I’m a cyclist. I own a lot of bikes— six, to be exact (I keep telling people that bikes are like shoes—you need different ones for different purposes and occasions). I have my road bike for riding long distances, and a mountain bike for single-track trails in the woods, and some others as well. For cyclists, bikes can be a status symbol, and people are constantly upgrading to the newest, lightest, sleekest model. But these days, my favorite bike is a 1991 Trek 850 fully rigid (no suspension) mountain bike, called The Antelope (Trek’s name for it, not mine). I bought it for $100 from a bike club friend about three years ago. It’s heavy enough on its own, but I added a rack, panniers for carrying loads of stuff, and fenders. It is pretty much a tank, which is what you need for riding around (and sometimes through) the potholes in the Boston, Massachusetts area where I live.
Why would this old, heavy, clunky bike be my favorite right now? Because it is my two-wheeled companion for all kinds of urban and suburban adventures. It makes going to the grocery store a real outing, not a chore. I can turn down a street just because there is a house or garden that looks intriguing. I ride on bike paths, pop up on curbs, cut through parking lots (being very careful, of course) and recapture what it is like to be a kid on a bike. And all of this is done at slow speed.
Some of the joys of going slow around town on a bike:
- I can access parts of my city in ways not feasible in a car, with no worries about parking.
My boyfriend and I often ride bikes to downtown Boston to go to the movies, the theater, or restaurants in areas where it would be a huge hassle to get there and a huge expense to park. Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA is a 12-minute bike ride, but goodness knows how long it would take to drive there and find parking.
- I get where I’m going just as quickly as in a car.
Where I live (just outside Cambridge in Belmont, MA), it takes me no longer than 20 minutes on my commuter bike to get anywhere I tend to go for errands, shopping, meeting friends, going to the gym, library, etc. Because of traffic and parking, driving isn’t any faster, and during rush hour it is much slower and heartburn-inducing. And I can indulge in a little traffic schadenfreude while whizzing (or coasting) up to the front of a huge line of cars at a traffic light. Ahhhhh…
- I can ride like a kid.
Slow is the right speed for multi-use paths or in parks. It is so much fun to pop up on a curb, take a little air going off a curb, cut through a parking lot, take a detour to go down a hill, or veer off the path onto the dirt, the grass, the sand—all of these are things we did as kids and never thought about it. Last week, I saw a guy who must have been 65, riding his bike on a path with his legs up on the top tube, kind of balancing and coasting. Varying my riding has improved my bike handling as well. Before I started mountain biking, I rode my mountain bike around neighborhoods and parks, riding through sand, mud, dirt, water puddles, up and down grassy hills and over rocks. Did I mention how much fun this is?
- I see all kinds of people around town who are not driving cars.
Going slow puts me in touch with different segments of the non-driving population—people who are riding bike share bikes, people who use bikes as their sole means of transportation, non-cyclists and kids. I become one of them, which isn’t possible when I am in spandex and on my road bike. Also, seeing how people act and respond to other bikes and pedestrians has made me more careful about my own behavior when I am on a faster bike.
- I can wear regular clothing—no need for spandex.
When I’m going slow, I don’t have to worry as much about sweating and arriving at my destination looking like a drowned rat. I often wear dresses with leggings or shorts liners on the bike. I’ve also invested in some casual cycling wear. I have three pairs of cycling knickers that look like yoga pants, but with a light chamois, and they are perfect for 3 seasons of around-town cycling in New England.
- It’s exercise that is also productive—a time management twofer.
For those of us who get overbooked and overstressed (which is basically everybody), any way to increase efficiency is worth considering. Because I am most definitely not a morning person and therefore not a morning-exercise person (a topic for a future blog post—stay tuned), exercising in small chunks on weekdays to engage my body and clear my head is a win. I combine errands and appointments, extending rides by taking more scenic and longer roads or paths, or being deliberately less efficient in my route planning.
- Sometimes I just don’t feel like going fast.
This is the cool thing about a bike—it can go fast or slow. It doesn’t care. It’s important not to tip over (for more info on how bike stay upright, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhMECbDRVLI)
but it is designed to balance at a range of speeds. So it will carry me if I am tired, not in a hurry, looking for some restaurant that I’m sure is nearby but whose name I forgot (this is much easier to do on a bike than in a car, by the way), or heavy-laden with groceries.
I love the liberation of slow riding—it’s empowering to take my place on the road or path, tootling along, knowing I will be home soon, taking in the sights, enjoying the ride.