Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bike to Work Days

I am (or was) a rider of bicycles. I did not own a bike in Cambridge, but I used to ride around town when I was growing up in Houston. When I lived in Palo Alto, I not only had a bike, but saddle bags and a couple of traffic tickets. The preferred mode of transportation on the Stanford campus, then as now, is the bicycle, and the break period between classes can see traffic jams worthy of Amsterdam.

I did not ride as much when I moved back to Texas (that would have been taking my life in my hands), but when I had settled into a house that I actually owned in DC, I would ride my bike to work during the Summer, all the way from Mount Vernon to National Airport. This was 1995. We didn't have bike racks, but we had showers, and I could always stash my bike in the stairwell (the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs people we shared our building with were not likely to steal a bike, and the building was secure from outside access). I kept up the custom until 2001, when my office moved out to Dulles Airport, and the ride - over 33 miles - was a bit too forbidding, especially since it was not possible to get a bike onto the grounds of the airport without risking being flattened by a dump truck. National Airport was different; the bike path for the George Washington Parkway went right to the hangar and was similarly close to the complex of offices the Airports Authority Engineering staff used, up on what was known as the Hill (it is literally on top of a hill overlooking the terminal complex).

Riding a bike to work was, well, work. In Houston, though, I would go out on Saturday morning jaunts. One memorable winter, my father, the Renaissance Man, and a bike-to-work kinda guy in his own right, decided to take me on a trip. Not your lazy trip around the block, but a two-day long-distance trek, all the way from Houston proper down to Lake Jackson and Freeport, home of a massive petrochemical complex belonging to Dow Chemical, right on the Gulf of Mexico and about 40 miles away as the crow flies. We were not crows, though, so we had to take the roads, and that meant detours that tacked on extra miles. It also meant two-lane roads with gravel shoulders. pickup trucks and neighborhoods with barking dogs not constrained by leashes. At one point in the  ride, after we had gone about 18 miles and I was completely winded, my father took off down the road. So I gave chase. But I couldn't catch him. He disappeared over the top of a rise in the road, and I thought for sure I'd been abandoned out in the middle of nowhere. So I set off down the road, trying to find him, and as I topped the rise, there he was with a camera, snapping pictures of me coming up the road with my tongue dragging on the pavement. All that bike-riding back and forth to work had given him all kinds of energy.

But that was a diversion. The civil engineer in me had a curiosity to see what was being built in my neighborhood, since these were the boom times when the greater metropolitan area of Houston was adding close to 2,000 new residents a week - all of them chasing jobs in the oil industry. All those new jobs meant lots of new construction, and it seemed like a new skyscraper was getting built either downtown or uptown near the Galleria, which was a massive shopping mall, hotel, office and entertainment complex with a skating rink in the middle of it. The Galleria was near the intersection of two freeways, and before the oil industry collapsed in 1983 and took down the Houston real-estate market, the Galleria was abuzz with construction activity.

Getting to the Galleria, though, was challenging. Houston is not exactly known for bike paths, and in the '70s, they were even rarer than they are today (the City has very thoughtfully paved some nice paths that follow the local bayous, which are slow-moving trash strewn mosquito breeding laboratories that course ever so slowly and languidly through town). Consequently, the only way to get to the Galleria from my neighborhood was to set off along the city's thoroughfares, which were four lane divided roads full of traffic. Adding to the fun were the pavements, which had heaved and buckled in the high termperatures that characterized Houston's summers. There were also open drains...
Summer in Houston also meant thunderstorms, so it was possible to go out in the morning, when there were only a few little cottony puffs of cloud in the sky, and be chased home by some angry purple storm clouds flashing the occasional lightning bolt just for good measure. I also made a short-lived habit of setting off on my bike jaunts wearing nothing but shorts and tennis shoes (no tee-shirt for macho-man Geoff!). That lasted as long as it took me to come home with a nice crimson sunburn on my back, for which I endured a few sleepless, itchy nights.

I found out about all kinds of road hazards, and not just uncovered manholes. The Stanford campus had these wonderful trees that dropped thorns that could puncture a tire in nothing flat. The Parkway bike path occasionally has trees fall over in rainstorms. I encountered one by accident; I survived, but my rim didn't, so it was a long walk to work that morning. When it rains, the roads get slick and your backside gets wet; you get used to racing stripes up the back of your shirt. And I have been stung by the occasional wasp that got wedged inside my pants-leg.

I don't bike much anymore. I meet plenty of cyclists on the W&OD bike path that winds from Sterling, Virginia, all the way to Rosslyn, but I'm usually on foot enjoying a brisk morning run (lazy amateurs jog, I run). I suppose I'll have to invest in a nice Cannondale and plot a trip across Europe, sometime when I'm an empty-nester and retired from the working world. I'd have to arrange meeting points along the route so my wife can catch up with me, but I'd get to see the countryside up close and personal. Most of my friends from my school days have that same dream, only it involves seeing the world through their Harleys (if the chain don't break).

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