Rabbit rabbit, February 2010

Internet! I biked (with Noah) to Sausalito and back today! And I know, Google Maps says it's only 16.4 miles round-trip, big-deal-16-miles, I know, but dude. The hills. The HILLS. They weren't all Heidi Montag unbearable, but they were definitely Spencer Pratt annoying.

And poor Noah. I spent a good half-hour before we left vaguely sulking about having to ride over hills (which I insisted I wasn't capable of doing yet), and moreover, having to ride over hills with him. I haven't been a fan of biking with him because he's an aggressive rider, whereas I am super vigilant about intersections and red lights and traffic. Until a few days ago, too, I was mostly wearing glasses (and occasionally, when I was feeling particularly vain and knew that clear vision wasn't going to be necessary, my last remaining right contact lens), which have cheap lenses (because when I ordered them, I never thought I'd actually wear them) that fog up and crap. Also, the frame has a tendency to slide down my nose, even though I've had them adjusted twice. And also, as mentioned before, my Bianchi didn't fit me well. So when we've ridden together before, he's been zip-zip-zipping down the streets, and I've been gadding about at a snail's pace like a paranoid five-year-old. Bike rides together were not exactly healthy contributions to our relationship.

I finally got a new prescription for contacts, though, and as mentioned earlier, my bike was adjusted to fit me a million times better. But I still stop at red lights– even when there's no cross traffic and even though I have, yes, been known to walk across the intersection in full defiance of the glowing red hand– and even after Friday's successful cross-city commute, I still hadn't found a real comfort zone while riding. So today, I told Noah he had to stop at the red lights during the Sausalito ride. He agreed, but only if I agreed to speed the fuck up. I made no such agreement and went back to sulking about hilly terrain.

I basically sulked the whole way to the bridge. I cursed every time I saw the road ahead start to rise. But here is the truth: I hate hills because they're hard and I would rather walk, thank you very much. That being said, I love hills. I love them because they are obstacles to be overcome, and getting to the top brings on an endorphin-filled sense of accomplishment. Hills frustrate the shit out of me, and hills allow me to get stronger. It's such an aggravatingly wonderful relationship.

And that's just the uphill challenge! My brakes have always made me afraid of going downhill, afraid of picking up too much speed to be able to stop myself sufficiently. My new brake levers alleviate the problem of stopping somewhat, but not enough that I felt comfortable doing anything other than squeezing the levers furiously on every descent. When we got to the bottom of the Presidio, my hands were aching from my lever death grip, applied from the top of the brake hoods. I was grumpy and resentful. I'd had sporadic moments in the past while biking where I was so elated to be on a bike, wind in my face, surroundings whizzing by. This was not one of those moments– I felt awkward and incapable– and I wondered if it was always going to be like this from hereon out.

Cue: Golden Gate Bridge. It's mostly flat, and the west path is used predominantly by cyclists (pedestrians keep to the east path, since most of them are tourists and they're approaching the bridge from the east), so it's just one long mile of straight, easy, uninterrupted riding. And about halfway across, I started playing with my center placement, shifting my weight around on the seat, and suddenly– it clicked. My body found its ideal position and as horribly lame and cheesy and I know this sounds, I wasn't simply riding on a bike anymore. The bike became an extension of myself. It was a very Neo-realizes-he-is-The-One moment, and I was giddy. Drunken Exaltation Moment Number One.

Cue: over the bridge, the bike path detour to get into town. It was a long way down, but the road was wide (no cars!) and the turns weren't severe. Without really thinking about it, I lowered myself to use the drop bars (the brake levers being easier to depress from there), and in a split second, the adrenaline rush hit me, and I wanted the hill to be endless. I don't know how to describe it– leaning into the turns like it's the most natural thing in the world, temples lightly burning from the elevation drops, cheeks stinging and eyes watering– no fear, only joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. I was filled with laughter the whole way into town. Drunken Exaltation Moment Number Two.

(We only spent a few minutes walking around, but what I saw of Sausalito was adorable. Of course.)

The return trip through the Presidio was surprisingly easy until we got to the final hill that leads out of the park. I had to keep stopping at intervals to recover, and then right before the top, my bike slipped out from under me and I fell, the bike pedal cutting my foot. Noah had been riding ahead and didn't hear me shout (from surprise, and I suppose from anticipation of incoming pain), so I sat on the side of the road in the dark, nursing my foot and fuming at the hill and scowling at the fact that my boyfriend was oblivious to my predicament. I tried pressing on the tattoo on my forearm to summon him back, to no avail. When I finally got back on my bike and caught up to him at the park exit:

Noah, casually: Hey!
Lora, angrily: You left me!
Noah, confusedly: What?
Lora, furiously: I fell, and you left me!
Noah, defensively: ??
Lora, huffingly: !!

As soon as I'd laid into him, I felt remorse, but I was also just still angry (because I'd fallen, and now, because I was irrationally blaming him for not having the psychic wherewithal to come back and rescue my non-rescue-needing self), so I stalked off down the road, as stalkingly as one can do on a bike. And I discovered that anger makes for great bike propulsion, which, when combined with an eventual down slope dotted with green lights, makes for terrific speed.

