When I was twelve, I spent the better part of a month scraping and repainting my parents' large shed in exchange for the object of my desire - a blue 24-speed Specialized mountain bike. The minute I got it, I was off! That bike was not just a way for me to get to the barn where I worked and to my best friend's house. That bike was freedom! I went everywhere on it for years. Then I turned 16 and switched out my beloved bike for a used Honda Civic and I didn't look back for many years. I loved driving and the car expanded my radius further than I could go by bike.
But when we moved to California after college, leaving the car behind, I rediscovered the flexibility and joy of bike riding (I also discovered public transit). I was worried about bringing my Specialized to California because bike theft was a big problem, but my mom let me ship her rarely used 10-speed Puch bike (which my dad gave her as a wedding gift). It was in great condition, but definitely not modern or in hot demand for bike thieves.
In Berkeley, we could go anywhere and do anything by bike all year round. I installed a milk crate on the back of my bike to carry groceries, packages, books, and anything else I needed. At first I struggled to get up the many hills and to learn the rules of the busy roads, but soon I got into biking shape and figured out how to transfer lanes and make turns without stopping traffic. It became second nature to travel everywhere by bike, as natural as jumping into my car has become now.
Moving back to New Hampshire, I had two bikes to choose from, but soon I also had three children and winter to contend with. A used bike trailer allowed me to bring my small kids to and from preschool, the post office, the community garden, and the small local library (all within a fifteen minute bike ride of my house). The grocery store, downtown, the city library, friends' houses, restaurants, and any other errands, I used the car. The kids started riding their own bikes, but kids have less stamina and older children - at least mine - aren't good at following traffic rules, so we didn't bring them any further.
I got used to choosing the car aside from those close places and honestly didn't even consider my bike, even when I was going somewhere relatively close on my own. It just felt like I didn't have the time or the stamina or even the desire anymore. But this summer, inspired by some new friends, I am slowly getting back into the habit of choosing my bike instead of my car. My biggest inspiration has come from a fellow Master Gardener, who rides her bike all around Concord checking on garden projects, doing all her errands, and visiting friends. She is 75! If she can do it, I told myself, so can I. And I have been.
Whenever I have a solo errand or visit within a half hour bike ride from my house, I have been trying to choose the bike. Honestly, one of the hardest parts is changing my mindset. It's very easy to take the car. Errands are faster in a car and I don't have to exert myself or sweat. Plus the car feels more private somehow, like I'm in my own little world. Biking feels public, like everyone is looking at the strange woman pedaling on her old bike with the milk crate and watering can or library books rattling around inside. But it's getting easier.
I'm not going to lie, it's still a struggle to go up a big hill or to go further than half an hour, but I am working up my stamina again. And I'm really beginning to enjoy the slower pace of bike riding. I can actually enjoy the gardens and houses I'm passing. I can stop when I want to look at something closer and I can smile and say "hi" to people walking by. I'm beginning to enjoy the journey in a way I wasn't before. I'm trying to forget about the people in the cars and just focus on myself and what I'm doing (except when I need to turn).
f the biggest plusses to taking my bike is that I'm getting exercise while being productive, which is something I've always enjoyed. It's why I hang my laundry, mow my lawn with a reel mower, and grow my own food (You can read about my philosophy here: In Defense of Doing Things the Hard Way). Another benefit of bike riding is that, the way I do it anyway, it is slow and steady exercise, which is better for my long term health than, say, a HIIT workout. So, yes, it takes me longer to get places, but I also don't need to take time to work out that day (not that I do anyway, let's be honest, but theoretically speaking). And, of course, powering myself up those hills uses no fossil fuels and releases no greenhouse gases.
Am I riding my bike everywhere? No. Not at all. I am still taking the car anytime I need to bring the kids further than a fifteen minute ride or anytime I'm pressed for time, or anytime the weather isn't okay. I'm hoping to build up the habit of choosing my bike so that, over time, I am faster and more confident. In time, I plan to buy a new (read: newer used) bike, bike lights, and other accessories that make choosing a bike easier. I want to extend my riding into the late fall and early spring by finding proper lightweight weather gear and I want to get my children accustomed to longer rides, but, for now, I am just enjoying the roots of my first real freedom out on the road and trying to retrain myself into making the healthier, greener transportation choice.
Next time you have a close errand and a few extra minutes to spare, I encourage you to dust off the old bike and give it a chance. You won't regret it!