Ups and Downs: Balance on a Bike

My ride today was filled with wild variations. A super harsh headwind in the morning and a powerful tailwind in the evening. A calm, safe ride on the Lakefront Trail most of the way and a stressful, congested ride through downtown the rest of the way. Starting out a bit too cold and ending up a bit too hot. Life is full of ups and downs, and dealing with it on my bike helps me appreciate the balance. I really think bike commuting can be as mindful and therapeutic as yoga sometimes.

11-11 betty

11-11 handlebar

11-11 leaves

11-11 sunrise

Does your bike commute have many ups and downs or is it mostly the same each time? Do you ever get an opportunity to relax or are you constantly on edge about cars? I think people who don’t ride bikes assume that riding in the city is constantly stressful and dangerous, but that has not been my experience (only sometimes).  I admit to being spoiled by the bike path, though, and I’m interested to hear about your experiences.

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45 thoughts on “Ups and Downs: Balance on a Bike

  1. miss sarah says:

    Now that I have the baby I’m always late. The other morning he ate three times more than usual. That takes time. Then I had him ready to go into the Madsen… except Don was super productive and decided to clear out one side of the garage so the car could go inside. The other garage door had more stuff obstructing the bikes. Choices were go back inside and switch to other car seat and take car. Or just move car. So I moved the car. Put baby in it.

    Then. HEAD WIND. The whole way. Finally I’m across the street and only 5 minutes late. Then I was 15 minutes late altogether after waiting for the light to change at that intersection. Let’s just say that people crossing the street don’t get priority over cars.

    It was so hairy, I didn’t even bother taking pictures and blogging about it!

    So it’s not the bike that is stressful. It’s having to bike with +1 in a city that doesn’t care about us:( And admittedly, this is only sometimes:)


  2. Su Yin says:

    Getting headwinds both ways for the past few weeks and I’m attributing this to the unsettled spring weather (in New Zealand).

    And like you, I also end up starting cold and by the time I arrive at work, have stripped off most layers. I do this at the long traffic lights and the motorists always give quizzical looks!

    Unfortunately, the route I choose isn’t anywhere as spectacular as yours. But I get to ding my bell at the walking schoolbus (and they always say ‘hi’ back) and there is one tiny bit downhill where I get to see the sun set into the sea and that makes up for everything.

    Oh, and also when other cyclists greet you as they woosh past. :)

  3. E.S. Riady says:

    I love cycling. In my country Indonesia is a lot of arenas for challenging cycling, as in the mountains, and beaches. This is a very exciting adventure.

  4. Deb says:

    I have a lot of variation. Parts are really hilly, other parts are flat. Sometimes I’m on quiet streets, sometimes I’m on 45mph streets, sometimes I have bike lanes, sometimes I don’t, some places the road is so rough I wonder every day if I’m going to be bounced right off my bike, other places I don’t even notice the road. I have only 1/4 mile on a path, but I’m actually glad about that because in the winter my fair city doesn’t take care of paths at all, so it ends up icy and nasty at times. I definitely have sections that are stressful, and other parts where I can pretty much zone out.

    We had a lot of wind yesterday too. One place where I usually can get going about 30mph because it is such a sharp downhill, I was probably going only about 15 because of the headwind. (Of course all speeds are complete guesses, based on speed limit and relative speed of cars, because I’m too lazy to have a device that would tell me for real what speed I’m going.)

    I’ve always felt that biking can be similar to meditation (or yoga) in the sense that we’re often living in the moment. That, plus the endorphins of being on the bike 2 hrs/day, means I feel considerably less stressed out (even on days when the ride was itself stressful) than when I didn’t bike commute.

  5. Steve A says:

    My commute is definitely mixed & varied. The stressful spots change from day to day but the funnest spot also has very heavy traffic which is not what you might imagine. A high stress part is climbing a hill into the wind with much lighter, but higher speed traffic overtaking on a two lane road.

    The path portion is very low stress, but it’s also the most dangerous part of the trip and the only place I’ve had a fall.

  6. Mark Simpson says:

    I just about always have the ‘too cold to start; too hot at end’ problem. Need to work on that.

    My commute is about half on path and half in traffic. I like both halves and dislike both halves. It all depends on the other road/path users.

    Even when riding in Boston traffic i still enjoy my bike rides.

