Writer Lovelle Harris rides hard and carries a big bag of biking tips
By Lovelle Harris
I’ll admit it, I’m afraid, no, terrified of driving. So I gave it up about 17 years ago, and in doing so, condemned myself to a lifetime of being asked, “Why don’t you drive?” and “Are you ever going to drive again?”
In my defense, I’m a terrible driver. My saving grace? Getting around Sacramento on two wheels can be one hell of a sweet ride.
May is National Bike Month, and whether you’re trying to save the planet by minimizing your carbon footprint or, like me, a driving expatriate looking to take a self-imposed exile from the motorized world, traveling by bike is quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to get around Sacramento. Case in point: The number of bicycle commuters jumped from 4,090 in 2009 to 4,725 in 2010, according to the League of American Bicyclists.
Unless you’re a seasoned cyclist, however, there may be some mysteries of the bike yet to be unlocked: The following is your guide to a more bikable Sacramento.
Two wheels good
Anyone who has exhumed a bike out of their grandparents’ web-ridden rafters knows that a quick visit to the neighborhood cycle shop is a smart way to get a ride ready for the road. Luckily, Sacramento is full of shops that boast dedicated and knowledgeable staff that can help even the most inexperienced rider gear up.
“Hands down, invest in good front and rear bike lights,” says Zack Waddle, general manager of The Bicycle Business on Freeport Boulevard. “Get something that irritates drivers, and not one of those cheap, 1-LED Knog lights. I’ve seen them on the street, and they’re a joke. You might as well hold up a lighter for light.”
Another confession: While I’m lazy and would rather go to the pros to tune up my ride, gearheads will find plenty of opportunities to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty by learning how to fix that rusty chain themselves. Wednesday nights, the crew over at Mike’s Bikes downtown provides hands-on instruction on how to repair bikes, and on Thursday nights, the team at the Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen in Midtown hosts a ladies-night event during which it waives the $5 shop fee for budding mechanics—well, budding female, transgender or “femme” gay mechanics, that is. And for those who were fans of the Kitchen’s Bicyclette!, an after-hours DIY bike-maintenance event geared toward the more feminine crowd, have no fear. Despite some staffing changes, the shop is still open for late-night business.
“There are volunteer mechanics on staff who teach patrons how to work on their own bikes; we don’t do it for them,” says Andrea Havelaar, the Bicycle Kitchen’s coordinator of public outreach.
The current DIY workshops are now taught by men and women, Havelaar adds.
“The purpose is still to encourage more female, transgender and gay patrons to come in,” Havelaar says.
If getting greasy isn’t your thing, but you could use a little education on the fine art of dodging traffic, the League of American Bicyclists offers year-round courses in effective cycling, including a nine-hour urban-cycling skills course, available to all genders, age groups and abilities.
Take it from me, someone who just dropped close to $800 on a new bike after losing bike No. 3 to thieves, this month it pays to check out some of the deals at participating shops. Cyclists on a budget can score big on everything it takes to stay road-ready when the “Pedal Saver” discount signs go up in business windows around town. But May isn’t the only time you can grab a swinging deal on gear. Tim Castleman, owner of Practical Cycle in Old Sacramento, says the way to get the best price on bikes and equipment at his store is to subscribe to their online monthly newsletter which offers seasonal discounts.
Even better, I’ve found that the newsletter offers great commuter tips on the best bags to cart around your goods, planning the most traffic-free route to and from work, and the lowdown on how to make the most of a cycling lifestyle.
If you’re more of the adventurous type, check out one of the Sacramento-area bike trails that allow cyclists to get up close and personal with nature. While there are more than 300 miles of bike paths and lanes in Sacramento, the American River Bike Trail, which offers bicyclists more than 30 miles of riding space surrounded by the wild beauty of the river, is perfect for a day trip, presenting riders with a bevy of picnic sites, swimming and fishing holes within the city limits.
Just be sure to invest in a comfortable, well-cushioned seat if your excursion involves traveling more than a couple of miles. When I think back on my 14-mile jaunt from Old Sacramento to Swabbies Restaurant & Bar on the river and then down the back side of the Garden Highway last summer, I’m reminded of the sorry state of my rear end after the journey.
Cruising around Sacramento on two wheels isn’t just for those who, like me, rely on the bike as their sole means of transportation. From businesses that offer hourly and daily bike rentals, such as Practical Cycle, to the new bike-sharing phenomenon that has slowly made its way to the Midtown grid (check out Midtown Bike Share at www.facebook.com/rideyourownway, for more information), bike lanes are bustling with a variety of riders.
“I bike around a lot. I live in Curtis Park, and I try to ride my bike as much as possible,” says Havelaar. “I have a 3-year-old, and we have a trailer, so we do take him as much as we can. Generally, it’s more of a family thing.”
Havelaar says she also thinks carefully about the routes they take. Those behind four wheels, after all, don’t always seem to notice their two-wheeled lane neighbors. If you’re riding on the oft-narrow streets of downtown or Midtown, for example, it’s good to map out your route ahead of time whenever possible.
“I like to … stick to the streets with the bike lanes, and the streets that are more well-lit. I like to go down 21st [Street] when I’m going downtown, and then I’ll come down 19th [Street] on the way home,” she says.
Places to avoid?
“The areas around Curtis Park are really bad, Freeport [Boulevard] is really dangerous [and] Broadway’s not that great either,” Havelaar says.
Whether you’re a bike messenger weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds or a cycle enthusiast who doesn’t dare straddle the saddle unless decked out in full-on Lance Armstrong gear, Waddle, who has worked in the bicycle business for approximately 25 years, stresses the importance of being hyper-aware of one’s surroundings when riding, especially when cycling down one street in particular.
“I don’t agree with people riding bikes on J Street,” Waddle says. “Unless you’re on a super-fast road bike, cars get irritated with bicyclists on J. … Remember, they’re bigger than you are.”
Downtown or the suburbs, riding doesn’t come without its drawbacks—I’ve been hit by a car, had three bikes stolen from my house, and have dodged my fair share of animal carcasses, used condoms and festering leaf piles, all the while lugging around a jumbo-sized purse filled with a change of clothes, shoes and anything else needed to make myself presentable after arriving at my destination. Still, you won’t see me behind the wheel of a car anytime soon. After all, the League of American Bicyclists awarded Sacramento with the bronze-level crown for being one of the most bike friendly cities in the United States—obviously, I’m in good company.