Cycling through cycles

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in front of the keyboard. I’ve had a series of events, planned and unplanned, keep me away; in other words, life happened. Personal obligations, a search for and gaining of employment, my son’s surgery (he’s doing great), and other things have kept me busy and not writing. Also, there’s the fact it’s been gorgeous outside, and I’ve taken every chance I can to get out on my bicycle.

I’ve been donning the lycra bicycle shorts and jerseys and hitting the roads most of my adult life. Actually, most of my life. Growing up, my family lived in the country, and I spent many days out riding the back roads. Then, I strapped a radio to the handlebars and played tunes as I idly pedaled the day away. Today, I have a tiny cyclocomputer that tells me my current speed, average speed, ride time, distance, and all sorts of other numbers – I ride now with definite purpose, keeping those little numbers as high as possible while thinking about things like gears and pedaling cadence.

Of course, I still love being outside on the road, just me and the bike. I think the sense of freedom and adventure that makes you fall in love with the bicycle as a child is what keeps you riding it as an adult. It’s exercise, sure, but it’s also a constant competition. Your time today vs. your time last ride. You vs. a certain climb. You vs. that dog on that one road. Your will to keep riding vs. the desire to quit and go home on a day when it sucks.

And some days, it really does suck, but you just have to push through the bad days to have good days later. For example, I can tell you when I got hooked as an adult. It was about a month after I started riding, and one day the hill that always kicked my butt, didn’t. I’d gotten stronger, lighter, and had figured out how to climb it. I’d conquered it. It was a rush.

I believe that internal competition, the outdoors, and the thrill of speed are what gets bicyclists addicted. That’s a good word for it – addicted – because sometimes it does feel like a sickness. I’ve been on large organized rides like a metric (62 miles) or a century (100 miles) and listened to cyclists talking at the rest stops, happily saying things like, “Can you believe that hill at mile 36? That was so hard! I almost fell over, and I thought my legs were going to blow!” Other cyclists nod in commiseration and agreement. Then we all get back on the bikes and keep going.

Some years I’m strong, other years not so much. Some years I ride a lot, others not. My weight has gone up and down. But I just keep coming back to the bike. I haven’t ridden much over the past couple of years, for various reasons, and it feels great to get back. I trained on a recumbent exercise bike over the winter, concentrating on pedaling in full circles, and now my pedaling is much more efficient. (Confused? Most people, even most cyclists, mash down and apply most of their power on the downstroke. I’ve gotten better at pushing down and pulling up simultaneously.)

What I’m finding now is that I’m running out of roads. I live in Middle Tennessee, where we’ve had tremendous growth over the past few years. You can see it if you go to downtown Nashville, where it’s now a zoo. Construction is everywhere. Masses of people are always out on the sidewalks, every day. I don’t know who they are or where they’re going; maybe they’re all tourists looking for Connie Britton.

In the surrounding counties, you can see the growth in the new subdivisions. They’re popping up everywhere. Back country roads that I’ve been riding for 15 years are all being crammed with subdivisions with precious names like “Burberry Glen” or “Whittemore”. (I think developers have figured out that they can ramp up the prices of homes just by calling the subdivision something at something else, like “The Reserve at Arbor Glen”, or by putting an “E”, or even a “U”, in a word that doesn’t have one.. for example, “Harbour Pointe”.  But I digress…) The point is, if I get hit by a car, it’s likely that it’s going to be on a road I’ve been riding for well over a decade by someone who just moved here six months ago from Michigan or Pennsylvania.

Most drivers are respectful of bicyclists. Of course, with more cars on the roads, it increases the chances of running into the jerk who wants to see how close he can come to you. (Tennessee, as with most states, has a “3-feet” law). I’ve only had a couple of run-ins, most notably the landscapers who blew through a Yield sign and came within inches of me as I went through a green light in a bike lane, then decided to yell at me about it. We traded pleasantries.

It’s a scary thing, and I know bicyclists who have quit because they didn’t want to deal with cars. A bicyclist was hit this morning in Nashville in a hit-and-run. Do a search for “bicyclist killed” and article after article come up. The worst part about it is that, if you read through them, most of the bicyclists were acting responsibly – riding predictably, lights and reflectors used, out when the traffic was light, many even in a marked bike lane – and someone on their phone or just not paying attention hit them from behind. Even scarier is that most of the drivers in these cases are not really penalized. In an article from a couple of years ago, a reporter asked, “Is it OK to kill cyclists?” and found that the answer was mostly “Yes”.

I get agitated with bicyclists who get out to ride during peak traffic hours on the busiest streets. I used to see a guy routinely cycling on one the main thoughfares in my town during rush hour, weaving in and out of cars and ignoring traffic laws. That’s just asking for trouble, and builds up resentment with drivers towards all cyclists. I’d like to advocate for bike lanes, but, at least here in Middle Tennessee, they seem to be put in with little forethought. They start and stop randomly, and tend to disappear in intersections and other places where a clear delineation is most needed, leaving cyclists and drivers guessing as to what to do. Also, as the examples above and my own experience show, bike lanes don’t really provide safety.

For now, though, I mostly stick to what’s left of the country roads, stay to the right, signal, and ride responsibly. It’s still a rush after all these years, and I’ll do it as long as I can. In fact, I think I’m probably going to go for a ride right now.


Photo credit: Brian Kuhl