The Flying Dutchman Once More
It all began when my car caught fire. I smelled something burning as I approached the intersection of Penn and North Negley Avenue. I scanned my surroundings to see which building was ablaze. Nothing. Just then, it dawned on me the smoke was inside my car while all the windows were closed. A few days later, a guy with a truck schlepped my Ford Focus, a blue hatchback I’d driven since 2004, to some place where cars can rest after they’ve spontaneously combusted.
I felt lost being carless. Then, it hit me.
I went to Kindred Cycles in the Strip District and bought an eight-speed Breezer. This fancy, aluminum commuter bike—the gearbox is neatly hidden inside the hub of the rear-wheel—set me back some $850. On the plus side, it got me 45 likes, since I put a picture of me and the bike on Facebook before I even left the store. However, Robert, a friend who only leaves his computer to execute his most urgent bodily functions, commented that I was too old to ride around Pittsburgh on two wheels. He might as well have written: “You’re gonna die.”
Too old? Five minutes after leaving the bike-store, my 65-year old body was—heart pumping, calves aching, breathing fast–willing the Breezer from the Strip, up Penn Avenue, past Tram’s Vietnamese restaurant, towards my home in Bloomfield. Rats! Of course, I knew Penn Avenue was steep going from downtown towards Children’s Hospital. But really, this steep? And this far? Who knew? All yins ignorant car drivers just push the gas pedal a little deeper going uphill. Pushing bike pedals is an entirely different matter.
I made it home and parked my new ride in the empty garage that once hosted my Focus. Even though I felt silly wearing, for the first time in my life, a bike helmet, I also felt pretty good about myself.
To understand why, you have to know I was born in the Netherlands. Being Dutch, I rode a bike almost as soon as I stopped using diapers. I kept riding bikes until 1994, the year in which my American wife got homesick and I woke up one morning in Pittsburgh. I soon understood that being carless in the USA is just one small step on the social ladder above being homeless. So, at the age of 41, I got my first ever driver’s license and bought my first ever car, a Ford Escort station wagon my kids baptized Black Willy.
Those children were also my main motivation to further refrain from pedal-powered propulsion. Pittsburgh is not the Netherlands. First of all, it’s not flat as a pancake. Second, most drivers here are not really comfortable co-surviving the roads with bicycles. Biking the Iron City seemed in my Dutch eyes a privilege for hardcore daredevils. And so, it happened that my daughter and son learned to ride bikes during our vacations in the Netherlands, where there are just as many bike paths as there are highways. No helmets required. The Dutch seem to have such hard skulls that they don’t believe they need them.
Our bike adventures in Pennsylvania were limited to leisurely rides with rental bikes on the bike path along the Youghiogheny.
It’s a scientific fact that older men, craving to regain the excitement that came with long gone testosterone levels, sometimes engage in risky behavior. Having read about some nasty bike accidents in the Post-Gazette, it seemed a good idea to begin my bike adventures by avoiding hazardous traffic. I decided to reconnect with my inner cyclist on the quiet roads and paths of the Allegheny Cemetery. And so, I learned to control my bike—and slow down for whitetail deer and Canada geese—amongst the Pittsburghers who have passed on before us.
And yes, in those early days, some hills of the cemetery were too steep, forcing me to dismount and pretend I was just there to read the names on the graves.
Riding a bicycle in Pittsburgh was an effort to recapture an essential part of my being that got lost in the many turns and twists of my life, a renaissance if you will. To be fair, there was also a money issue. Being a photojournalist in the first half of the 21st century offers a secure path to an ever-shrinking income since newspapers and magazines are either disappearing or paying less than they did 25 years ago. So, it seemed a folly to spend $25,000 dollars on a machine that 90 percent of the time just sits idle in your garage until it is worth zip.
Also, being Dutch, the same genes that force me to pedal also make me thrifty.
This was the plan. I would ride my bicycle in Pittsburgh’s East End to do shopping and visit my favorite places to get caffeinated. In horrendous weather, I would just walk. If my destination was further than my leg muscles could deliver, I would use a Port Authority bus, an Uber or a rental car. I also hoped to write about my pedaling adventures, so I could ring up my bike as a business expense on my tax form.
In an emergency, I would just ask Sheryl, my wife, if I could use her Toyota.
Sheryl turned out to be the first major obstacle as I set out on my “get-rich-or-die-by-driving-a-bike” scheme. She argued that I should have consulted her before becoming a carless citizen. I countered with the not-entirely-to-the-point argument that I hadn’t purposely set fire to my car and that it had not really been a decision. After some emotionally draining back and forth, we agreed that I would contribute a certain part of my income to her monthly car expenses.
Fortunately, my body adjusted rather quickly to the physical demands of biking in Pittsburgh. My heartbeat steadied. My breathing became easier. My legs stopped aching as I pedaled up a steep hill. Soon, I managed to climb every hill at the cemetery, albeit in the lowest gear. More important, there was also significant mental progress. This might sound cheesy, but I was elated, maybe even euphoric.
