Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bike beats bus; car eliminated

Catherine eyed me skeptically over the breakfast table. “Are you really going to bike?” she asked with surprise.

“I think so,” I said. “I mean, my brain believes I am. My body might have other ideas. Like the bus.”

Just then the bus rumbled past the front door. We smiled at each other. “Well,” I said. “What I meant to say is, yes. I’m biking. I’m gonna race that bus.”

It was Tuesday morning, 7:10 AM. My car had broken down the morning before on the way to work, leaving me to coast to the mechanic on a busted clutch. I’d had to roust my housemate Catherine from her warm bed, and beg her for a ride to work. I’d been half an hour late, and stressed and frazzled to boot.

But this morning, although my car was still in the shop, I was prepared. In the grayish dawn light of my bedroom, I donned long johns, jeans, two shirts, a wool sweater, a down vest, a windbreaker. I pulled on a ski mask to protect my neck from chilly drafts, gloves to shield my fingers, and of course, perched atop it all, my shiny yellow helmet.

“Well,” said Catherine. “At least if you fall off your bike, you probably won’t even get hurt. You’ll just bounce.”

I wrinkled my nose at her, not that she could see it under my arsenal. “I won’t fall,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

Waving goodbye, I shuffled out the door and clambered atop my bicycle. With one kick, I rolled down the sidewalk, swung to the right, and hit the pavement. I was off.

I was prepared for an arduous journey. My work commute takes 25 minutes by car, from my urban neighborhood just south of downtown, to Guilford Tech’s satellite campus on the outermost reaches of the northeast part of town. Every morning, as I dodge the rush-hour traffic crowding the city’s vehicular arteries, I think, “Today’s the day I’m going to die.” But I haven’t. At least not yet.

This morning was different. I headed due east, straight toward the pink streaks heralding the sun’s imminent arrival. Cars whizzed past, but I didn’t notice them much. I was more occupied with the tight feeling of my thigh muscles and the slight grinding feeling of something in my hip. Oh jeez, what am I thinking? I berated myself. This is insane. I could see the bus stopped four or five blocks ahead of me. Maybe I can catch up with it, I thought hopefully.

Eight minutes later I was passing downtown. I was also soaked in sweat. I stopped to strip off my windbreaker, welcoming the chilly wind through my wool sweater. Lord, it felt good. I swerved to avoid a patch of ice on the road. I didn’t want to test Catherine’s bouncing theory.

I’d expected heavy traffic on this four-lane road, but I barely even noticed the cars that passed me. Instead, I watched as the blistering orange sun inched over the horizon. I checked the gas prices at each gas station I passed. $2.97. $3.01. $3.06. My legs no longer felt tight. I felt like an engine, a smooth efficient machine. I wondered how much I’d get for selling a Toyota with a broken clutch.

I passed a service station where a lady in a long wool coat paced as a mechanic peered under the hood of her stalled car. She stared through me as if I were invisible. I passed a house where two men stood, hands in armpits while a Chevy idled in the yard, warming up. I held my breath and ducked through the cloud of exhaust.

I was flying. I felt like a bird. I had no idea how long I’d been riding. Five minutes, fifteen, fifty. My four-lane city road merged with a county road; the buildings gave way to stubbly fields. I passed the farm bureau, the coop extension, the county agricultural office. A lazy train track wove beside the road. I looked up: gray-brown tree branches silhouetted against the brilliant sunrise sky.

One last hill, and I turned on Aunt Mary Lane. I cut north, crossed a six-lane road, and breathlessly coasted onto campus. I craned my neck to see the school clock. Was I late? How late?

The clock read 7:48. My body surged with elation. I grinned wordlessly under my ski mask. It had taken me 33 minutes to cross town by bike, just eight minutes longer than by car.

I couldn’t believe it. For the past six months, I’d been complaining about how impossibly far away my job was. I’d acquired my car reluctantly, and winced with each accumulating mile on the odometer. The tanks of gas, the car insurance, the stress - it was a necessary evil, I’d believed. Riding the bus to any job would take unbearably long, and there was no way I had the stamina to bike to destinations outside of my neighborhood. Only an athlete could bike that far.

What had I been thinking? I wasn’t even tired. In fact, I felt remarkably alive. I almost skipped from the bike rack to the bathroom, where I peeled off my sweaty long johns and slipped into a fresh blouse and slacks. I scooped my hair into a ponytail and regarded my reflection quizzically. My cheeks were so pink I looked clownish. My eyes were twinkling. I felt upbeat and energetic – a mood I can’t usually attain at 8 AM no matter how much coffee I drink.

I strolled to my classroom carrying my bicycle helmet like a badge of honor. When my car had broken down, it sure hadn’t seemed like a blessing. But I guess that faulty clutch was the miracle I was waiting for to show me that sometimes the solution I need is right in the place where I refuse to see it. Here I’d been, racing home from work in my car so I’d have time to get to the gym for exercise. I’d never even considered biking to work because I hadn’t thought I was strong enough. I didn’t think I could afford to spend the time or energy. But this morning, I knew I couldn’t afford not to. As the bus pulled up to the campus bus stop, right next to my parked bike, I smiled to myself. I’d won this race on my own two wheels.

by Sadie Kneidel


pelf said...

This is sooo well written, Sadie, I enjoyed reading it :D

I stay 5km from campus, which is very near by today's standards, but I drive. Yes, I know I could be greener if I'd just ride the bike, but I really think that it may not be a good idea since it's really dangerous to do so.

But you have proven to me (and others) that it is indeed possible! Perhaps I should get a bike and cycle on campus before finally riding out of campus!

Anonymous said...

Very nice post! Once you get going on a bike, there's no stopping!


Sadie said...

You're right, Pelf, it definitely can be dangerous. But so can riding in a car! I added a rear view mirror to my bike, which increases my awareness of cars and makes me feel a lot safer.