I’ve written quite a bit lately on how action is required if we’re truly to move toward cleaner air. The problem is that the kind of action needed frequently involves persons in positions of authority: government, corporate, etc. Reducing factory emissions is a good example. Large corporations with these kinds of facilities require an executive staff that’s willing to bring about change or a government that’s willing to force them to reduce emissions. The kind of authority needed to do either is beyond the reach of most of us.
But there’s an elephant in the room with that thinking: driving our vehicles. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, transportation accounted for half the carbon monoxide added to the air in 2013. Now we’re talking about something that each of us can change. Simply put, reducing the number of vehicles on the road reduces the amount of pollution in the air.
There’s a variety of ways to do this. Driving vehicles with fewer emissions, carpooling, public mass transportation, and plain old walking are excellent avenues to reduce our carbon output. But using a bicycle is the method that has always interested me the most. The cost barrier is relatively low, it could help me get in shape, and it would save gas money. However, there are a number of things that have kept me from riding:
I can’t ride a bike. There, I said it. If you have a 10-year old child, they can probably ride a bike better than I can. What can I say? I grew up on a cattle farm, where paved roads were few and far between, and I never really got going with riding on gravel or dirt. The fact that I have so little experience on two wheels adds a degree of nervousness and outright terror to every ride. The thought of riding among traffic is daunting, and I’m not the only one who feels this way.
My area isn’t exactly bike-friendly. Like a lot of the South, it can be downright dangerous. The small town where I live doesn’t have a single bike lane. I don’t know of anywhere in town with a bike rack. Many of the highways don’t have shoulders. Few of the streets even have sidewalks.
So what to do? My wife grew up riding a bike, and was eager to get into bicycling. Therefore, we came up with the following plan:
- Buy good bikes. The last time I tried to learn as an adult, we just got bikes from the local department store. My recent research has revealed that this was a mistake. Better bikes from an actual bike shop are more comfortable, reliable, and forgiving than your average department store bike. Plus you have a more knowledgeable staff to help you get started. We have exactly one bike shop within a 100-mile radius, so we went in, asked a few questions, and bought two bikes, two helmets, and two water bottles.
- Start riding somewhere I (probably) won’t get killed. We’re fortunate to live in a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. But I don’t want to learn to ride here. Drivers are not used to watching for cyclists. There are some steep hills. There are no sidewalks. Fortunately, Arkansas’ excellent state park system has provided Davidsonville Historic State Park just a few miles away. It’s a place I can get comfortable without watching for cars. Which is good, because at this point, just turning around to look behind me on a bike is an epic feat.
- Start riding in the local neighborhood. Once I’m comfortable on the bike and can look for traffic, signal a turn, etc., we’ll start riding on the streets around our house. This eliminates a drive to the park every time we want to ride, and hopefully will encourage others around us to think about biking.
- Take the bikes on vacation. Last year, we rented some bikes while we were on the Virginia Beach boardwalk. It was the first time I’ve ridden near the ocean, and it was awesome. The smell of the sea, the wind in your face, hearing conversations fade in and out as you ride past, the overall sense of freedom from riding a bike in the sun. It’ll be nice to have that kind of experience other places that we happen to visit. We tend to take outdoorsy vacations, and many of the place we go have excellent biking trails and facilities.
- Use the bikes for local errands. This is the ultimate goal once I’m comfortable enough on the bike to ride in traffic. A new grocery store is going to be built just a few streets over from our house, and I’d like us to bike to get groceries. I know that’ll lead to using our bikes for other errands around town. At that point, we’ll truly be reducing our carbon footprint, and saving a little gas money in the process.
The First Few Rides
We bought our bikes on a Friday, and despite the 90°+F temperatures and high humidity, wound up riding Friday, Sunday, and Monday. Here’s what I found out:
- I’m out of shape. I knew this before starting, but it has been humbling to have it confirmed. My legs burned and then ached while trying to climb hills. I had to frequently stop to catch my breath. The next morning, my back was stiff and a little sore. Overall, it’s a good thing, as I need to improve my fitness.
- Anxiety and terror are still part of it. I’m going to work through these feelings, but they’re still present. I haven’t actually wrecked yet, though I did have a close encounter with a sign alongside the road, and I have to keep my seat low so I can put my feet on the ground. I’ve been a little less scared each outing, learning to enjoy myself instead of thinking so much.
- There’s a lot to learn with bikes. It can make your head spin if you try to learn everything at once. Tire sizes, tube sizes, tool kits, helmet fitting, when to shift, when not to shift – all these are taken for granted by the experienced cyclist, but required research plus trial and error for me to learn them.
- But you don’t need to learn much to get started. Our helpful salesperson at the bike shop made this clear. It’s not necessary to have or know everything to get started. Get a good bike, a helmet that fits, jump on, and go. The other stuff will come along later.
- It’s a lot of fun. I like being outside. It feels good to know I’m getting in shape. And while it has been hot, the weather has been gorgeous. The park has a nice lake, and riding along it is peaceful; as you zip along under the trees with the sunlight dappling through, you can feel stress melting away. The picture at the beginning of the post is from the lake last night; we were the only people at the park during our ride.
- You get helmet hair. ‘Nuff said.
Stay tuned for updates from time to time as I make my journey toward more pedaling and less gas pedals. Better yet, get started yourself! Get on a bike. It’s fun, you’ll help prevent pollution, and maybe get in shape, too.