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Why I Teach: Bike Instructor Tori Bortman

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Expert Mechanic Tori Bortman of Gracie’s Wrench is ORbike’s resident mechanic. For many years she’s been sharing her wisdom on how to easily keep your bike in tip-top shape for a sweet ride.

But beyond the maintenance of bikes, Tori is also a bicycle instructor. She teaches people of all ages to ride a bike – which is no small feat.

We asked Tori to tell us a little bit more about what it’s like to teach people to ride a bike and learn bike maintenance. After all, learning to ride a bike is that all-important skill they say you never forget, and Tori is the one to help many people learn it for the first time.

The Best Job in the World

For me teaching is the best job in the world. But teaching with bikes? It’s like winning the lottery. From people learning to ride for the very first time to newbie flat fixers to eager home mechanics, I’m lucky to work with people itching to learn about how to ride and repair one of humankind’s greatest inventions. (Well, next to duct tape and fire. Those are pretty cool too.)

Showing Up is the First Step

The biggest, bravest step any of my students take is showing up for class. As adults, most of us are used to being competent and in control when it comes to moving through our daily lives. We’re used to knowing answers, not asking too many questions, we think we’re above making silly mistakes, and we’re nervous about (gasp!) failing before we succeed.

In essence, we’re not used to being vulnerable, mostly because it’s scary and tough so it’s more easily avoided. Facing our own anxieties, perfectionist tendencies or just admitting “I don’t know” is hard, so I’m honored and awed anytime someone is open to learning with me. In return, I do my best to respect their fearlessness by having patience, being humble and making my classes as much fun as possible.

Meet Your Inner Squirrel – Then Say “Adios, Amigo”

Imagine you’re driving along, minding our own business and you narrowly avoid hitting a frantic rodent who can’t seem to decide which way to cross the road. You can feel their panic but can’t do a darn thing to help them cross safely. Let me tell you about your “inner squirrel”. This is a little buddy who resides in us all – your anxiety – the little guy who thinks he or she is “helping” you – but is actually making things more chaotic.

Whether I’m with adults or kids who are learning to ride a bike, the inner squirrel usually manifests itself by trying to get them to stop the bike with their feet instead of the brakes, or to jump off the bike in a frantic attempt to ditch it while moving (forgetting the brakes all together). Neither of these scenarios ends well.

This little dude is the biggest single obstacle my students face when learning.

Much like a real, live squirrel, you can’t control your inner one, so it’s our job together to convince yours to go find some nuts or something useful because actually, you don’t need it’s help and you’ve really got this, thanks very much. When the inner squirrel bears it’s little furry, rat-like head during a lesson, we can laugh for a moment and move on, knowing the squirrel will NEVER win. Plus, I do a rad crazed squirrel impression. (Someday I’ll tell you all about “baby seal hands” or “YMCA”, I swear, but there’s not enough room here for all the fun we get to have.)

Let’s Hear it for Screwing Up!

At Gracie’s Wrench, I love, love, love questions and mistakes. Questions help me know how my students are processing and what I’m not communicating clearly. As a teacher, if my student isn’t getting something, it’s my job to find a way to explain it that works for their learning style. Mistakes in class create excellent opportunities for learning. I can guarantee that if you goof it up in class and we fix the mistake together the solution will stick with you much longer than when you get it perfect right off the bat. So let’s hear it for screwing up!

For my students of all ages who don’t know how to ride a bike, I’m expanding their worlds so they can ride for the very first time and to conquer a life-long fear of two wheels. There is very little in life that’s better than being able to see someone pedaling away from you for the first time. These lessons often end in high-fives, hugs and surprised faces. Boo yeah! Feel-good endings are the best.

Knowledge is Power

In my bike mechanics classes, I love seeing the wonder on the faces of students who finally learn to repair a flat in under 10 minutes (with their own hands! on their own bike!). It’s equally magical when the come to realize why this skill has always been challenging for them, and when they understand it never has to be so challenging again.

Recently a dad who took my Beginner Maintenance class stopped back in so I could take a look at his son’s bike that wasn’t shifting well. Using the knowledge he gained from class, he was able to diagnose and repair the bike himself once we walked through the problems together. This man was floored to be able to put his lesson into action but I was even more thrilled to watch him solve the problem and walk away knowing he could better care for his entire family’s fleet of bikes.

Living Larger through Learning

I have the honor and pleasure of helping empower my students to live a little larger and go a little further – hopefully laughing at themselves a little bit along the way. In keeping with the practice of the best teachers I’ve had in my life, my goal is to help students become more passionate for both cycling and learning.

The bonus is the fascinating and cool stuff my students have taught me over the years! Being a teacher is pretty darn special, and teaching about and on bikes is rewarding beyond words.


Learn More

Are you ready to take the plunge and learn more about how to repair your bike? Check out Tori’s workshops and classes and sign up today.

Tori Bortman is ORbike’s resident bike mechanic. She is also an educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench. Tori’s new book, The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners, was recently published by Bicycling Magazine.

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