Summer of the Bike

Hitting the bike path made me giddy, but it also raised unexpected fears

This was supposed to be the Summer of the Bike. I declared it when it was still technically spring. I'll ride every single day, I told myself, and when my freelance writing gig starts in June, I'll become a bike commuter.

I'd already picked out a messenger bag and helmet for the ride to my office in Boston's Back Bay. Sure, I'd live with bad hair and melted makeup, but I'd get freedom, fresh air and exercise. No more abhorrent Green Line rides and no more absurd parking fees for this freewheeling goddess.

But first I had to get road-ready. I had a few weeks before my new gig started, and I hoped it was time enough to join Boston's two-wheeled commuters without embarrassing myself. So I hit the bike path near my apartment every single day, determined.

It started off magically. I'd forgotten what a beautiful place the world is from a bike, and seeing it again made me giddy — a kid with imaginary streamers trailing from my handlebars. I nodded to bikers I met along the path like a small town mayor in a homecoming parade. I breathed in smells that drifted by — lilacs, cut grass, charcoal grills — with the gusto of Bill Murray in "What About Bob?"

I was so happy I started devising ways to live a whole new life. A bike life. Maybe I'd ride cross-country and write about it. Maybe I'd sell my car. Maybe I'd eat quinoa.

One beautiful ride, I pulled off the path to message my friend Mike Howard, a preternaturally happy, brilliant and bike-obsessed creative director whose credo "Cars are coffins" is sure to be a hot lifestyle brand any minute now.

Mike! I'm on the bike path. I get you. This fucking rocks!!!!

He thoughtfully responded that bike commuting had changed his life. He was happier, more creative, a better father, a better husband. He welcomed me to the club. I was officially doing this.

Until my Summer of the Bike screeched to a halt.

It started the night before my new writing gig, as I packed my bike bag. At first I thought it was new-job jitters, but the feeling was too insistent to be a simple case of butterflies. More like moths with tiny nunchuks.

Then a headline scrolled across the news ticker on my TV:


Great. The ninja moths flutter-kicked, and I unpacked my bag.

If I was really to ride across the river into the big, bad city — I'd better do my homework. It's one thing to lollygag down the bike path; it's a whole other thing to take on the Mass Ave Bridge at rush hour. I amended my plan: I'd drive my car in and get a sense of the streets first. I swore I'd start bike commuting soon. Two or three days, tops.

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But what I saw the next morning from my car chilled me. I witnessed two close calls before I ever crossed the river. First, a man parked in front of Starbucks opened his van door without checking his side mirror, nearly clocking a beautiful girl with a platinum braid.

"Look in your mirror, ASSHOLE," she said, peddling away on her Mary Poppins-style roadster, visibly shaken.

Then, at an intersection near M.I.T., a box truck racing a yellow light just missed a muscled-up biker dude by inches. It surely would have been a grisly biker dude death, but this time it was the truck driver who spit out a stream of expletives.

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This wasn't commuting — this was combat.

I added car doors and yellow lights to my threat inventory and continued up Mass Ave, glad to be hermetically sealed inside my Toyota. If I'd already seen two close calls, how many hadn't I seen?

I parked my car and amended my plan again: I'd drive in for the whole first week. Better to do due diligence than get hit by a truck. Cars are coffins, cars are coffin-makers.

Two months have passed, and there have been no bike rides to work. My Summer of the Bike has become Summer of Biking After Work and on Weekends. I envy the pretty little heads in shiny helmets zipping past me every workday. If hundreds of my fellow Bostonians can risk it, what's my deal? It's a bike ride, not a through-hike of the Appalachian trail. I'm not parachuting into Gaza, but the wuss in me has got the best of me.

I haven't always been a scaredy-cat. I've hitchhiked solo across Ireland. I've quit cushy ad jobs with no back-up plan. I've let a beauty school student with a lazy eye glue synthetic hair to my head. I've paid an ancient Vietnamese woman to rip real hair off a far more sensitive body part. I've dated a clinically insane person or two. I've worked for the Republican Party.

Scary has never scared me before. Why now? It can't just be the looming prospect of a devastating head injury.

Maybe it's just that big moves come more naturally to me than ones that take everyday fortitude. I'd rather run into a burning building than open a Roth IRA, or reinvent myself as an organic spinach farmer than decide between freelance and full-time.

I've always been better with big risks and big, if spotty, rewards. If my brother was the kid who pocketed the change when my parents sent him to the store for milk, I was the kid who spent it trying to win the biggest stuffed animal at the fair. Sometimes I won, lots of times I didn't. It never fazed me.

But more and more these days, I'm the kid who skips the midway altogether. The more miles I put on my life, the scarier the calculated everyday risks become. Do I get a fruity MFA or a sensible real estate license? Stay in my relationship because it feels good, or keep looking for something that makes more sense on paper? Paper or goddamned plastic?

Maybe my next big move should really just be a bunch of little ones. Less leaping, more pedaling. Less crazy, more courage. I've been adventurous in my life, but have I really taken the worthy risks?

Maybe the real reason I'm afraid to ride my bike to my unremarkable but perfectly respectable day job is that it represents a real commitment — and those take mettle. Not being scared isn't the same thing as being brave.

I'm still working it all out. But I do know I won't let fear keep me from feeling giddy one minute more. I don't have all the time in the world to get my nerve up to take that ride. None of us do. If cars are coffins, wishy-washiness is the dirt we throw on them.

Now that I know I have invasive breast cancer — something discovered and diagnosed two drafts into this essay — I realize there are sneakier, more sinister things to fear than a jackass eating a sub behind the wheel of his Ford Flex.

I will get over that dirty river. I just have to look whatever terrifies me dead in the eye, and keep on rolling.

Jess Tardy is a singer-songwriter and occasional advertising creative whose latest record can be found here.

Tags: memoirs

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