A Yankee Clutz Bikes Southern Style

On my second ride of the Tennessee Riverwalk, I find myself narrating. Thinking of my blog and what I will say about this ride, I find myself writing along the way. I’m reminded of Stranger than Fiction, except that I am both the narrator and the narratee. Where does this voice in my head come from? And what is the line between normal voices in my head and insanity? I ride through a sprinkler that has turned completely backwards to water the sidewalk and I think in my head, “I ride through a sprinkler that has turned completely backwards to water the sidewalk . . .” Is that crazy? The sprinkler feels great in the summer heat, but the voice in my head provides a running commentary, distracting me from the relief of cool water against hot skin. I give my head a shake, trying to focus on my ride instead of my blog.

I ride the same route as the last time I rode, but with more time before I have to return, I have my camera and I stop frequently to shoot scenes from the riverwalk (I confess–I posted those pics with my Riding the Riverpark post). There are many pedestrians on the walkway. Unlike the Olentangy Trail back in Columbus, the signs don’t say “keep right” or “watch for bikes,” they say “Slow. Pedestrians have the right of way.” Some pedestrians seem to think this means they have the right to take up the entire width of the trail and stroll at a pace akin to a tortoise. I brake hard as I approach such a group, calling out in what I hope is a polite voice, “I’m on your left.”

Perhaps I am too worried about being polite because they don’t seem to hear me. I am almost at a stop, balancing precariously with my snap-in pedals, hoping they move over before I fall over (a frequent enough occurrence that I’ve gotten pretty good at it by now). The woman on the far left turns to look at something and suddenly sees me in her peripheral vision. She jumps and cries out like I’ve sneaked up on her and shouted “Boo!” “You scared me!” She says in an unamused tone. She hesitates, not knowing which way to go, and then she and her friends split down the middle, meaning I am angled wrong, having expected to go left. I muscle my bike back to the right, no small feat from a standstill for someone with little coordination; I’m determined not to fall in front of these women who clearly don’t know enough about biking to understand. I manage to reposition myself and my bike and ride through the middle of the group, apologizing for scaring them as I go. With a clear path ahead, I push hard to build back some momentum as I approach a climb.

I understand that the riverwalk was constructed primarily for walking. After all, they don’t call it a Riverbike. But it puzzles me that while biking etiquette signs appear every quarter mile or so, there are no signs about pedestrian etiquette. It seems safer to me for pedestrians to be aware that there are bikes on the walkway and keeping left will help avoid collisions. Instead, the Riverwalk seems to have the attitude that while bikes are allowed there, they are not welcome. There are stretches with posted speed limits of 3-5 MPH. I typically walk at a 4 MPH pace. I’m confident it’s impossible to ride a bike at 5 MPH, let alone 3–I would need a tricycle. I sigh and remind myself that it’s a different culture. I look over the river, enjoy the view, and decide it’s worth it.

I briefly contemplate changing my pedals from Candies to the kind I grew up with–plain old flat pedals. I switched to clipless bindings about 10 years ago when I decided to start doing triathlons (before my epiphany that over-doing doesn’t lead to life-long fitness). Attaching your feet to your pedals does wonders for both speed and endurance. Because it allows you to pull as well as push, you go faster and use different muscle groups throughout your pedal stroke, offering more power without over-working the muscles used to push. Switching pedals made more difference in my riding times than buying a new bike did. Now, I can’t imagine riding without them. At the same time, as a world-class clutz, they have led to more than one embarrassing moment–I have to remind myself to unsnap every time I approach a stop. Once, I was riding the Olentangy trail in Columbus, day dreaming about something or other. When I got to the section in Clintonville that goes on the road, familiarity with the route prevented me from coming out of my daydream and I pedaled my way through on autopilot. As I approached the one stoplight on the trail, I was still far away in my head. As I rolled to a stop, it suddenly dawned on me that I was still snapped into my pedals. I often imagine this scene from the perspective of the driver stopped on the opposite side of the intersection: a cyclist comes rolling up the hill across the street, approaches the stop light, comes neatly to a stop, and promptly falls over sideways. Even now, I laugh out loud imagining how stupid I looked!

On another ride, I was coming home from work, taking a safe route through a parking lot near the office. This route requires riding up a grassy embankment at the end of the lot to get to a bike path. I like going that way because it keeps me out of traffic. However, on that day, it had rained earlier and the path worn through the grass was slightly muddy. My tires are meant for the road and not for gripping slipping mud. As I cranked hard up the hill, my tires started spinning and I found myself riding in place. In this instance, I knew I needed to unsnap, but I couldn’t both unsnap and crank hard enough to keep myself upright at the same time. Eventually I fell over, landing on the edge of my seat and earning a world-record bruise in the shape of a giant paisley. Cycling was a bit uncomfortable for the next week or two, but it still makes me laugh.

Back to today, I decide that I probably fall less often with my snap-in pedals than I would without them–being able to pull helps me balance at slow speeds and if I can’t remember to unsnap, what makes me think I’d remember to put my feet down anyway? I push and pull my way up the rest of the hill unencumbered by pedestrian traffic. Entering the Bluffview Art District, I unsnap one foot and let it dangle as I approach a tight switchback–just in case. I look across the sculpture garden to the river below once I am through the switchback. I smile once more at the view, which I hope will never get old, and then turn my attention to climbing up the steep hill through the district. I don’t think I would make up that hill without my Candy pedals.

I reach the glass bridge back to Walnut St bridge, gracefully unsnap my feet with a quick twist, and step off my bike to walk it over the bridge. I can now walk across the glass bridge while looking down–a sign that Chattanooga is starting to feel like home? The bridge spans a busy road at least 20 feet below (although it seems like a hundred). Crossing over it the first time back in January was so unnerving to me that I walked the metal strip down the middle instead of on the glass and kept my eyes forward. Now, I can walk on the glass and even look through it to watch cars pass below. It’s one of those engineering feats that I don’t like to think about too much–sometimes the more I understand something, the less faith I have that it will work, and there’s not a good alternative route to and from the Riverwalk.

A crowd gathers on the other side of the glass bridge. A group of mothers and daughters, it seems. I wonder what occasion brought them all out together this night and where they came from. For the past two weeks, softball teams have been roaming the streets on the weekends, mostly girls. But these women don’t look like they’re here for softball. They talk and laugh loudly–it’s possible that even their laughter has a Southern drawl. I turn onto the bridge and see a couple coming towards me. They look like they arrived from NYC or maybe LA with their tats and piercings and vaguely threatening hair. I smile and give the fellow-cyclist chin-lift, they chin-lift back. Cruising down the bridge at a snail’s pace (maybe I can ride 3-5 MPH?), I see an Asian man with his two children. He walks with his hands clasped behind his back, making hacking noises deep in his throat–I make sure to call out “on your left” loudly as I pass him, worrying that he is preparing to spit. A tiny, unsteady child bolts across the bridge in front of me, parents jumping to catch her before I run her down even though I am barely moving. I smile at her and chuckle as I ride on by. A group of teenagers gathers at one of the benches, playfully shouting at each other like they are hoping to convince anyone watching that they’re having the time of their lives. A young musician sits on the side of the bridge playing and singing with his guitar case open for tips. His face turned away from the crowd, he appears lost in his music and oblivious to whether anyone else listens. Tourists with strollers weave their way from one side of the bridge to the other as if we’re playing a game of tag except that they seem to be chasing me by predicting which way I will go and getting in my way. It’s a funny sort of dance to avoid all of these people congregated on the Walnut St Bridge. But it makes for an entertaining cool down at the end of a ride. I wonder whom (or should I say “who all”) I will see next time?

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