Get on a Bike...and Go Slow

Ten years ago Aidan was born. Brenden was three at the time. We only had one car and we lived four miles from ACU.

I was struggling about what to do about getting to work. On the one hand, if I took the car to work Jana would be homebound for the day with a baby and toddler. Not a good recipe for her emotional and social well-being. But on the other hand, if Jana took me to work to keep the car she, the baby and the toddler would have to get up, load into the car and get me to school before my eight o'clock classes. And that was a losing idea as well. Sleep is precious for a new mother. I wanted Jana to sleep in.

So how to get to work?

Well, there was a bus stop at the end of my street so I began to experiment with that. It was okay but I had to make a transfer and the timing wasn't reliable. To make sure I made the transfer and guarantee that I'd make it to class on time I had to get out on the corner an hour earlier. But I'm not a morning person so I didn't relish standing on the corner every day at 5:30 in the morning.

So, how to get to work?

Eventually, I hit on the idea of bike commuting. My mom was visiting at the time (I've discovered that new babies are a draw for grandparents) and she was perennially worried about my lack of exercise. So she spotted the opportunity to buy me a nice mountain bike.

I started with a backpack on my back to carry my stuff but quickly had to come up with a different solution. I didn't like the weight on my back, particularly if I was carrying a lot of books. Plus, the backpack made my back hot and sweaty. Remember, I live in Texas.

So I went back to the bike shop and got a rack and a pannier. That worked great and I've been using a rack and pannier ever since.

I was a bike commuter.

Soon, the speed bug hit me. This happens a lot to new bikers. You start surfing websites, getting a subscription to Bicycling magazine, waiting all year for the Tour de France. You start wanting to go fast.

But I wasn't ready to get a road bike. I was, after all, carrying a lot of stuff back and forth. So I traded my Specialized mountain bike for a Trek hybrid. (A hybrid has the setup of a mountain bike but has the wheels of a road bike.) Obsessed with speed, I switched the treaded 35mm wheels of the hybrid for thinner 25mm slick wheels for a road bike. I added a speedometer and odometer. I added clips for the pedals. I got the bike as close as I could to a road bike but kept the rack and pannier to carry my stuff. I maximized my speed.

The trouble was that while I was going faster I started having clothing problems. I wasn't into spandex or anything, but on my bike I couldn't comfortably ride to work in long pants, dress shoes or a suit coat. So I biked to work in shorts during warm months and windsuits in cold months. Either way, I was coming to school in very casual attire. For the most part I got away with this, but it was an object of discussion on campus. My teaching in shorts and a t-shirt was a bit scandalous to some.

I tried, from time to time, particularly if I had an important meeting that day, to bring a change of clothing. On these days, beyond the books and papers I carried, I had to pack dress shoes, socks, slacks, belt, undershirt, and dress shirt. This was a real hassle, but I didn't have to do it everyday.

But then I became Chair of the Psychology Department. And in that role I had something "formal" happening just about everyday. Meeting with faculty. Meeting with Administration. Visiting with prospective students and their families.

All this meant that I had to pack a nice change of clothing every single day. It was getting to be a pain.

But as luck would have it my infatuation with speed was waning around this same time. I was wanting to go slower. To look up from the road to enjoy the morning air, the sky, and the sunrise.

So I switched bikes again. I got an Electra Amsterdam. It's a European-style city bike perfect for what I was needing. For example, it has a fully enclosed bike chain so I can wear long pants. It has also got a coat tail protector for the back wheel, fenders, and even a mud flap for the front tire. And it has a rack. And a light. And a bell. Ring, ring!

Basically, you could be wearing a suit and tie and ride this bike to work. (The Amsterdam is seen here to the right and it's the bike with me in the picture above.)

It was perfect. Now I just jump on my bike in the morning wearing whatever I'm going to wear for the day. Most of the time it's jeans and a shirt (as pictured above; that's how I look at work 98% of the time). Sometimes (though rarely) it's dress pants, a tie, and jacket. And no matter what I'm wearing I'm comfortable on the Amsterdam.

