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Adults conquer their fear of bikes to avoid the gas pump

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Zalima Khan celebrates with a classmate after learning to balance and pedal on her own. (Photograph by Cassandra Lizaire)

“I had the flier for a year before I finally signed up.” Zalima Khan said with a grin as she waited for her instructor to help pick out a bicycle for her petite frame. “It’s just something I always wanted to do.”

Khan, 44, of River Edge, N.J., had come to a bicycle shop in New York City where she joined four other adult women intent on learning, or refreshing, their bike riding skills. Khan was in the last week of instructor Terry Chin’s three-week course and she and the others made their way to a nearby bike path. A few weeks earlier they had wobbled and careened. Today they were pedaling and balancing on their own, while learning more advanced skills.

“Look right, steer right. Look left, steer left!” shouted Chin. “Don’t pedal when you’re going over a bump!”

Over the past 25 years, Chin, 58, has taught hundreds of New Yorkers, including some who’s who of the city’s limelight, to conquer their pedaling fears. “People take it for granted that biking is elementary, but it’s not,” said Chin. “I’ve got it down to a science where everybody rides by the third week, not perfectly, but they get by. From then on it’s going over potholes, shifting gears, and learning bike signals.”

With the cost of gasoline rising dramatically and people becoming increasingly sensitive to the size of their carbon footprints, more and more riders are dusting off their bicycles for the first time in years. And more and more adults are learning to ride for the first time.

As the 50-year-old tradition of Bike Month is commemorated across the U.S. this month--events include the May 12-16 bike to work week--the League of American Bicyclists says the nation’s population of 57 million bike riders is on the rise, especially in cities.

“In the last five to eight years, cities like New York, Portland, Boulder and the Washington, D.C., area, have seen large increases in the amount of bicycling,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, based in Washington, D.C.

The league has a roster of 1,100 certified instructors across the country who are helping novices get into gear. John Ciccarelli, of San Francisco has taught students one-on-one for seven years and this spring he joined other cycle instructors in the city’s first “Learn to Ride a Bike” clinic.

“The interactive process of teaching someone to ride is challenging, but fun for the teacher,” said Ciccarelli, whose students range from pre-teens to sixtysomethings. “You’re teaching someone who doesn’t believe they can do it. Being able to help them achieve a major life goal is really fulfilling.”

Mallika Nallani, a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, attended the San Francisco bike clinic along with about 15 others. She was hoping to relearn the riding skills she developed as a child in India. “I was nervous I would fall, but it became easier after a while and I learned in about two hours!” she said. “It was so exhilarating. Now I feel encouraged to try other things I think I might not be good at.”

For her part, Susan McLucas of Somerville, Mass., has run classes through her Bicycle Riding School and through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education since 1985. Her Web site boasts that she has taught more than 2,000 students. “I can count the people who didn’t get it on one hand,” said McLucas, “occasionally people learn in their first few minutes. Everybody starts out terrified,” she added, “but they are euphoric by the end.”

Adult students tend to be more difficult to teach than children because their fears of biking have become ingrained over the years. Older adults have also lost some of their equilibrium and level of fitness. McLucas rewards each student who learns to ride in her four-session, weekend courses with a picnic ceremony complete and even a “diploma” for completing the course. She also offers tips to first-timers.

“Learn on a bike that is small enough that you can sit and have your foot on the ground,” McLucas said. “Stop way before you need to stop and, whichever way you start to lean, turn that way. Wear a helmet and keep it nice and slow.”

Newly minted cyclists can feel more confident doing just that in Boston. The city’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, who started riding himself last August after a 40-year biking hiatus, announced plans to make Boston safer for all cyclists. Last September he spearheaded the first phase of lane improvements, which include the addition of 250 bike racks across the city.

Such initiatives encourage closet nonbikers to give cycling a try. “I don’t know why I never learned,” said Lena G., one of the women in Chin’s class. “But I want to try and do a triathlon and swimming and biking are my two weakest links.”

Before departing, the women who have bonded and cheered each other over the past few weeks, exchanged numbers and vowed to go riding together soon.

“Otherwise, what would I be doing?” said a student named Muriel, “Watching TV in the morning? This,” the fresh air and sunshine,” is a better alternative.”

E-mail: cl2612@columbia.edu