Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I love to ride my bicycle!



After our car heaved its final, wheezing sigh - gave us the permanent silent treatment, descended into an unending slumber to dream of lovely, old road trips, sank like a Packard filled with concrete-trapped feet - in the most expensive parking lot downtown last spring, we've been car-less. Or, to put a more up-with-people optimistic spin on it, car-free. Regardless of terminological preferences. we've been without wheels, an auto, our family jalopy. This was the car that we bought when I was pregnant with our future little boy and the one that safely ushered him home as I sat in the back seat, holding his perfect, balled up hand. (Oh, being unchronological here, It was also the vehicle that my husband used to race between hospitals when my son was at one and I was at another in the week after his birth.) We drove that gunmetal grey wagon to Minnesota to visit the grandfather our son would meet only twice in his infancy, we drove to playgrounds and parties with friends and potlucks and a million little nothing trips to buy this or that, and we loaded it up high with groceries. We sang together in that car, from Johnny Cash to Sufjan Stevens, and I perfected the slip-the-sleeping-child-out-of-the-carseat-and-into-my-arms-without-waking move that would serve me so well those first couple of years. (Tip: get keys in hand or easily accessible pocket before you start or you are screwed and you have no one else to blame.) From behind that steering wheel, I rolled my eyes at bad drivers, tried to watch my language, was spellbound with chills and still as a statue my seat in the parking lot as I listened to Studs Terkel on public radio right after September 11. It was sad for me when our car - we never officially named it because nothing stuck but we'd rotate through names that seemed fitting in the moment, Bessie, Clementine - mostly because of the leaving all that history together behind us. I can be nostalgic to a fault, yes, but just try not to be a little teary when you think about all those memories, all those moments that yoked us together.

Ever since that fateful day, we've been living an experiment born out of necessity. We've been without auto and reliant completely on ourselves for our transportation, other than the rare car rentals. I am sure we'll get another car soon but the perfect circumstances haven't occurred yet and until then, we'll get by. This is what I told people when they asked how on earth we'd survive without a car: we'll get by. And we have. We get by using our bikes, something we were fond of doing anyway, though I was formerly only a fair-weather cyclist, and by using public transportation. In these colder month, I admit, I don't ride on ice or in deep snow. I simply walk or use the bus or train. If it's cold but the streets are plowed, I'll bike. These winter months, my son usually is in his trailer unless he prefers to ride alongside us. We get by. It's not always a thrill, but I do get a big boost from facing the elements and overcoming them. Usually within minutes of being on my bike, I'm at a comfortable body temperature and I feel great, legs, heart and blood pumping. That, to me, is the biggest high of riding my bike: knowing that my body is driving the whole thing and my muscles are responsible for pushing me forward. My friend Jane and I talked once as we rode with our children to a park, about how you are just riding along, getting from Point A to Point B, when all of the sudden you're just filled with a "Gosh, I love being on my bike!" euphoric feeling that makes your heart want to jump out of your chest and you feel like there's a visible aura surrounding you. I love the freedom of just being able to jump on my bike, no fuss, no muss, and pedal off to where I need to be. I love the simplicity and elegance of a bike's design. I love how efficiently it provides the exercise you need to make your cheeks all rosy and your quadriceps toned. I love that after that initial investment and the occasional maintenance costs, there are no further expenses, no insurance payments, no fuel to add, no special permits or stickers, no blood-chillingly awful sounds from the engine that will require you to give $3,000 to people you don't quite trust and who treat you like you're a wallet with legs. How exquisitely liberating is that? (Answer: very.) And, of course, I love shrinking my family's ecological footprint whenever possible. Being a vegan without a car. Sigh. I love it. I'm not to proud to admit that I love our itty-bitty footprint.

It's not all pink puffy hearts and yellow smiley stickers, though. There are the kamikaze cyclists, especially the apparently immortal bike messengers downtown, who create such animosity among drivers and pedestrians toward anyone on a bike alike that it is transferred onto you. No matter how much PR you do, you can't undo their damage. There is the random idiot who honks at you simply for having the audacity to ride your bicycle on the street, where it belongs. There are people who open their car doors into traffic without looking. There are those who scream stupid, ill-informed and rude comments (you can always race after them and see them watching you in their mirror with a growing alarm that pleases you to no end, because if they get stuck at a red light, you can pull up alongside and calmly ask if they are familiar with the Rules Of The Road laws, and, if so, they'd know that you were perfectly within your rights to be riding as you were, but those moments of near-instant karma are all too rare). There is that horrible feeling when you didn't rubberband your right pants leg and it got stuck and torn in the thingamabob (okay, John just told me it's called a chainring) near the pedal. There is the dread you feel as you walk out of the grocery store with your five heavy canvas bags and there's suddenly a dark grey sky and sheets of rain and lightning everywhere with an ark floating past. These are the moments when you might harbor antagonistic thoughts toward your totally innocent, cheerful bike. Those moments are rare, though, because the benefits of your freedom on your faithful bike totally overwhelm them.

