Saviors come in many forms. Mine was named Ross.
“Jack, I think I’m going to buy a bicycle,” I said to my friend, co-worker and future best-man. “What should I buy?”
“I don’t know,” my stocky, diminutive and mustachioed buddy replied. “You want to borrow Henry’s for a while and we can go bike shopping later?” Jack and Henry Reitwiesner were one year older and younger than I was, respectively, and in 1980 we celebrated the turbulent birthdays of 18, 19 and 20.
“Sure! That’d be great,” was my heartfelt reply. The fact that I was nearly half a foot taller than Henry didn’t even enter my mind. Bikes come in sizes? Who knew?
Jack delivered his brother’s bike from the house he lived at with his parents to the one I graciously shared with mine. I started riding it around Cloverly, Maryland making good use of the wide shoulder of New Hampshire Avenue where I learned to use the gears through trial-and-error.
Alexander Ross McMullen- not the savior Ross- was my sister’s beau and also a cyclist. Three years my senior and an avid outdoors-man I asked him, “Ross, what brand of bike should I buy?”
“Oh, probably doesn’t matter,” came his cryptic reply. “Just find a bike shop that you trust and get something in your budget.” (This statement made no sense to me at the time. Like Willy Loman in, “Death of a Salesman” I thought I should get a good brand of appliance so it would last longer. Probably even go with the one that had the biggest advertisement.)
Between girlfriends I had gone on two dates with just graduated from The Academy of Holy Names High School Andrea Gorney twice. A little before 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday in May I decided to get on my little bicycle and travel the 13 miles from Mom and Pop’s to Andrea’s job at The Gap in College Park and pay her a visit. A surprise visit. My surprise was as welcome as it was planned. She looked at me in my sweaty glory and said, “Uhm, thanks for coming, but I’m working here?”
Thirteen miles took me about an hour. Sunset in DC is around 8:30 that time of year. I had planned ahead some, I’d attached a tiny reflector and terribly inadequate headlight to my bicycle before heading out. I started making my way home with the sun low and getting lower.
I got honked at. A lot! New Hampshire Avenue heading north had a wide shoulder but heading south it was a six lane and I had no business being on that road at night without far better lights. I made it to within two miles of my house and decided that I should go visit Jack and my other friends at Farrell’s Restaurant another five miles away in Wheaton. I pulled over from the far right lane to the left turn lane and got clocked from behind. Not a very auspicious beginning to my lifelong love affair with cycling!
Unbeknownst to me my future wife had been hired as a manager trainee at Farrell’s and her first day of work was the next day. I called in sick to work that Sunday- well, “struck,” I suppose!- but met Patricia Tierney on Monday. Upon introduction her greeting was, “Oh! You’re the guy who got hit by the car!” Did I already use the word “auspicious”?
With Henry’s rear wheel “tacoed”- that is to say bent out of shape beyond the point of repair- I slipped him a twenty, returned his bike to him and went with Jack to Wheaton Cyclery and bought a 25″ frame Ross Grand Tour II along with front and rear Berek bike lights. No more getting hit by cars for me!
The summer of 1980 I became a bicycle commuter. The freedom of cycling allowed me to get to and from work, to and from Patricia Tierney’s rented room and the University of Maryland at College Park. Freedom! The bike changed my life and the seven mile ride to work, eleven miles to school and dozen or so to Pat’s were (mostly) blissful.
Over the last 35 years I have commuted in, 1) The greater D.C. area, 2) Birmingham, Alabama, 3) Hartford, Connecticut, 4) Atlanta, Georgia, 5) Indianapolis, Indiana, 6) Cedar Rapids, Iowa and 7) Tampa, Florida. All year, all weather, sometimes remembering that it is stupid to ride in lightning storms and freshly iced over roads but frequently venturing out anyway.
My father bought me a helmet soon after my first close encounter with a car (I have had three such encounters but none since 1987) and a mirror. Studded tires for riding in ice and snow, clothing for temperatures ranging from 110 above to thirty below, lights that make me visible for miles and far, far too many bikes in my garage have been added to my cycling gear.
I ride a bike to save myself and save my planet. Cars are not the enemy, we are. Fat, lazy, indolent, obese us is what is choking our roads and arteries and I choose not to be part of the madness. (My wife and I do own two cars that we split usage of with our younger son, Sean.) I am a bad-ass bike commuter, but then again, not so much!
Florida has humbled me. My “all-weather, any temperature” commute in Iowa was less than two miles! Oh, sure, I usually rode longer, going out for an hour in the morning and avoiding the shortest, i.e. the busiest, route to work and yes I rode in the ice, snow and freezing cold but big deal! Florida is my ultimate cycling challenge to date.
It is 25 insanely busy, eight lane highway, 55 mph, Mad-Max style drivers miles from my house to work. Twenty five miles. There is a great trail, The Pinellas, that I can take most of the way that “only” adds five more miles adding up to a thirty mile commute. 30 miles. 48 kilometers. Long, long way.
Additionally the trail cannot eliminate the first seven miles that it takes to get from my house to the trail, five of which are on a road that, while having a lovely, wide shoulder, is still 55 mph and rather busy. I do not intend to ride on this road after dark nor in the rain.
So I soldier on. I cycle the thirty to work and have my lovely bride of nearly 35 years pick me up on her way home from work. Cheating? If you say so, but it still keeps me from driving 50 miles a day. Or, if she is unavailable I’ll drive 12 miles, park the car and ride 18 to and from work and then drive the final 12 miles home. I don’t quit, I don’t say, “It can’t be done,” I do what I need to to save myself and my planet. I suggest you give it a try. “Can’t” is seldom true, and “won’t” is not a synonym.
As I said, saviors come in a lot of shapes and sizes. We should all try being one.