The key, obviously, is giving up speed. I go slow. But it's not just about about the clothing. Going slow is also about smelling the roses.

Apparently, I'm a part of a growing trend. Check out Slow Bike Movement: Not all cyclists in a hurry, a recent feature in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Among the growing population of bicyclists are those who eschew speed and spandex in favor of sitting upright and slowly making their way through town in whatever they happen to be wearing that day. It's a trend that some are calling the Slow Bike Movement.

"When I think about the Slow Bike Movement, I think of bikes that allow people to sit upright, see your surroundings, be more visible to your environment that you're riding," says Public Bikes' Dan Nguyen-Tan.
And the article echos my own experience about clothing:
[A benefit of slow riding] carries over to when you're getting dressed in the morning. Slow riding means not arriving at work sweaty or worrying about wearing specific bike-riding shoes or any of the other wardrobe-related concerns that plague would-be commuters.
But the article also highlights the greatest benefit of slow riding, something I tried to capture awhile back in a poem:
Being a Slow Bike Rider...means getting to know more about the rest of your community.

"I actually like interacting with the people in my city," Logan says. "And when you're riding slowly, that tends to happen more often."

Both Logan and Colleen Stockmann, who works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, say it's easier to strike up a conversation with people on the street while biking. When you're not rushing past, head down, people tend to talk to you - ask for directions, comment on your bike or otherwise carry on a conversation. Sometimes that means talking to curious tourists, and sometimes it means striking up a conversation with another slow rider in the bike lane.

Sure, it's easier to talk to someone who isn't whizzing past, but the laid-back pace also encourages you to look around, Stockmann says. When you're riding casually, "you notice more," she says.

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25 thoughts on “Get on a Bike...and Go Slow”

  1. I can see you on one of these:

    Not sure if they do them post elementary school.

  2. Nice looking bike - looks perfect for what you use it for!

    We also only have 1 car - and I bike to work most days.  I tend to go a bit faster (I shower at work when I arrive) but for the most part, I'm going to work early enough that I also don't see many other people.

  3. Splash out on a Recumbent Trike Richard with a Rohloff hub and you'll wonder why anyone would use a car, except for long journeys. 

                    I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride my bike,
                    I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride it where I like.
    Oh the sweetness of going through red lights, past the indolent in their coffins jumping pavements as you will, riding down those one way streets shouting to the chap in his 4 x 4 with a fish sticker waiting at that light 'we're not under law but under grace' and seeing him fume, as he considers your petty infraction a sin and ignores the reality that his vanity and greed enable those who promote indifference to support their corporate profits.  

  4. Love the bike! I'm also more interested in my surroundings than my speed as I ride. You have my deepest respect for continuing to ride even in Texas summers. As a teenager I attended a summer camp in Buffalo Gap (small town outside of Abilene) so I get what your summers are like.

  5. qb always suspected you were better than the rest of us, Phillip, and now you've confirmed it!  Thanks.  qb can now go on about the rest of his day.  

    cheerful qb

  6. I feel compelled to note that you've become a saunterer on wheels. I believe that Thoreau would like you.

  7. very helpful post for me -- I had no idea there were bikes specifically made to allow adults to wear street clothes.  I may have to check into that Amsterdam . . .

  8. The Electra bikes can be a bit pricey. The main thing to find is a bike with chain guard, fenders, wider wheels, a comfortable seat, and an upright seating posture. I've heard people call these "city bikes" or "cruisers" and I've seen places like WalMart carrying more bikes like this (I think to mimic bikes like those from Electra and others.)

  9. LOL --- you must have been in the "bring a change of clothes to work" phase while I was at ACU. I can't remember the circumstances, but I remember interrupting you while you were in the process of putting on a belt. It probably happened due to my habit of "peeking in" if I'm not sure somebody is there, and the set-up for faculty offices at the time meant I was never sure about that. Served me right :). 

    I still haven't really learned to take "no reply" for an answer. I'm sure there's a deeply meaningful Freudian explanation for that. 

