Friday, June 25, 2010

Why it took me five years to buy a bike

[Soundtrack for this post is reader's choice: David Bowie or Noah and the Whale]

I moved to Cambridge to start grad school five years ago [unrelated: yikes] but didn't buy a bicycle until this past December, despite the fact that Cambridge is such a bicycle commuting city and I wasn't ever planning on having a car.  I thought about it; I said I ought to do it; but I never did it.  Looking back, I can't help but lament the wasted bicycling potential of those years and wonder why the heck it took me so long to get with the program. 

My reasons for not buying a bicycle were pretty common, and anyone who's reading this will already know the answers to my arguments; but all the same, here they are:

1. I hadn't had a bicycle since I was about 13, and even then, I hadn't really been riding much for my last few years of bicycle ownership.  I grew up in a typical suburban environment, where the high school had an enormous parking lot since kids who lived less than a mile away would still drive.  So it had been a long, long, long time since I'd been comfortable on a bike.  You never forget how to ride a bike?  I wasn't convinced.
Answer: It turns out that even if my first few rides had a few shaky starts, it's true; you really don't forget, particularly when you ride an upright bicycle which keeps your center of gravity at basically the same place as if you were standing.

2. The gear.  Not only would I have to purchase a bicycle, but then I'd also have to worry about all of this extra stuff-- locks and helmets and little blinkie things that you clip to your bag and reflective ankle straps and vests and detachable wheels that you carry inside with you, and then what if something were to break?  It all looked so foreign and overwhelming (and expensive), and I felt like grad school was enough to worry about, so why would I want to add one more thing to stress about?
Answer: Again, the choice of bicycle made a big difference.  Since I went with a Dutch-style bike, I was choosing something that was designed to be more or less stress-free, with its internally geared hub and quick-release nothing and covered chain.  No pant cuff rolling, no wheel or saddle carrying, no Lance Armstrong racing helmets required.  Just get on and go and carry on with your life.  It's actually made my life less stressful, since it's so much easier to get around and I no longer have to spend time planning out elaborate bus and train routes and then waiting for them to show up.

3. I always lived within 10-15 minutes walking distance from school, so it seemed like it wouldn't really save me any time to ride a bike once you considered the time it would take to carry the bike outside and then lock it up or unlock it and put on/take off all the biking gear.  So I just walked.  It seemed easier and just as efficient for the mostly short trips I was taking.
Answer: While I do like walking and love living in a city where it is possible to get to many of the places I need to go on foot, it is just so much easier to bike.  In the winter, you end up spending less time out in the cold, even if it does take time to lock up, etc.; and in the summer especially, my feet are so much happier.  I think I may have particularly wimpy feet, so even flat shoes-- ballet flats, Keds, strappy sandals-- would leave me blistered and bloody when walking those distances.  (It should go without saying the heels were an impossibility.)  Plus, the brick sidewalks around town will chew up a shoe faster than you can say "$15 heel replacement."  Pedaling suffers none of these problems. 

4. Related to the gear issue, there was the clothing.  And I don't just mean spandex racing suits-- those were obviously out of the question.  But would I be able to cycle in a skirt?  What if I were wearing low-rise jeans-- would my butt be showing when I bent over to pedal?  Would I have to plan out cycling-friendly outfits every time I wanted to go somewhere by bike?  I didn't want to buy a messenger bag or a backpack and, as mentioned before, the pants rolling thing just seemed weird.
Answer: Again, choosing a Dutch bike makes all of these concerns irrelevant.  A step-through frame and an upright riding position mean that skirts and the hip-huggingest of pants are all okay, even if you may occasionally want to wear some precautionary shorts.  And racks, baskets, and panniers mean that you can carry your things in whatever kind of bag you please, and not only that, but you can carry more things farther.

5. The biggest thing that kept me from riding was fear of cars.  Since I was a child in my previous cycling life, I rode on the sidewalk; and since I lived in a suburban neighborhood, there were very few people on the sidewalks, so it was clear sailing.  Riding in the street seemed dangerous and scary, and to be honest, the helmets only made it seem even scarier.  I didn't know if I could do it.
Answer: Getting comfortable riding in the street just takes time, though actually not as much time as I had expected.  Part of that is being lucky enough to live in a place where there are a lot of cyclists on the road, so cars are more used to dealing with them and it's a little bit easier to find your place in the system.  As Velouria from Lovely Bicycle! detailed in a recent post, you just keep going where you need to go and slowly expanding the areas to which you're willing to travel, and before you know it, it simply doesn't feel like a big deal any more.  Even though I was actually hit by a car last month, I still don't find it that scary to ride in the street most of the time now, whether I'm wearing a helmet or (more frequently) not.  I take various measures to increase my visibility, I signal my turns, and I follow the rules of the road including stopping at red lights.  That doesn't mean that cars don't sometimes still ruin my day, but it's all part of the effort to be a responsible, respectful, and predictable user of the street.  And of course, whenever it makes sense for safety or convenience's sake, you can always get off and walk on the sidewalk.

Like I said, I don't expect anything I've written here to be particularly mind-blowing to readers of this blog, but I did want to offer up one more person's experience of reintroducing cycling into her life.  Anyone can do it; more people should; and I hope they do.


Anonymous said...

Amen. Exactly what cycling should be. Easy. Convenient. No big deal. Just a great way to get where you're going.

Velouria said...

Your experience parallels mine quite a bit, and I too think of all those years of missed cycling opportunities! Keep in mind though, that even as recently as 2 years ago, the Boston area really wasn't what it is now for cyclists, even Cambridge. So in a way, you arrived at the party at just the right time.

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