Friday, July 11, 2014

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How I Reluctantly Became a Biker- guest author Kara Garbe Balcerzak

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Rachel was the first person in my adult life who ever suggested going for a bike ride. I’d just moved to Minneapolis, and Rachel lived in the apartment above me. She was my first potential friend. So when she invited me out for a drink, I was excited. And then she said, “Do you want to bike to the bar?”
I didn’t own a bike, but I said “sure” because I didn’t understand her question. We both owned cars. I thought biking was something only kids did, or people who didn’t have cars and didn’t live near a bus line. People who didn’t have a choice.
There probably was some awkwardness when we met up that night and I didn’t have a bike, but I don’t remember that. We drove to the bar and had a good time. We became friends, good friends, and when she moved to Mali two years later, she gave me a number of her belongings. Including her red, single-speed Schwinn.
Rachel’s bike sat in my garage for the next four or five years. Long enough for Rachel to get married, finish the Peace Corps, and move to Portland, where she bought a new bike and regaled me with stories of bike-commuting year-round, rain or shine.
Around the same time, one of my best friends back home in Virginia, Alma, also got serious about biking. She competed in triathlons. She’d bike five miles to work and then on the way home take a little 25-mile detour, just for kicks.
I thought my friends were crazy.
Meanwhile, I was racking up more than 300 miles a week driving to grad school in Mankato, a city 85 miles away. And I was starting to feel bad about it.
I’d never before questioned my car-dependent lifestyle. I’d always loved to drive; in college, when I was stressed or sad or upset, I’d take long rambling drives through the countryside outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Driving was peaceful and soothing and I loved it.

Yep, I loved my car, even when I got a trash can wrapped around the tire and my friend’s boyfriend had to help me surgically free the wheel.

But on the other hand, I was also an environmentalist. I recycled. I took cloth bags to the grocery store. I brought my own water bottle everywhere. I tried to live a low-impact life.
Except when it came to driving.
Those long drives to grad school were making me think. I was thinking about climate change and global warming. I was thinking about Middle Eastern dictators propped up by American demand for their countries’ oil. I was thinking about how I was consuming the earth’s resources to power my car, and how I was gaining weight sitting in that car eight hours a week and then going to the gym to burn off the pounds while consuming even more of the earth’s resources to power the elliptical machine. I was thinking about the places where my values and my behavior just didn’t line up.
Shit, I thought. I need to start biking.
The idea nagged at me for weeks, maybe months. I didn’t want to bike; it seemed like a lot of work. But finally I dragged Rachel’s bike out of the garage. I had only touched it once in the five or so years I’d had it, and the tires were completely deflated. I pumped them up and rode a few blocks through the neighborhood. It was unexpectedly nice: the cool breeze, the way I could say hi to neighbors working in their yards. Biking had a charm that I realized driving didn’t have.
I started small. I stuck to neighborhood streets. My first real bike ride was to the local grocery co-op. Then I rode to the post office. Then to a city building to drop off our utility bill. None of those trips was further than a mile and a half away, and each was to a place I otherwise would have driven. I came home satisfied I was making a tiny contribution to a healthier planet.
And I started to enjoy biking for other reasons, too. I liked that I was tiring myself out, and I was doing it for a reason other than moving my legs in endless circles in a gym. I felt more aware of the people and buildings and businesses in my community. I felt energized and happy after each ride.
My husband, who hadn’t ridden a bike for years, urged me into my first ride outside the neighborhood, to a restaurant a little over two miles away. Emboldened, I biked six miles to meet friends for happy hour, then seven miles to see a concert, then ten miles to meet friends for dinner. A year later, I got an office job in downtown Minneapolis and started commuting by bike the five miles to work. 
No day is bad if it starts and ends with this view.

That was a year ago. I bike everywhere now. To meet friends, to run errands, to get to work meetings, and once to go camping 30 miles away. My daily commute takes me across the Stone Arch Bridge, an old railroad track that was converted to a bike and pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River. Even though I cross it twice a day, more often than not I still get off my bike, lean against the railing, and feel awe when I look out at the river. When I get home, no matter how difficult the day has been, when my husband asks “How was your day?”, my answer is always, “I biked! My day was great!” And it’s true.
It’s funny to think that three years ago, you probably couldn’t have paid me to ride a bike to the store. I started biking only because I wanted my life to better align with my values. And now, God or the universe or karma is rewarding me by making the thing I did out of duty become one of the things I love most about my life. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere, one I’ll keep pondering over the quiet spin of my bike.

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Kara Garbe Balcerzak bikes and writes in the Twin Cities, where she has a favorite bike shop (Recovery), a favorite bike bridge (the Stone Arch), and a favorite bike-themed piece of clothing (pictured above). She teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and is working to publish a memoir about her time in the Peace Corps. You can read another piece of her writing here: