Mean streets: A bike lover braces for cycling in the city
As any kid with a brand-new two-wheeler could tell you, riding bikes is fun. It’s also cheap, healthy, and non-carbon-spewing, yes, but fun is the keystone principle here. I love riding my bike. I love cruising around, traversing my neighborhood quickly without sealing myself away in a car, and blazing by all the suckers who can’t find a parking space. But confession time: Since I’ve moved to the urban wonderland of Seattle, my butt-in-bike-seat time has dramatically declined. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t change that.
I used to be a hell of a bike commuter. Lest you question my commitment, know this: I once won a free bike light from my boss for cycling to work the most days in a row. In fact, I even sacrificed my left front tooth on the altar of the two-wheeled commute. One cold winter’s morning, when less fervent riders were hiding out in their cars, I pedaled off to the office and flew over my handlebars in short order (I could tell you this happened because of icy conditions, but really, it was because my mitten got tangled in my iPod cord). I even rode my bike to the subsequent root canal appointment (true story).
But that was in the flat and suburbanesque town of Boulder, Colo., where an extensive series of wide, well-kept bike paths snake through town, granting easy, traffic-free access to any place worth going. Street riding was minimal, and even then, it was never so congested as to dissuade me. It wasn’t without its hazards — kamikaze prairie dogs and Spandex-encased racers who’d knock over a toddler if he was slowing them down* were chief among them — but generally, biking there was an easy way to get around.
And now, Seattle. We do have an impressive bike lane system in this city, but they’re not everywhere — meaning there’s some degree of tangling with hulking buses and impatient cars required on some pretty narrow streets. Even when you do find a blessed bike lane, odds are decent you’ll run into some construction that’ll force you into uncomfortably close communion with traffic. My fiancé, Ted, once noticed a cyclist bravely forging on next to the bus Ted was riding in a hard-hat zone. “I could have reached out the window and patted that guy on the head,” he said.
And then there are the hills. Between my apartment and downtown Seattle sits a slope so steep it would fit right in at a ski resort. I don’t think physics allow me to muscle my city cruiser up that thing. Riding down it, in my imagination, is akin to getting on a roller coaster with no safety harness.
There’s also the matter of the other riders. Hardcore urban cyclists in this town freak me out. They’re always whizzing past you as you suffer up those aforementioned hills, and looking better than you in their specialized velocouture cycling knickers, and judging you because your bike has a kickstand. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve been intimidated by the whole urban bike culture thing.
But I love biking. I miss biking. I want to pedal around town much more than I currently do, to cut down on car and bus trips and to burn a few calories in the process. So last week, I headed over to an urban cycling symposium at the University of Washington to pick up some tips and gain some insight into the wild world of city cycling. I figured a panel discussion on growing bike culture was a good place to start.
I slipped into a room filled with transportation engineers, bike shop employees, city administrators, and one member of the New Zealand parliament. First up was a field guide to today’s ever-shifting cyclist subcultures. DL Byron, a blogger for Bike Hugger, swiftly spelled it out for us. You’ve got roadies, those of the shaved legs and multiple bikes. You’ve got the fashion riders who set themselves apart with their chic performance wear. You’ve got cargo bike haulers, shop monkeys, nerdy commuters, and bike messengers. Some like to ride naked, some prefer bikes that fold or are very tall, and some, inexplicably, like to dress like they are ’70s-era college professors when they ride. And of course, don’t forget the hipsters, who’ve discovered how well fixie bikes go with ironic hats.
It was the opposite of intimidating — it was kind of reassuring. Turns out there’s no monolithic urban bike culture out there after all, so surely there’s room for me out on the city streets, too. Even if I like to have gears on my bikes and will never, ever wear one of those ankle straps for your right pant leg.
Thus accepted into cycling culture, it was time to confront some of the other obstacles that have kept me from fully embracing urban riding. Luckily, the panel then opened a discussion about that very thing. Some issues I could relate to — the hills, sure, and fear of getting smushed by a garbage truck. Not wanting to get sweaty or dirty, or fear that someone would steal your bike. (My theft-prevention strategy has always been to have a bike no one would want to steal. See: kickstand.) Not knowing how to change a flat. And, disturbingly for women, not wanting dudes to take a picture of you and put it on their voyeuristic blogs about well-dressed female cyclists. Apparently, this is an issue in the cycling community. I made a mental note to dig out my freshman-year sweatpants for all urban rides henceforth.
I left the discussion feeling inspired and emboldened to push my limits and make my trusty cruiser a viable transportation option beyond my neighborhood. I even took it out for a spin to the grocery store that night, relishing the sheer speed, convenience, and — yes, oh yes — fun of it all. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to get that bike downtown in some real traffic. I’m going to rely on it to get to social events. I’m going to figure out a way to get up and down that hill. Extra points if I can do it all without losing my other front tooth.
*Another true story. I saw it. Knocked the poor kid right into the bushes.