An Existentially Healthy Ride: Sharing The Roads With Pittsburgh's Bike Share
I chose a windy, warm-enough Tuesday as the day to build on my bike share ambitions. A helmet was waiting in the closet under a pair of sunglasses that I decide do not yet match my skill level. I will soon come to regret leaving them behind. Not wanting to give serious cyclists a bad name but also not a complete amateur, imagining a potential fall and patches of pavement-burned flesh, I select a long-sleeved T-shirt and spandex instead of shorts. A Snapchat from Dad reminds me it's chilly outside, and "Have fun!"
I arrive at the Healthy Ride station, head full of triathlon dreams and memories of more adventurous friends, happy to have my phone to look up my account info. A quick Gmail search reveals my pin number. After taking too many photos, fiddling with the code on the back of the bike and accidentally locking and returning it again, I go back to the kiosk and rent another. The seat is easy to adjust and is already at the correct height. Finally, I'm on the road!
Actually, I'm still on the sidewalk. The station's short list of rules tells me to stay off the sidewalk, but to get to the road, I need to navigate around one pedestrian, a bus stop and a crosswalk (the crosswalk is probably unnecessary, but I’m finding my flow here). Looking carefully before merging into traffic the bike lane on Liberty, I feel steady, safe.
Until a gust of wind threatens to blow me over a couple blocks into this adventure. Tilting unintentionally, precariously close to cars passing on the left, I grip my handlebars and lean right to counteract the sudden force. Looking down at the bike's solid white, oddly sail-like rear frame, I question my decision to explore Pittsburgh by bike during such a blustery rush hour. What if I can't control this ride? But I'm already moving, my parents trained me better than this, and I remain confident in my balancing skills.
I feel small taking in the street’s surroundings: three-story storefronts, shoppers, parking meters, empty steel vehicles, more predators whizzing past, friends and strangers going to bars or dinner or home, red lights, green lights, the gas station I do not need today. I experiment with these borrowed gears and check the brakes: surprisingly smooth. It only takes a couple yards to come to a complete stop—noted and good to know before riding downhill or too close to cars that could stop suddenly. Usually one to look out for people when driving a car or to defend passenger-seat-wise, I am surprisingly annoyed now by pedestrians who cross in front of my bike-destined path, as if they don't have the right of way. In a crosswalk. Click, click, click, my pedals are not settling into gear yet.
(For the record, I stopped at all the red lights, angry driver/skeptical cycling critic.)
Determined to go downtown, I follow the large bike path symbols until they disappear shortly before the Strip. Exhilarated by speed and having survived Liberty Ave downhill, I soon snap back to reality, my metal-supported fragility. Cars are starting to weave around, politely. Missing the protection of the white lines, I begin wondering where I really belong. My instinct is to turn right and get onto Penn, which fortunately soon reveals the bike lane symbols. The wind is still planting particles in my eyes, but traffic is much quieter here. I might be the only one on the road for a block or two, considering taking a bridge across to the North Shore, not sure which one will take me there legally. Another cyclist passes and I decide to let him lead in a safe direction. A protected two-lane bike path appears shortly before downtown. I cut across Penn to enter this artificial stream and feel like we are allowed to exist again. Some of the side guards have been knocked down—by cars or Steelers fans I’ll never be sure.
My unknowing front-runner leads me safely to the Point. Passing a police car, I decide to meander through park paths. A wind-toppled sign begs a photo against the foreboding river-rimmed sky, and just as I finish, a runner stops to erect it. Good citizen, look at me bystanding. Scratch that, I’m an artist and look at you, over-eager for order. Sigh, you relieve me. I turn left: two more parked police cars. Maybe there’s been a shooting. I briefly sustain a thought to turn around, but a yuppie is still walking her puppy in their direction. A couple harder characters relax by the water's edge, so I go ahead with my plan to document the trip with a fountain photo. Relax. Not too many selfies, self narcissist (let's say journalist).
The police car leaves, and I don’t know who is resting here, but the wind is blowing up the Ohio and sending the fountain all over my phone (it’s okay, it's for my writing); the spray feels good on my skin. Mount Washington looms like better days ahead.
My return trip takes me along the Allegheny riverfront. Next stop: convention center. If only George Washington could see this city now, so beautiful. I can’t resist riding up and down the blue-lit tunnel (why is no one else enjoying this now, today?), but it’s just me peacefully coasting between sparkling rocks and rainbow water trickling. Thank you architects, city planners, tax-payers, self.
A sneaky little detour at fifteenth street dumps me out into a parking lot, where I have to vie with a professionally dressed pedestrian to get to the crack in the lot wall first. Just kidding, we saw each other coming. Next stop: Peace Love and Little Donuts, please: My mind and muscles crave sugar...
Bummer, they close at 2 pm on weekdays! Maybe next time.
Back to Penn Ave: another cyclist helps me feel less alone. She is straight out of a European storybook—knickers, beret and everything—more sure of where she’s going, maybe, but we don't stop to chat. A few raindrops hit my forearms, my face. This is good, riding in the rain. It stops.
My stomach is now driving this bike. The lovely thirty-first street bridge and Washington's Landing will need to wait for another day. I start to wonder if I’d be better off walking, but there’s nowhere to return the bike before the hill. My legs are on their own mission, slowly enduring each pedal’s rotation. My brain needs more hydration, and my pride cannot but just move forward. I power up Liberty in first gear, motivated by the thought of pizza in my refrigerator and the realization that even though I am riding more slowly than I usually walk, forget it—this lets me sit the whole time. The Church Brew Works is tempting, but a beer will not get me home today. Save the money, girl. I look over to smile at the driver of an Uber self-driving car, but he’s not paying attention to the road.
Approaching the bridge and arriving on flatter terrain, Bloomfield is immaculate. I haven't even passed the church yet. So many beautiful restaurants, clean sidewalks, carefully spaced trees... I've never been happier to ride this stretch! Maybe it’s the endorphins: I want to live here forever.
I coast past the Sunoco station and West Penn. Should I cross at the light or wait for a break in traffic?
My biking high quickly wears off as I fiddle with the return mechanism at the Healthy Ride port. The bike will not lock. I try several times, but the instructions on the kiosk and bike don't match the digital messages appearing on the screen. Am I overthinking it again? Customer service might know. Maybe I’m too old for this millennial technology. We go back and forth until I'm satisfied he has marked my bike returned.
I can check the website later to see if it counted multiple rentals, since I pushed a lot of buttons and there were a lot of blinking lights. I take off my helmet, exhausted. Invigorated. Exposed.