A weekend houseguest had brought her bicycle from New York and suggested we take a ride, so it was with a little embarrassment that I pumped my bike tires on Sunday for the first time this summer.
I could blame the recent heat for my prior indolence, but the truth is I get lazy on weekends. I needed to be pulled out of my homebody box.
Pat is a freelance photographer in New York City, and she rides to assignments throughout the boroughs. New York has a growing number of exclusive bike lanes. When I told her I am a timid rider, she said, "Oh, me too," but unless every major thoroughfare has exclusive bike lanes there's no way a cyclist on the streets of any large city is a timid one.
Many drivers are nasty in cars and rush irrationally when they get stuck behind a bicycle. No one has the right to go as fast as he wants to go, and no one has the right to pass a cyclist unless it's safe to do so, but as we know, drivers can be fatal enemies of bicyclists.
I was thinking about James Price, a 46-year-old cyclist from Homewood who was killed in a hit-and-run in Point Breeze Wednesday, as I chose sidewalks to lead Pat toward the North Shore Trail. The bells of a nearby church tolled noon as we approached PNC Park on Federal Street.
On the sidewalks, we sailed along at a good clip -- maybe 10 mph? -- with the cool air filling the inside of my shirt sleeves. For a stretch, I forgot about safety and just felt the freedom, the joy of smooth self-propulsion and the expectation of getting somewhere in 15 minutes that would take an hour to walk.
The trail to the 31st Street Bridge was busy but not stressful. Parents and kids rode toward us skirting puddles while we skirted puddles on our side. On the fine gravel, joggers' feet fell in a rhythmic crunch as we passed them to get back onto the right side. A few times when we tried to ride in tandem to talk, we heard breathless commands, "On your left!" and slid into single file to let speedier cyclists pass.
A few riders made us feel as if we were interlopers on a track reserved for Olympic time trials, and they were dressed for the part. But most people were smiling, good-natured and amenable to the pace of fun.
The low humidity and blue skies drew hundreds, maybe thousands, out to walk, walk dogs, pedal bikes, row kayaks and thump speedboats. I couldn't imagine anyone sitting at home watching TV. What young gamer could possibly prefer to be sitting indoors when a day like Sunday was going on outside?
We pedaled up the ramp to get onto Washington's Landing and rode a jarring and disrupted gravel trail past Red Fin Blues and the marina beside it. The island trail doesn't improve until you come to the circular turnaround at the eastern tip of the island, where we stopped to rest.
Kayakers appeared in the channel as we settled onto a pair of large rocks where, in a moment of reverie, I considered the bicycle as a vehicle of true freedom. The car has always been touted as such, but though faster, it is a big thing you have to lug around and find a place to put when you get where you're going.
When that becomes a headache and waiting for a bus is more wait than worth it -- if you still have a bus to wait for -- a bicycle is on its gliding way down the street using fuel that comes from your own body.
On the trail, we met a cyclist who said he had dropped more than 100 pounds since regularly riding his bicycle and changing his diet. He had been on the trail since 8:30 that morning and we were approaching 2 p.m.
The way I ride -- braking simply because I am going downhill, laborious through gravel and ruts, avoiding any street on which cars expect to reign -- I am in no danger of getting real exercise, but I'm probably in little danger of getting hurt.
Pat's visit was the stimulus I needed to keep my tires inflated and to take the bike out, not just to get groceries at the nearby Giant Eagle.
Once you maneuver the sketchy and skewed curb cuts and sidewalks that are in worse shape than some roadways, you can get to a trail that takes you to most parts of the city and still be as timid a rider as I am.