People seem almost impressed when I tell them I sometimes commute by bike from St. Paul to Minneapolis. They shouldn’t be.
“Good for you!” I often hear, “How long a ride is it?” Just over six miles one way, so not exactly a leg of the Tour de France. And I’m 53 — not 73 — so the surprised tone is a little bit much. But if 12 miles on a bike is a big deal to them, fine, I’ll take it. It almost makes up for what I have to endure over those 12 miles.
The reality is that an aging bike commuter in average physical condition will, fairly often, be humiliated. Embarrassment finds me on virtually every ride. An overweight guy on a 25-year-old Schwinn with nearly flat tires will blow past. Or a woman wearing a sun dress and Birkenstocks will speed by while talking on a cellphone. The worst was the senior citizen in a three-piece suit and dress shoes who left me in his wake one recent morning.
I, on the other hand, look the part. There’s the relatively new “commuting” bike (purchased, unsuccessfully, to try to avoid scenes like the aforementioned), the clip-in biking shoes, the shorts, the gloves, an aerodynamic helmet. It makes the humiliation even worse.
Looking like you could be on the cover of Bicycling magazine doesn’t mean a thing on the Midtown Greenway. Speed is all that matters, and losers will be last. Few bike commuters take it easy; few seem to enjoy the scenery, and no one engages in conversation. There are no smiles. It’s as if my fellow bike commuters are climbing the Pyrenees. Or in cars feeling the stress of a commute on Interstate 94.
“Must be a relaxing commute,” nonriders will comment. No, not so much. Not if you’re like me and are routinely made to relive those sixth-grade foot and ice skating races that went very badly for kids with weak ankles and below average fast-twitch genetics.
I’d like to say it doesn’t matter, but I’d be lying. Bike commuting in the Twin Cities is a competition, and — just like in sixth grade — it would be great to win or place once in awhile.
I’ll keep riding, I guess. It saves gas and must be better for my health than sitting in a car. Riders of all shapes and ages will continue to pass me. Life is like that. We get slower and fall behind. We replace beat up knees and hips and try to look younger than we are, but ultimately the race against slowing down is one we can’t win. Especially on the Greenway.
Scott Gillespie is the Star Tribune's editorial page editor.