Behind Enemy Lines: Commuting in the Least Bike-Friendly State [from BA 42-400]

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"Why the daily battle against cars, nature and angry drivers? Why put myself through the pain and heat, working after a ride with no shower and the near-constant teasing?"

I unclip my helmet, pull it off my head and stand for a moment, panting. Sweat drips down my back and face as co-workers pass by and say a tentative hello, shaking their heads and whispering amongst themselves, cool and fresh from their air-conditioned commutes. It is 7:45AM, 85 degrees with 60 percent humidity and an elevated pollution particle rate.

Twenty minutes later I sit down in my cubicle after a quick wipe-down with an Action Wipe, a change of clothes and towel dried hair: general “prettying up.” I continue to sweat for about 30 minutes and drink as much water as possible to counteract the panicky hot feeling that is taking over, now that the wind in my face has been replaced with the stale, dry air of a windowless building. Another bike commute successfully tackled. Time to begin the day.

I use the word tackled for a reason; commuting in Birmingham is not for the faint of heart. It is with good reason that the League of American Bicyclists ranked Alabama No. 50 in the 2009 Bicycle Friendly State Rankings. With scorching heat and high humidity in the summer, some of the worst pollution ratings in the country, no cycling infrastructure and lousy public transportation, well, there is much to be desired. Each day has new challenges and new obstacles.

We have two bike lanes in the metro area. Both are less than ten blocks and end abruptly. To ride here is to constantly drown out the honks and yells hurled at you, my favorite being, “Get out the road, bitch!” If I had a dollar for each time I heard that, I would be a thousandaire, truly. I hear of places like Portland and Austin and am awestruck by the infrastructure and support. Here in Birmingham, with its smog, poverty and obesity rate, a cycling renaissance is just what is needed. Alas, the infrastructure is only one of the problems we cyclists face daily.

“I saw a biker today and didn’t hit them, aren’t you proud?” A coworker startles me out of my cycling reverie with this. I would love to say I am surprised, but it is a daily occurrence. Very few people understand why I ride and most don’t want to. On rainy days the looks of glee on their faces as I pull up in a car are almost too much to bear. “Guess you can’t ride today, huh?” they chime in as I sit down.

“Nope, had to drive,” I say.

“Why don’t you get a helmet with an umbrella attached? That way cars can see you and you are covered—one with a target painted on it would be better.”

The fact that I take joy in using my own power to get places, rather than stay home and watch the morning shows for 30 minutes longer, hop in my car and drive the ten miles to work is a complete mystery to most not in my immediate circle.

Why do I continue to do this then, with the daily battle against cars, nature and angry drivers? Why put myself through the pain and the heat, working after a ride with no shower and the near-constant teasing?

Simply put: Because I love it. Despite the heat and the drivers and the clueless people surrounding me. Because at least ten friends have gotten bikes since I started. Because my work day is that much worse when I don’t ride and the teasing can’t make up for the feeling of the wind in my hair and my muscles waking up as they get me to work. Because traffic isn’t a problem and the fluctuating gas prices don’t affect me. Rising obesity and pollution levels are issues in my community, but not in my life. Because hopefully the more I ride, the more others will see it is possible. The cycling community is growing slowly and I am happy to be a part of it. We will probably never be like San Francisco or Minneapolis, but we are doing our part to make our city a more livable place. Most importantly, riding a bike makes me feel like a kid again, something sorely needed before I sit down at a cubicle all day.

Five o’clock. Time to change out of my work clothes and pedal home. Most days, I just feel like a girl changing clothes in a tiny bathroom stall, but today I feel like a superhero hiding a secret identity. During the day I am buttoned up and professional; on the ride home I am a rebel, eschewing norms and leaving behind the path most traveled for the one most pedaled. 

Evan P. Schneider