Ellen Kanzinger rides her bike around the neighborhood. Photo by Rachel Stone

A Newbie Bike Commuter Faces Her Fears

It was a few days before my fifteenth birthday. I remember waking up and running downstairs, eager to soak up every minute of the summer day. 

I was confused to find my grandpa in our living room that early. 

“Ellen, there’s been an accident,” he said. “Your mother is fine, but she was hit by a car.”

During the summer, my parents would ride their bikes early in the morning before their three children got up and the North Carolina humidity made it almost unbearable to be outside. 

That morning, a driver was stopped at a red light, waiting to turn right. He looked left before pulling out into traffic but didn’t see my mom crossing on the trail in front of him from his right.

She was lucky. He wasn’t going very fast, having just started to accelerate. The car fractured her tibia, and she spent the rest of the summer on crutches. But it could have been a lot worse. 

Ever since that summer, the idea of riding a bike on the road causes my heart to start beating faster. Even riding to my grandparents’ house, less than a mile on backroads, seemed treacherous. There’s so much out of your control when it’s you, on a bike, versus a car. And I had seen what could happen up close.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I prepare to bike to work for the first time. For the past year, I lived close enough to walk to and from work every day. It was part of my effort to be more conscious about the impact I have on the environment around me.

But my new apartment is farther away, and the commute comes with more hills than I am willing to walk after a day in the office. So, biking it is. 

Working for an outdoor magazine, it can be intimidating to think about all the people out there doing “radder” things than I am. I talk to them, write about them, and am inspired by them. For me, riding to work will be my own personal mountain. 

I decide to do a test run the night before I planned to do my first commute. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a bike and I don’t want my first ride to be in the middle of morning rush hour. It’s been so long that I actually can’t remember the last time I was on a bike. 

I find that a little sad considering how much I used to love riding up and down our street. That was a time before I could drive, and riding my bike was a taste of independence, riding far enough to where I could no longer see my house. But I’m back on the bike now and that’s what matters. 

Helmet? Check. Bike lights? Double-check.

I’m not going to lie. I am wobbly and uncertain as I ride out onto the street. My pulse picks up as I hear a car come up behind me. I take in a deep breath as I sense it beside me. I don’t let the air out until the car is past me and I’m on my own again. 

Once I get going, I am coasting for the first mile. Literally. I live on top of a hill and barely have to pedal at all. I am cruising. The wind in my face helps keep the heat away. As each car passes me, I feel less threatened.

“This is going to be a breeze,” I think, immediately jinxing myself. 

As I shift into the lowest gear to get up the first hill I’ve faced, I feel it. I don’t know what’s happened, but I no longer feel tension on the pedals. The panic, the racing pulse, immediately comes back to me.

I’m no bike mechanic, so I do what any reasonable person would do. I pull off into a parking lot and call my mom. 

We come to the conclusion that the bike chain has slipped off the gears. By this point, my hands are covered in grease and I just want to get home. But I also know that if I don’t get this chain back on, I have a long walk home. Uphill. 

Once the chain is in place, I am back on the bike. Now I’m sweating and cursing. My thighs BURN. I am nowhere near in biking shape for the hills of Charlottesville. How did I think this was going to be easier than walking?

By the end of the ride, I am walking my bike up the hills. Although it’s almost eight o’clock and the sun is beginning to set, it still feels like it’s 90 degrees outside. In this moment, I am glad I decided to do a test run before trying to commute to work. 

Before I go for another ride, I go into research mode. Do I need to get my bike looked at or was it user error that caused the chain to slip? I find myself deep in biking forums, reading about the proper shifting technique, cable stretch, and derailleur limit screws. 

The more I read, the more I realize the old saying “just like riding a bike” is not as simple as it seems. 

Just getting on the bike didn’t take away all of the anxiety I feel about riding in traffic. And it didn’t address my lack of technical knowledge when it comes to maintaining my bike. 

But I still did it. I rode beside cars, crossed intersections, and managed to get myself home. Although that ride did not go how I expected it to, I proved to myself that this was something I could do and want to do again. 

I bring up my fears about riding on the road with my mom one weekend when I am home. Like me, she says she thinks about riding again every summer but readily admits she’s just not as comfortable on her bike anymore. The twinge in her knee is a reminder of what happens when things go wrong. 

Maybe this will be the year we both start to ride again.  

More Biking in the Blue Ridge from our September Bike Issue Here