Around 1991 or so I decided I needed a new form of exercise besides the weekly basketball games that had begun to wear on my nerves and make me detest a sport I once loved. Since it was (and still is) hard to find tennis partners during the weekday hours I like to play, I bought a cheap secondhand bicycle and decided to take up cycling.
Twenty-eight years later, I figured I’ve logged around 50,000 miles on various bicycles. That’s probably a conservative estimate. I usually try to get in at least 50 miles a week, and I’ve been doing it for 28 years, so you do the math. I’ve mainly favored Treks, but I also bought a cheap Jamis in New York City 14 years ago. I still have that as a backup bike along with a Specialized I bought in Charlotte. They’re hybrid street bikes with 21 or 24 gears, built for urban pedaling. I usually ride in shorts or sweats. I don’t own a cycling outfit, cycling shoes, cycling gloves, or any of the 10,000 accessories you can buy. I just throw on the usual gym rat clothes, a helmet and a standard-issue backpack and hit the road. A classic gearhead, I am not.
It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the best living I’ve ever done has been on a bicycle. It’s the one place I know where you can feel completely alone even though you spend much of your time surrounded by people and cars. I love walking, too, but there’s always a chance someone might approach you when you don’t want to be approached. That doesn’t happen on a bike. It’s just you, the machine and your thoughts as you whiz past the pedestrians and get a nice workout in the process.
Cycling is also about the best way I can think of to see cities. I’m not much for loading my bike on a car and taking it out to the countryside, or to mountain bike trails. I’d much rather pedal around town so I can zip through the neighborhoods, see the buildings and sights, hear the clatter and feel the pulse. You have to dodge traffic sometimes, but if you’re smart about it that’s never too much of a problem.
In London I have a few different routes. The one I do the most takes me around our neighborhood in Bermondsey and then east along the Thames toward Greenwich. It’s about a 12-mile ride round trip, some of it waterside, some through old neighborhoods that still have their working-class charm despite the ongoing gentrification here. Another route takes me across the Tower Bridge and then west through heavy traffic to the Westminster area, where you can see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, St. James Park, the Changing of the Guard and various other tourist sites.
When we lived in New York I had a favorite route that I did almost exclusively on weekends. I’d leave our apartment on W. 44th Street in the morning and head north up 3rd Avenue until I got to 70th Street or thereabouts, then I’d cut west toward Central Park. I’d pedal north in Central Park to 110th Street and keep pedaling another 20 blocks or so in Harlem before cutting south toward Central Park West. From there I’d go to 79th Street, head west to Riverside Park, then hop on the Hudson River bikeway and ride all the way south to the tip of the island in Battery Park City, by the WTC site. I’d park for a bit and gaze out at the harbor and Statue of Liberty, just chilling and soaking it all in, before hopping back on and making my way north again. This route would take me east through the West Village to the Lower East Side/Alphabet City, north through the East Village, and finally further north back to midtown. I guess the total mileage was 25 miles or so round trip. Some of my favorite memories of the Big Apple were made on those long bike rides on warm summer days.
My rides in Los Angeles centered mostly on the beach bike paths. I lived in Marina Del Ray, just around the corner from Venice Beach. Sometimes I’d pedal north through Venice, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades to the Will Rogers State Park area, and then reverse course and head back. I think that was about a 14-mile ride round trip with a few detours along the way. The longer rides were south through Playa Del Rey, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach and to Hermosa Beach, where I’d turn around and head back. Around 20 miles round trip, sometimes through very stiff wind. The sun was almost always brilliant, the ocean almost always blue, the air fresh and salty. If you ever wonder about the allure of Southern California, spend a day riding on the beach and you’ll wonder no more. Having said that, sometimes I just wanted something a little grittier, so I’d pedal further east through the neighborhoods and past the endless parade of car repair shops, taco stands, greasy spoons, pawn shops, used car lots and grocery stores. Also excellent.
In Charlotte I inevitably made my way toward uptown from our Dilworth home. There were a few routes to do this. One involved the Rail Trail that follows the Lynx Blue light rail line. First I’d go south to LoSo (I think that’s the official name this week), then turn around and pedal north all the way to 4th Ward. Another route took me through Midtown Park, past CPCC and then west along 7th Street to uptown. A third route took me west on Morehead past Panthers Stadium and the Open Kitchen Restaurant, where I’d head north toward Frazier Park and the bike trail there that eventually leads you past a playground/swimming complex to West Trade Street. I usually tried to get in at least 10 miles on all the routes, with a stop at Romare Bearden Park uptown to check out the worker bees uptown.
I also spent time in Norwalk, Conn., where I’d wind my way east to the Long Island Sound and ride along the waterfront for a bit. In Rumson, NJ, it was the same type of ride: east to the Jersey shore, where I’d pedal along the Ocean boulevards in search of the Jersey Shore caricatures you hear so much about but never really run into because they probably don’t exist. Just regular folks, like anywhere else. And New Jersey is a whole lot prettier than people give it credit for.
Cycling is easily one of the best things in my life. Just about everywhere we travel I think about the prospects for bike rides. Hilly? Tough on the legs and lungs, but good cardio. Flat? Easy to ride, maybe not a killer workout.
I don’t know how many years I have left, but I hope I’m still riding regularly all the way till the final curtain.