The First Bike Commute

I rode my bike to work on Wednesday.

For most of the 11 miles — 5 there, 6 home, the variance attributable to one-way streets and my own fears — I felt like the slowest, scared-est rider in San Francisco. And I probably was, is the thing. I don’t think a lot of people who bike commute are afraid of it. I tend to encounter two types: those who ride to work near-daily like it’s no big deal and those who think only a damn fool would put themselves in the middle of that mess. I don’t encounter a lot of people who are scared but do it anyway.

“Scared But Did It Anyway” is kind of my middle name, though, so there I was, biking my damn self to work.

I’m sure I was the person the other riders couldn’t wait to get around. As every stoplight turned from red to green, I’d get swarmed from both sides — what felt like dozens of people (but was probably two or three) flowing around me around me like waves while I sat there like a dumb log. Stop signs were even worse, because who on a bike stops at stop signs in this city? The slowest, scared-est rider in San Francisco, that’s who. But I poked along; I’d get there eventually.

(Also, I probably looked like an asshole, what with my clip shoes and my road bike and my utter inability to ride it like a normal San Francisco biking human.)

I saw people swerve through traffic and cut in front of cars and dart between the right-turning taxi and the bus stop. And I was jealous of them, because I would love to have that confidence. There were a few times someone came up a little close, or swerved unexpectedly, or did something that a normal rider could handle with ease but that threw me into a sweaty panic, and I wanted to say, “Can you imagine what it would be like to feel terrified right now?” But I kept it to myself, except for a few “ohgodohgodohgod“s that I didn’t realize other people could hear until pedestrians or taxi drivers turned to me with bemused looks on their faces.

I spent a lot of time cataloging all the new and unanticipated ways this could end poorly. Culligan Man slinging massive bottles of water out of his truck to his waiting colleague stationed in the bike lane? Not an obstacle I’d considered. Nor had I thought through what happens when 15 riders in a line have to choose whether to swerve left or right around a discarded sweatshirt. I almost took a break on the way home because my heart was racing (funnily enough, the second I turned onto to my street, I wasn’t even out of breath), and I fear-sweat through all my clothes.

And yet: I made it, there and back. I now know what the road is like (smoother than expected) and where the hitches in the route are (the Folsom bike lane moves toward the center of the road before the freeway onramp; Howard gets less miserable after 8th). And I have to admit it made me proud: doing this thing I never ever thought I’d be able to do, getting around the city by the power of my own legs (and Penelope’s wheels), on my own schedule. My panic-filled stop-and-start was hardly the idyllic “fresh air and freedom to start the day!” cry of many a bike commuter, but it was weirdly exhilarating.

I’ll do it again, but I think once a week is going to be plenty.

Notes for next time:

  • No, seriously, I fear-sweat through all my clothes. I’m going to have to figure out how to carry an extra top to work.
  • On the topic of carrying stuff: I bought a small Rickshaw messenger bag as a “now not being able to hold your stuff is no excuse not to bike places” gift in December, and I continue to be shocked by how much it holds. I had my wallet, phone, and keys; my U-lock and my cable lock; a sweater; shoes; my work notebook; and some food and drink (my lunch in a small container and my water bottle), and the bag closed just fine. I can pare down in the future — I’ll use the U-lock in my office’s bike room, but I won’t use the cable, and I can keep a water bottle at my desk rather than shuttle one back and forth — but it’s good to know how much I really can cram in there.
  • Time-wise, the ride to work was no worse than my normal commute. (My train takes 30 minutes on a good day — 35 with my coffee stop — and on a bad day it can approach an hour. This took about 40 minutes.) The ride home was more like 50 minutes, owing to a longer route, more stoplights, and a general uphill slant.
  • Incidentally, Google Maps claims I could ride to my office in 31 minutes, but that would require riding down Market Street, which violates my Never Ride Market Street policy. I’m fine taking the longer way around and not picturing my own death by trolley.
  • I’m trying to figure out how to combine this with a longer ride, because while 11 miles and over an hour of riding over the course of the day isn’t nothing, it’s also not exactly a triathlon-simulating workout. I’m thinking I could either a) stash a bag at work the night before, bike a longer route ending up at work, grab the bag from the office, and shower at the nearby gym, or b) ride a loop that ends by my house, briefly stop and grab a bag from there, and bike to the gym to shower. Option b takes less planning, so that’ll probably be the winner by default.
  • The whole time, I kept thinking of that scene from Girls where Hannah says “I’m really scared, all the time” and Adam tells her everyone’s scared and she says “I’m more scared than most people are when they say that they’re scared. I’m like the most scared person who’s alive” and Adam says “Well, you don’t have the right to be.” I’m just not going to read too much into that.
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7 thoughts on “The First Bike Commute

  1. Linda says:

    Proud of you! I seriously loved reading this recap and living through the experience vicariously. I would never, ever, ever have been able to put my fears aside. So,yeh, you should be proud–very!

  2. Layla says:

    Wow, you are awesome! And no matter what, the next ride will be easier, because you’ve conquered the “fear of the unknown” factor. I still have the dread/anxiety whenever I try a new physical activity (hence why I still haven’t gone to a spin class), but it’s always much better the second time. I think cycling with clip-in shoes on the streets of San Francisco would definitely leave me with a pile of fear-sweat laundry, so kudos for getting out there and doing it!

    • kimretta says:

      Thank you! It WAS a lot better the second time! I went on Tuesday this week and the ride seemed to go a lot faster. (It actually didn’t, but at least that meant I wasn’t counting the streets until I was done).

  3. inaomi says:

    Given that I know how drivers are in the City, I’d be scared out of my mind to bike commute too. Way to be scared but “did it anyway!”

  4. Michaela says:

    Woo hoo! Nice job! I would be scared too. In fact, I’m still scared. I only rode to work once. Karen went with me, and I made her leave ridiculously early to get there and then stay at the office ridiculously late to avoid traffic. But we had fun. I’d like to do it again and make it a regular thing, but I kind of want to go on Craigslist and get a commuter bike first.

    • kimretta says:

      If there were more commuter bikes for small ladies on craigslist, I guarantee I’d have one already! For the first time in my life, I see the appeal of owning multiple bikes.

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