I knew I was finally grown up, when Mom gave me permission to ride my bike to Pizza Hut. I was raised in a small town, next to a little bit bigger town, not too far from the big city of Cleveland. Before we could drive, biking was what we had. My older sister had been allowed to ride her bike down Route 58, all the way to Lakeview Park. I had been given permission to cross Route 58 and chow down at Pizza Hut with my friends.
Bicycling has always a means of freedom for me. When I tired of being the middle child in a family of boisterousness, when I wanted rebellion or to check out the boys playing baseball down the street, when I needed quiet, I rode my bike. First, it was up and down Butternut to Ridgeland Drive. Later, it was to “The Fields” (because there were only singular places in our town, “the theatre”, “the school”).
The word freedom comes to mind again, as I read about bicycling in headlines and blogs around Cincinnati. So, I recognized the need to categorize myself prior to writing the rest of this post.
I am not a bike commuter, but I am a huge proponent of the concept, having lived in other cities where they were commuting on bikes before Cincinnati had ever conceived of a Central Parkway Bike Lane. And reporter Chris Wetterich does a fine job of covering the highs and lows of bike commuting, as do many of my neighbors and friends (Schwartz and Karen Hughes).
Also, to be clear, I am not a cyclist. I do not find joy in heading out for long rides on Saturday mornings, drinking beer and eating BBQ at Eli’s then riding home to say, Madeira or Loveland. My friend, Susan Policastro, and her husband do this. A former work colleague and friend, Christine Hershe, is part of a cycling group. There are cycling groups all over the city that one can join or meet up, like the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, which will teach you where to ride in the city, or the Queen City bike or Cincy Bikes Programs with instructions on how to ride in the city. And even the Red Bike is available to anyone.
I have never taken a true bicycling vacation, like diehards who must bike to drink wine (I like my wine and my hands dry). However, I have rented a bike to explore the Lower Ninth in NOLA, following Hurricane Katrina and biked the San Juan Islands (Lopez is my favorite, because its flat). And I have poured sweat out in buckets to bike around the Mekong Delta.
Oh though I wish to be that prodigious bicycler who will ride to Yellow Springs,or along the winding, rising roads along the Oregon Coast.
But alas, I am not.
My idea of necessity in the cycling world is need for a bike lift (Trampe) so I don’t have to ride up Clifton Avenue or McMillan, no matter what the grade is on the way down.
Mostly, I am a stay-at-home bike rider. What’s the difference? I recall the days of Mom shooing us out of the house and telling us to go ride our bikes. That kind. The kind that likes to ride up hills, only so I can cruise down with legs splayed out. Or test my skills at the ripe age of 50 with riding no-handed. Or just flat out ride, because I want to get to know the city in way I cannot when on foot, to feel how the city is connected, except when its not.
So lately, I have been intrigued by making it to the West Side on my bike along less-populated streets. This was akin to finally being able to ride my bike to the pool on my own.
I began at the obvious place, along the river, following Mehring Way from the end of Smale Park near PBS. But I found that road dead-ended into a stretch of highway. No surprise. So, I backpedaled, and took the previous turn, Carr Road, thinking this too would lead me to the promised land. Another dead-end. However, I did discover a highway entrance and a wrong way sign.
Yes, I could have looked on a map, or better yet, asked so many in the know, but what good is being a discoverer, if I had to ask someone else.
I tried Dalton to Budd. No chance.
Then I proceeded to follow UNDER (not along, too busy) W. Eighth Street. There is a series of archways beneath the elevated W. 8th that at first glance appear to allow access through to the other side. Until one is stopped by a neighboring trucking company with signs about cameras, and semis parked in my way. Since when did property beneath a public street become private property?
I kept turning back after encountering one obstacle then another, including a husband that said, “You’re going to get us killed.” (He of the electric boost bike variety).
Still, I persisted. As I rode back along Freeman, I spotted Gest Street. Like the explorers of old, I could see no obstacles, at least down the middle of the road. I could potentially get to the other side of Mill Creek, which would technically enable me to brag about making it to the west side.
I persevered, bike riding past the Metropolitan Sewer District and the stink that permeated the summer air, until I stopped atop a bridge overlooking a creek, where a signed warned about contagions. I had made it to the Mill Creek.
But at what cost?
Not to me. But at what cost to a community. To a group of communities whose links to each other have been lost over the years due to highways, trucks, cars and money. Riding in and out of the maze of concrete structures I began to piece together how the grand plans of the government squashed many good ideas, the small ideas that glued citizens to one another.
I suspect the hard-core bike commuters learned this lesson many seasons ago, as they attempted to ride into or out of the city, and up to Price Hill or the West Side.
I pushed on to State Street, and decided to turn around, a blog post swirling in my head, a head that was also faint from the mid-day sun.
As I turned, I spotted River Road in the distance, and decided I’ll ride to Sedamsville next, but may finally dig out that map.
I rode back home through the mid-section of the West End, the backside of Liberty that no one sees unless it’s in the news. Residents were seated outside to enjoy the rare cool of the summer day, along Livingston and Poplar. Plenty of them stopped to let me pass or just to say, “Hi.” I noted a few Second Empire-style architecture on a few homes with pitched roofs, interspersed with the Italianates, so many buildings of times gone by, when the West End too was flourishing.
During my seven or eight mile ride, I had encountered plenty of other bike riders, traversing dangerous roads because the sidewalk abruptly ended or there were no bike lanes or it wasn’t feasible for a bike to travel alongside a semi. We smiled as we passed each other, that knowing smile. That we were free in that moment from many strictures of the road.
What the bicycling environment offers in any form – whether cyclist, commuter, bike-rider, bike-lift-rider (my next goal) – is freedom. Freedom from the financial obligations of a car, insurance, upkeep and gas. Freedom from bus schedules which are convoluted at best. Freedom from the stale air one breathes inside a car. Freedom from traffic updates. Freedom from anyone reaching into one’s life without permission.
Freedom of the mind to roam, imagine and connect in ways the cars will never offer the opportunity to do so.
Delhi, here I come.