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Earlier this summer, I was attending a Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia policy meeting and it began, as they always do, with each employee sharing a personal anecdote and professional anecdote — our “personal and business bests” as we all them. I confessed that a little over a week earlier, I did something I thought I’d never do: I went skydiving.

After a brief moment of silence, a colleague joked, “So, you won’t ride a bike in the street but you’ll jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”

It was, perhaps, ironic. But for me, it represented another step in my journey, stepping outside my box, and doing something I’d always been a little too scared to do.

Despite my position at the Bicycle Coalition, I learned how to ride a bike less than a year ago. And at this point, I haven’t been out much due to the pandemic. Before then, I was too cautious to feel secure riding outside of a park space. 

As a child, the bike with the broken pedal I got at the flea market was never fixed. I could not ride in my North Philadelphia neighborhood as a kid because of my parent’s safety concerns, and biking never became part of our family culture. After becoming an adult, I never grew out of that “biking is unsafe” mentality so I never bothered learning. 

That is, until I met the “bike advocates”, my colleagues at the Bicycle Coalition. I took on the position as Policy Fellow and soon after learned to ride with an Indego bike and the help of some teammates. 

Holiday lights ride

Naida, right, on her first group ride in December 2019

The Holiday Lights Ride organized by the Bicycle Coalition in December was my grand biking hoorah. Getting through that ride was exhilarating and fulfilling. It’s the longest I had ever managed to stay on a bike and my colleagues were right there blocking traffic and checking on me along the way. In its own way, learning how to ride had its own way of bringing me a sense of freedom. On those wheels, I could practically fly. 

Maybe the bike ride seeded within me the courage to believe that I could try anything — in fact, I know it did. I proclaimed it the start of many adventures to come. It’s quite bittersweet to think that an initial bike ride across Broad Street downtown and a declaration that I am still alive after an amazing Holiday lights ride was the height of my exhilarating adventure in December. 

Yet it was mine. My story, my adventure, and the seed to continue believing that I could try all sorts of new things. 

Come July, I was jumping out of a plane, with short notice and not giving it too much thought. I geared up, heard the instructions, asked a few questions, and I was ready to go. 

Adrenaline pumping, heart racing, mind praying and my body, harnessed to someone else’s. Just him and I, sky falling, secured to a harness and prepared to land with the help of our parachute. The immediate drop was beyond terrifying and exhilarating, feels like you’re falling at an immensely rapid speed with the wind pounding your body. It felt like my protective glasses would fly off. Before the jump I was told that when he tapped me on the shoulder I was to let my arms go. It was my moment to fly.

Image of Naida Sky diving

Mid air, he taps me but in the moment I forget. Too much is going through my head and happening to my body. It’s as if I didn’t feel it the first time. When he taps me again I open my arms and they sprung back with the intensity of the wind pounding our bodies. When the parachute opens, maybe a minute later, or maybe a few seconds later, we’re jolted in the air and I can finally settle in the relief and take in the views from above. 

The instructor was to serve as a sort of bumper as we landed. I would hold my legs up to let his hit the ground first and then I’d let mine down. This time, since the parachute had eased my mind by then, I remembered the instructions and was ready to land as planned.  Our legs hit the ground, I propped myself up quickly and I rejoiced (cause I was still alive) as I caught my breath. 

It was incredible. I felt like I could do anything after that — but I am still scared to bike the big city streets. 

When you’re biking on the road alone, there’s no one there to tap on your shoulder. You are alone. If you make a move that results in interacting with a motor vehicle, for whatever reason, in a moment, there’s a chance that your life could be gone. As I think of biking in the city, I imagine myself pedaling and hoping to survive. May seem dramatic, but it’s my reality.

I feel the tension build, the feeling of insecurity, the internalized fear of making one wrong move, and certainty that the vehicles on the road would only see me as a nuisance. It’s with no doubt that I can say that I made it through the Holiday Lights Ride because of the hundreds of bikers that made me feel visible, even if it meant I was simply another body on a bike in this crowd of people. But I was protected. My colleagues were my harness and the surrounding bikers were my parachute. 

I have learned that the Bicycle Coalition doesn’t just advocate for long time bikers. We advocate for people like me. Those that would like to ride in the city but are too scared due to car speeds and the current lack of protected bike lanes. We also advocate for trails all over the region, so more people can feel the freedom a bicycle provides even if they’re not comfortable on the street, next to speeding vehicles.

I dared to ride because I knew I wouldn’t be alone and as I ponder life as a regular cyclist, I haven’t quite accepted taking the risk of lone riding knowing that most of our streets and driving culture don’t cater to cyclist safety.

In comparison, five minutes free falling from a plane doesn’t seem as bad as an hour or two of built up stress wondering if I would make it across town in one whole piece. I want to ride more often — and I want to embrace the freedom of biking in the city I love. But I’m just not there yet.

This is the story of a skydiver, but it’s also the story of a city girl who dared to try new things. Learning to ride was just a start.

Naida Elena Montes

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