My 13 MPH Commute

Barry Gantenbein - Waukesha, WI

My 13 MPH Commute

The way my day begins sets the tone for the workday. My day started with an owl hooting a greeting and the sight of frost sparkling on grey-green grass in the pale silver light of an early winter morning. I rode my bike 15 minutes to my job, including a half-mile stretch along a bike path and I was in a great frame of mind when the workday began.

For the past six years, I have been bicycle commuting in Waukesha, Wisconsin as soon as the snow melts in April and do so until it becomes too dark to ride at the end of November or early December. The ride to and from work is the best part of my day and I believe most bike commuters would agree with that. There’s something about balancing the bike and working yours hands and feet together that takes your mind away from the daily grind and elevates the spirit. Every time that I ride, there’s an instant when my body and the bike are working as one and I am living completely in the moment. The experience can be as brief as 30 seconds or as long as 10 minutes, but it always happens. And it is a transforming experience—all cares, all thoughts are gone, if only for an instant.

Of course, the ride isn’t always idyllic. The commuter route that includes the bike path also crosses a pair of six-lane highways,passes two foundries, and runs through a used car lot. Riding a bike to work is an adventure. In six years, I have bruised my ribs flying over the handlebars, blown out three tires, and have had approximately 12 confrontations with cars (curiously, always Buicks or pickup trucks). Confrontations have ranged from being physically run off the road, sworn at with purple-faced, neck veins bulging intensity, to being yelled at to “Get off the road!”

With an average of two confrontations per year, that means I’ve had a civil working relationship with 99-plus percent of the hundreds of thousands of drivers with whom I have shared the road. When you get on the bike in the morning, you never know what the trip will bring. In my years of bicycle commuting, I have averaged a total of 1,600 to 1,700 miles of riding annually, including recreational cycling. A total deemed “respectable” by a mechanic working on the 15-year-old Trek 7200 Hybrid that I ride to my job.

A pair of 35-year-old panniers, which hold my lunch in the morning, along with a jacket, sweatshirt, or gloves for the ride home, help make the commute comfortable late in the season. When daylight savings ends, lights are added to the front and rear of the bike. A helmet and flat-soled shoes are constants.
As a 54-year-old bike commuter I have resources that I didn’t have the last time that I regularly rode to work 30 years ago. First of all, my wife and I own a pair of cars, so a vehicle is usually free in the winter and on rainy days. When my adult children are home and need a car, there are days when I must commute. But the number of days that I have been forced to ride in the rain can be counted on one hand. And when I need to be bailed out, my wife is there. The three flat tires? Unexpected downpours during my afternoon commute? Without fail, my wife has been there to provide a ride home.

I also have an understanding boss who let’s me park my bike in a back storage room, and relaxes the dress code so that I can wear a T-shirt and shorts to work in the summer. When a storm front blew in a half-hour before I was scheduled to leave work a month ago, and my wife was unavailable to pick me up, he permitted me to leave early so that I wouldn’t get soaked riding home.

Unlike my bicycle commuting when I was in my 20s and didn’t own a car, I have chosen to ride my bike to work this time around. Six years ago, my oldest daughter enrolled in a summer class at Marquette University and needed a car for the 20-mile drive from our home in Waukesha to Milwaukee. Faced with the purchase of another car, or riding my bike to work, I chose bicycle commuting.

As the days grow shorter and winter tightens its grip, every day on the bike is a bonus. Mornings when the frost crackles beneath my tires and my eyes water from the cold, I am stealing a day from winter and am one day closer to the beginning of the spring cycling season. I can't hardly wait.

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