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Footloose and Car-Free

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“Gee, are you in the Olympics?” The question came from a man my grandfather’s age who had rounded the corner into the pharmacy aisle, stopping short in surprise when he saw me standing there like some freakish science fiction character.

Perhaps I should explain that I was dressed head-to-toe in spandex as garish as the brightly-colored bottles of vitamins I was contemplating on the drugstore shelf. The fact that he recognized the outlandish outfit as athletic apparel (as opposed to some bizarre Halloween-in-January get-up) surprised me, until I realized that my helmet was still on my head (a bit of a giveaway, that).

In case it seems strange that I was stalking the local Walgreens in full cycling regalia, I should also explain that I do almost all my errands by bike. On this particular day, I had just stopped by the drugstore for a few essentials on my way back from a training ride. The temperature was in the mid-twenties Fahrenheit, so I was pretty well bundled up. Under my helmet, I wore a balaclava (a hood with a hole in the front for eyes and nose, like a ski mask). On my hands were enormous, thick gloves. I had several layers over my core, windproof tights on my legs, and my feet were enveloped in neoprene booties over my cycling shoes. As I clumsily turned to face my questioner, I must have looked either like a deranged deep-sea scuba diver out of water … or an Olympian—I guess.

I am pretty well accustomed to odd looks from adults and open-mouthed curiosity or wails of fear from small children when I am out in the normal world wearing my biking clothes, especially in winter. In fact, I’ve lost most of my self-consciousness; it takes a comment like the one I received in the drugstore to remind me of what an oddity I must appear to the general populace.

I’ve never actually owned a car. A car-free condition is so normal to me that I sometimes forget what an anomaly this is in the U.S., where somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of the population (and close to 90% of households) own automobiles. This proportion is certainly lower in most of New York City, but even just across the bridge in New Jersey, where I live, the auto is king. Many people have a hard time believing that I really ride my bike several miles to drop packages at the post office, visit the doctor, and go food shopping.

I often purchase dinner supplies at a small Korean grocery in a neighboring town on my way home from a ride. The checkout clerks almost invariably ask me how far I am riding. “Oh, just home to Fort Lee,” I answer, and their eyebrows reach for their hair. “So far!” they exclaim. “All the way up that hill!” They shake their heads with what I imagine to be a mix of admiration and disbelief. Maybe it’s actually pity. I asked them one day how they get home from work, and most of them said that they take the bus. It was my turn to shake my head. I hate to imagine waiting, shivering in the cold, for a bus, and then lurching stop-to-stop along the route while wedged in among coughing and cell phone-yammering passengers. Give me a bike, even when it’s freezing out, for freedom and self-sufficiency.

Besides, I reflect, how boring my errands would be without these funny little incidents and interactions prompted by my unusual attire. One afternoon in the recent past, I arrived home to my apartment building at the same time as the little girl who lives upstairs with her Muslim family. I took my helmet off outside the door as I fumbled with cold hands for my key. Five-year-old Farwah gazed up curiously at my head, once again covered in a balaclava. “Why are you wearing a scarf?” she asked. She knows I am not Muslim, and yet here I was with a black head covering. I told her, “I’m wearing this to keep warm because it is cold outside.” She asked no more questions, but took one more incredulous backwards glance at me as she trailed up the stairs.

Then there’s the time that I forgot to remove my black facemask before rushing into the bank, in a hurry to deposit a check. But that’s a story for another day.

I guess the real reason my husband and I have never bought a car is for the liberty that the car-less lifestyle affords. To most people, being without a car would seem limiting, and I admit that at times using a car makes life a lot easier. However, owning a car, with all the concurrent expenses, has never looked very appealing. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that car ownership costs are the second largest household expense in the U.S., accounting for 17% of total expenses; and according to a 2004 American Automobile Association study, the average American spends $8,410 per year—roughly $700 per month—to own a vehicle).

Heck, with the kind of money we save on car payments, insurance, and registration (not to mention maintenance, parking tickets, and other incidentals), we could buy a brand new, super-souped-up bicycle every twelve months. Or, more seriously, I have the freedom to pursue my passion for bike racing at a salary of $0,000.00 annually without digging deeply into savings or running up a mountain of crushing debt. Thanks to my husband’s steady job and our pretty simple and inexpensive lifestyle, including 2-wheeled transportation, it works. I could say that running my errands by bike, even if it doesn’t count as real training, actually enables my professional cycling career. Maybe it will even take me to the Olympics some day.

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