I grew up in a quaint little town called Rhinebeck, about 90 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. I started riding a bike as a little girl, somewhere around 3 years old. As soon as my folks let me, I started riding my bike to school. Most days I could beat the school bus, though, in the winter, my freshly washed hair would freeze on the way in. The bicycle was my ticket to freedom. Because I was living in a small town, I was allowed a wide territory to roam by myself, no questions asked. As long as I made it home by dinner, I could ride my bike anywhere I pleased. Most summer days I would go to the pool. Some days my dad, brother and I would take an 8 mile loop out to Rhinecliff and back. Sometimes I would ride up the Knollwood hill and then come flying back down, seeing how far I could coast before pedaling. I didn't wear a helmet and all I carried was a puny little chain lock wrapped around my seatpost. Perhaps I was naive, or maybe I lived in some sort of paradise, but I never felt unsafe or scared.
Fast forward to now. I’ve been riding a bike for transportation and enjoyment for 30 years. At this point, my bicycle has put me in the ER once, and bucked me to the ground more than a handful of times. Never have I collided with a car, but perhaps, statistically, that day is still to come. There have been multiple close calls, a few of which have brought tears, a few have brought intense anger and harsh words, not to mention lewd gestures. I've come to a time in my life where I've lost my naiveté and sometimes get really scared while riding my bike. Gone are the carefree days of my childhood.
Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Fear is one of those feelings that we can't control. An emotion that overtakes us before we can even think about it. It's that gasp when you drop a knife close to your foot or an inner tube explodes. If it's not a threat, then we can relax. If that fear is real, then we get riled up--that fight or flight response. Muscles tense, breath quickens, blood pressure rises, heart races and we're ready to take on whatever threatens our survival. Sometimes this is just what's needed to get away from a difficult situation, but too much reaction is detrimental, and sometimes can scar us in such a way that our fears control us. Let the fear control you and it becomes phobia.
Fear dictates the roads I take, the space that I give to other riders and drivers, the lights I use and the bikes I ride. I've come to the conclusion that fear is what keeps me alive, so I embrace it. I let it dictate, but not too loudly. I won't let it keep me from riding. For more than a year I wouldn't (maybe couldn't) ride down the road that put me in the ER. With time, I overcame that--rationalization and statistics can only be so helpful--sometimes we just need time. That time can help define where fear is helpful and where it's debilitating.
I'm tired of being told to be safe/ride safe/stay safe. I want to have fun. Of course I have concern for my safety, but bicycles are fun. Bicycling is freedom. Bicycling is an act of rebellion. Uncaged and free to travel where we wish at the speed we like. We can take the lane or ride off on a dirt trail. We can act as pedestrians at a crosswalk or as a car in a turn lane. We can ride in en masse to disrupt or quietly take the sidestreets.
Despite the occasional terrifying moment, bicycling is pretty fantastic. Fresh air, that feeling of freedom, the chill on your cheeks on a crisp winter day; these are the most joyful feelings where all senses are activated. I can't imagine being caged in a car suffering through rush hour traffic day in and day out. I'd much rather be able to work out the day's stress in my commute home. I prefer parking right up front and never worrying about how much money to put into the meter. Staying fit by riding to work and the grocery store is icing on the cake. Everyday I'm on my bike is a better day--rain, snow or blustery wind be damned.
A few things to help make your ride safer and more fun:
1. Be observant. People often don't signal their intentions, but if you hone your observational skills, you can usually interpret their next move. Trust that, and if someone looks like they're slowing to make a turn, give them space. Better to avoid collisions than deal with the aftermath, or as the old timers say: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
2. Be visible. Get some good lights, but not those retina searing flashy jobs. Invest in some quality lights that put light on the road--ahead of you and behind. I personally have dynamo lights on all my bikes and am not sure how I lived without. They're always on, never need charging and are never lost at the bottom of my bag. Try reflective tape and loud clothes if you're so inclined. I still wear black (blame this classic camp song).
3. Allow yourself enough time. If you're in a rush, you're more likely to make rash decisions. If you give yourself time or allow yourself to be late, you'll be more likely to ride safely and not rush through yellow lights and sketchy intersections.
4. Don't blindly trust Google Maps. Trust your instincts. If you're feeling uncomfortable or upset when you're riding, it might be the route. Take roads that are slower and less trafficked. Side streets are your friend. For every busy street, there's usually one a few blocks away that might have some stop signs, but will keep your blood pressure at a reasonable level. Some roads feel totally different at rush hour, so consider time of day as well. Ask someone who rides a lot for advice if you're looking for alternative routes. Portland has some great bike maps that are helpful if you're going somewhere new and want to see the options.
5. Get a more upright bike with wider tires. Since entering my third decade on this Earth, I've come to appreciate a more upright ride. One advantage is a clearer field of view without neck strain, another is a slower pace to allow better reaction time, tertiary is enjoyment. Wide tires mean I'm not afraid to ride on sewer grates or in the wet leaves when forced to take to the side of the road--they're also super comfortable and don't require topping off every three days.
6. Be nice. People tend to mirror those around them (save a few bad seeds). If you're nice, people are more likely to be nice back. Smile and wave. Appreciate a kind gesture by passing it on. The jerks out there don't deserve your attention. Often feel the need to give the finger? Wear mittens.