Cheryl on her first bike, in the innocent days before she abandoned cycling to drive a car.
Bicycling instead of driving to work cuts the risk of heart disease by 11 percent, especially among women. I shared that statistic from the June 2008 Health Magazine with my husband, who, unlike me, is an avid bicyclist. Shortly afterwards, he pulled the cruiser bike he bought me four years ago out of our storage shed, hosed off the dust and dead spiders, and propped it in the garage near my car.
As a child, I endlessly pedaled my blue-and-white Schwinn up and down Rosedale Avenue, the dead-end, half-mile street that bordered my family’s cramped suburban home. The neighborhood swarm of baby-boomer grade-school kids couldn’t bicycle anywhere else. Heavy traffic zipped down Oakwood Way, the other street abutting our lot, making it too hazardous for us. Bored riding nowhere, we often hopped off our bikes, crouched in the road, and popped tar bubbles blistering the pavement under the hot summer sun. That preoccupation was safer than our other big thrill—careening our bikes down the Jerkowitz family’s steep, scary driveway without using brakes. My left knee still sports the jagged scar I earned copying that big kids’ trick.
My bloody spill in the Jerkowitz driveway didn’t sidetrack my biking career. When I became a cranky and apparently expendable young teen, my parents shooed me into Oakwood’s traffic for weekly three-mile bike rides to and from my piano teacher’s house. Then sweet 16 struck. Within weeks, I was the first girl and second student in my high school class to own a driver’s license. Behind the wheel of the red Mustang Fastback my brother couldn’t take with him to college, I basked in the awe of my peers, cheerfully unaware of the global and cardiac consequences of my sedentary new lifestyle.
But the Health Magazine article made me wonder: Couldn’t I manage biking to work at least two out of five days a week, at least in good weather? What would that entail?
My husband performed the “simple, 60-second mechanical safety check” that my bike owner’s handbook recommends before each ride. Yes, I know I should learn to do this myself. And I will, too—as soon as I master handbrakes, shifting gears, and the convoluted buckle on my “fashionable” bike helmet. On the days I ride to work, I allot five extra minutes for struggling to see myself in a store window so I can figure out why the blasted buckle won’t unfasten before everyone in town spots the absurd plastic blob on my head.
Only about 20 to 25 percent of bike riders wear helmets. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) supports helmet-use laws, Iowa and 13 other states have none. According to the NHTSA, bicycle helmets are the single most effective way to reduce fatalities from bicycle crashes. The NHTSA also reports that bicycle accidents are the most frequent cause of injury-related deaths for young children. So shouldn’t all adult bike riders model safe behavior and wear bike helmets no matter how ugly they are? And shouldn’t public policy promote building bike lanes?
Some safety advocates think helmets offer a false sense of security. Avoiding car-bike collisions is the highest priority, they say. For 10 tips on “How Not to Get Hit by Cars,” visit http://bicyclesafe.com and read Michael Bluejay’s “Important Lessons on Bicycle Safety.” One tip addresses the common danger of someone inside a parked car flinging a door open into the path of an oncoming bicyclist.
Check out the “Ride Right Safety Guide” on RAGBRAI’s website, too: In case you’re new to Iowa, RAGBRAI is the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Its guide advocates many basics, including not wearing radio headphones, obeying yield signs, riding to the right, signaling turns, not cutting corners, and stopping completely at stop signs.
During a short stint of bicycling I engaged in years ago (near my 40th birthday), a cute policeman spotted me coasting through a stop sign just as local high school classes let out. Students stampeding through the door had seen my bad example, he chided. Lamely, I explained I wasn’t used to cycling. Trying to get in shape, I had just taken it up. “You look like you’re in great shape to me,” he replied. Had he given me a ticket, the fine couldn’t have dampened my delight. Later, as I pedaled home, my stark, black shadow looked long and lean against the road’s hard surface. The image was an illusion, of course, merely the product of pedaling east as the sun set. A car commute could never create such a magical moment.
© 2008 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. Cheryl teaches Nia Fitness classes in Fairfield, Iowa.