Here are some tips and strategies, though, from a novice but experienced urban bike rider. This is by no means meant to be the definitive list, just some things that I have found to be useful or effective.

First, find a bike shop you trust and support them. Get your bike tuned-up at least once a year unless you just happen to be handy yourself. We are lucky enough to have these guys as neighbors and they are a great example of a local, family-owned business. They are honest with us, try to find us the most affordable parts or accessories without selling us junk, and will be honest with us about what they think we need to pay more for as well. They've never steered us wrong, I baked them some root beer float vegan cupcakes once I love them so much. Ask your local crazy, four-season cyclists what shops they recommend and go from there. Good bike shops build great loyalty among cyclists. These guys - it's run by two brothers - are like a less erudite version of the Car Talk guys from NPR.

Bike without distractions. When I see people biking while on cell phones or with i-Pods in, I'm amazed that they're able to avoid riding straight into parked cars. I think anytime you distract yourself from the task at hand, especially one where you have to be alert to an ever-changing environment, and one that can have such drastic consequences if you're not fully aware of your surroundings, you are in trouble. Last summer I took a risk I rarely do and decided to listen to my i-Pod while biking to the grocery store. One of my bags got wound around the spokes in the front tire while I was singing along to The Go-Gos and the bike came to a sudden, jerking stop, making it flip, back over front. Thankfully I was uninjured but this was the reminder I needed to always give my full attention to biking. If I hadn't distracted myself, I'm pretty sure that I would have noticed the tightening of the front tire.

Maintain a good field of vision. I've always said that I feel more alert and careful when biking than when driving. Driving a vehicle can lull you into a sort of complacent fog, feeling like your in some sort of protective bubble. On a bike, you are much more aware of your vulnerabilities and your movement as you go. A good urban cyclist is aware all around herself, scanning parked cars for people who could potentially open a door, the kids at the corner who look like they might step off onto the street without looking, the double-parked car that might pull out. There is a sort of Zen state one reaches while biking in an urban setting, where one is perfectly in the moment, moving forward and peacefully alert. The scene around you is ever-changing on a bike, something you are much more aware of than in a car, so each moment brings new aspects of your environment into your awareness. Reaching that state of calm but alert awareness is critical to safe urban biking, I think, so you must constantly be scanning around you as you go.

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. This was a great quote from a friend, one that I've certainly taken to heart this first year of winter biking. I'm definitely kind of wussy about the cold but I have to say that when properly attired, I'm far warmer biking than I would be walking. Generally the only part of you that will be cold is that which is exposed to the air. Here's what I've learned, especially as pertains to winter biking:

1. Layer it up! When I go out there, it's not without long underwear under my clothes, leg warmers, gloves, a coat and a balaclava. My husband would get overheated in this ensemble but it's perfect for me when it's cold, which, to me, means 30 degrees or below. You can always take off layers: if you're cold and without layers, well, you've sort of screwed. I buy a lot of this stuff at resale shops so I can always have it on hand, not have to be cold if something can't be found or is in the wash.

2. Invest in one of those cheapo plastic rain panchos from the drug store and keep it handy for emergencies. Also, keep a plastic bag handy for tying to your bike seat on rainy days.

3. Some people wear goggles for wet weather. The problem is that they tend to fog up, as do glasses. Keep a handkerchief nearby.

4. I mentioned balaclavas, right? Now, this is not a sweet phyllo dough dessert filled with walnuts and syrup, it is a hat-type thing that you can adjust to fit over your whole face but for your eyes. Yes, they are totally unattractive and wearing one makes you look like you're ready to head off for the anarchist rally, and maybe you are, but they will keep your face and neck warm. I do not bike in winter without mine. The only thing I would caution about a balaclava is that it can impede one's peripheral vision. When wearing one, turn the head to the side to determine is it's safe to cross an intersection or enter a new lane. Okay, now I'm sort of in love with this thing.

