Thirteen years ago, I purchased a RANS recumbent bicycle. As of June 12, 2012, I have put more than 10,000 miles on it. Averaging out to less than 800 miles a year may not sound like a big deal. But over the course of these miles, there have been changes in the way I have lived my life and the way I see my world.
My first bicycle was a Huffy. When I pushed the pedals for the first time, the bike went forward. And somewhere in my child’s brain, the same thought I had when I took my first steps bubbled up yet again: “Wow! I’m moving all by myself.”
My Huffy had training wheels up to the day when my dad and I learned that he could — and would — let go. Belwood Lane is a lazy arc, rising gently from where it leaves Holiday Road, rejoining it a short three-tenths of a mile later. Our house was poised halfway up — perfect for sending a kid on her bike down the very slight hill, wobbly but free.
Entering my teenage years, I was focused on getting a driver’s license. Weren’t we all? The bicycles that took us to the store, to school, or to a friend’s house now took us to driver’s education classes. Soon the two-wheelers would be hanging in garages or buried in basements.
I failed my first driving test and was filled with shame since, in Ann World, all of my friends, not to mention every 16-year-old in the country, passed the test on the first try. My adolescent anxiety burned that day into my memory: Officer Peck, who administered the test, stern and solemn, the brown clipboard a few shades darker than his pants, and the unmarked intersection for which I did not adequately slow down. My second test, which I passed, was graded by Officer O’Neill, a heavy-set, fleshy-faced friendly man who, when I performed the parallel parking part of the test, asked rhetorically: “Who could have done that better?” And ever since that first failed test, I am hyper-aware of unmarked intersections no matter what I’m driving.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of the freeways we enter and exit today. It was a visionary move. Because of this project, a driver in Duluth, Minnesota, can ease a car onto I-35 headed south, sit in traffic for a bit because MnDOT is always working on this piece of freeway in or near Duluth, and in a matter of 16 hours (if you drive straight through) be in Dallas-Ft. Worth exiting off of that same freeway. Having the foresight that people might need to move themselves away from an area quickly in the event of a natural or man-made disaster was brilliant. What the planners could not anticipate was the love affair Americans would have with their cars, that we would hang out in our suburbs and stop walking five blocks to the post office. There was no way of knowing the degree to which we would enjoy the isolation of being wrapped inside a ton of steel, rocking down the highway, chatting on the phone, doing our hair, applying makeup and eating whatever we wanted in the privacy of our moving cocoon.
Post-high school, I bought a red Bianchi Broadway, though I cannot remember where I bought it or even exactly when. It had 15 speeds and was classified as an urban bike, its tires a little more narrow, less knobby and a frame a little lighter than its cousin the mountain bike.
On occasion, I would ride with friends around one of the lakes in Minneapolis or on a bike trail, but the bike was uncomfortable. My arms hurt, my back and neck didn’t feel that great and please don’t get me started on how sore my butt felt. Hoping to relieve the pressure on my wrists and arms, I exchanged the handlebars for another set that helped me sit up straighter. I had long conversations with people about bike seats and making the ride a little more body-friendly. A variety of seats were tried: wider ones, narrower ones, a couple with holes in them. More than one person told me I’d get used to it.
One spring day while my partner and I walked around Lake of the Isles, I saw the most peculiar looking bike. It was long and low, the seat large and cushy. I asked the man riding it what it was and where he bought it. He replied that it was a recumbent and he had rented it from Calhoun Cycle. He said he was fairly certain that he would end up buying one of these bikes since he could no longer ride a regular bike due to a back injury. I was fairly certain one of these bikes was waiting for me as well.
Because the recumbent rider is in more of a reclining position, the point of balance is a bit different than when sitting straight up over the hips or leaning forward, as one does on a standard bicycle. When I did a test ride on different styles of recumbents, memories of childhood came rushing in — I started out wobbly and gradually found my balance. I half expected to see my dad standing behind me.
Memorial Day weekend in 1999, after trying out a variety of bikes, I finally settled on a blue RANS Wave.
I continued biking for the sake of exercise, but when I put my bike away in late fall of 2004, gas prices started pushing up over $2 a gallon. Yes, I know — what you wouldn’t give to have gas at $2.19 a gallon. But, at that time, it was startling and I began noticing more people who used the bike as a vehicle. I began thinking about my own impact on the earth’s resources. I thought about how often I used the car to drive only a mile or two. What I had before me was the opportunity to be less a part of the problem.
I started with short trips. Meeting a friend for lunch, going to yoga class; small jaunts of three or four miles under sunny skies. In no time at all, the skies didn’t have to be sunny. Cloudy was OK, and going a little farther — six or eight or even 10 miles — seemed reasonable. I rode to the Minnesota State Fair, parking my bike in one of the bike lots, avoiding the frustration of being in a long line of cars. The more I pedaled around town, the less I wanted to be in a car.
When I considered winter bike commuting, I thought riding a recumbent in the snow might work out really well. Closer to the ground. Not as far to fall. Turns out, the recumbent is not a good snow bike. The fine mechanics at Calhoun Cycle transformed my old Bianchi into a single-speed Winter/Crap Weather bike. I became, officially, a year-round bike commuter.
When I have discussions with people about why I prefer a bike to a car, the list is short: the environment, personal health and so on. Some people seem more impressed with economic stats like this: the bicycling industry supports more than a million jobs and generates some $17 billion in tax revenues every year and more than $130 billion annually in economic activity. One study found that properties located near bike paths increased in value by more than 10 percent, and urban planners are finding that making it easier for people to walk, bike or take public transportation increases a city’s “livability.”
Out of these 10,000 miles, conservatively 7,500 of them would have been done in a car. Maintenance on my bike might average out to $200 a year, and I think that’s high. There have been numerous flat tires, of course. I’ve replaced the seat, rear wheel and a couple of chains. I’ve saved a little money on gas as well as the wear and tear on the car.
I am under my own power, alone and yet a part of a community of people who feel the same ineffable freedom and connection whenever they ride.
There may be some people who have gone farther, but I doubt anyone has enjoyed it more. It’s been a wonderful bike. I can’t wait for the next 10,000 miles.
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood. — Susan B. Anthony, 1896
Helen Hayes, the much beloved "First Lady of American theater" who died at the age of 92, was asked in an interview if she regretted anything. She said she had only one regret: "I never rode a bicycle. I wish I had. That's all."