Bicycle Riding and My Parents

Northern Alabama drips in the summer heat. My parents ride bicycles four miles to the river after dinner. They come upon friends along the path, and fly along in a swooping wasp-like pack. The greenway runs along a drainage creek, wide enough that they ride in side-by-side pairs talking, or peel off and go on ahead, watching for a heron and listening to the wall of insect sound. The summer’s new biking friends seem interesting from the news that trickles across the country through the phone lines. One couple shares with neighbors their margarita machine, an appliance as large and complex as an espresso maker. Another man is seventy-five and has already accomplished his retirement goal of riding 100,000 miles. My parents and their new bike friends have dinners together and take drives to Mississippi and Georgia to ride the rail trails.

To keep cool my dad rides in a wicker mesh garden hat. Here is a man whose daughters once had to coax him away from the television to go on a walk; now he coaxes his wife to ride in the heat of the afternoons, not wanting to wait even for the relative cool of after dinner. One weekend he went with the septuagenarian to Georgia and rode seventy-two miles in one day. Could I believe it? Boy, was he sore after, but it felt… good.

They took their bikes with them to Florida and rode along the open roads, enjoying the beach winds. The cars and RVs that lumbered by did so in accordance with the state park’s speed limit, my mom reported triumphantly. It was really nice.

But then, last week Mom boasted that they’d biked all the way across town to have dinner with my sister, a 28-mile round trip. I found myself imagining the route. Did they really bike on Bob Wallace? My parents, riding their low-to-the-ground recumbents?

Last year a car a hit a cyclist on similar road nearby. A friend sent me the article in which most of the online commenters blamed the victim. “Even children know not to ride their bikes in the street for fear of being hit by a car.” “Save your b.s. about the vehicle operator being at fault. If people want to ride their bikes on busy public streets they’re taking their own chances.” Another commenter noted that “Regardless of the laws, its kinda hard to see a bike in that kinda traffic esp in the dark with the headlights shining in our face.” In Alabama, “the streets are made for CARS AND TRUCKS!” they said, and bike riders deserve whatever they get.

Some people genuinely feel that they should not ever have to move over or slow down to pass a bicycle on the road. I could just imagine the “bro” bearing down on my parents (he would be driving a lifted truck with a muddin’ snorkel). In the cold calculation in his face, there would be a righteous glint in his eye as he got ready to give them a little scare. My dear sweet parents, biking on the road with those heat-crazed maniacs?

Wait a minute. My parents are biking. They are exercising, being social, spending time outside, watching less television. Let’s talk about my dad, compare the risks of being hit by a car while biking with what he was doing before. Which life choices are better for his health?


My dad is an engineer, a master of making complex drawings on the computer, a man who can build anything. After driving his 30-minute commute, he crunches his 6’4” frame into an office chair for eight hours, then drives the half hour back home. He proceeds to watch (by his own estimate) an average of four hours of television per night: keeping up with at least twelve shows (plus the Braves) on the gigantic flat screen that dominates the living room. Four hours a day? That’s less than the national average, but still the time equivalent of working a second part-time job. A full time job, an hour commuting, and a second part-time job committed to tv-watching. My dad is a busy man, but he spends a lot of his time passively being entertained. He does not have a lot of time left over for sleep. Or exercise, or time with friends, or time outdoors.

Could biking be a way for my Dad to rediscover what he actually likes doing, reconnect with himself and find some adventure? He and my mom bike for an hour and a half every evening now. Nearly every day, for the past six months. And my dad, my dad, is the direct motivator, encouraging mom to brave the heat and bike down to the river. They started slow and have moved to longer rides, biking forty or fifty miles along trails. My dad’s emails contain a new sense of pride, a surprised happiness that his body can do such things on its own. His knees feel better since he started biking. He’s talking about long bike tours next, overnight tours.

They’ve made new friends, and started interacting with nature with an intensity I haven’t seen in them since my childhood camping trips. Where they live is built around the automobile and the television and the air conditioner. There is no mass transit, things are spread out way beyond walking distance, and there are few good gathering places. You see your friends in the aisles of Wal-Mart and catch up briefly, and then retreat to the next refrigerated box. It’s a system that is hard to escape.

Yet they’re doing it. They rode in Critical Mass last month. My dad now knows about Warm Showers, and he watched that viral video of Amsterdam and found out that streets and even street lights just for bicycles exist. He’s reading blogs by people who are taking a while to bike across country, and making plans for next summer.

There is some measure of peace to be found by biking down to the water, a self-sufficiency in finding your body can go places under its own power. They are making themselves happy, their daughters proud. Still the picture of the grinning good-ole-boy bearing down on the two little recumbents on the road lingers. I’ve learned in public health classes that people tend to be bad at estimating risk. Anything that is involuntary, rare, or fear-based seems more risky, while things like car wrecks and heart disease seem almost normal. We can’t forget that status-quo has risks as well, and that people chronically underestimate the risks of the things they already do.

Do not fail to undertake new adventures because they might be risky. What you are already doing might be risky. If you live a sedentary lifestyle and pick up biking, your overall risk of death decreases. The crazy-eyed SUV driver is out there and so are other objective hazards: parallel cracks in the sidewalk, railroad tracks, and the door zone. But you’re exercising and socializing and probably getting happier, putting you at less risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease and the other really big killers in the US.

And why talk just about death. Maybe instead we can give a nod to the emerging field of hedonistic psychology and talk about happiness right here and now. Why not ride down the hill with the wind in your hair and go on long bike rides through the town and countryside and eat at diners and swim in rivers or go raid dumpsters at midnight and ride through the streets stuffing rolls in your mouth and howling at the moon. So what if cars have to go a little slower, and you have to keep your wits about you to avoid the right turners and cell phone talkers on your morning commute. At least you arrive awake, and full of energy, return home with the stress burned off. So I can’t wait to see where my parents go next. Especially if it’s on the road.