Racing the Rain

This short episode has all the aspects of real adventure, man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. I knew it would be a stormy day, but took a risk and decided to ride my bike to work. The morning would be fine, but the afternoon was when the storms were expected to appear. Storms this summer have been particularly violent, coming in with fury, bringing down limbs and uprooting trees.

A downed tree and downed wires a few weeks ago.

As often happens, my day stretched out, and what started as a potential departure at 3:30 became a reality at 5:30. Also, as sometimes happens, the storms which were supposed to reach us by 2:00, were now predicted to start around 6:00. I walked across the street to where my bike is kept. I tried to assess the clouds as I walked, but our office building blocked my view of the western sky, from which direction the storm was approaching. What I could see to the east looked like a pleasant summer day, some blue skies, cumulous clouds, no rain.

After I crossed the street, I looked back to the west. There were dark clouds with swirling patterns, moving in quickly. No rain yet. I changed into cycling clothes, got my backpack on, and got on the bike. Already the wind had picked up. It was variable, sometimes in my face, sometimes from my side. The traffic was heavy. I made my way out onto the road for my seven mile commute. I knew from the look of the clouds it would be close, me getting home. That’s why I felt I better put the hammer down and turn this into a time trial. With the threat of lightning and rain imminent, the adrenaline kicked in and my usual leisurely pace going home changed to a hard ride. The darkened sky meant all the drivers (or most, there were a few clueless ones) had their lights on. I had mine on, too, blinking front headlight and bright flashing taillight. Along the road bits of tree branches and leaves were falling from the wind. I had to look out for these as I rode alongside the traffic. Sometimes the cars were stopped from traffic congestion and sometimes they were zipping by me. I stuck close to the side of the road. There’s no bike lane, but there is a wide enough shoulder so there is room for me and the cars. Yet, I got honked at several times as I zipped along. I did not look to see who honked. To do so would be to take my eyes off the road. A couple of drivers sped past me only to make a quick right turn. Instinctively I saw this coming and slowed, but it is a dangerous move for the driver to pull. I then had to crank up to speed again.

About three miles from home the rain started. It was very light and spitting at first, but the dark gray cloud in front of me that had no borders said it would get worse. Above me, there was a brownish cloud with a swirling unicorn shape pointing to the side. Tornado? Well what would I do if it did develop. Fortunately, that did not happen. As I got within a mile from home there was another traffic light. I stopped and waited as the rain became light and steady. I saw a lightning bolt off to my right and counted six seconds to the loud thunderclap. As the traffic light turned green I pushed for the last stretch to home, and a driver did a quick left turn in front of me. The driver was looking at a cell phone. Another driver pulled out in front of me from a side street. She clearly saw me, but I guess didn’t care. Drivers are not usually this awful on my way home. They must have been in race mode themselves. I finally got to my house as the rain and wind picked up. I looked at my watch. I knocked four minutes off my usual time for this ride. Backpack off and cleat covers on, I stood on the porch, unlocked the door and wheeled my bike in. A few minutes later, the storm hit with strong wind gusts and driving rain. The streets were filling with water and turning into rivers. I felt very fortunate to get in the door before that happened.

In the Rabbit’s Head

When it comes to looking out for myself, I often think I would do well to think like a rabbit.  I’m specifically thinking about my bicycle trips to and from work.

Yesterday was “bike to work day”.  I had planned to bike to work, but with the rain coming down, I figured I’d skip it.  Then, while eating breakfast early in the morning, I checked my email.  An email from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia notified me that, rain or shine, they would have stations set up in Philadelphia with La Colombe coffee, snacks and other support for the thousands of cyclists that would be biking to work that day.  There would be a special group ride (I assume for people with unfixed work hours) starting at 8:30, and a press conference at 9:00 with civic leaders about making Philadelphia more bike friendly.  My commute is in South Jersey, so no chance of grabbing that cup of coffee, but this gave me the impetus to go ahead and ride, and not worry about the rain.

While I enjoy biking to work, it is far more dangerous than driving.  Adding rain to the ride makes it that much more of a challenge.  We have a few rabbits living in our backyard.  They munch on our grass, look longingly at our fenced-in vegetable garden, but are always on critical alert.  Their long ears stand up, and turn to face the sound of the gate opening.  Their eyes are ever open, and they are ready to move, or bolt, when they sense danger.  I think of the rabbits often as I ride to work.  I’ve gotten to know the route very well.  I know every grate, pot hole, rough spot, crack, traffic light, narrow spot, entering roadway, curve and even where deer sometimes come running across the roadway.  If I leave for work at 6:00 AM, I get passed by only about 20 cars and pickups on my ride, which is about 25 minutes.  If I leave at 6:30, that number about quadruples.  If I leave at 7:00, there is a constant stream of traffic all the way.  I like to imagine that the drivers at 6:00 are less likely to be talking on their cellphones, since there would be fewer people awake with whom to talk.  Most days, I need to be at work by 6:30, so the decision is made, but even when I’m not due in until 8:00, I will leave early to make the ride safer.

I think having a rabbit-like sense of danger is healthy for bike commuters, for we are the small, vulnerable animal on the road.  Keen hearing, sharp eyes, and an ever-present sense of danger are critical elements of the ride.  Why do it, then?  I will list several reasons.

It is a way to work in some physical activities into my day which I would otherwise not be able to do.  Twenty five minutes of riding twice a day adds up when done regularly.  While I can only ride three days a week, I definitely benefit from the exercise.  Not driving the car means less products of combustion ascending skyward.  Less oil consumption.  Granted, it is an infinitesimal subtraction from the total emissions of the day if one looks globally.  But, this brings up a question I’ve considered while riding, which is, what about my CO2 output and my energy consumption.  Is there no consequence of increasing one’s metabolism to ride to work, burning calories and producing CO2?  As it happens, a study has been done.  According to a study done by the European Cycling Commission, the CO2 produced by a cyclist is about 21 gm per kilometer.  For a driver in an efficient car, that amount is 271 gm and for a passenger on a bus, the average is 101 gm.   What about the cost of the fuel to ride my bike?  By that, I mean, the cost of the food I need to eat to cover the energy expenditure of my ride.  One could calculate this in many ways.  But, if I burn about 750 kcals total for the round trip, one can put that in food costs.  If I were to replace that with a muffin from Starbucks, about 380 kcals for a blueberry muffin at about $2.25 each, I would need to eat two to get my calorie needs met.  By eating some rice and beans, the cost would be far less.  Your choice.

I enjoy the sense of freedom I get riding my bike.  Maybe this hearkens back to childhood, when one’s bike was a ticket to adventure.  I also like the camaraderie with fellow cyclists on the road, who, at 6:00 AM, are frequently commuting to work.  On the way to work, the cars pass me.  But, on the way home, with traffic tie-ups, I can frequently breeze by a long line of cars waiting at a traffic light.  Ultimately, they catch and pass me, but it may be several miles down the road.

Yet, the danger is there.  Rain adds another dimension, of slippery roads, decreased visibility both for car drivers and for me, and reckless motorists who don’t think physics applies to them, with decreased tire friction, longer stopping distances, and so on.  I dress in bright yellows and reds, and have my blinking tail light and headlight on.  I put my mind in the head of the rabbit, knowing that those beasts of steel and glass are eying me as a target, keep my ears tuned and eyes open, look for the cues that tell me someone is about to do something evil, keep my hands on the brake levers, have an escape plan, and hopefully, get to work in one piece, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running.

DSC_1253a

Set to ride on a cool morning.

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