  10. This post is hilarious - like reading a dejavu (can you read a dejavu?) My wife and I have a toddler and an infant and only one car.  School/work is three miles away and I bicycle so she doesn't have to get up at 5:30 or stay in the cave that is our apartment all day.

    Biking in the Twin Cities is common but the majority of bikers, at least from what I've seen, are obsessed with speed and momentum to the point where they break all sorts of traffic laws.  I'm the guy that takes the sidewalks when he can and gets off his bike whenever he's around a pedestrian.  No sense in risking getting clipped or clipping someone to shave ten minutes off the ride. 

  11. Yes...3 wheels represents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly a recumbent is God's plan for your life.

    The argument that all church music should be in 3/4 timing because of the trinity is still alive and well today.  Why not use the same line of thought (I'm using the word thought loosely) when it comes to cycle choices? 

  12. Have you been biking in the summertime 106 degree daily temperatures? I can see how it beats gasoline prices, but it sounds like a recipe for a heatstroke.

  13. When I bike to work I'm leaving the house around 7:00 in the morning, the coolest part of the day, usually in the 70s. The ride home, around 5:30 is really hot. But it's only 20 minutes home and I can arrive sweaty and hop in the shower. And given how slow I'm going, I'm not any more exhausted biking home than I am crossing the campus. More, when you bike, rather than walk, you have self-made breeze to help cool you.

  14. We were running errands on the north side today. If you're hitting either Ambler or Judge Ely at 5:30 in 106 temps, you must have got a lot of courage, a lot of faith, or a secret death wish. My husband tried biking to work once when we first moved here. But he doesn't work in an office with AC, and needs to cool down on the drive home.

  15. I rode down Judge Ely once and it scared the hell out of me.

    Generally speaking, you can bike Abilene relatively safely going East/West. I'm pretty much all on my own going from my neighborhood in the Abilene High area to ACU.

    What makes Abilene hard is biking North/South, either going down Ely or crossing the railroad tracks. It would be more difficult to get to ACU if I lived on the south side of town.

  16. Great work Richard. I also cycle to work, also to lecture (at a London University), and also made the decision not to join the slick spandex brigade. Taking it slow in a shirt and trousers is bordering on freakish in London where the vast majority of cyclists are aggressively focused on speed (and perhaps the distinct identity and fictive kinship that arises with being one of the 'in-crowd').

    I sometimes wish that London could take a leaf out of the book of Amsterdam or any number of Scandinavian cities where upright, sociable cycling in everyday clothes is the norm. It feels so much more democratic and accessible and friendly that way. I do feel that by making cycling appear to be such an extreme and niche mode of transport, the hard-core cycling community actually ends up alienating Joe public from the experience, and discouraging the more casual cyclist.

    Incidentally, there has to be a further blog post lurking in the ether of this concept, linking extreme cycling with the church, and how to be more inviting and welcoming rather than establishing yet another exclusive 'in-or-out' club where one is expected to dress and act the 'right' way. Thoughts...?

  17. I like that connection with church. I flirted with titling the post "missional cycling" or "welcoming cycling." The idea is playing with the final sentiment of the post, biking in such a way where you become available and interuptible to your neighborhood.

  18. Kudos Richard!  For me, there is nothing that makes me feel like a kid again more than riding my bike.  I would commute by bike even if there were not any benefits (exercise, environmental impact, saving money).  It's just fun.  Especially with the spandex diaper.  

  19. The fact is, just being on your bike makes everything a little slower.  I posted some similar thoughts about it a few weeks back:

  20. Great post. Was my same story when my kids were younger. I would commute 30 miles with a combination of bike and bus. What a feeling of freedom. I was working at a university at the time in the IT department and funds were tight to say the least. I really enjoyed my commut. Now I live only a few miles from home and have transitioned to a motorcycle. Love being on two wheels fast or slow!

  21. I have my Japanese commuter bike - a carry over from the four years of living in Japan, and have had the same experience - going more slowly, you see more. :) Good thoughts!

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