Pedal Free!

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December 10th 2003
Published: December 10th 2003
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Getting back home has meant taking care of mundane household chores, such as getting the car inspected. So last week I mounted my bike on the roof rack of my Saab and drove over it to the garage before work. I left the Saab there & rode into work on a morning only in the 40's. While it was brisk, I enjoyed my ride nonetheless, grateful that I had on a pair of pants over my tights. A couple of hours later I got a call back from the garage- they wanted $300 to get the Saab ready for inspection, plus they saw a couple thousand dollars more in repairs that would have to be completed in the near term. And I thought, "Why am I doing this?" I need to renew my car insurance, the car tax is due soon and I've already invested thousands of dollars in my car this year. I've gotten to the point where I could lead a bicycle-predominant lifestyle. I really only need a car to go to travel the twenty miles to Quaker Meeting on First Day and to visit my girlfriend in Washington DC. I can bike to Meeting if I'm willing to commmit the time, and I can rent a car to go see my girlfriend.

I overheard a couple of my coworkers discussing the best way to circumvent a notoriously congested section of suburban interstate. As I listened to them I could only think, "The Hague footbridge is never congested." But then, they make 15 mile commutes to work, whereas my commute is only two miles.

Later that day my father wrote me an email to say that their van was towed to the garage today after it failed to turn over in the morning, but the problem has yet to be diagnosed. Whereas I'm left wondering when I should buy a replacement set of tires for my bike, costing $100 at the most.

Twenty minutes after I rode my bike home and locked it up in the basement & walked over to Harris Teeter, I emerged with a bag of groceries in one hand and my other cradling my cell phone to my ear when I saw flashes of light bouncing off the bare tree limbs. I told my girlfriend, "Umm, it looks like there's an ambulance here, let me call you back. "

Now usually when the EMT's come to the senior citizen high rise tower next to the supermarket and across the street from my apartment block, they park discreetly around the corner and off the street, and they don't leave their flashing lights on. But two fire trucks were parked at either end of the block, and a medley of broken vehicles littered the street in a halo of milling voyeurs with video cameras. I walked through the scene, feeling akin to Michael Stipes in an REM video with an odd compulsion to sooth the masses with a melody in a minor key. I wanted to sing them a song with a catchy refrain of, "Pedal free!"

And while part of me revels in the thought of being detached from such pedestrian concerns as automobiles and living the freedom of a bicycle, I also recognize that bicycling is not without its dangers. The same drunk driver who mangled seven cars could easily have plowed into me as he screeched too fast through a turn. Even without the presence of automobiles bicyling can be dangerous. Two days ago I went on a club-sponsored bicycle ride and relished tagging along with the fast group. But within seconds of a sprint being called, one of my companions crashed into the pavement, a crumple of flesh and steel.

We had been riding down a deserted subdevelopment road and passed under the halo of a street lamp when a sprint to the next lightpost was called. I held back from the sprint, leary of straining my bike when I had felt the chain slip moments before. My two companions shifted into high gear and jumped out of the saddle. With the teeth-jarring squeal of metal seizing metal, But with his rear wheel frozen, Chris' momentum carried him over his handlebars and onto the pavement below, striking it at 25 or 30 miles per hour.

I watched from behind as it happened, seeing Chris' bike tangle up in his legs, and slowing down as I rode past. Perhaps it was the flicker if the street light, but I thought I saw Chris twitch once or twice as he lay on the cold, black pavement.. My fellow remaining rider looked at me and said, "We'd better go back." We turned around, and came back, where Chris lay still. We pulled his bike away, and looked him over. I saw only torn lycra, but no bones protruding or oddly-bent joints. A trickle of blood ran out of his nose though, and my mind was drawn back to a scene I had witnessed somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. A family stood in front of a mini-van pulled to the side of the road on the left side. The husband had a cell phone to his ears and the wife was returning the children to the van. One front corner of the car was dashed in, and the windshield was cracked. I looked down the road to see a brown mass lying next to the road. I thought for a minute it must be a dog, but as I rode closer I saw it was a deer in his death throes, his hoofs twitching feebly in the air, the chest heaving up and down over, the air whistling out a gaping red and white ribcage.

And now I stood under a steet light, knowing that my fellow cyclist had fallen to the ground for precisely the reason that I had chosen not to risk.- a mechanical failure.

But if I have a choice, I'll take the bike, and not the car. So I've given myself a couple of weeks for a new experiment. I'm going to try living without my own car till the end of the month. With a wet December closing in on me, I should be able to taste the worst inconveniences of bicycle commuting and decide by the end of the year if I'll be pedalling free from now on.


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