by Karen Chambers
Growing up in the rural Midwest, your life doesn’t really start until you get
your driver’s license and a set of wheels. In the country, your closest friend
might live miles away. By the time you’re graduating high school, many of
your friends have already gotten DUIs, as going out to any party with
drinking will ultimately involve driving.
|©2013 Chris Collins|
As a teenager, I mostly stayed out of trouble besides getting a couple “Minor
in Possession” tickets. Any more than a couple drinks and I simply wouldn’t
drive. Starting college I moved into the nearest large(r) city I could find
where there were bars a’plenty within walking distance. For years I never
moved more than a few blocks from the main drag in town. My car got used
less and less.
When my Honda’s radiator finally blew and I didn’t have the funds to fix it, I
spent about a day debating whether to simply give up the thing. Even
though there were buses and a few bike lanes, the idea of not owning a car
at all was frowned upon. Most people made fun of old men riding bikes
through the snow, likely having suspended drivers licenses for drinking too
much, or worse.
|©2011 Joseph Dennis|
Then there was just the idea of the snow itself. It’s the midwest, there’s a
ton of it. And it gets cold, so cold that sometimes trees explode, I’m not
kidding. Finding a non-lethal bike route to work on city streets in the middle
of a blizzard sounded like suicide when stated out loud to friends.
Finally though, I decided the car was more trouble (and money) than it was
worth. I asked my parents to buy me a nice used bike for my birthday, which they did despite skepticism. They knew I was strong, but they were concerned a woman alone on a bike in the city wasn’t ideal. I promised to stay safe, they promised not to worry too much.
Knowing nothing about what was or wasn’t a good bike to ride, I kinda just
adapted to what they bought me. The brand and model I’ve long forgotten,
but I do remember it was a red hybrid with shocks on the front and none on
the back, the kind you buy from K-Mart that sits unused in suburban
garages for half a generation at a time.
The bike itself was comfortable enough for me, the seat seemed amply
padded. The gears shifted by turning dials on the handle bars, which now
seems kinda cheap. I knew no better at the time, rarely having to shift at all
with how flat the terrane was.
The fist time I tried riding in the snow I almost had a heart attack. The night
before a storm had dropped about ten inches. Now, the sun was up without
a single cloud in the sky. The blinding brightness of sunshine off the snow
made visibility a major challenge. There was no way I felt safe actually
going in the street.
|©2011 Howard Kang|
I attempted to ride on the un-shoveled sidewalk, but my legs and lungs could not maintain the power needed to push through snow that deep. Barely breathing, I sat down at a bus stop, unsure if the next line to pass by
would have one of those racks for bikes on its front.
As luck would have it, the next bus did. The driver must have sensed my self-consciousness, standing there with a bike and a clueless look on my face. He was kind enough to hop out and show me how easy it was to secure my red ride to the bus’s rack.
From here things only got easier. The weather gradually improved, as did my muscle strength and stamina. I figured out which roads were safe for riding and which roads would require I hop up on the sidewalk. Few pedestrians minded, as almost nobody walked anywhere anyways.
As far as my safety otherwise, only a few times did men drive up next to me asking if I needed a ride. I usually thanked them and said no, I was fine. Most seemed genuinely polite.
Occasionally I’d get a ride from a co-worker, but only if it was convenient for
them. There was still a stigma about carless people being bums who’d call
you up begging for a ride, or never chipping in on gas money. I didn’t want
to be that person. I wan’t car-less, I was car-free!
Having lived several years in a couple different West coast cities now, those
early months of midwest cycling seem like another world to me. Out West
biking is a culture unto itself, just as much as car-loving is still predominant
The west coast bike scene definitely was somewhat intimidating at first.
There seemed to be a lot of unwritten rules you were expected to know,
and I’ve seen a bit of the cliqueishness you’d expect more in middle school.
But hey, bikes are fun, so that’s what should matter most.
Lately I’ve been missing that old red hybrid and it’s bulky tires splashing
through midwest slush. Maybe it’s time for a trip home soon before the
spring melts it all away.
Happy riding to you all til then!