It's no secret that those of us with dyspraxia aren't renowned for having great balance or coordination. As a child the thought of riding my little orange bike without stabilisers was a daunting and frankly terrifying prospect. But perhaps more demoralising was the fact that one after the other I watched my friends all learn to balance on two wheels while they became increasingly puzzled at the fact I still needed four. I believe this was around the time I decided to pack it in (tricycles look cooler anyway).
So when in 2013, aged 24, I decided I was going to become a volunteer Cycle Responder for the first aid charity St John Ambulance, I knew an interesting challenge lay ahead.
I had been volunteering as an event first aider for about four years and had worked alongside the Cycle Response Unit (CRU) volunteers several times. They are typically sent to places where there is poor vehicle access, such as the middle of a crowded field at a festival.
I declared my intentions to a friend, who then decided to donate her bike to my cause. The first few hours were not pretty. Picture if you will a 24-year-old guy sitting in the middle of an empty street on a bike with the saddle as low as it would go, while trying to somehow find the courage to peddle and not just scoot about on this unwieldy contraption. Needless to say it was an odd sight. This went on for four or five hours before I finally had that moment of pure excitement that most people get as a child when they balance for the first time while shouting 'I'm doing it! I'm actually doing it!' - I believe I cycled into a hedge shortly afterwards but I'm pretty sure that's a rite of passage.
For the next few months I mostly practised riding my bike on short rides on very quiet tracks where I got to grips with making the bike go in the right direction. Several slightly crumpled hedges later I was starting to feel a bit more like a cyclist.
I also started attending the CRU training nights with the local volunteers who gave me plenty of encouragement and support, but for me the riding of the bike presented the main challenge. CRU bikes weigh around 30kg and getting on and off the thing was in itself quite a task. There were times I would finish a ride and wait until none of my colleagues were looking before I dismounted for fear of them seeing me fall over (in retrospect I'm pretty sure they knew I was doing this and made themselves scarce to be polite).
I won't lie. It was a while between me learning to balance for the first time to when I passed the CRU assessment - about three years in fact. How much I was delayed by having a coordination disorder is unclear; all I can say with certainty is that those three years didn't come without setbacks, and progress was frustratingly slow. Trying to negotiate a slalom course on a fully loaded CRU bike is not a simple task. I genuinely believed I was in over my head with no chance of living up to the challenge I had set. However the CRU volunteers who trained me throughout this time are truly remarkable people (as one might expect) and under their supervision it became apparent that I was going to be able to pass the assessment with practice.
When the day of the assessment arrived I could hardly believe it. It's a somewhat surreal feeling when you find yourself staring it in the face and wishing you could have another three years to prepare. Thankfully I passed with flying colours.
I want to share my story for a number of reasons. Firstly because I've seen people with learning difficulties overcome their personal barriers many times and I've also read many similar articles which have been very inspiring so I wanted to help do my bit. I have also met many people with dyspraxia or similar learning difficulties who have been led to believe that they are unable to do things when in all likelihood they just need more time or more support. This was certainly the case with me. I was lucky enough to have an outstanding team of St John Ambulance volunteers around me who were able to spot I was willing and able to learn and that I just needed the time and the opportunity to do so. Well it certainly paid off.