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One Man's Commute


"So what's this about commuting by bicycle? Boy, that's not for me. I'm not a bike messenger, I'm a grownup! I've got a respectable job and a house and a family and, well, a bit of a gut. You'll never see a guy like me riding a bike to work. It would be hard and dangerous and too blasted sweaty. It would be no fun at all."

Wrong. And wrong again, and wrong yet again. People in America really do bike to work, and that includes grownups in respectable positions with houses and families. I do it. And I find that it's not very hard, it's not at all dangerous, it's not too sweaty. In fact, it's very enjoyable. Sometimes it's an out and out blast!

But who am I? No, I'm not a bike messenger, nor a fitness trainer, nor anything similar. I'm a middle-aged engineer, currently a college teacher. I live in the suburbs and teach at a city-center university seven miles away. It's a professional position, and I work in dress pants and dress shirts, occasionally (rarely, thank goodness) a tie. My schedule varies a bit. Currently I'm at the office from 8:45 to 5:30 or so three days a week, and from about 10:30 to about 8 p.m. the other two days. And often, not always, I'll get there by bike. Here's what it's like.

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Mmmm... there's the alarm - the fourth time I've hit snooze. Mornings aren't my favorite - especially if I've been up late grading papers. But it's supposed to be pretty today, and I didn't get to ride over the weekend. I stumble to the shower, dress in my work clothes, and move automatically through breakfast. My wife Peg knows I don't talk much until I'm awake - and I'm not officially "awake" until about noon!

But there's a blue sky and birds are singing. I lug the bike up the basement stairs, bungee my nylon briefcase onto the back rack, pin my pants legs to keep them out of the chain, kiss Peg goodbye, and head north. It's 8:15.

The ride is easy. I cross the four-lane, cut through the parking lot, and ride the little-used bike-ped path that short cuts to Collector Rd. That's a flat, low-traffic residential road I scouted out on the map. It's got the right of way most of the way, and only a couple traffic lights. It's pleasant.

I'm pedaling easy. I wave to the old guy walking his dog - he's a block behind his usual spot. And the girl that usually jogs isn't here yet. Stop at the two four-way stops, take the lane so nobody tries to squeeze by me where it's narrow, then move right at the boulevard where the lanes widen. Look at that azalea! Pretty! Through the green light, coast down the long hill at over 20 mph, down to the five-way light.

I hear a mockingbird singing while I wait for the green. There might be another one further on. I like to hear them in the morning. Once I roll on, I notice the traffic has picked up. A semi-truck rumbles by, then another one, but the lanes are nice and wide here. I'm nearly awake now! j0150063.wmf (24806 bytes)

Look back, merge left, and when the light's green I turn left, grind up the hill to the bridge, grind up over the bridge (steeper every year!) then down through the town center. Wait for the lights, watch that car, signal my turn, up the next short steep hill, short cut through that parking lot, another couple traffic lights, and I wheel the bike into the basement of my building.

They let me park inside because I never asked - I just do it! It helps to be friendly with the building maintenance people. I keep a roll of paper towels next to where I park my bike. If it weren't for those two uphills at the end, I probably wouldn't need it, but as it is, I'm wiping my brow as I ride the elevator to my office. In ten minutes, I'll be cool and dry - but before then, the first student is in my office to get help with homework. "Did you bike in, Mr. K? Sure is pretty out there."

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5:30. It's been a rough day. Classes went fine, but the meeting was long and frustrating, the software wasn't working right, the machine shop still isn't done with my parts, the two transfer students took a lot of time, and I didn't get the grading done for tomorrow. That means two textbooks and the papers have to go home with me. A heavy briefcase.

Hmm. At least there's a tailwind, according to the flags on the downtown buildings. I pin my pants legs, start the stopwatch on my cyclometer, and head south. Here's the rule: If I get the first few traffic lights red, I get to take it easy, but if they're green, I try to get home fast.

Watch that car turning left. OK, I made it through that light. Look back, merge left, then left again into the turn lane. If I catch a red light, I usually count how many seconds it stops me... but there's my left turn arrow. Go... and soon, the first downhill.

But the next light's red, and I hit the brakes - rats, the really long light before the bridge is already green! If this one weren't ... but now it's green too! Upshift, stand up, pedal, pedal... made it to the bridge on the yellow! I glance down, and I'm doing 20 mph on the bridge uphill, still carrying my momentum! 17, 16, 15, blast it, this used to be easier - then I crest the top and sweep down the other side of the bridge. Exit ramp to the right, nobody to yield to, and tuck in down the steep corkscrew hill, looking for the next light.

