15 December 2009

Affairs with a Bicycle

When I tell people I ride my bicycle five and a half miles each way to and from work, their response is shock. “That is such a long distance!” they say, or, “That is so dangerous!” I’ll dispel two myths right now: five and a half miles really isn’t a long way unless you’re going up and down San Francisco hills, and well, yes, it can be dangerous. Then again, so is driving my car at 65 miles an hour, walking across the street, or eating spinach.

But I have a confession to make. I don’t ride my bicycle as often as I’d like to. On my best week, I’ve ridden four days – three during the work week and once during the weekend for a leisurely adventure. I blame it on hating to wake up early, inclement weather, and most of all, on the fact that my 1983 Diesel Mercedes still runs wonderfully with no end in sight. In order to be at work by 9:00 AM, I need to leave the house by 7:30 AM to make it down to Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop for a $1 shower (towel, soap, shampoo, and conditioner included with the price!). Fortunately, I don’t wear make-up on a daily basis, and I don’t fuss too much with my hair, so cleaning up is quick, and work is just a few blocks from the shop.

The commute downtown takes me approximately 45-50 minutes, mostly taking South Congress all the way up from Stassney. There is an official bike lane a majority of the way, but I admit to using the sidewalk for a great part of my route because there are never any pedestrians, and I feel safer that much further away from the cars. I don’t ride very fast either, especially if I’m going downhill. I fear flying over my handlebars, so I steadily clamp the brakes. Combine all these elements with the fact that I am not an athletic person and that I only started riding an adult bicycle less than 2 years ago – the average person out there can probably out-do me.

Back in 2006, my boyfriend gave me an early 1970s women’s style Raleigh with a 3-speed internal gear hub and a pedal-generated dynamo headlight. With $80 of tune-up work and a milk crate attached to the book rack, I apprehensively rode around our South Austin neighborhood, and slowly worked my way to riding all the way downtown. I think I might have made 3 trips downtown altogether that year – each time getting a mini heart-attack when a car passed me too closely, or wobbling through a narrow passage.

In 2007, I probably doubled my rides downtown for a total of 6, the highlight of which was the East Side Studio Tour in November with the luxury of pulling my transportation practically right up to the door and being one of the “cool kids.” That year, I also discovered the Veloway, just off Mopac, south of Slaughter Lane: a 3.1-mile paved loop where no runners or cars are allowed. It’s mostly flat, with a few slight hills, and one very steep hill that I never conquered.

By 2008, I was averaging one or two bike rides a month downtown. I learned not to teeter when riding through a tight space as long as I focused on an object up ahead, and passing vehicles did not frighten me as long as long as we each maintained a straight line ahead. When crossing an intersection or a driveway, I had learned to make definite eye contact with drivers. That fall, my boyfriend and I traveled to Germany, and my intermittent love affair with the bicycle became the beginning of a life-long relationship.

In Berlin, there are bicycle lanes on both sides of the street that are actually off the road and up on the sidewalk level, clearly marked by a red-paved surface. They even have their own traffic signals. The cars weren’t the ones to fear, but rather, the angry cyclists ringing their bells or squeezing their horns at distracted pedestrians stepping into their lane. Bicycle riders come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, wearing pants and skirts and rarely a helmet. Then we went to Amsterdam, home of the Dutch-style commuter bicycle, where the bike lanes extend into the countryside and no more than 3 speeds is necessary because it’s flat as far as the eye can see.

When I returned to Austin, I increased my bike trips to once a week, and told myself if I kept up a good weekly routine, I’d reward myself with a newer, lighter bicycle. I loved my Raleigh, with its stylish fenders and chain guard, but with a steel frame it was painfully heavy to hoist onto the bus if needed. After intense research, I decided in March 2009 to purchase a Bianchi Milano Parco with a celeste green light-weight aluminum frame and a 3-speed internal gear hub, which is critical if you want to be able to switch gears when you’re at a stop. It also came with fenders and a chain-guard, and once I added a rear-basket, it was virtually a modern twin of the Raleigh.

On my first long ride on the Bianchi, I suffered my first accident going east on 4th Street from Brazos Street. After being thrilled by the only short stretch of almost-European-style bike lane in Austin, my wheels caught on the rail tracks just west of I-35, leaving me with a bloody knee and knuckles. But after 6 months on the new bike, I had become very confident riding solo or with my boyfriend. We had made the 20-mile round trip trek to downtown Buda on Old San Antonio Road, countless trips downtown and to East Austin as far as Montopolis, and many night rides. So I decided to look for new adventures on the bicycle.

Surely, we weren’t the only casual bike enthusiasts – where were the other riders like us? In the process of planning Mexic-Arte Museum’s Viva la Vida Fest and recruiting participants for the procession, I discovered number of cycling groups – including ATX Social Cycling, Austin Cycling Association, and the SkelliCyclists, a squad of urban street bicyclists who got their name from the founder’s idea that they all love cycling so much, they’d be riding even after deceased. I found this 3rd group to be a perfect addition to the Museum’s Día de los Muertos parade, and several of them did come out with skeleton-painted faces.

In return, I joined the Skellies’ Halloween 12-mile day ride through downtown and East Austin and had a fantastic time. I had been afraid of being left behind or teased for being slow, but the ride leaders were encouraging and truly watched out for everyone. All the riders I met were friendly, and even though the group varied in ages, interests, and skill level, one thing united us all: we enjoyed riding our bicycles, didn’t feel obligated to wear spandex, and approved of beer as acceptable hydration.

A few weeks later, I joined the ATX Social Cycling group on a 10-mile bike ride through East Austin, frequently interrupted by bar stops and parking lot activities such as jousting and dancing to mini-stereos strapped to bike racks. There aren’t too many things more satisfying to a cyclist than riding up a hill and seeing hundreds of flickering red bicycle tail lights up ahead. Of course, it’s not all just for fun. Most of us recognize that riding our bicycles is healthy for the environment and healthy for our bodies. When I ride my bicycle, I am in a terrific mood all day, on a high that even large amounts of caffeine could not possibly give me.

Take that goodness one step further, and bicycle riding can actually turn into helping out the community. The fearless SkelliCyclist leader, Nam Phan, organized a team of Skellies to volunteer with Meals on Wheels to take over one of the bike routes. The day I joined two other Skellies to deliver meals in East Austin came a very close second to being my favorite bike ride ever (the first was the day we toured all of East Berlin).

Now, it’s already the end of 2009, and as I settle on my New Year’s resolution, I think about one that will take care of many other resolutions: ride my bike 4-5 times a week, and take at least one 20 mile-plus journey on the weekends. This will save me money on gas, save me money at the gym, and keep me in shape. And who knows what new friends I’ll make, or how many people in need I’ll help out along the way. So if you have a bike, I dare you to join me – I’ll be the girl with pigtails flying in the wind from under my helmet, scuffed saddle shoes, and a basket packed with everything I need for the day.

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