For the last dozen years, or so, I’ve ridden a fat-tired mountain bike to grad school classes, jobs, and even on assignments as a newspaper reporter, all the while coveting the bike messengers and serious city cyclers on their road bikes.
While vacationing in Maine this summer, I rented a road bike and was instantly hooked on it, like a drug. The young bike shop employee -- a seriously trained musician, blaring complex jazz tunes throughout the shop from old, boxy speakers -- talked me into the purchase of a used road bike right then and there.
The light-framed, orange dream-cycle with the curved handle bars originally belonged to a fellow north-of-Boston tourist, and rolls effortlessly along city streets and country lanes.
In Maine, I learned the Zen that comes with riding tires of a more narrow width, the exhilarating whoosh past dramatic landscapes and beneath a canopy of shimmering green trees.
Back in Salem, I’m learning to appreciate the early-morning glide past cars that sit idle, stunted and polluting in the 7 a.m. traffic. I’m now a bike commuter, riding three mornings a week from my downtown condo to Salem State College to teach an 8 a.m. class, and then back downtown to my next job.
In my car, the commute can take up to 20 minutes, but by bike, it feels almost instantaneous. I roll out onto Derby Street, cross the Congress Street Bridge, pedal through The Point Neighborhood and then out onto Lafayette Street, lined with Victorians ... and traffic, simmering in a standstill, drivers fuming and futzing with their cell phones and radios.
Sure, there are drivers who honk, shake their heads and rev their engines to growl at those who dare to bike rather than drive a car. Because they have trouble evolving beyond the great American pastime of car commuting, they will never notice details like the sunrise glinting off the harbor, tree-lined streets, children walking to school or the new fall chill in the air.
As children, bicycles featured greatly in most of our lives. We knew no other way, accepting pedal power as our only option for transport. No matter the width of their tires or the weight of their frame, those who understand the art of bike commuting seem to somehow belong to an exclusive club, a quality-of-life-seeking subculture, a serenity-seeking tribe. There is no official handshake or card to be carried in the wallet.
It takes only a bicycle, a stretch of road before you, and the musical strains of another morning unfolding all around.