Friday, July 4, 2008

Winter Biking in the 'Burbs

About 3 years ago I sold my car. I haven't owned one since. Bicycles have taken the place of cars in my life, which isn't really all that hard when you're living in cities. I've ridden through the past 3 winters; 2 in Minneapolis and 1 in Philly/Camden. I love winter biking! Admittedly, some of my reasons are shallow and vain. I like showing up somewhere on a day with -12 windchill, all bundled up, with "beardsicles" hanging off of my face. "Did you bike here!? Man, I like biking, but I'm not nearly that hardcore!" Internal satisfaction overcomes me, and through it all I'm mostly self aware of my boastful pride. I'm not proud of this, but it is the truth. But even if there were nobody else to impress, I think I would still bike through the winter. The daily ritual of checking the weather, getting all bundled up and then going out to face nature and traffic brings me much joy.

This winter was going to be different, though. I was going to be in the suburbs of Detroit, with near 10-mile round-trip commute to school each day. My main artery of transportation was a road called Groesbeck, with a 50 mph speed limit, no shoulder, and curbs on the road's edge for most of the way. Gone for me were the days of bike lanes, sympathetic drivers (okay, those don't seem to exist anywhere), and slow moving, congested traffic. This would be a new battle. Every ride seems like life and death. My experience can be best summed up by something I wrote in my journal when I sat down in my 8 a.m. class on January 23rd, while waiting for the professor to show up: "Upon arriving at school this morning after a grueling ride across snow and ice, I licked my lips and tasted the salt sprayed from the cars and smiled for the savory satisfaction of knowing that my commute this morning did not take one drop of oil". Okay, okay. I know what you're probably thinking. Yes, this was a totally sensationalized account. To be fair, there were many days when I would ask myself, "Why in the world am I doing this!?" There were many occasions when friends would offer me rides, and I would accept... despite the feeling of "selling out".

The first part of winter was probably the worst. I hadn't gotten a bike of my own up and running yet, so I was borrowing one from my friend David. It was a wonderful Free Spirit...complete with a derailleur that failed, brakes that seldom worked, and the worst geometry of a frame that I have ever seen or had the discomfort of riding. I might also mention that it had one of those huge grandma seats, with the word "hi" affectionately spray painted on it. I shouldn't complain quite so much, though. I didn't show up late once for class while I was riding that hunk of junk that was so generously loaned to me. In fact we became quite close, me and that ol' Free Spirit. That is, until the ice came. I forgot to mention that there was zero tread on the tires. We laid down on the ice together quite a few times, staring at the winter night sky and wishing I were home. I was afraid to ride the Free Spirit in the street, and my lovely road to the homestead is an industrial highway, so it had no sidewalk. I think my body had to invent new muscles- or at least utilize ones that had never been used in order to stabilize that awkward bike as I rode across the snow, ice, and super-bumpy frozen ground. It took every ounce of my concentration to make it home each night.

Once I got my new bike mostly functional, riding became a little less treacherous and a lot more fun. For starters, it was a fixed gear, which I hadn't had the pleasure of riding since my own was stolen for the second time in Philly last Fall. Fixies are especially fun in the winter, because you can kinda control your sliding all over, and you're not really dependent on wet/icy brakes or rims to control your speed. I picked up some slightly wide, knobby treaded tires at the recommendation of a popular bike co-op in Minneapolis while I was in town visiting for New Years. The guy said they were awesome in the snow as he showed them to me on his bike, convincing me he wasn't just being a crafty salesman. They were definitely good in the snow. They were definitely not good on the ice. I'm not quite sure how many times I totally ate it, but I know that I don't have enough fingers on both hands to count them. It was mostly my fault though, as I had been fooling around and trying to see how far I could skid on the ice. Apparently that doesn't really work out so hot. May I also recommend to the readers out there, two hands on the handle bars at all times when riding over slippery spots? Take my word, this is good advice! I think my favorite wreck was when I was trying to ride up a curb head on that had some snow piled up. I was totally set on riding through a little opening I saw between two huge mounds created by the plow trucks. I sped up a bit, and to this day I'm not sure how I got stuck on that initial pile by the curb. Final result: face first over the handle bars and into the giant snow still "under" me, though at that point it was actually laying on top of me.

While living in Philly, I got into the good habit of wearing a helmet when I ride, at the forceful insistence of a friend. I am grateful to him for it. Wearing a helmet often looks lame, this I won't deny. When you think about it though, it makes almost no sense not to wear a helmet. We invest so much time and money into our brains: whether it's the high price of tuition for school, the amount of time we spend reading books and learning skills, or all the time we've spent making memories with those dearest to us. What are we without our minds, our memories... or without the ability to think critically? If a $40 piece of Styrofoam and plastic can better my chances of preserving what's inside of it, in the midst of the inevitable run in with a motorized vehicle that I've been so blessed to escape so far, why should I worry about not looking totally fashionable? I've also become a big fan of lights and reflective tape/clothing. I've had way too many close calls, and I sure as heck want cars on the road to see me. If I had gotten hit in Philly by a car going 20 mph, it would have really hurt and probably wrecked my bike. If I get hit by a car out here going 50 over, man.

All in all riding through the winter in the suburbs has been both fun and miserable. It has had the same shock value here as everywhere, though with less satisfaction. People here don't think that you're cool for riding your bike in the winter... they think you are probably poor, and most likely stupid. Just goes to show you, you shouldn't live your life to please or impress people, but to live by the standards you feel convicted to live by. I have greatly enjoyed all the parts mentioned early on in this article and found a certain amount of hope in it. This is the land of TINA...There Is No Alternative!... in the sense of transportation. No one here can imagine life without a car. It has served as a reoccurring reinforcement of my own ideals in a land where alternate ideals aren't welcome, as well as a springboard for conversation about a lifestyle of simplicity.

Now I'd like to tell you that since the snow melted, everything has gotten so much better. Ya know...the roads are smooth, the drivers friendly, life is dreamy...etc. Well, unfortunately, this is not the case. The 3 feet between the cars and the curbs is full of gravel, misc. sharp objects, sewer grates, and huge pot holes. I often have to swerve into traffic to avoid these things. Cars officially hate me, but I don't mind that too much. I now have two road bikes up and running and I've been rotating them almost every other day, because I've been averaging about one flat tire per day for the last week. The puncture proof tires I wanted were out of stock, so now I wait patiently for them to come in next week. I'm getting really good at patching tubes, but I'll admit that lately I dread the prospect of getting another flat. Such is life for the suburban bike commuter I suppose.

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