Thursday, February 5, 2009

Improving the Journey

If I’ve learned anything in my time, it’s that walking sucks. Walking really sucks. Mostly, it’s time-consuming. I could roughly tally up how much time I’ve spent pounding the pavement over the past several years, but I know that the resulting spreadsheet would send me into, if not a state of deep depression, then at least an uncomfortable malaise.

Walking isn’t unpleasant so much as it’s just excruciatingly boring. It’s not painful at all, which is part of the problem. If you finished a walking journey with sore legs, rasping breath, and sweat-drenched clothes, you would at least feel like you’d done something, and your endorphins would be released. But that doesn’t happen. Walking is the epitome of mild exercise; I will never understand the middle aged women I see walking around my Dunedin suburb every evening, often in pairs but sometimes, when their walking partner is unavailable, with a reluctant husband. But each to their own, I suppose. They probably don’t understand why I spend weekend afternoons telling the internet my thoughts on life, so we’re even.

Driving isn’t that great either. For one, it’s expensive. Very expensive. Where walking robbed you of chunks of your time, driving will steadily siphon away your money. If you, like me, decide to budget by investing in a car that’s older than you, then in addition to appeasing your vehicle's constant thirst for petroleum, you'll also be stuck with endless unexpected repair costs that won’t siphon money so much as suction it. Even my parents’ car, which is a relatively sprightly decade old, requires pricey maintenance on a fairly regular basis. Warrants, registrations, insurance…the list of hidden costs goes on and on, and soon enough the money you worked so hard for is mostly going towards getting you to and from work in the first place. Hardly ideal.

So what to do? Getting from here to there is a huge part of your life; you need something cheap, enjoyable, and quick. You need the low cost of walking combined with the speed of driving. You don’t want to deal with parking, but you don’t want to budget half an hour of travel time for everywhere you go. Where, you ask me, is this happy medium? Surely nothing so perfect could exist.

Well it does. Perfect is not an adjective I throw around a lot, but the bike has earned it. Everyone rode bikes when they were kids, tearing around, exploring, racing, and playing. I was well-known in my neighbourhood for having a pink girl’s bike; when confronted, which was often, I would insist that it wasn’t pink, it was light red, at which point my accusors would move on to the flowers printed on myhandlebars. Superficial trappings notwithstanding, though, I had a bike: the whole neighbourhood was my oyster.

Fifteen years later, I rediscovered the magic, and wondered what had inspired me to shrug it off for so long. Now, the most arduous distances are proverbial pieces of cake. What once took me twenty minutes now takes me five; travel time is a thing of the past. I can take meandering routes, blasting down side streets with impunity, exploring previously uncharted areas of Dunedin in a third of the time it would have taken me to walk. I can leave for work ten minutes before I’m due to be there, when previously I had to allocate half an hour, sometimes in the rain with holes in my shoes. Again: not ideal.

Of course, as with all things that are seemingly perfect, there are some downsides I would be criminal to not mention. First and foremost, especially in mountainous Dunedin, are hills. They are every biker’s worst nightmare, and can be combated in two ways. One: tough them out until your new habit makes you fit enough to handle them. This is a great option if you have drive, ambition, and an enormous tolerance for pain.

I don’t know about you, but that isn’t me. So here's your second option: stairs. When you go up hills, adjust your route so that you have to go up the maximum amount of outdoor concrete staircases, a ubiquitous sight in Dunedin, and hopefully present elsewhere too. At each staircase, hop off and walk your bike up; if you are seen by anyone, you will be spared the shame of being outed as unfit, because you’re walking up stairs. Lance Armstrong would have to do the same: riding is a physical impossibility! It’s the perfect way to ascend a hill while avoiding the shameful experience of walking a bike alongside traffic, which is sure to contain at least one van full of schoolkids who want nothing more than to mercilessly mock people like you.

And crashes. Dear me, there is serious potential for crashing on a bike. This may apply to me more than to most because my coordination is more ape than it is human, but I have experienced some truly hellish crashes. I’ve pressed the front brakes at high speeds without the balance of the rear brakes; the consequences were predictably dire. I’ve lost control going down hills at high speeds, once crashing into a grassy embankment, and once, rather spectacularly, into a fence that was high enough to stop my bike in its tracks, but not high enough to stop me from continuing on at the same velocity, flying over the fence and down the hill behind it, like a latter-day, clumsy superman. Luckily, through some miracle, I was okay, save a bit of embarrassment, and I brushed myself off, untangled my bike from the chain-link, and carried on.

So get a bike. Buy one secondhand, buy one new; go to the dump and shell out a dollar for a fixer-upper. If you're lucky enough to have friends or family with unused bikes, liberate theirs. I promise you, you won't be dissapointed. But please, wear a helmet.

You're welcome.


  1. I love that you are doing this. Any way for me to keep in some sort of contact with friends is awesome.

    And I completely agree. I haven't been riding my bike because it makes weird noises and I've been waiting for the Georgia Tech Cycling Club to set up for their free checkups. Too bad that was like a year and a half ago that I stopped riding.

    Luckily, Dan and I take the same classes 90% of the time, so I bum a ride.

  2. Bike's are quite excellent. Unfortunately, being in Canada, it's far too snowy for safe biking at the moment. I had a great time last summer though. It freed me from the tyranny of bus schedules.

  3. I'd ride a bike, but we have Asian drivers. =(