My cycling Story
A picture of my very first bike, The Ross Polo.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with the feeling of riding a bike. When I was a little kid in the early 1980s my neighborhood was overrun with other little girls my age. We all learned to ride on the same bike, nicknamed the Magic Bike for its ability to inspire even the wobbliest of riders to ditch the training wheels and fly. As a grown up I know that the magic had more to do with the thick tires, relatively low center of gravity and stable banana seat than anything else, but the label inspired confidence. It was a magic bike.
As a child I had very little confidence in my physical ability. I was the last kid on my block to learn how to hit a baseball; I couldn’t even run the mile in gym class and was the clumsiest girl at the bare in ballet class. But on a bike I was invincible, graceful and agile. Riding a bike made me feel physically capable in a way other activities never could. As a teenager I continued riding for fun. Biking was a way to not only be alone with my thoughts but to escape the feelings of social isolation and awkwardness I was experiencing.
It wasn’t until I went away to college and spent a semester studying in the Netherlands that I really got exposed to the idea of cycling as a means of utility and not just pleasure. Even in the remote hamlet I lived in on the Dutch countryside there were bike lanes everywhere, which I quickly learned not to walk in. Being in the Netherlands opened me up to a lot of new perspectives, one of them being that anyone could cycle for transport, even children, pregnant women and the elderly. I was also enchanted by the type of bicycles people rode there, which I found to be charming and old-fashioned. At the time I didn’t realize I was lusting after a very particular type of Dutch commuter bike that has really come into popularity Stateside in the least few years.
Americans like to remark on how fancy free (or crazy) Europeans seem, riding bikes around in regular street clothes, for goodness sake! What we don’t realize is that a Dutch bike is especially equipped with an upright position, a chain guard and a dress guard so that you can do those things with ease!
I returned home from Europe with a seed planted but with very little means to bring it to fruition. After graduation I lived at home with my parents to save money and commuted 40 miles every day down one of the most traffic clogged stretches of highway in the state to my student teaching job. I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour both ways, dreaming of the Dutch countryside the entire way.
When I moved back to the city for graduate school I brought the bike of my teenage hood with me, not the Ross Polo but a 10-speed mountain bike. Having it meant I didn’t have to spend money on a T pass, and it also meant I got an unprecedented amount of exercise and fresh air. I loved discovering the city by bike and bypassing stuffy subway trains in favor of breezing to class and work on my bike.
Alas, it was not to last. My first teaching job was an hour’s commute by highway. I hated the highway commute in bad weather, I white knuckled it to and from work in some really hazardous winter weather conditions, cursing my commute and wishing I worked closer to home. Then along came my current job, much closer to where I lived. I went to the interview fantasizing about selling my car. That was, until the last question, “Do you have a reliable car? That’s a must for this job.” I was to service multiple schools across the city in a day, often lugging theatrical equipment with me. Although I only lived a few miles from my office I was ironically thrust into an even more co-dependent relationship with my car. Now I didn’t just commute in it, it was my office too. I ate in my car and sometimes took my prep periods in it, working on lesson plans in the reclined driver’s seat between stops at different schools. Bike commuting seemed a thing of the past.
My foot and back pain didn’t help matters much. Walking and biking more than a few blocks were painful. That part of my life is in the past, I thought. My bike fell into disrepair. I gave my trusty bike messenger bag to Goodwill, thinking I didn’t need to use it anymore. I accepted defeat.
What changed? I finally started going to physical therapy for my back. This February was a real turning point. Last summer I couldn’t bike a mile without my back seizing up, but over February break I went on a ten-mile bike ride with my dad and felt great afterward. It re-opened the possibility that cycling has a place in my current life and not just my past.
But where to start? I admit, it was more than just chronic pain that inspired me to abandon my bike. Cycling in the city can be awfully dangerous. I have several friends who have gotten into horrible accidents doing it. And my lifestyle will always demand access to a car. I do need to haul stuff with my car. And having one allows me to visit my family, get groceries and travel to appointments with ease. What’s the point of being a bike commuter if I’ll never be able (or really want) to completely give up my car?
Ye olde internet to the rescue. I read a great post on Simply Bike about the idea that bike commuting doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. I read up on safety tips from other cyclists like me. Instead of thinking about all the reasons I couldn’t bike to work I considered the things that made me dubious about it and set out to create ways around them. Here were my primary concerns:
1) Safety: Riding in the city can be really scary. What was scary about the commute I did in grad school? City busses, car doors and exhaust sucking. Sure, I could get really good at riding in three lanes of traffic, but dodging busses and car doors all the way to work and negating all that good exercise by breathing in car fumes just isn’t worth it. Part of the reason I like cycling is because it is so much more relaxing than driving. Turning my work commute into a game of frogger is not relaxing.
So, I used the able assistance of Google Maps plus my own experience as a driver and pedestrian to craft a route that relies heavily on bike paths. Now instead of taillights I start my morning with the exhilaration of birds chirping and beautiful views of a nearby pond. The portion of my commute that is on a road shared with cars is on a less travelled road I chose specifically because of it’s lack of heavy traffic, the fact that cars are only parked on one side of the road, and that it is not on a bus route.
I read up on safe riding techniques and will continue to build my skills as a rider. I also got my bike tuned up and added some safety features to it that I’ll talk about more in my next post.
2) Is it really faster and more convenient?: In a word, yes. It takes about 28 minutes door to door for me to ride my bike to work. Driving takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the congestion. Then once I get there I don’t have to deal with the hassle of looking for parking, getting tickets or being towed during street sweeping, always an urban menace when you park in multiple neighborhoods and can’t possibly memorize the city’s street sweeping schedule. I’m sure bad weather or commuting between more far-flung schools during a day could slow me down, but I can always choose to take the car on those days, because bike commuting is not an all or nothing proposition.
3) Attire: I have no interest in carrying a change of clothes to work. There are not very good facilities for freshening up in my workplace and I’m not a morning person so I’d rather sleep in than get to work an extra ten minutes early to change. The most I’m willing to do when I get to work is drag a comb through my hair and maybe swipe on an extra coat of deodorant. Can I continue to dress the way I like to and not arrive to work a sweaty mess? So far, so good. It is still relatively chilly here in Boston so I’ve been wearing a winning combo of flat boots, leggings, and a simple cotton shirtdress topped by my favorite trench coat. This has worked splendidly. On Wednesday it got into the 50s and I didn’t want to sweat my butt off on the way to work so I wore my favorite silk empire waist dress. In an earlier life I may have considered this dress too delicate to bike in but in the last year or so I’ve come to rely on silk undergarments for regulating my body temp in all conditions and keeping my dry and comfortable. It worked! I arrived to work fresh as a daisy, whereas they day before when I wore cotton to work the uncomfortable sweaty feeling really lingered even after I re-applied deodorant. The silk dress was also fun to bike in because of its breezy, A-line shape. The real test came when I got home from work, changed into my scrubby clothes and gave my dress a sniff test. Nothing. It smelled so clean I could have put it back on the hanger and re-worn it again without washing it. Amazing. So now the solution is to replace all of my regular clothes with silk, right? Should be simple enough! Ha!
I’ve also noticed that I’m much more focused and productive when I arrive at work. Nothing like a brisk bike ride to wake you up!
So tell all, bike commuters. What’s your morning routine? Share any tips and tricks you’ve picked up!