With car-pitalists failing under crushing fuel prices, it’s time for the bikers’ agenda
It’s been a struggle, but success at last appears within our grasp. As gasoline hovers near $4 per gallon, the plans we laid in 1968 are bearing fruit: American drivers are questioning the wisdom of using a 6,000-pound vehicle to haul home an ounce of nutmeg.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume our work is done.
It’s easy to capture the public attention for a time. Remember, though, the lessons of the Pet Rock, Rubik’s Cube and Britney Spears: nickel rockets every one, exploding across the landscape and vanishing as quickly as they came. Or recall the much-heralded “environmental awakening” of the 1960s, for which we all had such hope.
This time can be different—if we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Perhaps the best example is former President Jimmy Carter, who showed us that asking Americans to sacrifice is political hemlock.
In 1979, Carter addressed our nation’s addiction to oil. Predicting shortages and rising prices, he called on Americans to conserve. He proposed a national drive to find alternative sources of energy, develop mass transit and reduce our use of foreign oil. It was a clear and patriotic call to duty.
For his efforts, Carter was ridiculed by his enemies and shunned by his friends. His prophetic plea was a factor in his loss to Ronald Reagan, who rolled back most of his predecessor’s policies. Blindly we cruised—in our “full-size” cars and later SUVs—to the position we occupy today.
Through all this, the bicycle—the most efficient means of transportation ever devised—was little more than a hobby. There was a brief cycling boom around 1969, and more following Greg Lemond’s and Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories. Baby boomers with bad knees, recovering joggers, created a sort of mini-boomlet in biking for exercise in the ‘90s.
Bicycling for transportation, though, remained on the fringe.
The average Chico commute in the Carter era—less than five miles—could have been accomplished on a bike in no more time than it took to jockey a car out of a garage. In the public eye, though, two-wheeled transport was suitable only for the likes of students and a few quirky vegetarians.
Now, through a combination of rising prices, a faltering economy, global warming and the serendipitous failure of government even to recognize that problems existed, let alone seek solutions, we have an opportunity unmatched since the one given President Bush on 9/11.
We must use it more wisely than he did, and soon. If gas prices come down even slightly, our opportunity will be lost. Just a year ago, $3 gas seemed unthinkable. Now that they’ve seen $4.50, drivers will accept $3.99 with bovine complacence.
Yet we mustn’t go too fast. Most Americans haven’t been on a bike since the “10 speed” they had in college, which probably was made of gas pipe, didn’t fit them and was assembled in the warehouse of a department store by a high school sophomore earning minimum wage, so it never worked even as well as its low quality promised.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to explaining bicycling to your non-cycling friends. If you can impart to them these tips, their conversion can be painless:
• Learn to fix a flat tire. Flats are inevitable, and they put many new riders on foot. A shop owner told me that 50 percent of his repairs are for flats, and that many bikes have sat with flats for years because owners couldn’t fix them.
The first time you patch a tube, it may take half an hour of sweat and frustration. With experience, you’ll be in the five-minute range. Don’t think of a flat as a disabling breakdown. It’s small stuff, like adjusting your mirror.
Have somebody show you, or Google “bicycle flat repair.” The Park Tool Web site, www.parktool.com, is a good source of bikey-tooly information.
And will you get over this fear of flats? I’m telling you: Five minutes.
• Carry appropriate tools. Invest in a patch kit (about $3 in bike shops), tire levers (three in a set, $5) and either a pump or carbon dioxide inflator. The inflator is easier but requires CO2 cartridges.
I prefer a “frame-fit” pump, $20 to $50. It never runs out of air, and mine works like new after 15 years.
• Wear a helmet. It’s OK to buy a cheapish one. Wear it low on your forehead, not tipped back like the yokel in a B western.
If you have kids, and the kids have helmets, make sure theirs fit that way, too. If they don’t have helmets, turn yourself in to the Stupidity Police.
• Re-think your routes. If you drive to work on major thoroughfares, forget them. Nearly every route has alternatives that are less traveled, safer and, for a bike, often faster.
• If you already have a bike, use it. Most garage bikes can be made commute-worthy with a couple of hours’ work and a few dollars’ worth of grease. If it’s been behind the freezer since the Reagan administration, it may need tires and brake pads, the rubberish pucks that squeeze the wheels. Prices (and quality) vary, but you can probably do it for way less than a tank of gas.
• If you don’t have a bike, don’t overbuy. Purists may say you can’t get a decent bike these days for less than (pick one) $1,000/$1,500/$1,750. I have two bikes that cost, together, nearly $5,000, and they’re wonderful. But the one I used for my 25-mile commute for years cost $15 in a thrift shop, plus $40 for tires, $30 for fenders and a couple of bucks for grease.
It takes a little expertise, but not a lot, to pick a winner from the rack of losers at the local thrift store. Bicycles just aren’t that complicated.
Consider a used mountain bike. They’re plentiful, durable and cheap, and replacing the knobby off-road tires with some suited to pavement makes them roadworthy.
• Start slow. Don’t vow on Sunday that you’ll ride to work every day for six months. Instead, have somebody drop you at work and ride home. Or try the round trip on a non-work day, so you can find the best route and get an idea of time.
• I mean really slow. This isn’t all-or-nothing. If you ride just one day every two weeks, you’ll cut your commute costs by 10 percent.
Too far? How about driving partway, ditching the car and pedaling the last five miles? You’ll love it the first day, hate it by the end of the week, and in six weeks you won’t be able to imagine doing it another way.
• Grit your teeth and enjoy it. See above: It takes a while to get into it. Forget about being conspicuous. Nobody knows it’s you. For that matter, a surprising number of drivers won’t even see you, which is why you use back streets.
It helps, too, to cultivate a feeling of superiority: While those fools in the gas guzzlers wait in traffic, you’re whipping by, and when they have to set aside an hour for the gym, you’ll be showered and kicking back.