach. In the afternoons, I had the cycle lane virtually all to myself. 

Every day I would venture a little further. Eventually, the “too narrow” cycle lane began to feel just right. I learned how to take one hand off the handlebars and indicate upcoming turns. I adjusted my saddle to where it was supposed to be for a more comfortable and efficient pedal stroke. And one momentous day, I learned how to pedal while standing. “I did it!” I shouted to Barry incoherently, giving two ladies walking their dog a right fright. 

I had so many firsts on that $20 bike. Though I was embarrassed by it at the time, I know now it was a bargain, in every sense of the word. 

As I got more comfortable and progressed in the trails I wanted to ride, I replaced that bike with a hardtail. Thanks to Barry’s patient guidance, I learned basic bike maintenance and continued to improve my riding skills. I wasn’t quite setting off dust plumes behind me, but the mountain biking bug nipped us good; the following year Barry and I both upgraded to full suspension mountain bikes, and we got a pass to the local bike park. 

I learned falling is something that is inseparable from mountain biking. And I learned there’s no end to learning.

Thankfully these days there are so many avenues for newbies to get into biking. There are bike months and bike weeks, as well as women’s only groups and free adult classes. It’s my hope that this awareness spreads across India too, and positive change occurs. 

I found freedom, confidence, headspace and lifelong friends through cycling. I’ve also been lucky enough to ride my bike(s) all over New Zealand, Ireland and Spain. Soon France and Italy will be added to this list. Our current adventure van has actually been entirely designed around our bikes!

At 34, I can confidently say cycling has changed my life. 

I used to be embarrassed about being late to the party, but now I’ve come to terms with it. Learning when you’re older is better than having never learned at all. And it turns out you don’t need a top-of-the-line bike.

A $20 one will do just fine.