Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Back to biking

From reading blogs, it seems that a lot of people in the chic cycling community rode bikes as kids, and then stopped, re-discovering biking much later. I may be in the minority, but I've bicycled throughout my life, for which I thank my family, especially my father for setting a great example. I had a tough time learning to ride- I remember my dad patiently running behind me pushing over and over again. Once I learned, I lived on my coaster brake 20" wheel bike with the blue sparkly banana seat, riding around the small, gridded suburb we lived in -to friends' houses and just around in circles. Then I had a brief hiatus (3-4 years) after we moved to a rural area when I was growing so fast that none of my bikes ever quite fit, and I wasn't really old enough to ride the mile to the nearest subdivision on busy roads.  

Like many posters, I could easily have slipped away from bicycling.
However, my father started commuting to work (about 7 miles each way) when I was a teenager, and got both me and my brother touring bikes when we'd more or less stopped growing. We did a lot of recreational rides of 30-40 miles together through the beautiful Ozarks countryside, and I was a fair weather commuter in high school, and later to summer jobs.  

When I went to college, I didn't have a car, and it seemed natural to jump on my bike, even though Houston is not the most bicycle friendly city. I made some pretty foolhardy grocery runs, on a 4 lane arterial, with stuff strapped on my bike in some spectacularly unsafe ways. The alternative was to be trapped on campus, or begging a ride, and I valued the independence the bike gave me, just as it had when I was 8.

On an internship in Milan, the bicycle allowed me to explore neighborhoods and cover ground that no tourist would ever see. My ride home was a chance to unwind after a lot of stressful days, with a boss I was too green to realize was crazy. And it was an introduction to a new way of biking- in your normal clothes, on a simple bike with a light, a basket and a rear rack, simple gears, simple brakes, get on and go where you need to go. My dad was the stereotypical bike commuter in fluorescent spandex, and I'd always just followed suit, but no one did that in Italy and it was a revelation to me. Plus, even though traffic in Italy is the definition of chaotic, there were so many bikes and scooters, and the urban traffic was so dense, that drivers just accepted 2 wheeled vehicles- no honking, no hazing, no close passes, no right hooks. It probably helped that biking to work was almost a status symbol- that you could afford to live in the city center where you could take a short bike to work, and a lot of my fellow commuters wore Prada and Armani.

I don't even want to know how much I spent shipping my bicycle home. It was worth it though, because it's the bike I ride today, and 15 years ago, you just couldn't find that kind of city bike here.

I think that the big difference between riding as a kid and as an adult is that as kids we're not running errands and toting groceries or having to get somewhere by a specific time and looking like professional when we arrive. Kids bikes are about fun and a ration of independence, and so we enjoy them and have fun with them, but when we grow up and have to shoulder adult responsibilities, many people don't naturally think of bicycles as a way of accomplishing a grown up way of life.  

The general culture, and even the bicycle culture doesn't provide us with good tools for or images of living by bike. Many people in this country think of bicycles either as part of an elite sport, or as an extension of the fun they had when they were kids. As in, it's a lovely May day, let's pump up the tires, hunt down the helmets and go for a ride in the park. 
Interestingly the former has largely informed the latter, and most beginning or casual bikers think that they need spandex shorts in order to be comfortable for short rides, or when buying a bike are sold something that looks like a stripped down version of Lance's latest ride. Maybe after a couple of lovely excursions, they decide to try to ride to work- maybe save some on gas, get some exercise. The first problem is that they are unlikely to have a rack or a basket or something to carry their stuff, making it hard to take a change of clothes, or pick up some milk on the way home, and riding becomes impractical-something that makes life harder, not easier.
The second problem is that the techniques for safe riding on streets are completely different from riding in the park, and most riders don't know them, let along have the confidence to put them in place. Traffic is scary, and the whole process is intimidating and inconvenient and not fun, and people quickly decide it's not worth it.

It's possible, however, if you dig a bit, to find blogs like this,and this and this, and this. There's information on Xtracyles, and cargo trikes and Omafiets, and car free families, and the idea that other transportation cyclists (Yeti) are out there. It's not obvious,but if you dig a little you can find that, if properly equippped can mix the independence and fun of a kids bike with the duties and hauling capacity of an adult life.
And if you like to bike and you have kids, you can raise the next generation of cyclists, and they can realize that they don't have to leave and come back to bicycling, but can keep doing it all along.


  1. Well said. The journey truly IS the reward.

  2. i love this idea from your time in italy: "It probably helped that biking to work was almost a status symbol"

    if only that were true here. if you live in the city, people seem to take public transit.

  3. Houston in college? Rice? U of H? I lived there a long time. Both my kids (now grown), and my wife, were born there.

  4. Rice class of 95/97 BA/ BArch I was a kid in Meyerland, moved to Springfield Mo in elementary school and lived for a couple of years in midtown Houston after graduating from Rice.

    To elaborate on biking to work as a status symbol. Milan, like a lot of European cities, has a charmingly dense urban core, and a less charming, although often quite dense exurb of big housing blocks. There are independent small towns, but not many of the leafy suburbs that attract the upper middle class here. So to live in the city center, where parking and driving is ridiculous, is typically quite expensive. I got by by living in a fairly squalid building in an ungentrified neighborhood in the part of town that got bombed into oblivion during WWII, but most middle class people have to take a train in from the exurbs, and Milan doesn't have the kind of bike-train infrastructure that Amsterdam does.