Enlightenment at 12 miles per day
I’m new to the Bicycle Colorado staff, but not to bicycle advocacy or riding bikes. That said, the last few weeks have been an education in bicycling on an entirely new level than what has been known to me for two decades. The 12 miles I ride most days give me more pleasure and perspective than some of the most epic bicycle adventures I’ve undertaken.
I became a distance road cyclist as a teenager after sampling triathlons and realizing I hated them except for the cycling segment. I’ve ridden my bike 3,000 miles coast to coast to raise money for charity. Several years ago, I took up mountain biking and mountain bike advocacy with a fervor, sampling downhilling and dirt jumping before settling on a tamer, wheels-on-the-ground style.
I’ve pedaled into the woods, laden with gear, and camped under the stars alongside my bike. I jumped on the gravel grinding bandwagon early and with aplomb, and am currently planning a week-long expedition of a dirt rail trail out east. I’ve raced, from criteriums to cyclocross to 18-hour team relays, and done so horribly that I always celebrated simply not finishing last.
And yet, until a few weeks ago, I had never regularly commuted by bike. Getting into cycling at a young age led me to take it rather seriously. Bicycles and riding them have been passionate obsessions since I begged for permission to spend $1,000 of summer job savings on carbon Spinergy wheels for my road bike (at age 16, mind you). My parents said “No.”
So while I thought I had thoroughly exhausted most of the bicycling disciplines, trends, cultures, outfits, etc., simply “going by bike” or “living by bike” had thus far never quite fit in with my lifestyle, my location or my profession. Bicycle commuting was also, admittedly, outside the periphery of my “serious cyclist” tunnel vision. Had I ever actually ridden a bike more than a mile without padded shorts?
Coming into this job, I knew I needed to gain an understanding of bicycle riding as transportation, and quickly. It is a practical reality that exists for many people whether out of preference or necessity. Also a reality is the dismal experience of driving to and parking in downtown Denver. As it turned out, the least-stressful, most economical way for me to get to work happened to be by train and bicycle.
I confess to feeling awkward the first time I loaded up a couple of panniers and pedaled four miles from my house to the nearest light rail station, then another two miles from the edge of downtown Denver into the heart of the city on riverside bike paths. There I was, the experienced cyclist, riding skittish in the kind of frenetic situations my recreational outings expressly avoid.
After several days, my nerves settled and I began looking around and noticing things. I noticed the startling amount of public art in Denver and how cruising around on a bike was a most enjoyable way to take it in. I noticed the number and variety of commuter cyclists, from construction workers on old mountain bikes and college students on singlespeeds to people in crisp suits riding branded commuter bicycles and others in Spandex race kits on carbon road machines toting their workwear in bulging backpacks.
I also began to notice the infrastructure—where it was excellent and where it was lacking. I noticed where bike lanes randomly disappeared and began to wonder why; I noticed how the bike section of light rail cars wasn’t well thought out and how busses only having two front racks could be a serious problem on crowded routes. I experienced unease trying to pedal through downtown car traffic after dark and felt the sting of driver ire as I tried to maneuver safely.
I started recognizing bicycles, then faces, on my commute. Every age, race, physique and gender is represented on my six-mile route. Most of the people I see likely choose to ride, but plenty of them probably do not; it’s perhaps their best or only option. But for every person that pushes the pedals—the bicycle represents the same thing: freedom. Whether it’s freedom from the pressures of work, freedom from a gas-powered life, or freedom to move about under one’s own power to work or school at faster-than-walking speeds, it is freedom.
For me, my commute is perhaps the most powerful six-mile stretch I have ever ridden. Not only does a pre- and post-work bicycle ride offer me stress relief nonpareil, it has opened my eyes to the intricacies of how cities and suburbs are arranged, how people move about and how transportation priorities are manifested.
Every day that I commute by bike, I see the value of advocating for Colorado to be the number-one bicycle friendly state in the nation. When I only ever pedaled around for fun, it seemed like a great idea but more of an ethereal one. Now that I also ride for very practical reasons, I realize that it’s not just a good tagline; it can make life a lot easier and safer for some people while also making it a lot more fun for others. Build it and riders will come—they will come from out of state to have an adventure; they will come out of their homes to get to where they need to go.
Recreational cycling made me passionate, but it’s using the bicycle in its most basic form—as a way to get around—that is helping me get it.