In a big damn hurry
by Jeff Henderson
published in Inside Triathlon
I can't believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they're everywhere.
The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.
-Brooks Hatlen, librarian, The Shawshank Redemption
I can understand if you missed the big news - it's Bike to Work Week, ladies and gentlemen. Time to dust off the beater, rummage around for some suitable attire, and try to jimmy the briefcase onto the back where it won't get too mucked up or slide off when crossing the railroad tracks. Ah yes, the joys of the petroleum-free commute.
Most days I bike to work, and I do believe I'm the only one in the fair city of Geneva who does so. I teach high school math in town, and I can cover the seven miles between here and there in just about 25 minutes; on a good day, it takes me 35. "What are you going to do when it snows?' my students asked me back in September.
"Ski," I told them. That is the only time this year they have not had anything else to say.
I've always biked to work - Boston, Singapore, San Francisco, and now upstate New York. I've been hit by cars, blindsided by a German Shepherd, and pinned against the hood of a car (someone else's car) by a man not so keen on sharing the road up Fell Street. None of this has done anything to convince me that I would rather be in a car, or bus, or train.
At the beginning of the school year I was given a reserved parking space in the school parking lot; #31 was mine, all mine. I briefly considered renting it to a senior, or making a social statement and bolting a bike rack in the middle of it. After a week of watching me cart my bike into the building each morning, though, the Parking Administrator asked if he could have the pavement back, so the part-time Latin teacher could have a spot. I thought about asking for a raise - bike racks cost approximately $250 and parking lots $20,000 per space to build.
One of the most thoughtful things my students say to me is, "Be careful riding home, Mr. Henderson." They say this less on test days.
I pass through the state park on my way to work, not because it's on the way but because it is where I hold the Musselman Triathlon in July, and I want to make sure it's safe and sound. I am the only one there in the winter, except for a resilient fellow, wearing yellow and bundled against the cold, who rides past me going the other way at the exact same time everyday. He is perpetually grinning a very curious grin, a grin that says we share a secret - like he just stole the cookies and no one knows. I believe I may have this same grin when I arrive at school, and I believe I know why.
You cannot smell the world from behind the seat of a large automobile. I can close my eyes and name the neighbors with the well-kept lawns, the ocean, and the donut shop as I pass. Occasionally it is not entirely pleasant - in June of 1999 I was cycling through Illinois with a friend when the most horrid, the most detestable and putrescent odor ever to meet the human nose ran headlong into our forward-facing nostrils. We rounded the bend and the source of our misery rose before us - the Campbell's Soup Factory, boiling and stewing millions of tomatoes. I have not thought of soup as good food since.
On a bike you know things before anyone else does. I know spring has arrived - the lilacs tell me - and I know when the danger of frost has passed because the farmer has left clods of dirt in the road for me to dodge.
There was a time when cars did not exist (I am not making this up). I imagine it was a slower, quieter, friendlier place. Have you ever tried to hold a conversation on the side of a road in the middle of a busy city? Maybe I'm getting old - I did turn 30 yesterday, after all. But I do believe that everything is relative, and that if we had vehicles capable of getting us to work at 200 mph, everyone would long for one and cars would be the realm of dilettantes and delinquents.
I am one of the few Americans who wish their commute was longer. My bike ride is over too quickly, the solace of morning tranquility bursts too soon. I've decided it would be a Bad Thing for others to discover the joys of an active commute - yes, better to selfishly horde, for too many others would ruin it for the rest of us. So I pedal along, smiling silently to myself and occasionally, if the sun is just right and the winds are fair, showing up a little bit late.