Whether you’re the kind of person who bikes to work every day or never bikes at all, May 9, also known as Bike To Work Day, is a celebratory moment to consider the delight that biking adds to our lives. And this year, my third as a regular yet very non-serious biker, got me thinking about my tumultuous journey to the love affair that is my bike and me.
Five years ago, I got a hand-me-down bike and decided that I'd henceforth be a cyclist! I saw all the cool girls in their dark jeans hunched over their handlebars, navigating through the world with a casual ease that I too wanted to possess. Most of my friends and my husband were avid riders, leaving me to hail cabs and get places way after they did, and for way more money. So I began dutifully biking places, arriving flustered and disheveled, having nearly wiped out after catching my high heel in a street grate. I needed help locking up and generally didn’t feel at all cool or effortless. So I wasn’t destined to be a cyclist after all. I didn’t like hopping on and off the seat at lights, or lifting my hand up to signal a turn and endanger my already precarious state. I couldn’t wear dresses, skirts and impractical shoes, which are my daily uniform. Citing myriad legitimate (but mostly lame) reasons, I retired the bike and went back to the expensive, crowded, dirty, insanity-inducing world of SF public transit.
Then, for my birthday, my husband made a big to-do about how we had to go somewhere to get my present. All sorts of things went through my head (primarily diamonds for some hilarious reason). It ended up being even better than diamonds, though I didn’t know it yet. He took me to the PUBLIC Bikes store and told me to pick out a bike. The gesture was so loving and generous I could hardly say no, though I sort of wanted to. The bikes were insanely cute, which provided an essential initial motivation. I tentatively took my test ride around a quiet tree-lined loop that couldn’t have been more perfect for my hesitant, poorly dressed self (I’d worn a dress and boots to pick out my diamonds). Though I nearly ran over a man jaywalking with an iguana, I felt pretty comfortable. The low, sloping bar of the Dutch style “Step-thru” made hopping on and off in a lady-like fashion very easy, and the high handlebars and basket made me feel a tad European.
Fast forward three years and I bike everywhere. I recently biked some deranged hilly route from North Beach to the Richmond, giddy with gratitude that the journey would have been impossibly long and annoying any other way. I cannot imagine living without my bike; I have a nickname for it and sometimes find myself humming the theme song of the Wicked Witch of the West as I ride. My bike just makes me happy on this immediate, cellular level. I can lock it up just fine, signal that I’m turning without falling over and wear whatever I want. As one of my fellow girly friends says, “if you sometimes like to wear dresses/boots/heels, you may think you can't bike without changing your wardrobe, but you're wrong. Rock them anyway! It's easier than you think. If people can see up your skirt a little bit, who cares!” This is an important biking philosophy I’ve adopted. If someone can see up my skirt for a second, it doesn’t matter cause I’m already gone.
That’s the beauty of being a biker in San Francisco: you can be any sort you want, from the serious to the amateur, and everything in between. You can bike up to Point Reyes or down to Pacifica. You can proudly navigate your 10 minute commute, or make your way through the lovely Panhandle. It’s all OK. Not only does biking offer the cheapest, fastest, most environmental form of urban public transport, but you get to see unexpected, intimate details of your city and the world magically opens up to hold you in a different sort of way. Another biking friend of mine agrees, “There’s something different about putting your feet on the ground mid-transit that changes how you see things. This week I saw: fog lit from above and below, a broken dead seagull, an empty freeway entrance, the third street drawbridge open and close.” More than once, gliding down Sanchez toward 17th late at night on “the wiggle” I’ve thought (and said out loud), “Life is perfect,” because that’s the feeling invoked by biking. In his book Bicycle Diaries, Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne describes his adventures all over the world and says biking "facilitates a state of mind that allows some but not too much of the unconscious to bubble up.”
There’s no better feeling than riding with a group of friends through Golden Gate Park on a Sunday when the roads are closed to car traffic, ending up at the beach for sunset and beer. Or realizing I have to run some random errand that would normally take an hour, and instead it takes half that. Or taking the ferry to Angel Island for the day to bike around considering the most gorgeous views I've ever seen. Or heading over the gusty Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito for white wine on a deck overlooking the water. Or going to the store and putting all my groceries in my basket (I usually refrain from flowers and baguettes, but not always). You’re probably getting the picture about the leisurely take I have on it, but one of my favorite things about biking is its democracy, that everyone has their own style and way they ride.
My fellow more hardcore bikers and even cars, are usually incredibly kind (I’ve been yelled at about five times in three years). I’m intimidated by people who clearly bike faster and more skillfully than me and yet there's no real reason to be. Once a group of men at the shop where I went to get a tune-up told me that I was part of a club since I’d biked there in the rain (they later held the door for me and gently reminded me to brake sooner than usual because the roads were slippery, which meant I wasn’t really in the club). There was also the car who stopped traffic so I could retrieve my sunglasses that had fallen into the middle of the road and the driver of a delivery truck I ran into who insisted on bandaging my bloody finger. And there was the good looking boy who tried to show off by balancing on his pedals at the red light, bit it, hopped up and said, “C’est la vie, right? We’re on our bikes!” I now fight the urge to yell that at everyone I pass by: “We’re on our bikes!” Here we are, out in the air, rain and sun, feeling our legs and hearts and city. How lucky we are.
Important things I’ve learned about biking: Wear a helmet; it’s fine to look like a dork (ignore helmet-less boys that look cool). Actually stop at lights and stop signs. Shop at/support the array of local awesome bike shops like Box Dog, Freewheel, and Heavy Metal Bike Shop, to name just a few. Join the SF Bike Coalition. Be zen (people do crazy things) and be nice. Don’t chase/try to impress cute boys or you will crash (this wasn’t me, I swear, this was my friend who shall remain nameless). Warm Planet Bikes will park your bike all day for free. Watch out for doors opening into the bike lane. Take up a whole lane if you have to. And, most importantly, there's no reason not to bike. You can start by biking to work on May 9. I’ll see you out there. I’ll be the one in the dress biking so slowly you’d think I never had anywhere to be.