That little light of yours, you'd better let it shine.
This is not just a little precaution: many municipalities require headlights and rear lights. Really, do you want to go out without them? We bike with headlights (always remember to remove when leaving your bike as these get stolen frequently) and lights that clip on to the backs of our helmets. It is worth spending a little more on one high quality set of lights rather than going through a bunch of cheapies that don't last more than a few weeks. Ask your fellow cyclists what they recommend. Oh, speaking of, how cool is this light? On my birthday wish list, of course, in blue, in case you were wondering.

Wear a helmet. Just do, okay? If not for yourself, than for your family. (No I'm not above guilt-tripping others if it's for the benefit of all.) I do understand the thrill of the wind in your hair and all that, but I also know that if I were airborne after getting hit by a car or swerving to avoid a pothole, in that second before I knew the outcome, I'd really, really regret not having worn it.

Don't be a jerk. Don't scare pedestrians and drivers alike by whizzing through an intersection like you're the only one on earth, for Pete's sake. Don't be reckless. Don't have an attitude. Every time you go out on your bike, you are a living example of a cyclist. Acting like a jerk builds resentment against those of the rest of us who bike and has a ripple effect on how we're all treated. Ride with traffic, not against it. Signal your turns: these days, it is accepted that a left turn is the left arm straight out, a right turn is the right arm straight out (this has changed over time from the left arm pointing up), and stopping is signaled with the left arm out and bent at the elbow, hanging down like an upside-down L.

Conversely, don't take abuse. You are within your rights to be bicycling on the street. In fact, most municipalities ban adults from riding their bikes on sidewalks. Avoid confrontations with motorists because in the case of road rage, a bike is a poor match for a car. Call the police and report the license if necessary.
Ride in a straight line. Of course, you'll need to turn and occasionally get around things, but maintaining a straight line is important for your safety. Going in and out between parked cars creates confusion among drivers. You have the right to be three feet away from parked cars. Consider this your marker of where you should be on the road. Claim your space!

Be heard. Some cyclists won't go out without a whistle around their necks. Others use bells. One guy I know uses an air horn in extreme situations. Don't be shy about being heard when your safety or another's is in question.

Get good carrying systems. We use a trailer for most of our needs, but baskets and that sort of thing are also useful. A messenger bag will take car of most of your light needs and there are a ton on Etsy that are beyond cute. Comfort is key with happy, safe cycling, so invest in what you need to meet that end.

I hope this helps. There is a ton more to add, I'm sure, but just a parting thought for now: remember to enjoy yourself. Biking is all about enjoyment. One day we'll get a car again, and you just can't beat a car for convenience, but I was always love my orange and yellow sparkly bike for whisking me off into the great unknown with a happy grin on my face. Bikes are bad mood repellents. You just can't beat a bike!

8 comments:

The Blasphemous Fiendess said...

This is a great post; thank you Marla. I wish I could ride my bike. Chronic fatigue syndrome won't let me and I'm afraid of riding too far from home and not having the energy/ability to get back. At least it's always downhill to get home. My goal is to try and ride more this spring. I'm not equipped for wet weather and I'm very out of practice.

Marla said...

Oh, BF, developing CFS is pretty much the biggest fear I have in my life. I feel for you. What can you do, if anything, to minimize its effects?

B said...

Good for you riding in the city! My trusty old car is in storage while I live in super bike friendly Copenhagen w/ my Danish partner right now, and I admit I miss my four wheels SO much. But! I also learned to love my bike, and as one of those annoying "I live in the biking capital of the world" people (or maybe Amsterdam has up beat), I have to say this is an amazing and comprehensive list. I agree with it all! I'm looking for one of those awful honking bells for my bike at the moment because my little tinny ding just does not cut it. The only thing I do differently is wear my iPod ;-)

Marla said...

Thanks, B! The deal with the iPod is me, I think: I cannot divide my attention like that. It's always been the same way with talking (not even on the phone, with others in my car) while driving. I just get easily distracted.

The main thing I miss about my car is the convenience. Seriously, going somewhere that is off the beaten path can take hours whereas it would be a breeze with a car. So in that way I do feel my freedom of movement compromised. Otherwise, I'm pretty happy. Lucky you for living in Copenhagen!

T said...

Great tips! I will keep that in mind when I break out the bike this spring!

Marla said...

Cool, T! Glad to help.

The Voracious Vegan said...

Love this post! When I was living in the US I was a huge bike nut, always out on the trails tearing it up. Such an amazing feeling. Here in Saudi there aren't any mountains to bike in, and obviously, as a woman, I can't ride my bike off my compound, but luckily our compound in huge and we have a lot of fun on our rickety old bikes. We left our good ones in storage in the US but I'm thinking it's time to get them shipped over.

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