Perhaps I was born on bicycle. I doubt it. My childhood bicycle experience started ironically. I was scared to death of taking off my training wheels, and kept them on even though all my friends were pounding the sidewalks on their own two wheels. Finally my big sister had enough and took the training wheels off. I cried. I wailed. Then I got on my bike and wobbled down the street. By the time I rode around the block I was jammin’. “Not so bad! I should have done this a long time ago!” A lesson in life.
From there on out I became an inspired bike commuter. I’d ride to play with my friends after school. When I got older I’d ride to my girlfriend’s house – not so easy when she lived ten miles away and all I had was an old Schwinn one-speed with coaster brakes. When I went away to high school I got my first bike with gears. Five speeds! I was in heaven.
In high school I commuted to classes with my bike. I still remember the wonderful feeling of riding down a hill on a dark late summer evening, like a giant leaping through the warm fragrant darkness. I took bike touring as a PE class. We had some marvelous cruises through the Massachusetts countryside. I discovered the joys of bicycling through six inches of snow (not too bad if people take turns leading and you don’t make sudden moves).
I learned many lessons. On one ride we went down Rattlesnake Hill. It was a steep downhill grade that turned sharp right at the bottom. Winter maintenance had left a drift of sand at the bottom. So most of us, rather than risk wiping out turning through the sand, rode straight off the road and into the forest. Luckily it was carpeted in moss, so one by one we wiped out into a soft natural mattress. I lay there for a while watching some of my fellow riders zoom through the trees into the moss like me, and the more experienced ones hugging the corner and making the turn.
Another lesson: On the last day of PE, we were riding home and I decided to pop a wheelie. Bad idea. I came down on sand, flipped over my handlebars, and suddenly found myself on my back with the bike in the air above me, my leg through a wheel, and both knees skinned and bleeding. I limped home the last couple miles, while a helpful friend rode back with my bent-up bike. Don’t pop wheelies.
My joy of riding continued through college, commuting to classes and riding out to the quarry for summer swims. Then I left school and headed out west. I got my first car, and life didn’t have much room for a bicycle for a while. I tried the life of a nomad, then a hermit, then decided it was time to return to college.
The first day I visited the campus of Cal-Davis, I was heading out of the parking lot, about to cross what I thought was a footpath, and suddenly – rush hour! Hundreds of bicycles started to zoom by, fancy bikes, banana bikes, bikes pulling students on skateboards. I had discovered the Mecca of bicycles.
Davis has as its logo one of those old-fashioned bicycles with the big front wheel. (For those of you who remember the TV show “The Prisoner”, you would also appreciate the ironic double-entendre.) There were bike paths everywhere, bike lanes, bike cross-walks, bike roundabouts, bike bridges, even bike police and laws against drunk bicycling. I lived there for 5 years, eventually with my growing family. I literally never started up a car unless I was driving out of town. We had a bike trailer and towed our kids everywhere, biked to get groceries, biked to classes, biked to the pool on a hot summer day.
Finally I had my environmental engineering degree, and I was offered a job with Department of Ecology. We moved our family up from California and bought a house in northeast Thurston County. At first, with little kids and working by the airport, I didn’t try to bike commute. But with the move to the new building in Lacey, I gave it a try. I soon rediscovered my joy of riding. I was lucky to have an enjoyable route – east on a straight, quiet country road; then south on the Chehalis-Western Trail; then down Martin Way.
It’s just gotten better with time. With the Sleater-Kinney tunnel and the bridge over Martin Way and I-5, I can now do almost the whole ride off streets. My ride is like an opera in my mind – with an intro, movements, interludes, and the finale of riding through St. Martin’s University campus and into work the back way through the woods. Of course there’s the occasional car lurching out of a driveway or cutting into my lane as they turn into my street, but all in all I have it pretty good.
When I passed the age of 50, I learned that body maintenance needed to be part of my routine. Now in my late 50s I am riding more than ever. I customized an old Bridgestone (which I bought the last year they made them) to be tuned to my needs. I have spongy handlebars, fenders, panniers, and “bomb-proof” tires (stainless steel spokes, Kevlar tires – I HATE flat tires!). I have winter bicycling clothes, and have discovered the joys of a pleasant cruise through the drizzle. I plan ahead and each week set aside two days for my bike commute. It doesn’t always work out, but I’ve been proud of riding all through the winter for three years now.
I’ve been in the Bicycle Commuter Contest since the early 90’s. When we all joined together in our new building, I helped organize a team called the “Single Occupancy Bicycles”. The acronym says it all – I even wrote a song for the team. We made t-shirts and rode for several years until we were absorbed into the Clean Air Act. I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considered it a “contest”. It’s more of a communal celebration!
I admit to trying to make my story interesting, but really I’m a pretty average bicyclist. Bikes are uncomfortable and inconvenient. But I love the exercise. I love saving gas. But most of all, when I hop on my bike I feel bliss. The feeling of soaring along through the fresh air, powering myself up hills and rolling down the other side, enjoying the countryside at a human pace – that moment when I leave home or leave work to return is a pleasure worth any sore hands or muscles or derriere.
So my advice if you are thinking of riding more? Build it into your schedule. Get a bike and clothing that works well for you. And then make your commute a time of meditative relaxation and joy.