Cycling 101

More folks are biking. Here's what you'll need to join them

October 15, 2005|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

When Julius Mayo walked into Light Street Cycles in Federal Hill a few weeks ago it certainly wasn't out of force of habit.

"I hadn't been on a bike in about 20 years," he says.

Nonetheless, Mayo went on a test ride with a staff technician and intends to buy his own set of wheels.

Most people his age - he'll turn 73 in December - regard bicycling as kid stuff. But Mayo felt an almost magnetic pull to get back in the saddle.

"I watch people riding on the street," he explains. "It looks so healthful, so free."

Other prodigal pedalers apparently are returning to the fold, and the Baltimore area in particular has an array of cycling clubs and user-friendly trails that can help make the transition a smooth one.

According to Bikes Belong, a nationwide coalition of suppliers and retailers, bicycle sales have spiked dramatically since August. An estimated 20 million bikes will be sold this year, a level the industry hasn't seen since the heady, gas-crunch days of the early 1970s.

"I don't know if it's gas prices or the nice weather," Light Street Cycles owner Penny Troutner says of the heavier-than-normal traffic in her shop, "but you never get this in September and October."

Bicycle riding, like swimming and perhaps cursing, is one of those ingrained habits that supposedly never gets completely erased from one's memory bank. Still, taking it up after an extended layoff - which, for all intents and purposes, means donning that thorny crown of "adult beginner" - can be daunting.

Lori Newman, a 41-year-old graphic designer, got the urge to cycle three years ago after moving to Reisterstown. She borrowed her husband's beat-up old bike and began exploring scenic Worthington Valley with a girlfriend. The fact that Newman hadn't been on a bike in more than a decade quickly hit home.

"The traffic kinda freaked me out a little bit," she says. "I acted more like a pedestrian. I'd walk my bike across roads."

Newman wound up taking a few of the Baltimore Bicycling Club's free orientation classes, which cover safety precautions and basic maintenance. That gave her the confidence to move more at ease in the fast company of automobiles.

"What I learned from the bike club," says Newman, "is that you should pretend you're a very skinny car."

Gordon Peltz is a seasoned cyclist in his 60s who leads many of the Baltimore club's introductory classes. He encourages people to give biking a try no matter what their age. You may discover a different, healthier lifestyle. Or maybe not. Either way, it's a win-win proposition.

"If you never get on a bike again," says Peltz, "you're going to be a better driver."

Peltz's rudimentary advice: Don't be too proud. "My favorite saying with novices is `There's no hill up which I cannot walk.' Don't be ashamed to get off and walk."

Greg Cantori did some bicycle racing in his youth and now serves on the board of the advocacy group One Less Car. His beginner-biker mantra: Keep it simple.

As in, don't get hung up on how many gears the bike has, or whether its frame is made of feather-light titanium. Just borrow, rent or buy a no-frills machine and start pedaling.

"The smile factor will be biggest on that type of bike," says Cantori. "I think trail riding is a good place to start. You can concentrate on bike-handling skills and not worry about getting whacked by a Mack truck."

Until recently, Stacey Mink wasn't interested in pleasure riding on trails or anywhere else. Then last winter Mink, 40, moved to Charles Village from Mount Washington because she "hated" being so dependent on her car.

This spring, after joining One Less Car as its executive director, she bought a thick-tire, easy-handling hybrid bike, which suffices for most errands and some business appointments.

"It was such a thrill to see Baltimore in a different way," says Mink, who hadn't biked since college. "It's that feeling of getting on a bike and feeling like I'm 18 again."

She has declared her body a Lycra-free zone, opting to wear a skirt when riding rather than the hip-hugging shorts and colorful jerseys favored by many cyclists. Nonetheless, Mink has immersed herself in bike culture enough to equate it with speaking a new language.

"I've learned a ton," says Mink, "but I don't want this to sound too complicated or technical. I got on the bike and I went. Anybody can do that."

Julius Mayo is proof. Twenty years of rust flaked away as he cruised around town on his Light Street Cycles loaner bike. Amazing what these newfangled gears can do.

"I was going uphill," says Mayo, "but it felt like going downhill."

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

Information

Resources

The League of American Bicyclists has a nationwide "BikeEd" instructional program. 202-822-1333 or bikeleague.org. (Or e-mail bikeleague@bikeleague.org.)

Baltimore Bicycling Club conducts occasional bike instruction classes and has regularly scheduled "casual rides" for beginners. baltobikeclub.org.

Potomac Pedalers Touring Club similarly serves the Greater Washington area. 202-363-8687 or bikepptc.org.

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