‘Bama Bikes –
Riding a bike provides a profound feeling of freedom. Part of it must be due to the memories of childhood: the hard-won fight to stay upright; the ability to pedal to a friend’s house or a store without calling on parents and their automobiles; the chance to race your friends and siblings down the street: legs tense, breath furiously moving in and out, panting cries of joy and anticipation and frustration. There’s the movement of the wind past your body, making each hair, each pore alive with sensation, the miraculous feeling of balancing so steadily on one wheel, then leaning into a turn, curving, carving, and the flickering of the light over your face as you slide down a hill, no effort at all.
I rejoined these sensations, these memories, recently when I rented a bike. It turns out that the local university has a low (low) cost bike rental program: 5 dollars a month and you get a beater bike, a helmet, and a bike lock. It might say something about the lack of cycling enthusiasm in town that it took me just about a year to hear about this program, though one could also put this down to my cluelessness and my assumption that such lack would = no bike options at all.
As I learned very quickly, the rental program bikes are no frills. I got my bike, walked it up the hill, then got on and started to ride. I was on the flat, at first, and then I came to a hill. I started going down the hill, and then I realized there were no brakes on the handlebars—no brakes to be seen. I panicked for a microsecond until I pedaled back, the way I used to ride my little yellow Schwinn years ago in Alaska, and I slowed, and finally stopped. I paused, that moment of terror robbing me for a second of my breath, then I laughed at myself that I hadn’t even thought to look for brakes, and that I was, in some ways, back to my beginnings, back to a single-speed with no brakes.
I quickly got back into the rhythms of biking, furiously pedaling on the flat or choosing, at times, to simply coast, rising to pump up a hill, and slowing as uneven pavement loomed. Quickly, biking felt like second nature. However, biking in ‘Bama did not. The town seems ideal for biking given the lack of hills or significant natural obstacles. The weather here, while too hot for me, is mild enough, even in winter, that there’s no worries about bundling in so many bulky layers that biking is impossible, and, of course, there’s no snow, well, just a bit a couple of days last winter.
Yet, there are a number of problems. One is the quirks of the town’s bike lanes and sidewalks, both of which often stop and start abruptly, leaving a cyclist to swerve in and out of the street, ride in the rough of grass or gravel, or get off the bike and cross-country it. Because there are so few bike lanes, you find yourself out in traffic, often with little room to maneuver and no shoulder. Drivers hoot at you, as if you should go elsewhere, but where? Normally, bikes aren’t supposed to be on sidewalks, and as a pedestrian in other towns I used to glare at cyclists who barreled along the sidewalk, forcing me to jump out of the way. However, now I understand why this town’s cyclists are so often on the sidewalk: it often feels the only safe option. But the sidewalks are not ideal, either. They are full of broken glass and other debris, and they feature uneven pavement and curbs that suddenly appear with no depression to safely shoot you from one block to another, but 3 inch drops that plays havoc with sensitive areas of the body: not to mention any non-beater parts of the beater bike.
The lack of bike racks is another issue: few businesses have them, even the giant malls outside town. The university has some, but not always well-placed, and a recent email exchange with the contact person for biking on campus left me scratching my head. The reason for the difficulty in adding more bike racks that he listed included money (strangely, this does not seem to bar the university’s many other activities, including replacing the flower plantings every three or four months or so when they could just get annuals and leave them be), the difficulty of getting multiple departments at a large university to work together (though one would hope that they can, or how can anything get done) and aesthetics (the last was really a puzzle – do those giant expanses of parking lots full of broken glass, trash, and giant autos not provide an aesthetic problem, not to mention the giant multi-tier parking garages?). Thus, while biking in ‘Bama should be a paradise, it is one that is lost, or perhaps one that has never existed. This makes me vow all the more that paradise will be regained and that there will be bike lines, bike racks, and bikes galore (if only in my dreams).