  7. Lucas says:

    There are some days when my rides are serene and calm, others like it is a fight the whole way — this can be due to many factors, such as weather, joggers, other commuters, cars, whathaveyou. Thankfully I have the picturesque Charles River to distract me … but this is only when I choose that route.

    There are a few route “options” I can choose and one in particular that goes down the insanely busy Massachusetts Avenue. The biggest issue here is everyone — Buses that pass just to cut in front (blocking the bike lane), delivery vehicles that use the bike lane as a loading zone, pedestrians running to and fro, and unfortunately, a wealth of other cyclists who either have no sense of direction, consideration, or who just don’t care… When I ride that route I call it “running the gauntlet”.

    And yes, the weather can be schizophrenic here along the New England coast… often it’s tailwind in the morning w/a headwind at night, except when it’s a headwind both ways because the wind shifts ;)

    I really live for the calm days when the water on the river is like glass.

    Still… even the worst days it’s better than the T!

  8. nuliajuk says:

    I ride through rush hour traffic, but it’s rarely stressful. Partly because I suppose I’m used to it, after 35 years, partly because the drivers downtown are used to cyclists, partly because there are ways to ride that blend in with traffic. (For example, pulling up behind the line of cars at the intersection instead of going up to the front in the right-hand gutter. All those cars are going to pass anyway, and I notice they pass more carefully if they only have to do it once.)

    • dottie says:

      I’m sure the 35 years’ experience has a lot to do with it! I’m impressed. The problem with Chicago’s downtown during rush hour is that there isn’t really a way to ride that blends in with traffic or stays to the right of traffic, because traffic is jam packed and insane and cabs and buses are pulling over everywhere. I think this will be a new post soon :)

  9. dukiebiddle says:

    I was really bad a few nights ago. Riding in the rain (on a bike with steel rims) actually too far to the right and hugging the door zone to give traffic plenty of space to pass, a bus driver decided to blare and lean on her horn at me, even though she had more than enough room to pass… just to let me know she hated my guts. Fine, so I glared at her, took the lane in front of her and slowed down to 8 mph. When she leaned out her window to scream at me at the next light and tell me the law requires I stay on the right (in this state, that’s true), I turned around and said “Oh, you mean like I was doing when you blasted your horn at me for no reason? I guess you shouldn’t have done that.” I made her stay behind me for the next 3 blocks. I don’t approve of my actions, and I promise I’ll never do it again, but man did I enjoy that leisurely 3 block ride.

    • dottie says:

      Most bus drivers I encounter are nice, but the ones who aren’t, really aren’t. Your law probably says something like, “as far to the right as practicable,” right? I hope so! Riding in the door zone is def not practicable.

      • dukiebiddle says:

        MD, along with something like 5 mostly southern states, is worded slightly more aggressively to point out that we don’t belong in the lane and belong in the gutter. I don’t ride in the door zone, but was riding much closer to the door zone than I feel comfortable with… @ about 3.5 feet. Still, the lane wasn’t narrow there, she was driving a mini-shuttle and had plenty of space to pass. As a general rule, I try to be understanding that bikes and buses naturally are always in each others way (we’re generally going the same speed, they get in our way and belch black smoke on us, we get in their way and slow their schedule) so I try to be more courteous; but the traffic, the rain, the fact I had inadequate braking power and her honking really just put me off and I decided to lash back.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Just to correct myself, I’ve just looked up the law, and yes, my state as that same “as practicable” clause as most other states. (My state’s law is obnoxious as I’m required to ride on the shoulder is one is present – that’s where I was getting mixed up)

          Regardless, I wasn’t practicing “as practicable,” I was full on slightly to the left of center to get in her way.

  10. One reason I like the bikepath is that it allows me to relax and sort of be in my little imaginary world. When I cycle on the road, I am not stressed out per se but I am always on alert. Maybe that will diminish the longer I cycle, but so far it hasn’t.

    I have found though that I can only take the path when I cycle for leisure, and that when I have to actually be somewhere I prefer the road. I think the concentration it requires puts me in a state of readiness for whatever meeting it is I am on the way to attend.

  11. what a terrific post! i feel this way about biking, too–sometimes it is an effortless, beautiful ride; and other times i am pedaling into the wind, going as slow as can be and i’m completely miserable–and it’s good to remember that these are like the ups and downs of life. either way, i get to my destination.

