It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. For years, I'd sighed with envy watching people pedal by with no manual intervention, fiddling with headphones or eating a banana. It wasn't that I missed out on anything, it was just a skill that I wished that I had. I assumed that it was either simply something you were or were not able to do (like rolling your tongue), or was a skill that was best learned when you were six (like language) and I'd missed my chance forever.
But it wasn't. I had just never seriously tried. In my little construct of I-can't-do-that I had somehow forgotten the two primary rules that govern learning how to ride a bike, and forgotten that they had a strong bearing on what I was trying to do, being:
1. The stability of a bicycle wheel increases with the velocity of spin, and
2. Your probability of success is inversely proportional to your level of fear.
In the past, as soon as I slowed down and tremblingly lifted my hands from the handlebars, the front wheel would yaw and torque and I'd grab back on for dear life, heart pounding and cursing my poor lot as a manual bicyclist. But last week, I considered the fact that when I walk my bike from place to place, I do so with just a hand on the seat...no steering. It's enough. And if I can do it while walking next to the bike, why couldn't I do it ON the bike?
I resolved to try it. Yesterday, pedaling down the bike path in the sunlight and straw-smelling wind, I carefully removed my hands. I found that one of the most important rules in Scuba (keep breathing) is important here (keep pedaling). It's not necessary, but when I focused my mind on the revolutions of the pedals, I had less time to worry about falling on my head.
It turned out that the trick is to sit up perfectly straight, with the center of gravity perfectly balanced over the seat. Part of the reason my previous attempts failed was that I was so scared to let go that I remained hunched over, which doesn't bode well for balance. At times I held my arms out like a trapeeze artist, or hovered them over my knees, ready to grab the handlebars to stop the inevitable Horrible Crash, but it simply never came. The bike was stable. I giggled all the way to school, and all the way back.
I'm not an expert by any means. I can't turn very well, and bumpy unpaved areas are not so good. But still, I crossed the major fear barrier that was holding back. Once I let that leave my body, I was able to sit up, take a look around me, and just...go.