Part One of Five
1. There’s an Easier Way to Do Things
I accidentally moved into a third floor apartment. It’s not that I minded the climb; it’s just that I never paid the stairs much attention until I had to carry my bike up. I had just wrestled it out of my hatchback Chevy Monte Carlo that I had never stuffed a bike into before, and thus was not in the mood to fight.
Instead, I asked my soon-to-be next-door neighbor, a helpful and decently-muscled Republican, to carry it up, which he did so flawlessly I felt a fool. I put the bike in my soon-to-be bedroom, bare except for a mattress. I didn’t trust anyone enough to leave unlocked in the hall.
Ever since I took off my bike’s front tire in high school to fit it into an earlier car, I’d been afraid to ride it. What if the tire fell off? What if the brakes no longer pinched at just the right pressure? So the bike, a blue and silver Schwinn mountain that was my junior high graduation present and likely obtained from Target, was in fairly mint condition from lack of use. There was a bike shop a block away from my new place, and any problem could be fixed once and for all before I dipped my toe into the swirling waters of city biking. And I would be in a city—biking would be practical instead of a privilege activity that sent you past the same old subdivision scenery.
That’s what I told myself when I faced the stairs that I swear were at a 60-degree angle, complete with a hairpin turn from floors two to three. Sweating, I had to stand the thing on rear-tire to get it around the corner, and nearly cheerfully let it barrel down to the door from floors two to one. I climbed on—was the seat supposed to bite my crotch like that? —and creaked down the block to the bike shop. Nothing wobbled off, and the brakes stopped me when I squeezed. Had I been an idiot for so long? Yes, yes I had.
So much of my bicycling education has been the realization that there’s an easier way to do things, that I didn’t have to try so hard, that it all could be simpler, and that my perceptions were based in fear, deluded and wrong.
“There’s nothing wrong with your bike,” the bike shop man said. “Just the front tire was a little loose.”
My editor has informed me that Chicago is a mostly flat city. And she’s right. In the suburbs surrounding us, there are hills that seem like cliffs to those who have never seen cliffs (I haven’t), but Chicago is geographically fortunate, and pedicabbers move here because of its flatness. Hill-wise, there is nothing to complain about, except if you are a beginning cyclist. Then every little slope feels vertical, every push on the pedal like squeezing a rag dry.
Living on the third floor has given me a new philosophy on life. Once you get the groceries, the bike, the bookshelves, the sofa up the stairs, chances are, you won’t have to get it back down. You have done the work and can reap the rewards of hummus, safety, Jonathan Franzen, and paisley pillows continuously. Yes, getting up there is hard, but you only have to do it once.
Except with the bike. Because I wanted to ride it more than once, I had to get it back down the stairs. Daily I strained my back and nearly fell to my death for two months before I found the mysterious side door that led to the gated yard next to our building and decided to lock the damn thing up there. I immediately found excuses to take the bike to the grocery store and buy hummus.
With hills, the principle is much the same. Once you grind your way up, legs mashing against pedals mashing against gears, you are good. Gravity will soon set in. Sure, I could change gears, but apparently I like to suffer and build leg muscle staying on the highest gear the whole time.
There are two distinctly different ways of handling the hills. I’ve noticed that the bike jersey crowd of bulging calves and impossibly thin tires pedal all the way downhill. I admire this, I do. It shows their dedication, their instance on going further and being fastest, never coasting, being true professionals. In stark contrast to the previous bit of gearshift masochism, I also have a bit of an easy-going streak: I coast down the hills. After all, you’ve gotten up there, why not enjoy coming down? Worry about the next hill when you come to it. For now, you can relax.
The more you ride, the sooner you find the scariest looking hills are usually manageable, and the middling ones unexpectedly tough. I know of two hills I often ride. Both fill a rider’s vision with vertical feet, but both gradually ease you up. Halfway through you realize you are buoyed. Then you tip over the crest, shimmering past scenery that accelerates backwards.
There is one hill near my neighborhood, though, that is a total bastard. Even its top is no top, just more incline. Four days a week at approximately 7:45 am, before I’ve properly had coffee, right after a stoplight, this hill hits me. But at least once I’ve made it up, I know the hard part of my commute is over. Eventually, it too goes down.