The bike path has everything but bicycles

I reacquired bike fever a couple of years back. Not to protest high gas prices and not particularly for the exercise value, but rather for its most mundane and practical function – to get from place to place. Which is, as I will shortly describe, sometimes easier said than done.

I grew up in a city where stores and services were all pretty close at hand. This made the bike a natural for kids doing errands for their parents or heading out for that ice-cream cone or slice of pizza.

I recall mounting my gold, 20-inch Schwinn and rocketing off down the block, peddling like mad with a quarter in my hot little hand.

At the corner of Jackson Avenue (my town's miracle mile), I'd hang a hard right and fire along the two blocks to Little Mike's Pizza.

One of my greatest pleasures was skidding – or rather screeching – to a halt to announce my arrival to Little Mike himself. That quarter bought me a slice of cheese pizza and a small Coke.

Then I'd remount my steed and charge off to my next labor.

It's different today in many, many places around the country. In the span of only 25 or 30 years, countless downtowns have collapsed in deference to the "big box" stores that stud the margins of the towns and cities in which we live.

Kids can't easily bike to the mall because bicycles are not allowed on Interstates. And so they are driven by their parents – and bicycles, by and large, have been relegated to being "pleasure craft" for cruising around the neighborhood or heading out on dedicated trails.

This, then, is what I have rebelled against. I decided that my bike – a 29-incher (I'm a tall guy) – would once again serve as my tool for getting things done. And this is where the challenge comes in.

It's like this: My town, like most other places, is built for the automobile. Years ago, as a result of some legerdemain or political arm-twisting, a white line was painted down each side of the main road to denote bike lanes. It was a halfhearted nod to bikers asking for some dedicated space amid the rush and roar of motor traffic.

But it's a pretty sad affair. These bike lanes have become accumulators of trash and are also places where drivers freely park their cars, requiring the biker constantly to maneuver out into traffic or onto the sidewalk. Which brings me to my point.

Despite the trash, despite the traffic, despite having to yell out "Beep! Beep!" to pedestrians whose space I've invaded, I ride my bike.

This morning was a particular adventure, but being relatively young and thoroughly committed, I was up to the task. Allow me to recount it.

I began by slowly moving out of my driveway and onto the street. At that moment a teenager in a Jeep came speeding along, stereo blaring and cellphone pressed to her ear. She held a coffee cup in her other hand. In other words, she was driving with her knees – a tribute to her skill because as I entered the street, she swerved to avoid hitting me.

I continued along and onto the main street, where a monster of a pickup truck was parked at the corner. I had to ride out into traffic to get around it because there was a group of kids clustered on the corner, which meant that I couldn't use the sidewalk.

But my entrance into the street required that the traffic headed my way stop. As I got my pedals going again, the man in the lead vehicle firmed his lips and shook his head.

I pressed on.

The bike lane was free and easy for about 50 yards, at which point I encountered a stack of brush waiting to be picked up for disposal.

I swerved onto the sidewalk but had to slow to the point where I could barely keep the bike upright because two venerable older ladies were standing and chatting. "Beep! Beep!" I called, feeling a bit embarrassed. They smiled at me but didn't move, so I had to dismount and walk the bike around them.

Next came three cars parked in a row in the bike lane. In this case I moved to the left, squeezing myself between the parked cars and the traffic.

Once past the three cars, I turned back into the bike lane – and into a deep puddle of muddy water. Now I had a stripe of brown grime up my back because bikes don't have fenders anymore.

But I learn quickly and turned onto the sidewalk to avoid the next puddle. Immediately a passing car pulled into the bike lane to park and splashed mud onto my left side.

The man apologized, and I threw him a weak smile.

During the last leg of my ride, I went through another puddle, ran over a cardboard box, and was blanketed in a cloud of diesel fumes from a passing tractor-trailer. But I reached my destination, the supermarket. I was worse for wear, but I did it.

All for a head of cauliflower.

When it comes to riding bikes, these are indeed the salad days.

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