Swooshing past the graves and the trees of Allegheny Cemetery, fresh air blowing in my face, I became the Flying Dutchman, and my bike turned into a time-machine. Muscle-memory transported me back to the days when I was a kid in the Netherlands. Once again, I felt myself venturing out away from home on my bicycle, with no parent in sight, pedaling like a little mad man through the streets of a village where it permanently smelled like cow manure and where danger was an unknown phenomenon. I felt free. I was happy. And I felt in charge of my destiny.
Could this possibly last?
The newly found reverie energized me to venture into more challenging traffic situations. Avoiding the main drags such as Penn and Liberty Avenue and even ignoring most of Mayor Peduto’s bike lanes, I began to explore an elaborate labyrinth of side streets and alleys that safely could take me from my home to the post office, Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Highland Park. Within a couple of weeks, I had a complete new mental GPS in my head of Pittsburgh’s East End that included all differences in elevations and many potholes.
The boring drives in my old Ford Focus—may it oxidize in peace—to stores, were replaced by much more adventurous bike trips. This also brought an unexpected, and somewhat sneaky, financial advantage. My fancy Seymour Oceanweave P55+ bicycle bags could only hold so much, which meant I had to drastically reduce the number of items I purchased. Since I spent less on groceries, I suspect my wife spent more. The perk for her was that she could use all the gas miles that I collected at Giant Eagle.
As a new bicyclist, I was adopted-on-the-fly into the tribe that is roaming the streets of Pittsburgh on bike. “Have a safe ride,” said a young woman with a winged bicycle tattooed on her calf as we both pulled out of the Giant Eagle parking lot. “How do you like that Breezer?” asked a young man who parked his bicycle next to mine at Trader Joe’s bike rack. “I love it,” I said, then asked how he liked his.
One day, as I was loading a six-pack from Pistella Beer Distributors on Penn Avenue into my bike bags, a very angry bicyclist in his late twenties stopped beside me. He shared how he’d just been verbally abused by a delivery truck drive. “F… all you bicyclists,” the guy had yelled. I personally have always tried to keep my emotions out of any traffic situation. “It’s not personal, it’s traffic,” I tell myself. But hearing this story, I immediately bonded with this fellow biker over our short-lived, but intense, hatred for the lowly tribe that moves on four wheels.
To be fair, the behavior of Pittsburgh drivers was better than I expected. Most seemed to realize that slamming their cars into my soft tissue and bones would not only result in serious injuries to my body, but might also inflict lifelong feelings of guilt. Of course, every now and then there was the lone “jagoff,” entombed in his cage of steel and glass and honking his horn right behind me. That can make you jump half a foot out of the saddle.
And this brings us to the controversial subject of traffic rules.
From the beginning, I was determined not to be a loose cannon on a bicycle, but to strictly respect and obey all traffic rules. I would stop for red lights and stop signs. I would not ride in the wrong direction on one-way streets. I would use hand signals to indicate the general directions in which I intended to travel and most certainly I would keep off the sidewalks.
Most of those good intentions were out the window before the first day was over.
Try to imagine the levels of frustration a biker experiences pedaling up a steep street and then having to give up every single ounce of momentum to make a full-stop for a stop sign halfway up the climb to the summit? The first 10 times, the better angels of my nature forced me to a complete stop even when the intersection was completely empty. Enough of that. The next time the voice of reason shouted to me: “Don’t stop, you idiot.” I ignored the stop sign and pushed on.
It shouldn’t be hard to understand how tempting it is to make one’s bike jump to the safety of a 12-foot wide, completely abandoned sidewalk when both lanes of the road are clogged with cars. Sorry Mayor Peduto, but many of the main drags in Pittsburgh are just too narrow for cars and bikes to safely share the asphalt. About a week after the start of my bike adventure, I gave up more good intentions and rode my bike on the sidewalk whenever this seemed necessary for my survival. This is all the easier since Pittsburgh has no police, at least I never see them.
It’s been seven months now since my Ford Focus spontaneously combusted and this Flying Dutchman joined the heroic tribe of Steel City bikers. I had a few minor scares because of reckless drivers, but I haven’t died as my friend Robert predicted. I’ve lost seven pounds. I’ve gotten to know streets and alleys whose existence was previously unknown to me. I even recognize, and sometimes greet, a few crossing guards and some people who live along my preferred routes.
I must admit that I miss being able to jump in a car whenever I feel like driving to Beaver or Braddock and listen to Mark Madden raving and ranting about the Steelers on my car radio. However, cruising the East End in the same manner as I once rode the streets of my cow-manure smelling village makes Pittsburgh feel a lot more like home. And every now and then I still have that superb experience of me and my bike becoming one animal, this rare evolutionary creature that has two legs and two wheels and is afraid of absolutely nothing.