Hell on Wheels
by Jan Richman

You know the giddy thrill of a flying dream? That's how you feel riding your bike down Market Street on the way to the dentist. Maybe it's the nascent onset of spring, the way the trees on Market Street jangle their leaves like sets of keys as you pass under them, throwing down shimmery shadows onto your path. Maybe it's that you can feel your breath coming deep and steady, your heart beating in time with your breakneck velocity.

Maybe it's that sailing right by the congested traffic on your left feels so excellent that even the prospect of an electric dental drill can't break the triumphant spell.

Ring my bell.

Other American cities do not have a clue about bicycling as transportation. Most citizens of Chapel Hill and Dallas and Cuyahoga Falls think of pedaling a two-wheeled vehicle as an unfortunate but pressing necessity until one is old enough to get a driver's license -- either that or as an activity that, combined with a sensible diet, might lead to slightly thinner thighs.

But here in the enlightened and temperate West, someone well above voting age with a helmet strapped under her chin, essentials slung over her back in a canvas book bag, flying by traffic on the right-hand-side of a trafficky thoroughfare, evokes visions of neither carefree girlhood nor the enactment of a rigorous weight-reduction plan.

You are simply someone on your way to an appointment, someone who will probably get there well ahead of anyone in a car. And when you do, you will park right in front.

You took to the streets three years ago after one too many absurdist hour-long-wait-followed-by-three-consecutive-empty-buses MUNI experiences. Since then you've been through four bikes, all relinquished without your permission to thieves with high-powered hedge clippers. The fifth, a lovely robin's egg blue Specialized mountain/city hybrid with front suspension and a lock-in gel seat that you got cheap from a guy who was moving to Taiwan, seems to be charmed. Even if it turns up missing, you figure you are in the black compared to the cost of three years' worth of car payments, MUNI passes, taxi fares or Nike Air Healthwalkers.

Market Street is marvelously flat and wide, shooting straight out towards the scalloped hem of bay, with actual bike lanes marked off on some stretches. As you approach Church Street, however, you see that the bike lane is double-parked with shoppers, delivery trucks and people picking up their kids from school -- a typical scenario. Drivers too often seem to view a bike lane as an extra-wide berth for their yellow-curb needs. You slow down to thread your way around the obstacle course, looking over your left shoulder for traffic, mouthing the words "Bike Lane!" to drivers sitting in their double-parked cars, sipping lattes or gabbing on cell phones.

Even with the increasing abundance of information in circulation about bike commuters in the Bay Area, even as public transportation venues become more sensitive to the needs of bikers (MUNI, BART, SamTrans and CalTrain all have provisions for storing and transporting bikes), there are still drivers who are oblivious to the fact that you exist at all. They pull out into the bike lane without checking their rear-views. They swing open their driver's side doors with the flamboyant flourish of a rent-a-magician at a backyard barbecue.

You used to see people riding around the city on bicycles and imagine that under their clothes they must all look like Jane Fonda. A person would have to be in excellent physical condition, you mistakenly thought, in order to navigate the roller coaster hills of this town.

In fact, you now know that it is possible, even with a ten-mile-a-day habit, to remain the somewhat flabby, vaguely Buddhist-minded underachiever you have always been, choosing the path of least resistance to almost any point in town. For complicated routes, you still refer to your topographical map, where the street grades are depicted with varying intensities of red ink. The most rigorous workout you ever get is salmon pink.

At the corner of Battery and Market, a woman on a vintage Schwinn sidles up next to you at the light. She turns and smiles, "Nice day for a ride, eh?" she says. Then she taps her silver bike bell three times, for good luck.

© Jan Richman
SF Gate, May 28, 2001