The Joys of Around-Town Biking: It’s Cool to Go Slow (Guest Post)


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.

17 thoughts on “The Joys of Around-Town Biking: It’s Cool to Go Slow (Guest Post)

  1. Totally agree – I have a heavy single-speed bike for using on trips into town. The lack of derailleurs means that maintenance at times of salty winter roads is much easier so I keep riding all winter. Also the bike is not so much flashy as noticeable – sparkly black frame, deep section red rims, red saddle and bars – and loads of people from BMX kids to old ladies comment on what a nice bike it is, which makes me more likely to cycle slowly so everyone can see it.
    The other thing is – given that I ride in restricted traffic areas n the centre of town that pedestrians tend to think of as ‘pedestrianised’ and thus fail to consider vehicles – instead of a bell, which often seems a bit shrill and annoying, I have a kids’ squeezy rubber bulb honking horn. People always seem much more amused than irritated when I parp that to alert them to my presence.
    Altogether a much more people friendly steed than my usual road bikes. Only the recumbent trike comes close.

    1. HI Fiona– I wish commenters could post pics, as your ride sounds great. And ss bikes are lower maintenance; I used to ride one, but found in the end that I missed gears. Love the rubber honking horn. I have a bell that I haven’t put on yet– your post reminded me to do this now… 🙂 People friendly bikes are a good thing, and I hope they help our country become more cycling-friendly and cycling-participatory.

  2. Nice post. I have an old Trek in the garage I bought second-hand from my friend probably in the late eighties and I have been wondering if it was even still in workable order…you have given me an idea, maybe I should find out. I have a complicated relationship w/biking now but could now imagine, maybe, thinking about taking it slow someplace on this old thing in the garage? Oh, and loved reading about your Cambridge/Belmont descriptions. I grew up in RI, but spent a lot of time in Cambridge going in circles or getting lost on one-way roads, looking to park….

    1. Hi– thanks! You can understand how nice it is to be able to avoid the endless circling in Harvard Sq, looking for the elusive parking space. One thing you might do about the 80s-era Trek in your garage: if you take it to your local bike shop, they can tell you what work it might need, and whether it is worth it (to you) to get it tuned up vs. getting something newer. Old bikes can be extremely useful, and the extra weight isn’t an issue if you are going slow anyway.

  3. Wonderful! Thank you for that. I feel peaceful and grateful after reading that, happy. And I want to go for a slow bike ride around town.

    1. Thanks! If you have a trusty bike to carry you, do it! If not, I hope you will find a two-wheeled friend soon.

  4. I love this! I’m experiencing a bit of it on a smaller scale as I’ve started commuting to work in my hybrid. I sometimes remind myself it’s okay to take my time and enjoy the scenery.

    One thing you didn’t mention about the 1991 trek that you picked up for $100 (and I wonder if this is the case) is that there is less at stake when locking it up around town. My $1000 Specialized San Francisco is still a bit too attractive and pricey for me to feel comfortable leaving it locked up where I can’t see it in some parts of town. It’s okay in campus, but vulnerable elsewhere. But an older cheaper bike might get me out even more. Question: what do you ride in the winter when it snows? The Trek?
    Thanks for this great post.

    1. HI Tracy– it’s been fun following your progress in relationships with bikes, and I’m glad you are still liking the hybrid. Sometimes when we get the sleeker, faster bike, we forget about the workhorses in our garages. They serve really different purposes (which is why everyone should have at least 2 bikes, in my opinion…:-) And yes, I should have added another thing to my post, which is not having to worry about it getting stolen. I’ve left the panniers on all the time for the past 1.5 years, and so far so good.

      re winter riding: I can put more knobby tires on the commuter bike, but actually I tend to do one of two things: 1) with a bunch of snow on the roads, I sometimes take out my nice mountain bike with serious knobby tires or the cyclocross bike with skinnier knobbies, , but both are expensive, so I don’t leave them outside. 2) In practice, I just wait until the snow is cleared off the roads (which, as you know, in Boston, happens usually in a few days), and get back on the road with the commuter bike. If there’s black ice on the road, well, I end up taking the T…

      1. In London, in my family’s collective experience, you’re safe in London with a good u lock. The bikes we’ve had stolen had cable locks. And we don’t leave bikes out overnight locked even with u locks.

      1. Oh nooooo! Well, actually, there is ALWAYS room for another bike. Right now what I would like is a foldable bike to take with me to conferences, one that I can check on a plane without paying the horrible fees they charge cyclists (don’t get me started on that…) Haven’t decided to take the plunge yet. Have you thought about it?

  5. I have 4 bikes, of which some are in a different city. I don’t race nor randonneur but do self-organized bike touring rides with my partner. I do cycle at varying speeds but I do notice the scenery around me. When cycling is part of one’s lifestyle and when one is car-free like we are, it’s almost strange not to notice the scenery at all.

