Monday, March 19, 2012

bikes belong!

Starting this past Friday up in Boston, Tim Johnson and a posse of fellow cyclists embarked on their second installment of a five day bicycle ride from Boston to Washington DC to raise awareness for bicycle usage and bicycle friendly byways and spread the word of Bikes Belong. You can read more about the history of such a ride here.

When I first heard of this in early 2011 I knew it was something I had to be a part of in some form or another. Not because Tim Johnson was at the forefront of such an endeavor but because of what it stands for. It stands for the freedom of riding your bicycle anywhere you want to go. It stands for the recreation we all enjoy whilst walking or pedaling around our neighborhoods. It stands for a healthy lifestyle and a lifestyle I have continued to come back to throughout my life.

In the mid 1980s I was one of those kids walking and/or riding my bike to elementary school in the central New Jersey suburbs. Throughout my pre-teenage years, my neighborhood friends and I rode our bmx bicycles everywhere we could; through yards, down the sidewalk, through trails we cut in the woods behind our houses to the trails behind our local schools. We eventually graduated to riding our bmx bikes 3 to 5 miles into the closest town for pizza. That first ride into town opened up many doors for us. We found that we could ride longer and further. We also found the most enjoyable path to town: through ATV trails in the woods. The freedom to go anywhere within our means while enjoying the outdoors was the best feeling in the world.

This continued up through high school. First it was riding our bicycles to places to skateboard. Then the bicycles slowly became hung up in the garages in favor for automobiles so we could go skate at the local strip malls or schools. I was drifting away from bicycles and more into rebuilding 1960s/1970s cars. What kept me on a bike was the mid 1990s peak of mountain biking. I rode less but my car took me to some great trails to ride. During this time I also noticed the bicycle rack at the local elementary school was not full as when I attended ten years earlier but now an empty space outside the school. The kids walking to school was nothing but a ghost. Cars lined the streets as parents anxiously waited to pick up their kids afterschool. Something was happening. I even saw it within my own family as my youngest brother and sister rarely made it to school by means beyond my mother driving them.

Away at college, my parents did not let me keep my car my freshman year yet I did keep my mountain bike. As an only means of transportation, I used my mountain bike to get around campus. I found that freedom once again, the freedom to go anywhere I desired. Bike racks were full as I was not the only one who was riding a bike to class. In the remaining years of my undergraduate studies I lived a few miles off campus. I had my car but insisted on riding my bicycle to campus just about every day. It was exhilarating to not have to open up my wallet for gasoline while braving the cool southern Virginia mornings on my BMX bike with a backpack overflowing of books. It was those five years spent riding around southwest Virginia that my love for the bicycle came back.

Ten years later, I am riding my bicycles more than ever and even using them once again as transportation (in addition to fitness and competitive racing). I am not as diligent riding to and from work as I was going to and from class in college but I am trying to ride to work more often. I am reminded by this when I see fellow bicyclists pedaling their way into Hartford in the morning for their day in the office. I am also reminded by this when I log onto Facebook and see blurbs or photos from friends of mine who commuted to work on their bicycle that day.

A year has passed since Tim Johnson's first ride from Boston to Washington and I was not going to let them ride past my house [again] on their way to the US National Bicycle Summit to lobby for more bicycle friendly roads and pathways without me being with them. While I did not sign up to ride the entire distance to DC I did have a goal of at least seeing them to the NY border. Just as quick as the 6am alarm clock rang, I was on my bike riding the four miles into Hartford to join Tim Johnson and the crew who was behind him to ride across CT this past Saturday.

Saturday's start in East Hartford CT

The turnout this year was unbelievable! There easily were over 30 bicyclists leaving East Hartford on a cool, overcast, Saturday morning. Amongst those in attendance were Rebecca Rusch and Greg Martin. I have not seen them since the Transylvania Epic MTB Stage Race last year and they were all the way out here from Idaho. It was exciting to give them a tour of the roads I ride and even part of my bicycle commute to work. It was also a pleasure to accompany them as they rode, out of their element, through urban environments like Hartford and Hartford proper.
Waiting to turn left onto South Quaker Lane in West Hartford CT
The rest of our group at that stoplight.

As we continued west we would lose a few individuals and gain a few more. Riding through Southington I explained to Greg and Rebecca about the East Coast Greenway and its vision to have a bike path stretching from Maine to Florida as well as my usage of said bike path to ride from Hartford to New Haven for my haircut. Greg could not believe such a thing would exist. It does exist albeit not a 100% complete bike path but quite a bit of it is bike path. [Someday we should ride its entire length.] Shortly after Southington we found our first 'real' climb just east of Waterbury.