  12. Ann says:

    I live in Chicago too, and I used to live on the Southside. I’d bike into the Loop up the Lakefront path. The path is much less crowded on that route, and I’d only see about a dozen people or so. It was the best way to start my day, with the sun rising over the lake, seeing the big buildings get closer & closer, and being alone for most of it. I could let my mind wander.

    Now I’m up on the Northside, and I commute on the streets. It took a while to get used to. I have to stay focused, but I find it just as relaxing. I’m injured, and won’t be able to ride again until spring, and I miss it so much.

  13. Melanie says:

    I feel that. Some days I feel like all I do is battle with busses and cars. Last night, I was having one of those “joy in the journey” rides where I couldn’t help but love my city and sing Queen songs as I rode through town. So much of the time, my commutes are mundane, until someone in my neighborhood says hello or compliments my bike and it changes my whole mood. Yes, I ride because it’s my transportation, but I like to think that I keep getting back on the bike because it’s a visually and experientially interesting way to travel.

    I didn’t realize this until I went to comment, but built into the last couple blocks of my commute routes that get me home are fun little spots to ride- through a park & past some public arc, down a hill that never has any traffic. I always look forward to those parts of the ride, so even if I’ve had a bummer day, a bummer ride, or am having a bummer life, I still feel good when I get off the bike.

  14. Wild Bill says:

    My commute is mostly on the northern Lakefront Trail and I only have to drill two blocks west into the loop. The only stress I have is from trying to fight the ever-present headwind or trying to catch the guy that just passed me.

    I’m really digging the new photos.

  15. Sid says:

    I get a pretty early start down Lincoln and Wells in the mornings so there’s not much congestion and it’s an awesome way to start each day. I like the yoga comparison. Like you, still adjusting my layering and don’t always get it quite right.

    The lakefront path in the evenings is beautiful this time of year – dark and uncrowded. But I do have to shift to ultra-alert pretty quickly once I turn onto Lawrence Ave. Some crazy traffic and peds in Uptown. Squeezing between lines of cars, navigating buses, drivers that don’t seem to like the 3 ft. rule. Almost got doored by a cop car yesterday. That was nice. But I wouldn’t trade it for a car or train.

  16. Keri says:

    I don’t commute anymore since I moved my office home. When I did, I had 3 or 4 different routes varying from most-direct (busy roads) to most-pleasant (quiet streets and lake views). I’d pick a route based on time, my mood, and sometimes based on the direction of the wind. I had a sheltered route for head-wind commutes, it was several miles longer but I’d be less tired in the end.

    One thing I’ve found is that even on busy, high-speed roads, the traffic comes in platoons: 30-40 seconds of cars passing, then 30-40 seconds of empty road. We did a video on a 6-lane arterial where you can actually hear the birds chirping in the gap.

    As for heavy traffic, the two things that get to me are noise pollution and the stack-ups that impede my progress. I rarely jump a queue. I’m uncomfortable passing a queue even where there is a bike lane offering the space to do it. I’ll typically try to find a parallel route.

    When time isn’t an issue, I like to use a trail and enjoy the quiet. There are several nearby that make for good connections to certain destinations (best-of-all, the grocery store!).

  17. maria says:

    This is a wonderful example of life!!

    I seriously so adore your bike!!

  18. Donna says:

    I agree with all the ups and downs (wind direction/force, temperature, traffic) that make the journey a bipolar mash of emotions. I will literally be cruising along, listening to birds and happily thinking “this is the life,” and then nervously navigating potholes whilst being buzzed by low-EQ people in BMWs. But the one thing no one has pointed out yet is the varying SMELLS.

    I’ll pass a newly mowed yard, and inhale deeply! Or the early morning load of laundry puffing plumes of heavenly fabric-softener laden steam out into the air. Or the cow pasture (self-explanatory). Or even the strange smell of the cement factory. The deep fryer smell passing Bojangles. The wild onions in a field. The honey suckle all along the shoulder. The horrible stench of road kill. The mucky smell of a creek a couple of days after a good rain. Biking through a neighborhood on trash day before pickup and the putrid smell of decaying chicken. The distinctive smell of diesel exhaust, or a muscle car running too rich. The sharp smell of catalytic converters, and the intoxicating smell of older cars without catalytic converters.
    The familiar scent of baby wipes after a good hard ride, and the offensive sting in my own nostrils of my cycling clothes as I peel them off and stuff them under my desk. Soap and shampoo and clean clothes.
    And that’s all on one ride.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Call me grody, but I actually like the smell of a cow pasture. It reminds me of visiting relatives’ farms when I was little. Pig farms and chicken farms are vile, but when I pass a cow farm I always take a deep breath and think, “Ah… country.”

