On Friday I rode my bicycle to the grocery store for the first time in the US. In contrast to my previous three-minute flit to Jumbo or Albert Heijn, this ride was 2.5 miles each way–but at rush hour to a busy, cloggy shopping center, I was pretty sure that it was going to be faster and less frustrating than driving.
And also a lot more frightening.
My bicycle makes me happy, and I felt pleased when I tugged it down the back porch steps and sat on it. I clipped on my dorky helmet (never wore one in Holland), stuffed shopping bags and water bottle in the saddlebags, and it was just like old times. Briefly. It was very much not like old times when I had to immediately hop off the bike to push it up the steep part of our street (no gears on the oma fiets). Having reached the end of the street and waited for the pedestrian crosswalk signal, I had a few minutes’ ride through a residential neighborhood. There were no bike lanes here, but the roads weren’t busy.
Unfortunately, I was soon past this area to the middle stretch that I had determined would be the daunting segment of the ride. These were two fairly busy roads with periodically appearing / vanishing “bike lanes.” On a bike, I felt the hugeness of the cars here. You only have to drive around to realize that the roads and parking lots are not designed to accommodate the massive SUVs suburban moms and dads are hauling around in. I felt extremely exposed to the (annoyed, texting, hurried) cars, and on the way to the store I chickened out and rode for a while on the sidewalk.
The cyclists I see in the Cambridge, MA, vicinity are predominantly of the urban-warrior variety: messenger bag, clipped in shoes, all kinds of gear, zig-zagging around cars and through lights like the laws don’t apply to them. (There are also the sensible cyclists who wait at red lights and flinch a little when trucks rumble by.) I have a large-wheeled, heavy-frame, one gear bike with grocery bags on the back. It did, on this ride, feel a bit like the wrong equipment for the task. And although I was overheated and overdressed in my pants and reflective jacket, I felt like I should have been wearing shin guards, a chest protector, and probably some Kevlar.
All of that said, I felt extremely progressive and triumphant when I locked my bike to the small rack outside the Alewife Whole Foods (an urban cyclist girl giving me a very strange look). I looked at all the cars stuck in the rotary and hunting for parking, and I walked into that store and I bought my dinner. And when I passed a cool, tough cycling guy carrying his helmet while he shopped, I gave him the head nod, like we were in a club.
I breathed a little more normally on the ride home. I was sad, too. I was sad to live in a place where maintaining the active lifestyle of cycling requires so much risk. I was sad that “getting groceries” has gone from as short as fifteen minutes door-to-door to what seems like a minimum forty-five minute venture. I wondered if I will have the toughness to keep at cycling around here.
Of course, to the Dutch cycling is still not just “an option,” but the option. We have three Dutch friends currently in Cambridge, and we invited them for dinner on Saturday. Knowing it was a long ride including crossing a major road or two, we offered to pick them up in our car. This offer seemed to be insulting, and they showed up that evening (flying down our hill and passing the house) with their BBQ contributions in their backpacks and one of them a little bit tired (she’s several months pregnant, after all). When it began to get dark, they clipped on their lights and headed up the hill, the couple doing that lovely Dutch thing where the weaker cyclist puts an arm on the stronger cyclist for some added momentum.
For them, having grown up with the cycling culture, wherever you go, it’s just like riding a bike.
As I finish this post I’m reminded that though I haven’t “talked” about it here, we and people we love felt very much affected by the crash of flight MH17. It’s been said that the Netherlands is such a small country that everyone knows someone who was on the flight, or knows someone who knew someone. In our case two unrelated friends each lost a colleague, one on holiday and one on the way to the AIDS conference. Friends in Delft and the Hague told us of hearing the long, tolling bells across the country on the day the first victims were flown home. As news stories (of all magnitudes of awful) appear and disappear in our headlines, I hope that people will see this one through: to not forget what happened or to ignore what continues to unfold.