Friday, July 18, 2014

Life on Two Wheels

The warm weather has led to me being outside much more and writing much less.

That's my story about why I abandoned this blog, and I'm sticking to it.

Of the things I'm doing outside, biking is the most significant. When I first moved to Chicago, I brought with me my old mountain bike from high school, which was by now too small for me, and not a good fit for Chicago roads anyway. In addition, I was (understandably) terrified of biking in Chicago. So the bike sat unused for a year, and then when I moved to my current apartment I abandoned it.

Then I sold my car, and while walking and public transit meet most of my needs, I realized that there are some parts of the city that are simply too complicated to get to by CTA, and carrying groceries on the bus can be a real hassle, besides. Combined with my realization that I was starting to put on weight (a complicated issue I'll address in a later post), I decided it was time to buy a bike.

A friend of mine who is a bike mechanic has said, "The first bike that people buy is never the right bike." My old mountain bike was definitely not the right bike for me. Chicago is almost entirely flat and almost entirely paved; it is the exact opposite environment for which a mountain bike was designed. So what kind of bike should I get?

I've always been terrified of road bikes. I tried riding one once, and it felt like I was constantly on the verge of tipping over or getting flung over the handlebars - which felt completely counterintuitive in design, as well. I just couldn't figure out how to use those curly handlebars. They may be the fastest way to bike in Chicago, but they definitely are not the most comfortable. No road bike for me.

Next I looked at beach cruisers, and even tried out one that a friend left behind when she moved. This was more my style - comfortable, easy-to-ride, and good-looking. However, it had one huge drawback: it used a coaster brake instead of hand brakes, which is pretty typical for beach cruisers. A coaster brake simply doesn't have the stopping power that I need for biking in Chicago traffic; you never know when a cop car is going to cut you off, or an inattentive pedestrian is going to step into the bike lane, or a fellow cyclist is going to biff it right by you. (These are all things that have happened to me in the short time that I've been cycling in the city.) And then the chain on the cruiser snapped the second time I tried riding it, so that sealed the deal - a beach cruiser was also out.

Finally I settled on a commuter bike, which is essentially a cross between a road bike and a beach cruiser. It is built for comfort, like a cruiser, but is a bit speedier and more agile, like a road bike. I visited a few bike shops, where new commuter bikes went for between $400 and $8000, depending on how many speeds they had and other features. My budget was less than half of that, so I'd have to find a used bike.

I tried Craigslist, but with no luck. Commuting by bike has become increasingly popular, especially in Chicago, and especially in my neck of the woods, so they get snatched up almost as soon as they're posted. And my criteria were so specific that it was difficult to find anything that matched them all.

Then, one day, I was walking through Humboldt Park with my friends ahead of Dyke March, a radical queer march that is held every year as a bit of a counter-movement to the increased corporatization of regular Pride. Across the street was a bike shop; I decided to meander on over, just to see if there was anything promising.

And there it was: a vintage Schwinn Breeze three-speed in candy-apple red with chrome detailing, and right at the top end of my price range. At the encouragement of my friends, who knew I'd been in the market for a while, I jumped on it right then and there.

I've been biking to work at least three days a week for the past couple weeks now, and I'm a solid convert. Taking the train just isn't the same. I need less coffee in the morning because the ride does a great job waking me up and getting my blood flowing. Owning a bike makes me feel much freer, too. If I need to run an errand, I can just hop on and pedal off, without having to do any math about which bus arrives when. And there's something calming about riding a bike - much like when I would go for long-distance runs or cross-country skiing. Being a bit sweaty when I get to work is worth it.

I was lucky that I held on to a lot of my paraphernalia from my old bike: I didn't need to spend any money on a pump, lights, or a lock, three things that are absolutely essential to riding a bike in the city. (I did need to buy a new helmet because I lost my old one.) I have saddlebags as well, but my bike doesn't have a rack yet - that's something I will need to invest in, and soon. My shoulders can't handle carrying my messenger bag everywhere.

I'm also lucky because there's a major bike route (semi-derisively nicknamed the "Hipster Highway") that runs right from my apartment to my office. Getting to work by bike couldn't be much easier than that. And while Chicago isn't the most bike-friendly city (that honor goes to my hometown, Minneapolis), there have been several projects started and completed to cultivate a biking culture in this city. Hopefully I'll continue to be part of that for a while.

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