This time of the ride last year I was quite a bit out of shape and also managed not to eat nor drink much within the first three hours. When the hills came in and around Waterbury so did my energy and spunk to keep up with the group and I often saw myself falling off the back. I did not want that to happen this year so I paid attention to my eating and drinking. Halfway up the first climb coming into Waterbury I realized I was playing the right cards as the climb felt as if it was not there. The hills from Waterbury into Newtown felt the same, like they were not really there. Coming across Newtown into Bethel I felt great and knew I could keep going. While the group did lose some people it was still quite large, mainly the core individuals from Boston, and I felt we were riding very well for such a large group (mostly two abreast with quite a bit of single-file on the busier roads).

With two nature / food breaks behind us we were in Bethel converging on Bethel Cycle. If you have not been here I suggest you stop by one day. A refill of the waterbottles, some food and smiles with Sean, Scott and Greg of Bethel Cycle we were back on our bikes. My friend Dave from Cannondale also joined us as we pedaled a fast rolling pace out of Bethel and towards the border near North Salem NY.
Photo By Bethel Cycle
I think this stretch was my favorite part of what I rode as the sun was out, temps were climbing into the upper 60s and my legs liked the fun filled pace we maintained through the rolling back roads of Fairfield County. Dave and I started planning out our options for ending our time with the posse and taking a train back to Bethel was high in the stack of cards. With Dave's fresh legs and my 70 mile legs I knew it was I who was to make the decision. By now the NY border was so close I had to achieve that milestone just to prove to myself I can do it.

NY came and went by way of a short mile or so stretch of dirt road followed by lots of potholes and what seemed like an eternally busy back-road around a small reservoir. Dave was confident there were plenty of options near us for a rail so I had no qualms with continuing on with the team. At one point we stopped for food and water and were told from there on into Manhattan it would be bike paths. Having just crossed over 684 I knew where we were. We were knocking on the northern outskirts of White Plains. How cool was that? A bike path from northern White Plains down into Manhattan? Part of which is the East Coast Greenway.

This was the point of no return as Dave and I thought the bike path would take us quite far from train stations. Do we carry on into Manhattan or do we turn around and ride back to Bethel? After some deliberation we made the painful decision to leave Tim Johnson and his posse and ride back to Bethel. Painful because the atmosphere surrounding the ride was so positive and no matter how tired you felt you just wanted to carry on with them to Manhattan and share the same experiences as they.
somewhere en route from NY back to Bethel CT

Nevertheless, we said our goodbyes and thanked everyone for letting us tag along and we started riding back to Bethel trying to retrace our path. Once back in Bethel I hung around Bethel Cycle eating some more food from my stash in my jersey pocket and was mentally preparing myself for another 30 to 60 minute ride to home of Ginger's parents where she would pick me up from. Before my body cooled off too much I was back on the bike and heading east. Final destination via bicycle for the day: Newtown CT at about 5pm. Ten hours, somewhere near 130miles, out and about riding and hanging out with fellow individuals that share the love of all things bicycle. What an amazing day! One I will not forget for many years to come.

Last year's ride and this year's ride have changed me in a way. One of those changes I have shared with a few people and will share with you later this week as it affects my mountain bike race season this year. These rides also help bring me back to one reason why I ride/race my bicycle: for fun. My many bicycles over the years have taken me to places I never dreamed I would have gone and shaped me into who I am today. I ride with friends of all ages and look up to just about everyone I ride with in some way or another. This is bicycling! This is fun!

If there is one thing you can do, get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. In a speech given in downtown Hartford Friday evening, Former US President Bill Clinton even urged everyone to put down their electronic devices and go outside. Coincidence with Tim Johnson's arrival in Hartford the same evening? Perhaps.. I tend to think it is a common theme we are seeing here and must follow. After you go outside for a walk or bicycle ride please read some about the organization Bikes Belong and their vision and quest. Please also read about the National Bicycle Summit and how you can make a difference.

With that, I think I am done here for one evening as I must go pack my bike's panniers for my ride into work tomorrow morning. Enjoy!

NOTE: As of this writing Tim Johnson and his crew of fellow bicyclists have made their way to Baltimore MD and will be riding into Washington DC tomorrow morning.


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