  19. Catherine says:

    Mine is more or less the same throughout–quiet streets in my little town just outside DC, a trail to DC, then (usually) quiet streets in DC. What changes the most is how close the trail is to the parkway it follows. The closer it is, the worse the ride because of the noise the “what if I manage to run off the trail onto the parkway” worry and (at night) riding into their headlights–blindess!

    What really gets me is the weather though. DC has (and I think that this is a verifiable fact) the worst weather in the known universe. All the heat, humidity and muggyness of places much farther south (British diplomats got hardship pay when posted in DC until air conditioning became standard) without benefit of tropical breezes and proximity to the ocean combined with all the cold, drippy nastyness of northern winters, but without all the nice fluffy snow to show for it.

    Right now, we are experiencing a Nor’easter (essentially a winter hurricane, but with different characteristics). It’s been 40something and raining and windy since Tuesday and there are no signs of it going away anytime soon. Sigh.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Oh come on, you Washingtonians are such drama queens. ;-) Granted, it is much hotter than people typically imagine, but winters rarely get worse than icky. Us Baltimoreans have such wussy neighbors. ;-)

      As for the Nor’easter: i just supplemented the rain pants I bought a couple of weeks ago with a new raincoat and galoshes. 100% waterproof, baby! I’ve been splashing around like those little kids in that old McDonald’s ad: “duck duck waddle waddle.”

      • Catherine says:

        Well, “icky” is pretty bad when there’s nothing nice to balance it out. I lived in Western Massachusetts for years–some classically hard winters ’round those parts, but at least we had snow and winter sports! And I actually think that it’s drier up there. Here, we just get wet and cold constantly with no silver lining.

        Good call on the waterproofing. I’ve never really gotten around to getting rain gear and thus, am suffering (I only bike to/from Metro and around town on days like this and I still look like something the cat dragged in).

        I know I need to do the rain gear thing, but it’s complicated because I’m a difficult size to find clothes for (smaller than plus size, slightly larger than regular size…and I’d just buy plus sizes but they don’t make specialty athletic gear for bigger people). That plus the fact that I don’t really like the idea of “gear” at all, and have no free time to go track stuff down anyway, and you’ve got me out there in a trench coat and my commuting shoes getting soaked to the bone!

        It’s allegedly going to clear up by Sunday, just in time for the tweed ride (you should come down!). But I firmly believe that the weather down here has the personality of a petulant child and will in most cases (just enough to be annoying but not enough to be predictable) will do the exact opposite of what it’s “supposed” to do. We shall see.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Alas, DC is too far away to travel with a bike (darn our not integrated public transportation systems).

          As for rain proofing, sizing shouldn’t be too much of an issue with rain pants as they’re overpants. But, as with all purchases, STAY AWAY FROM REI because they’re overpriced and vile. You can buy the same brands from your local army surplus store for a third the price. I got a coat, pants, galoshes all for under $100 (REI rain pants start at $110! Criminal.) Am I styling? Of course not, but rain clothes are rain clothes.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Oh! Speaking of Washington, when you get off of work you should totally swing by Capitol Hill Bikes and take advantage of their 75% off liquidation sale. 75% off! Pick me up a Dahon. I get you back on payday. ;-)

  20. Val says:

    Plenty of variety in the commute here in the fabulous Pacific Northwest; conditions can change many times in just one ride. For some idea of a few things and places that I encounter on my way to and from work, check out Aren’t pandas fun? I will admit that this set is skewed to show pleasant conditions and pretty palces; stay tuned – I will try to get some good rainy shots in the next few months. Should be fun.

  21. jason says:

    no path in my part of town. kimball ave is pretty much always a nightmare, and just about the only street that connects logan square with points north.

  22. sara says:

    Major ups & downs in just getting ready for this morning’s bike commute! Checked the weather– rain a’comin’ so made the decision with my fellows to break out the weather cover for our Bakfiets for the first time this school year. The guys were really excited to sit under the protective bubble & I felt fine about getting a little wet. We attached the rain cover & the guys climbed in & got settled. They looked so darn cute tucked into the cargo box, peeking out from the plastic, that I had to go back inside to get my camera. Right when I was snapping their photo on the sidewalk, one of our neighbors walked by and asked if the car parked there (street parking) was ours & proceeded to point out that the side back window (streetside) had been bashed in…. Ahhh, nothing stolen but a pain anyway. So not really what you were getting at in your question but there you go.

