Philadelphia by turns

Touring: With 120 miles of cycling paths and a bike-friendly reputation, the City of Brotherly Love is ideal for two-wheel exploration.

May 20, 2001|By William Triplett | By William Triplett,Special to the Sun

There I was, on the seat of a comfy two-wheeler, pedaling along a path by the banks of the Schuylkill River, taking in the crisp, clear Philadelphia air and marveling not only at the picturesque sight of Boathouse Row as I glided past but also at the impressive fact that I had not yet hurt myself or anyone else.

I hadn't piloted anything that was self-propelled in more than 15 years, but it's true what they say: Riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike. You never forget how.

But there was something more than just the satisfaction at having learned I could still turn the pedals. I was enjoying being a bicycle tourist -- taking in the views and sights at my own pace and under my own power. And here in the City of Brotherly Love, it's easy to do. In the last few years, Philadelphia has become bike-friendly, having created 120 miles of bicycle paths throughout the city.

City officials have also set aside a portion of 80 miles of streets for bicycles to share with internal-combustion traffic. In 1999, Bicycling magazine ranked Philadelphia among the top 10 cities in the United States and Canada for cycling. So even a rusty rider like myself can feel at home.

Another reason I'd come to Philadelphia was to spend time in the Old City section. Once a commercial waterfront district that died and was reborn as a haven for artists, Old City is loaded with charm and plenty of cool shops.

Thus, my somewhat athletic plan: a weekend getaway to a city I was not going to see framed through a bus or car window. As it happened, my trip coincided with a municipal effort promoting exercise. Having been fingered two years ago by Men's Fitness magazine as "the fattest city in America," Philadelphia was eager not only to lose that dubious title but also to be removed entirely from that top 10 list.

With the city urging its residents to exercise and lose weight, I would be a model tourist. My only worry was that all that cycling and walking might involve more exercise than I wanted. So I resolved to ride and walk, but not do anything foolish, like try to get in shape.

Fairmount Park

Philadelphia is home to several large, gorgeous parks. According to the Friends of Philadelphia Parks' Web site, "No Philadelphian is more than one mile away from a public park." My favorite is Fairmount Park. I like it because the Schuylkill River runs through it, and it's an end point for a portion of the 100-plus-mile Schuylkill River Trail system. This section of the trail stretches 22 miles along the river from Philadelphia to Valley Forge, Pa.

I followed only a small part of the trail, a little loop that begins near the southeastern entrance of the park, where the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art stands. It then runs upriver to Sedgley Drive, which you can cross and continue on to Valley Forge, or hang a left onto a bridge, cross the river, then hang another left to come back to the museum via West River Road -- a few miles at most.

I rented my bike ($8 an hour) from a shop near Boathouse Row (a row of buildings comprising 10 amateur rowing clubs, collectively known as the Schuylkill Navy), which is situated almost directly behind the museum. It was late morning on a spectacularly beautiful Saturday -- sunny, cloudless skies and about 65 degrees.

The river looked like a pane of blue glass. People were out and about, either walking, running, riding or inline skating. The last time I had ridden a bicycle, the more sophisticated ones had 10 speeds; now even low-end models seem to have a couple of hundred. I settled in with a nice, easy gear. So what if elderly people pushing baby carriages were passing me?

Almost anywhere you looked in the park you could see trees and grass, and along the banks of the river on a day like this they seemed to be part of a Norman Rockwell painting. Trees lined the banks, and families were spread out among them on blankets on the grass. Some folks were in the sun, others in the shade, and most were having picnics and watching the crew teams practice.

Sculls were everywhere, but one in particular caught my attention -- a solo rower in deep concentration, his coach in a motorboat nearby, calling out solemnly, "That's right, keep moving, it's you against you, you against your mind."

Farther on were ducks, which caught the eyes of numerous dogs being walked by their owners. (The river trail is pet-friendly: At several points there were water sta- tions for thirsty pooches.) Fishermen were scattered along the riverside, their licenses pinned to either their shirts or their hats. Except for the fact that heavily traveled Kelly Drive also runs parallel to the river, there were moments when I almost thought I'd left the city completely.

Then I turned left onto a bridge on Sedgley Drive and looked downriver. The city skyline rose high above the treetops. It was far enough away not to encroach on the scene, but close enough to offer a lovely backdrop.

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