    However I don’t cycle in street clothing except for walking shorts. Just want to keep streetwear/business clothing last longer.

  6. I have a varied stable of bikes too… I don’t have a car, so I do find I need a range of different machines for the various kinds of riding I do.

    Practical riding: my main bike for daily use is a new flat bar commuter with disc brakes (MEC Silhouette) that is nice for going medium fast and for carrying/towing lots of stuff; I also have an old steel touring bike that can carry stuff and go medium fast for a really, really long way quite comfortably. That was my daily commuting bike for about 5 years and I still like to use it fairly often.

    Fun riding: and two road bikes, one of which is too small and led to the acquisition of the second (MEC Col Ltd). This is purely about going fast and far.

    Slow riding: I do a lot of slow riding and just-for-fun toodling on my commuter bikes… but I also have two old Raleighs (both in need of work at the moment) and one of them is my favourite Slow Bike ever. It is a 6-speed upright city bike that weighs half a ton, but it’s sooo relaxing to ride. Unfortunately it has steel rims on its wheels, which means no brakes in the rain, but now that 650B wheels are coming back into use, I am hoping to find a set of new rims and rebuild its wheels. The second Raleigh is a 1976 Raleigh Twenty folding bike in need of a total overhaul and probable wheel rebuild, but it’s so CUTE.

    So that’s only six, and one of them is being sold on, so I feel quite good about this now!!

    Bike clothing – I do stick with technical clothes a lot of the time. Comfort, weather appropriateness, and the ability to keep my pant cuff out of the chain are part of this; I’m also too lazy to try and figure out a whole other wardrobe at this point. Working on it, but I’ll never be a “fashionable” cyclista.

    I have become quite dependent on my SPD clip pedals, I noticed recently. I went riding on flat pedals and nearly killed myself. My feet kept slipping off the pedals.

    1. Funny about flat pedals. Me too. I have rented bikes and done some city tours and have a really hard time starting. Yes and my feet just won’t stay put.

  7. HI Sam and Kim– Merrell makes some women’s shoes that they tout as bike-friendly. They have a piece of rubber on the heel that is supposed to help your foot stay on a flat pedal. I bought them, but then sent them back, as they were very pricey and in the end not unlike many other shoes I have (minus the one piece of rubber). As y’all probably know, there are flat pedals with some metal fluted edges, which would not work well for flip flops, but do for sneaks and other rubber-soled shoes. I have some which I use sometimes. Also, re clothing: everyone is different about these things, but I really like having intermediate cycling friendly around-town clothing as an option to my regular cycling gear. Mainly I do this because I tend to sweat a lot no matter what the weather, and wearing some comfy but less technical-looking clothing makes me feel like I can ride to parties, to dinner, to talks, etc. more easily.

    1. I’m slowly building up a wardrobe of merino wool shirts (which are great for temperature regulation and hiding sweat) and pants-with-a-bit-of-stretch to wear while cycling around town, but it’s a bit annoying sometimes that so much of the cycling-friendly-but -not-race-gear stuff is available in men’s styles only (Levi’s Commuter jeans, grr!). Even MEC failed with their cycling pants: the men’s style had a slightly higher back waist, a reflective turn-up cuff, and a gusseted crotch, while the women’s was LOW rise (seriously, I’m on a bloody bike here!), had a bulky seam dead center in the crotch,and had tiny pockets that basically guaranteed you’d either lose your keys or be stabbed in the femoral artery by them.

      Re: the Merrell shoes – I think one of the things I hate about flat pedals is that I am used to having the ball of my foot on the pedal, and a lot of the shoes designed for flat pedals assume that the foot will be a lot farther forward, even that the heel of the shoe will be kind of hooking onto the pedal. Just thinking about that makes my quads and knees hurt!

  8. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    This week marks the end of my semester of teaching and the beginning of. well, summer-ishness. In New England, real summer isn’t coming for awhile, but my feelings of elation that “school’s out!” certainly are.

    I haven’t cycled much this winter and spring, so am getting a late start on the season. This means I will be slow moving on two wheels– slower than I would like. Just writing these words, I’m puzzled at myself. Why worry about this? Why mind the speed? If I need to be somewhere quickly, either I take the car, or — if it is around town– the bike is almost always faster (traffic plus parking equals ride the bike, Catherine!).

    I’ll be writing about slowness this week, in particular about slow runners in marathons and recent news articles about the scorn they have been subjected to. Competing while slow takes determination (I know a bit about this), so instead of scorn, slower competitors deserve our praise. More on this later.

    For now, here’s a reblog of a post I did about the joys of around-town biking and the pleasures of slowness on two wheels. I hope you enjoy it, and look for my new post this week.


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