Biking to work - where only the strong survive

JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Will the third time be the charm for Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas to have a successful ride to work on her bike? Maybe.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Will the third time be the charm for Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas to have a successful ride to work on her bike? Maybe.
Posted: May 22, 2013

I WIPED OUT on a wet bridge, and I am seeing a galaxy of stars as I slide across the ground on my helmet. And still, as a sharp pain shoots down my hip, I decide this second attempt at biking to work is actually going much smoother than the first.

A couple of weeks ago, in an ongoing effort to get to know Philly and to celebrate National Bike Month, I dusted off my mountain bike and hit the road.

According to Google Maps, my estimated 11-mile commute from Chestnut Hill was supposed to take about an hour. It took three.

In my defense, I meandered through the wooded Wissahickon trails and got stuck in graduation and regatta traffic along the Schuylkill, where I chatted up a lovely father and son fishing for carp.

"One day he won't want to hang out with the old man, so I'm enjoying every minute," Mike Mitchell Sr. said of his 14-year-old namesake.

See, I congratulated myself, these are the kinds of Philly moments those nonbiking commuters miss.

But that was before I almost got plowed by a bus, pancaked by more than a few car doors and, on the way back home, got someone-send-out-a-search-party lost. (There was also some weird guy who jumped out of the bushes on one of the trails and nearly scared me to death. But I don't know what his deal was, and I didn't stop to ask.)

After finally making it home that night, I figured I'd bike to work again sometime. But probably not for a long while.

And then on Friday, Mayor Nutter led a ride down the Ben Franklin Parkway to celebrate Bike to Work Day, and my editor suggested I might want to get on the bike again sometime and make a column of it.

Maybe it's my scrambled head and hip talking, but I think the dude is trying to kill me.

Things actually were going pretty well yesterday morning until my face-plant on the rain-slicked wooden bridge at the start of Forbidden Drive. Fitting place for a fall, no?

"Are you OK?" a woman walking toward me shouted. "I heard that from a ways back."

"I'm good, I'm good," I lied, as I rushed to right my cracked helmet and wipe the dirt off my clothes. Hot mess, party of one.

"Be careful, baby!" she called after me.

That was me being careful, I thought as I limped away as fast as I could.

Who are these people who happily commute to work? I wondered as I cried/pedaled my way to work. Bicycle advocates say there's been a dramatic increase in riders in the last 10 years. But except for the occasional recreational biker, I was mostly on my own out there.

Turns out, there's a reason. The majority of bicycle commuters live within 4 miles of City Hall. Most of the people who live farther out (like me) are apparently smart enough to commute on something with wheels and an engine.

But I'm no joiner or quitter, so I called Alex Doty at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia for some tips.

After sympathetically listening to my newbie tale of woe, Doty said he always advises people to take their first ride on a Saturday. Less time and fewer traffic pressures. Now somebody tells me . . .

Doty might be a bike guy, but he's no two-wheeled evangelist. People who consistently commute to work on bikes do it for a combination of reasons, he said: convenience, cost and fun. Hitting all three is ideal. But even one makes it a worthwhile endeavor for some bicycle commuters.

Hitting none - especially on one ride - might mean that bicycle commuting isn't for you.

"If you can skip a trip to the gym, it's also worth it," Doty said, cheerfully. Yeah, only if you don't replace it with a trip to the ER. But I saw his point.

My first six-hour commute to and from work wasn't convenient, but it was mostly fun.

At an estimated hour, my second trip was on track to be fun and semi-convenient - until that mother of a spill.

Once I heal, I could see biking to work again. But for now, I'm taking my busted helmet and hip and limping to the train station.

See you on the road sometime. Maybe.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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