  23. Mamavee says:

    I usually start out stressed out. Is this going to work. Am I going to get tired what will happen? I’m too cold and wish I had a scarf of a heavier coat.. Sometimes I’m moving slow and it seems I have ar to go before I reach my destination. Then partly into it I relax and enjoy the ride. Usually by the end I am full on smiling. And wearing a lot less layers.

  24. Scott says:

    I had a good one today. I stopped at the bongo room for breakfast and to watch the rush hour bikes go by. There are some tight spots on Milwaukee Ave, but it seems like there are enough bikes so that the motorists are always looking before they swerve into the bike lane.

  25. kim says:

    beautiful photos, dottie. i particularly like the third one (of the tree limbs).
    Betty’s looking fine, too, especially with her scarf!

  26. grambev says:

    l’m a wreck until l get to the bike path. Traffic in good old Salem, MA is always a challenge.

  27. grambev says:

    PS great photos !

    • dottie says:

      Thanks, gram :) I remember from the last time I visited you that Salem drivers are very fast and aggressive. I wish there were more bike paths for you.

  28. chibikegal says:

    on days I ride to the western avenue metra station, I am often completely blown away by the view of the sun coming up from the east over the chicago skyline as I head south on Leavitt across Augusta and then Chicago Ave. (other days I am just blown away and wish I had put on my ski gloves or run away to warmer climes). I also like the early morning ride down Hubbard St where various businesses are gearing up the trucks to deliver sausages, or shrubs, or fish, or whatever. Then I get to the station and check out everyone’s folding bikes and wish I had one…

  29. Stephen says:

    My commute is urban, but short and relatively scenic. Lots of overhanging Live Oaks with Spanish Moss, old residential areas, no highways, even a large old City cemetery with rolling hills, narrow roads, and huge trees. I’ve tried several route variations, but finally settled on the one that is the most relaxing. And for the most part, it is. It’s certainly more comfortable to drive on a cold morning, but I always enjoy riding, even if I choke a bit on bus exhaust or choose to observe the constant abuse of traffic control devices and laws by drivers. It would be great to have a bike path, but the parts of the city I ride through were developed a long time ago, and, well, this ain’t Portland, OR, that’s for sure.

  30. Giffen says:

    Balance you say? Nothing breaks up my flow like the sounds my bike starts making sometimes. For example, today crunchy snaps began creeping out of my bottom bracket today. How can I pedal with that?

  31. grambev says:

    wonderful, ls it open all year?

  32. Doug says:

    I have variety here. Even though the locals don’t think so, the traffic is really light here, compared to a large city like Chicago or Minneapolis. My variety comes from the fact my city was built on a side of a hill. If you’re going to ride here all the time, you’re going to have to ride hills. It’s a big barrier to getting more people on bikes. Then there’s the weather created by the big lake. When the weather is sour, it’s common to have 30-40 mph gusts coming off the lake.

    Like you, I tried to ride in my street clothes, or work clothes. I tried for two years. But some places, like hilly places, there just isn’t a way to arrive to work sweat free. I have a mile climb when I leave my house. No matter how light I dress, I’m sweating by the time I reach the top of that hill. Even at 10 below. Now I wear synthetic clothing and change when I get to work.

  33. Christine says:

    I take the same route every day to the Chicago Loop (entirely through city streets), and the experience is a little different every time, especially during the a.m. commute when people are a little more rushed and unpredictable. I guess I go out expecting a.m. traffic to be this way, so I’m not surprised and stressed at whatever happens.
    When commuting is stressful for me has everything to do with how my body is feeling at that time, so the yoga comparison is a great one. The same uphill that was easy one day can be so grueling the next that it makes me wish I had a road bike and not my lovely cruiser. I do experience moments of extreme intensity as well as catharsis when I don’t expect it, and like yoga it forces me to acknowledge how my body is feeling at that moment without giving in.
    As you’ve experienced, people who don’t ride bikes often tell me how amazed they are that I brave the dangerous city traffic every day. It’s hard to communicate that traffic is just a small part of a person’s riding experience.
    Thanks for the insightful post.

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