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On a Bike

I bicycle. I am not a racer, recreational biker or sports biker, although I do teach indoor cycling at the Y in Oakland. I bicycle to places. As a matter of fact, I believed for many years that I could bike (or grab a train) to anywhere I needed to go, and given the right panniers, backpacks, gloves and layers, could do it in any weather and for any reason. I was so convinced of this, I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was thirty.

            This belief took me to campus of the University of Pittsburgh from my Shadyside apartment about five miles away. Books on my back, I passed by the tony mansions that belonged to the Carnegies and Mellons on my way to classes. In the winter, I covered my face with a scarf and wore mittens and a wool cap—Pittsburgh is known for a wind-chill factor that always seemed to be blowing against me. As the sky darkened, I pedaled harder to generate the wheel-powered lights on my handlebars and the back of my seat.

            When I moved to New York City, biking gave me an advantage. I passed the cars stuck in traffic as I cruised around Manhattan, and when I moved to Astoria, zoomed along the edges of the Queensboro Bridge to my job at 59th and 10th Avenue. A fearless city rider, I bobbed and weaved through the traffic and lights, pausing at stop signs and then wiggling my way through intersections. During my residence in New York, the bike messenger became a common site on the streets of the city, and I noticed they all wore bike helmets; so I did too. I considered myself on par with the messengers-- as wild as they were, making my way through the Manhattan gridlock. Hit by a few flying cab doors, the back of buses, I remained loyal to my pitiful ten-speed Gitane. I knew how to fix it, to true the wheels to adjust the derailleur and to tighten the brakes. She was my baby and I never left her outside even with a hardy lock. Secured in my office at John Jay College while I worked, she sometimes rode home with me on the Subway in the back car on days that were too dismal and cold to bike after night classes.

            The fantasy of conquering all worlds on my bicycle came crashing down when I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to earn my PhD. Lincoln was a very bikeable city, but it was the first place I lived where the grocery stores were off highways and there was no way to easily reach the Hinky-Dinky and get the stuff I needed into my panniers without braving lanes of speeding traffic, instead of me speeding past traffic.

            So there at 29 going on 30, I learned to drive, bought a car, parked it in the driveway and continued to take my bike to the university—I had a European attitude—cars were for hauling heavy things and going out of the city. In the city, all I needed was the bicycle—no matter the weather or time. One winter, riding to school as the sun was setting, I hit a patch of ice and flew over my handlebars, landed on my face and scooped up some rock salt. I remounted and continued on my way until a car stopped in front of me and a man came out and said, “Are you okay? Your face is a mess.”

            I stopped in at the University health clinic, where I saw in the mirror, blood and salt and stones all splattered in my skin. I lay on the bed listening to the clink of every pebble as the doctor extracted them one by one from my skin—it took three hours and several bandages. I was back bicycling the next day

            Until I lived out west, I had never put a bicycle on top of a car to go to ride my bicycle. The idea seemed absurd, just like the spandex gear that cost more than my workout clothes that I wear when I bike—or my jeans if I'm going to work. My commutes became short and few, and so I needed to get on trails. I reported to y REI for the Yakima fitting on top of my Nissan Sentra. The commodification of bicycling was merely something I had ridiculed up to that point-calling the recreational bikers in their racing gear, bike yuppies, but here I was paying separately for this bracket and that lock, until the sum total of the rig was somewhere around $300. Why couldn’t I just leave my house to go on a bike ride?   I bought trail maps and bikers books, I traded up to a 15 gear spiffy euro-bike with Italian this and German that, and I became one of those people who showed up at the charity rides – a century K, a century mile, even just the fun 25 because nothing felt as freeing as biking to me. I ski, I run, I dance, but up on that seat, face to the wind, using the power of my own legs, transported me to a sense of independence and joy.      

            I never thought it much, the why of it—why it is so exhilarating until I came to the Grand Canyon for the residency this month. Among the materials, Rene, the coordinator sent me, was the notation that there was a bike, a lock and a helmet. I immediately wrote to her, “Will the bike fit me?”

            “I'm 5’2” and it’s fine for me.” She responded. Perfect.

            The very first day she showed me around, the only thing I asked was, where’s the bicycle? At the end of our tour, she directed me to the corral where the bike sits alone out of site. At the moment, I strapped on my pack, and drove away from my apartment, heading for the Ponderosa pines she described as she talked about the serenity of the park.

            Bikes are not permitted on the rim trail. The walks are filled with pedestrians and tourists taking in the vastness of canyon, stopping for pictures and meditating on the many thousands of layers of geological history inscribed on the cliffs. The trails the bikers use go through the pines which are less frequently used and don’t have a view of the canyon, which is, after all, why everyone comes here. The ride to the market is an easy one and I was inventing a reason I had to go there.

            When I pulled away from traffic and joined the trail through the forest, the intimacy of biking struck me. While I could still see the road, the buses, hear the traffic: on the bike, I had a sense of individuality—silence and power. I pushed over the walks, sometimes covered with pine needles, watching for markers to make sure I was going in the right direction. Along my path was a herd of inattentive elk having some lunch. A guy walked a dog. And up ahead I could see bikers on the road and hear them yelling in Italian—directions probably. In the interior of the forest, I had the world to myself.


            I considered all the other biking I have done: to work, to school, the organized rides, bike camping, biking across whole states, and it was the same—riding was personal. The connection of my body to the vehicle, the use of my breath, the beating of my heart, the sense of speed or gentle cadence of fascination and attention—all determined by the rider, for the most part. The bike has a speed that allows me to appreciate the scene around me, but to get places at the same time.

            Truthfully, the altitude pushed back against me a little on that first ride, and the one after it. I wheezed my asthma-filled breath and stopped and hung on my bike for a moment. But just like the accident where I filled my face with stones, I returned to the ride and after 10 minutes felt my body adjust. The rides will get better and I will breathe more fully, I know.

            This ride, this canyon, like these things do, made me meditate on riding more than I have in a while. Life got busy, I take the dog with me most places, I don’t ride enough anymore. My friend Julie encourages me—I have some returning-to- biking rides that will get you back in shape, she says. I keep saying yes, I want to. But it hasn’t happened yet, nor has the riding to the Y, I promised to resume.

            I'm ready, though, to push myself through the asthma, the weaker riding shape; whatever else fear puts in my way, to make the bike a daily presence. As a spinning teacher, I know all the exercises, tools and drills—it should be easy. Imagine, imagine how calming it will be, at the end of a day, to face the wind, hunker down and pedal myself home.

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biking in the GC

Wow. Never even occurred to me. So very cool.