Errands by Bike

My husband is an avid bicycle commuter. Two feet of snow. Twenty-mile-an-hour winds. Torrential downpour. No matter. Heʼs out there. Every day he goes to work, he goes on his bike.

His resolve has inspired all of us. My nine-year-old son bikes to school with his dad (itʼs on the way to work). And last fall, I decided to don my helmet and travel by two wheels wherever I could in as inhospitable weather as I could stand.

It turns out, I am not half the biker my husband is. I can make all kinds of excuses for why itʼs not a good day to bike. I have to go to the grocery sometime today. I wanted to wear that skirt that might get caught in the gears. Thereʼs snow on the ground … somewhere.

In my defense, I am the main transporter of three smallish children. The nine-year-old can pedal pretty much anywhere I would. The seven-year-old is amazing for her age, but the wheels on her purple princess bike are only so big. And the three-year-old? If sheʼs coming, sheʼs in the seat on the back of my bike … singing and kicking and licking at the wind like a dog with its head out the car window.

So they give me plenty of passes. But as spring blossoms and my weather whining dwindles, I am trying to tackle my other big biking challenge: running errands by bicycle.

Biker hubby has the luxury of riding to work, sitting at a computer all day, then heading home. Me? My “job” consists of gathering necessities from different places (grocery store, bagel shop, pharmacy) or bundling unnecessary items (empty glass milk bottles, clothes to consign, packages to mail) and ferrying them where they need to go.

Over the months, Iʼve figured out what I can do on my bike (take the three-year-old to preschool, pick up a movie at redbox, return a surprising amount of library books) and what I cannot (bring home a half-bushel box of apples from the farmerʼs market, collect heavy buckets of wet coffee grounds for composting, fill up the car with gas).

In the process there have been some interesting moments: Me, grinding up the Grandin Road hill, library books rattling around my front basket, groceries sloshing in my backpack, toddler in the bike seat taking off her shoes and helmet, dropping them onto the street one after another. Or me, spending my whole lunch peering out the window at my bike because, though I remembered my weighs-a-ton lock, I forgot the key.

But as much as Iʼve learned, thereʼs so much more Iʼm still trying to get. Do I have to lock up my bike every time I head into a store? Can I bring it in with me? Do I take off my helmet and unrubberband my pant leg if Iʼm only going to be inside for a minute? Why do I seem to make so many people nervous when I bike … with a kid and loaded front basket and sometimes two backpacks?

I know all the reasons I should choose pedal power over gas: Itʼs built-in exercise, it saves money and anytime we can cut fuel use is better for the planet. But sometimes I just feel like itʼs too hard. Like I canʼt manage one more set of logistics.

Sometimes, too, I feel like I stick out like a green thumb.

I guess choosing to bike is like so much of trying to live environmentally. Itʼs really about retraining yourself and changing expectations. It has taken me years to perfect driving and parking, not locking my keys in the car and not stalling out at stoplights. Why should I think that I could figure out using my bike as primary transportation in a few short months? And who knows? Maybe just as many people are inspired by my weighed- down biking as are put off by it.

So, look for me this summer. Iʼll be flying through parking lots, forgetting to signal which way Iʼm turning, cursing my lock and flubbing my toe clip. Iʼm sure Iʼll fall or almost tip over the toddler or drop something, maybe even break it.

But when I stumble, I guess the only thing to do is get back on the bike.

This essay first aired July 2011 on Roanoke’s NPR affiliate, WVTF.