Biking Past Fears

Fear. It stops lots of people from bike commuting. I had plenty of fear to overcome before my first bike commute from my Silver Spring home to my DC office. I was scared I couldn’t physically handle the 8 mile round trip, especially the largely uphill return trip. I was intimidated by the idea of riding in city traffic as well. Fear can be useful as it can lead to taking reasonable measures to overcome it.

I read about bike commuting, including safe cycling tips. I built up endurance and tried out commuting routes on weekends. Finally, the public transit nightmare that followed a major Metro accident helped me make up my mind to do it. It was a bit scary at first but soon I loved my bike commute to work.

You never know what life will bring you. A date soon evolved into a wonderful relationship that lead to a move 40 miles away from my office. No more bike commuting to work. Prior to moving, I bought a Nishiki mixte on Ebay, and got it fixed up so I could ride to the nearby train station.

When I tried out the new commuting route I found, to my great disappointment, that fear was back. The route involved cycling past a terrifying, high traffic spot involving cars merging onto highway on/off ramps. Added to that, it was winter, there weren’t many cyclists and it was dark early in the evening. I couldn’t imagine how drivers would see me in the dark. Time created one more barrier. I balked at adding time for cycling to an already long day of work plus commuting.

But now it is spring. The snow is melted, daylight lasts longer and my Nishiki has been beckoning. I approached my fears in several ways: by riding the bike around enough to feel entirely comfortable on it, by driving past the dread intersection and noting how visible a cyclist would be in the merging area and by reminding myself of the virtues of a bike commute: fun, exercise, self-sufficiency, saving money, contributing to a better environment, all important things

All factors aligned this tornado-free, cool and sunny Friday morning. I hopped onto the Nishiki for the 4 mile ride to the MARC station. The morning ride was pleasant, with wide shoulders and little traffic. There was some debris to dodge and one steep but short hill. There was enough downhill that I realized riding home would be more challenging.  For this short commute, I wore my work clothes and a pair of  casual sports shoes. I carried a pair of stockings and dress shoes to change to. The ride took me 20 minutes.

When driving, I have to park over 1/4 mile from the platform most mornings. I loved riding up to the station’s bike rack and being just steps from the platform.  There were maybe 4 other bikes parked there, one of which been there day and night for at least the past 5 months. Over 1000 commuters/day use this station. Clearly not many are arriving by bike!

A guy at the platform noticed me walk away without turning off the rear blinky. After I ran back to turn it off, we talked about cycling in the region while waiting a few minutes for the train to arrive. He drives from Baltimore to this suburban station, because the city traffic pattern makes it so hard for him to get to Penn station. Plus, he would have to pay $200/month to park there, while parking here is free. What is wrong with our transportation policy that the rational choice for a city dweller is to drive 10 miles from home to catch a train, when there is a station just 3 miles away?

On the way home, the ride was tougher, as expected. I arrived at the station at 5 pm, very much the height of rush hour.   The number of in-a-hurry-to-leave drivers using the station’s several exits made it tough for me to pull out. Drivers aren’t used to cyclists there and they weren’t in a mood to yield to someone on a bike. The next challenge was a long and very steep hill early in the route. I geared way down but as I approached the peak I was starting weave. Since the road is narrow and there was plenty of traffic, I decided I better hop off and walk the final few yards. I could hardly expect drivers to dodge me as I ground my wobbly way up the last bit of the hill.

The rest of the route is mostly uphill. Though none are  as tough as that first one, it was enough to make me pull over and take off my sweater despite the cool evening.  There was a bit of headwind as I went along, just a little extra challenge. The final major, and for me very scary hurdle was the ride past the highway on and off ramps. It was as bad as I had anticipated, and maybe worse, with a few drivers weaving around me to get to the on ramp, followed by many more merging from the off ramp. Still others wanted to get from the lane I was in over to the right-turn-only lane. There just is no safe place for a cyclist  at this point. I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that I was perfectly visible.  From here on, traffic patterns and terrain were easier, though there are some small but deep potholes along the shoulder that would surely take you down if you didn’t dodge them.

So what’s the verdict? Will time, fear and fitness continue to be  barriers? Getting home took 30 minutes. Commuting by bike added about 25 minutes to the round trip. That’s manageable. The fear? Not gone. However  I usually arrive home later in the evening. By 6 or 6:30 the decreased traffic should make this part easier. You might suggest I try another route, but there doesn’t seem to be a good  one that avoids the scary spot.  I think though, that repeated successful rides will help overcome the fear. Tackling that steep hill over and again, eventually I will be strong enough to make it at least a bit easier. These obstacles are still there, but I am not ready to give up yet!

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