It is strange how I became an advocate for bicycling, especially when
I remember how difficult it was for me to learn how to ride. My parents
did not believe in training wheels so I was left to my own devices, constantly
falling over and feeling like a klutz. They did make one concession by
letting me ride a small girl's bike. When I lost my balance, I could jump
off quickly before the bike hit the ground. I think I was finally around
ten years old when I mastered the two wheels. I eventually took to cycling
and later graduated to a larger, boy's bike that I rode around the South
Jersey suburbs. I especially remember summers riding with my friend Don.
We liked riding along the Cooper River Park, starting where the river
is just a small creek. There was one place where the rinse water from
neighborhood washing machines flushed into the waterway, creating huge
mounds of detergent bubble sculptures that floated on the water and blew
away like clouds in the wind.
The exercise was good for me. I was rather overweight for a kid. When
my family moved to San Diego, I did not do as much biking. But I did get
into walking, especially walking the family dog on weekends. It was the
long walks, up to 10 miles in a day, and a strict diet that helped me
lose a lot of weight. I frequently walked to my junior high school, at
least two miles from my house.
My relationship with cars was unusual for a boy, as well. Normal, American,
teenage boys can hardly wait to get their drivers licenses and buy the
ultimate ticket to independence, a big automobile. I already figured out
I was not normal, and I was terrified of driving. I did not get my license
until I was twenty. By this time, I was living on my own, and my parents
gave me their old, Chevy sedan to help me get around. A friend helped
me learn how to drive it.
I was beginning to feel comfortable with driving when the first gas crisis
hit in the early 1970's. In fact, I was working as a janitor where a car
was needed to get to work. Feeling trapped in those long, gas lines, I
made a decision that I would end my car dependency.
I bought a friend's used 10-speed Peugeot. Getting back into bike riding
was a challenge, especially on those North San Diego County hills. Once,
I found myself following behind a young man on a skateboard on one of
those country roads. As hard as I could, I was unable to go fast enough
to pass him.
Eventually, the constant practice paid off, and I found that the exercise
to be quite pleasurable. I eventually came to know this experience as
"bicycle therapy." The more I rode the better I felt, both physically
and mentally. Riding lifted my mood and self-esteem. It was a practical
form of exercise where I used my muscles for the practical task of getting
I noticed something else from my riding, my relationship with my environment.
I feel closest to my surroundings when I am on foot. I do not cover as
much ground, but I am fully aware of the ground I cover. I contrast that
with being in a car where I am totally isolated from those surroundings.
I cover a lot of ground, but I experience so little of it. The bicycle
gives me the opportunity of covering more territory than being on foot,
without sacrificing that connection to my environment. I am aware of the
smells, the changes in air temperature, and the force of the wind. I can
spot wildlife that would have been scared off by the sound of an approaching
My next goal was a change of profession. I took up the trade of lens grinding
so that I could get out of janitorial work and into a job that I could
commute to without driving. I found a job making prescription eyeglasses
in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego. Living still in North County, I
continued driving to work, though I tried to set up a car pool to the
city. The car pools wouldn't last because the other riders moved and changed
jobs frequently. Too many times, I sat alone in bumper-to-bumper, freeway
traffic, yet to realize my next goal.
That goal was to actually live and work in the same city. Melissa and
I wanted to live in the beach community of Ocean Beach. She found a cheap
cottage in the summer of 1976. I lost my job at the lab that made eyeglasses,
but I soon found another with a contact lens manufacturer just a few doors
down. That was the start of my bike commuting experience. I rode from
Ocean Beach uphill (9.8 miles according to Google Maps) to Kearny Mesa.
I was in my mid-twenties and in the best physical shape of my life. I
still owned a car, a small pickup truck, but I rarely drove it.