The first time I rode my bicycle to work, I was only sort of terrified. I wasn’t a stranger to riding on city streets, but the majority of my saddle time happened on weekends, when fewer cars plied the avenues and fewer of their occupants were hell-bent on making it through lights that had gone from stale yellow to glaring red.
Pulling into morning rush hour traffic on some Minneapolis’ busiest streets was something altogether different. And while my town deserves the reputation for bike friendliness it’s earned over the past few years, my adventures in commuting began while the current network of bike paths, lanes and boulevards was but a gleam in the City Council’s eyes. And let’s face it: In any battle of bike versus car, the decision’s going to go to the four thousand pound bruiser in the bright red trunks.
My progression from nervous novice to confident commuter was surprisingly fast. Right off the bat, I realized that the best way to be treated like traffic as a cyclist was to act like traffic — and not just in the sense of at least casually observing traffic signals. I found that when I took the law at face value and staked out a full lane for myself, most drivers didn’t crowd me. To be fair, I also used open spaces to snake through blocks of stalled traffic and rolled through my share of stop signs at vacant intersections. But I didn’t recklessly blow through red lights or swerve unpredictably in and out of a lane. I made a point of making eye contact with drivers as much as possible: When people see you and acknowledge your existence as a fellow human, they’re much less likely to run over you.
I got better at sensing what cars were going to do: Who was going make an un-signaled turn, a swerving lane change, or a nonsensically sudden stop. And I discovered that pedaling side by side with cars cruising into downtown was an adrenaline rush. Not one arising from sense of danger or imminent bodily harm, but simply feeling more alive and excited to be in motion. It was a concentrated form of the pleasant rush that I’ve always gotten from biking, and I was hooked.
So what the hell happened to me?
For starters, I lost my job in the current recession to end all recessions, back in January 2009. While this is the best thing that could have happened to me, vis-à-vis ARTCRANK, it complicated the daylights out of commuting by bike. For my first year of self-employment, I worked out of my house in South Minneapolis. So my morning commute went from six miles to a flight of stairs. I had meetings at offices and coffee shops all over town, but showing up looking and smelling like I came by bike wasn’t always an option.
I also discovered that I was far worse workaholic on my own behalf than I’d ever been for anyone else (which is saying something). If I had spare time, my first instinct was to work on the next ARTCRANK event, recruit new artists or pitch potential sponsors. Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook became a bigger part of communicating with a growing audience, and a few minutes here and there throughout the day started turning into hours. As new shows outside of Minneapolis came into being, I started travelling more. And honestly, as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten harder to talk myself out of that extra hour of sleep and into a few layers of clothing for a chilly morning ride.
Collectively, it was more exciting and rewarding than anything I’d ever done before. But the more time I spent on a poster show about bikes, the less time I spent on an actual bike.
Cycling is like any other habit (or addiction): it can be made, but it can also be broken. And after less than a year, the routine I’d developed around starting and ending my day with a bike ride was broken beyond recognition.
Today, I run ARTCRANK and my advertising business out of an office in Northeast Minneapolis, a little more than seven miles from my house. I love what I do, and a day doesn’t pass without a reflection on how lucky I am to be able to do it. What I love less is that I’ve put on about 20 pounds over the past two years. I don’t look or feel anywhere near as healthy as I did when I was riding a bike to work almost every day. And I miss the rush of riding in traffic.
I have two choices: Accept the current state of things as the new reality, given the nature of my job(s). Or make an honest effort to get back in the habit that changed my life for the better, complications and discomforts be damned. I’m giving the latter a go.
Because I have this shiny little outpost on the interweb at my disposal, I’m going to write about it from time to time. The triumphs, trials and tribulations. The good, the bad and the ugly. And believe me, there will be ugly.
Along the way, I’ll try to share what works, what doesn’t, and the odd comment about the gear that I’m relying on to get me through safe, sound and reasonably comfortable. If you’ve got advice or adventures of your own to share, I’ll be happy pass those along as well. Just send ‘em my way via email any time you like.
With that said, here goes nothing.
– Charles K. Youel
P.S. A shout-out to Ben McCoy of Bicycle Theory and MplsBikeLove for suggesting we meet for coffee and ride to work (our offices are in the same building) this morning. Good company makes the miles go faster.