I wish they'd trim that tree, I can never see the light until... red! Oh well, it doesn't matter much, because I almost always catch this one or the next one. Slow to a stop... no, now it's green! Rats, I didn't finish my downshift - no matter, the next one's red. 10 mph to kill time until...come on, come on...

Green! I'm in my best starting gear and I've still got a little momentum. I'm across the intersection before the next three cars even get started. Wow, I can't believe how good I did on the lights! And the flag is out to honor the tailwind... upshift, tuck down low, keep your head down, keep your elbows in...

25 miles per hour! Nice tailwind! I've got to be careful, there's a heck of a hill coming up... try to breathe deep, use all your lungs, but save some energy. Spin! Pedal round, don't push, save some energy...

A car full of teenagers yells something... don't bother me kids, I'm working here ... but the kid in back is grinning, and he gives me a thumbs up. I'd love to draft, but they're pulling away. Stay low.. hop the railroad tracks, look for the smoothest path through the bumps on the other side...

... and the five way light is green too. Amazing! Watch for crazies from all the lanes, stand up for the rise, and signal the right turn. It's hill time.

I've got momentum. I can do this. I can run the middle gear if I stand. 16 mph. Damn, I wish I didn't have those textbooks! Damn, I wish I didn't weigh the extra 10 pounds. Damn, I wish this hill weren't so steep... 15 mph... 14.5 mph... keep standing... my thighs hurt... my lungs hurt... just to the telephone pole... breathe deep... I'm NOT letting it get below 14 mph... my thighs hurt... three cars pass... watch the potholes... Rats, I've got to sit down...

Turn right, into the residential street... not so steep, upshift... what do those little kids on the porch think? Can they hear the freight train puffing uphill? breathe deep... my side hurts...

Bend right, and it gets steep again... oh, shoot, the light's green up ahead! That means it'll be red when I get there. That's it, I'm backing off! My side's hurting anyway... downshift, 14 mph. 12 mph. Downshift again, 10 mph. And stop and count the seconds until it's green. The lady in the car next to me peeks at me suspiciously out of the corner of her eye. I'm still puffing...

Here it comes... cross street's red... wait for it... go! I lost 25 seconds at the light, but my tailwind's still here. Too bad my legs are gone, I just can't push. Come on, spin, tuck down, you've got a good time going. Watch that car - will the lady see me? She's got the stop sign, move left so I'm visible... she stopped, tuck back down... my legs are limp... spin, spin!

Take the narrow lane... keep back buddy, there's no room for passing... finally, the first four-way, the last of the uphill. Car on my right, he's got the right of way, but he's not sure, so I flag him through, come on, come on, come on! Microsecond track stand, and repeat at the next stop sign.

And it's flat again and wide again. My legs are mostly rubber... I can't push, gotta spin, get way down low, ah look at that flag! Tailwind... 20 mph... 22 mph... oh, my lungs...

Last light, time it right, count the red... it'll be green in three seconds, two seconds, one second, green! and I roll through and tuck in again... there are two kids on bikes, they want to race, I hope they're smart enough to stay right. Whoosh! Maybe next year, kids!

Stop sign, another stop sign, how short can a stop be and be legal? Now watch the bike path... it's usually empty, but oops... "Excuse me", keep it slower, don't scare them, catch my breath... traffic's clear, cross the road, watch the gravel, right turn through the parking lot, watch for cars... man my side hurts, man, I wish I were in better shape...

Onto the four-lane, merge to the left turn lane, got it! Sprint into our street... and signal right, into the driveway, and get the stopwatch, and stop!

"Hi, Dad. How was your ride?"

"Great! 24 minutes! I love tailwinds!"

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It's not always like that, of course. If the first lights are red, I take it pretty easy, and it takes me almost 30 minutes. If it's raining, or dark, I ride even slower and enjoy the sensations - it may take me 32 minutes. Some days I explore different routes, seeing different neighborhoods, or stopping at different stores, and then the time doesn't count.

But whether I'm trying for a fast time, or exploring a new neighborhood, or enjoying the birdsong and the breeze, it just beats the heck out of getting to work in a tin box!

-- Frank Krygowski



Frank Krygowski


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