My town — our town — has more potholes, puddles and unavoidable perils than you will ever know. Unless you are a bike commuter. Like me.
Two years ago, I made the decision to forsake engine-assisted transportation on my six-mile daily commute downtown during spring, summer and fall. I haven’t looked back.
|Gas savings:$3 per gallon.
Parking savings: $6 per day.
Freedom from red light cameras: priceless.
Photo by Jesse Kramer
Actually, I can’t look back. Thanks to the sorry state of our east-west arteries and morning motorists who haven’t yet sent coffee coursing through theirs, a cyclist who dares look anywhere but straight ahead (or side to side at intersections) risks death, dismemberment or at least a flat tire.
That said, bike commuting is addictive, environmentally friendly and a even a little subversive. I wouldn’t trade it for a Taurus and 20 green lights on Chester Avenue.
“So, a bike commuter?” you say. “Well, I’ve got a few questions for you.”
I know you do. People always ask: “Why?” “What’s your route?” And above all else, “Where do you shower?”
The answers in due time, I promise. But first, a little background.
I’ve been an avid biker for almost as long as I can remember. I have a scrapbook photo of my first ride without training wheels. In it, I am smiling wide while my right hand grips the handlebars and my left waves at the camera. Elementary school was less than a mile away, and I rode as often as I walked.
While I was in law school in Iowa City, I pedaled to class almost every day. When the winter chill rolls across the Great Plains, there are plenty of days when cars don’t start. I could always start my bike.
Then I took my first full-time job and made a decision I regret. When I was a child, I biked as a child. But when I became a man, I figured it was time to put away my childish bikes. I worried that cycling to the office might look unprofessional to my co-workers, like I hadn’t stepped into the adult world. For the next three years, my bikes did not get much use.
Moving to Cleveland saved me. I joined in the active triathlon scene here. Training got me into the Chagrin River Valley on hot summer rides. Discovering the Towpath sent me down the Cuyahoga River Valley on cool fall cruises.
It was a small step back to biking, but I was still a giant leap away from bike commuting.
Americans don’t care what their fellow citizens do with their free time — their neighbors can ride bikes, read books or knit sweaters for all they care — but if an adult with a valid driver’s license challenges the hegemony of the automobile, everyone’s full of questions.
“Why?” Why did I move from recreational rider to bike commuter? Part of it was because I wanted to take a stand — Save the Earth! — by taking a seat on my bike, though I fear my impact is little more than a drop in an oil barrel. Also, the extra exercise is good training for my races, even if the aerobic benefit is tempered by the exhaust intake. Then there’s the cost savings. Gas: $3 per gallon. Parking: $6 per day. Freedom from red light cameras: priceless.
My main motivation for two-wheeling the trip, though, is that bike commuting is simply more invigorating and interesting than driving. Every day I race buses and, unencumbered by additional passengers, I’m fast enough to win. But I’m also slow enough to appreciate the street scene as it changes from hospital to university to hospital again, then to postindustrial wasteland, then university redux, arts center, and finally, urban downtown. (That’s Euclid Avenue, if you hadn’t guessed, and it’s also usually the answer to your second question.)
At biking speed, I notice a lot of details that drivers miss. I can tell you where mulberries grow wild on the bike path along the Shoreway just north of Rockefeller Park. And I can tell you that at the end of June, they are oh, so sweet.
I’ve also noticed that, despite what you think, Cleveland’s roads aren’t all that busy. Even during rush hour. They’re rather like a boa constrictor that’s swallowed a few rabbits. Come to a stoplight, and sure, there are plenty of cars. But on my bike, 10 seconds after a light turns green, I’m alone, so I’ve come to realize that most of our roads are empty almost all of the time.
I also feel more connected to the city. Two or three times a week I pass the same mentally challenged young man walking purposefully east on Euclid while I’m westbound. Eventually, I thought to myself, I’ll figure out where he’s going. And sure enough, one day I did. Our schedules aligned, and I saw him turn into a Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities center at Euclid and East 70th that I’d never noticed before. It wasn’t spectacularly revealing, but now I know, and that means something to me.
Next I need to figure out the story of the jogger and shadow boxer who runs east every morning on Euclid near East 90th swaddled in heavy cotton sweatpants and hood-cinched-tight sweatshirt. Is he the next Rocky Balboa or just a little daft? One day I’ll catch him heading into either a gym or a bar (probably the latter), and I’ll know.
Occasionally, I even get to talk to the people I meet. Last summer I was pedaling home at a leisurely pace on North Marginal Road when a fellow bike commuter zipped by me on his snappy custom-built Seven cycle. Competitive juices engaged, I moved to full-on sprint mode just to catch up. When he saw me coming, he shifted to a higher gear to shake me. I held on, though.
Only after a mile of racing along the Shoreway bike path did we relent and begin a conversation — about bike commuting, of course. He lived in Beachwood and rode 12 months a year (shudder!). Cyclists are competitive but ultimately kindred spirits.
Bike commuting is not all peaches (or mulberries) and cream. The inattentive driver, the unexpected storm — there are plenty of hazards. Perhaps the scariest is the feral pack of dogs that patrols Rockefeller Park. They pursued a co-worker of mine on her bike this year. Three years ago, on Easter morning, I had to escape that pack while I was running there. Though it’s said the pack barks but doesn’t bite, here’s a note to the city of Cleveland: Catch those dogs. Fast!
So, finally, the answer to your last question. “Where do you shower?” The answer is: I don’t. My office doesn’t have showers. So even though Cleveland summer mornings are generally cool, and even though the downtown route is more or less downhill, and even though I change clothes when I arrive — yes, I have been know to sweat a bit. It’s not a condition in which I’d make a Supreme Court appearance, but none of my kind officemates seem to mind.
That’s the price I pay for the thrill of dodging distracted drivers, making new friends that I rarely meet, and, most of all, enjoying a more interesting routine. From where I sit on my bicycle seat, it’s well worth it.