Cue: some idiot driver who ignored the flashing beam of my headlight and turned right, onto my street and into my lane. Luckily, the lane to my left was empty, so I was able to safely divert my velocity (while loudly yelling at him, because he seemed to have absolutely no awareness of my presence whatsoever– despite wearing light clothing, despite reflectors, despite having both my front and back lights set to blink mode). And I realized that one of my biggest hesitations of commuting out here– having to fight my way through the streets in the midst of shitty, clueless, asshole drivers– is not nearly as horrifying as I'd imagined. Or perhaps I only had the mettle because I was already frustrated. Either way. Drunken Exaltation Moment Number Three.

Anyway. Eventually, we got home, and I apologized and he made pizza. And then January came to a close. Ta-da!

I don't want this to become a vault of cycling posts, but I promise nothing. There's the Wine Country Century coming up in May, and I want to do it (and do it fairly well). Noah wants to make it to Napa for our next big weekend bike ride. I'm tempted to go downtown to the office every day just to have an excuse to ride, and I've even thought about finding a cafe in Sausalito to work from just to make the commute more interesting. This– oh, Internet. This. This is what I've always wanted out of owning a road bike and living in a (more or less) bikeable city. It is a fitting consolation prize for not getting to be a mermaid.

A story about bicycling and hills and fear and oh man, messenger bags can suck it

I made my first commute by bicycle today! My first commute! In the City! From Haight Ashbury to Petrol Hill [1] to downtown and back home to the Haight. Hills and rain and cars maneuvering through narrow lanes and construction zones!

I'd been skeptical to ride my bike, my Bianchi road/touring bike, because I'd never been very comfortable on it. My Trek bike in Vegas (which now sits in our apartment with Noah's extra bike until we get around to selling them) was larger and heavier with bigger tires (i.e., more stable), so switching over to a road bike was a huge thing. Factor in that the Bianchi didn't exactly fit me well– the neck was too long, the brake levers required far more hand strength than was reasonable, the seat was hard to get onto and off– along with the notorious reputation San Francisco has for crazy cyclists and even crazier drivers, and it was a perfect recipe for a bike I was madly in love with but was deathly afraid of riding anywhere.

Noah told me, over and over, just return the damn thing. Exchange it for a different bike. But it was an older model and I loved the look of the frame, loved the lugs, loved the stamped (stamped!) forks. None of the other vintage Bianchi models I'd researched had stamped forks, and I was desperate to keep this unexpected treasure, so I convinced myself that I'd adapt to the awkward fit and my hands would get stronger. Instead, I just made excuse after excuse as to why I couldn't bike to my destination. I obsessed over the city bike map that showed all the elevations and color-coded streets based on how steep the inclines were, and I felt trapped. Everywhere, there were hills. I couldn't go down hills because it hurt my hands too much to work the brakes. I couldn't go up hills because my legs were pansies and unadapted to the work. The latter was particularly self-perpetuating; I couldn't ride uphill because I wasn't strong enough, and I would never become strong enough because I kept avoiding it.

All the while, my Trek remained untouched. Because I felt that riding another bicycle was not conducive to forcing myself to get comfortable on the Bianchi. If I rode the Trek, I would never get used to riding the Bianchi, but I hated riding the Bianchi, so instead I just took the bus everywhere. My logic is infallible.

But then, finally, earlier this month I rode down to Refried, the shop where I'd bought the Bianchi, and asked if they could swap out the stem and brake levers, and without even hesitating, they said yes. And did! At no cost! And I almost cried with relief when I picked it up, because it just felt that much better. I could reach the handlebars without having to shift my center forward. The brake levers were easier to depress (though they're still a bit more resistive than I'd prefer). The seat was tilted down a little to make standing and pushing off a hundred times better.

We celebrated by riding to Richmond for pizza. After which I reverted straight back to fearing hills and memorizing bus lines.

Today, though, I did it. I accepted the possibility that I might get hit by a car and just biked to my destinations around the City today, alone. The end result is that I know so many parts of the City, now, to where I'm capable of biking, and the knowledge is exhilarating. The City is finally, finally feeling accessible to me, even if that freedom is only being granted in bits and pieces as I remain fully aware that my ability to conquer hills, though not nearly as bad as I'd been telling myself, is still pretty limited.

It's a good feeling, to throw caution to the wind and take a chance in the midst of possible (and plentiful) failure– and to end up doing better than hoped. If nothing else, living in San Francisco will teach me to be more bold with my decisions and risks, and I will learn to tackle (and hopefully trump) its hills, one degree of inclination at a time.

[1] I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but in any case, I used to date a guy who would tell me about his life in San Francisco and how he lived in this great house in Petrol Hill and how amazing it was. It was an embarrassingly long time before I realized he'd been telling me about life in Portrero [2] Hill, but I'd already developed an inclination to call the area by the former. The best thing about this story is that the one time I got to meet and chat with Derek Powazek, I asked him if he ever spent time in Petrol Hill. Beautimous.

[2] Is it PORtrero or POtrero? I always thought it was Potrero Hill, but the street is actually spelled "Portrero" [3], so now I'm conflicted. "Petrol Hill" is so much simpler.

[3] No it's not. I can't read sideways. Curses, Google Maps, you almost had me!