In three years of writing about fitness, I’ve tried to tackle some weighty issues: race, disability, child-rearing and religion, to name a few. And then came last week, when I crashed head-on into something that a group of you truly holds dear, a lifestyle choice that lies squarely at the intersection of Washington’s exercise and transportation regimens.
Yes, I dared to address the idea of commuting to work by bicycle in less than laudatory fashion. Specifically, I pointed out some of the problems for people like me, who are middle-aged and face long commutes from the suburbs to downtown.
“Just read your article. It doesn’t belong in Wellness; it belongs in Wimpness,” one reader sneered in an e-mail he signed “No Sympathy.”
Wow. You’d think I had stuck a bike pump in the guy’s spokes, like that Italian cyclist did to poor Dave Stoller in “Breaking Away.”
But my correspondent was not riding, or writing, alone.
“I’m a daily year-round Bethesda-Capitol Hill commuter, and I assure you that the more you ride, the stronger you’ll get,” one woman wrote in a tone I thought I was going to prefer.
“You’ll quickly learn the rhythm of the traffic and street lights and won’t make silly mistakes like riding in tunnels or trying to get onto Metro during rush hour. (Those were no one’s fault other than yours and aren’t worth whining about because you shouldn’t have done them.)”
We’ve since struck up a more cordial e-mail relationship.
In all, I heard from about 200 of you, in online comments and personal e-mails, many more people than were moved to write me about paying people to lose weight or even the death of my running coach. In fact, this column received a larger response than any I’ve written.
Roughly, you broke down into three groups:
There was the “Good for you, Lenny. Just giving it a try shows initiative and sets a good example” set. In truth, you were a plurality, if not a majority, and most of you told great stories of your own bike commutes. You also tended to understand that I was poking fun at myself as I blundered through my first attempts to get to work on two wheels.
“Thoroughly enjoyed your article about bike commuting. I’ve been commuting round trip, every day, in all weather for five years now,” one hardy fellow wrote.
“If you want a little motivation, lemme take you back to the . . . ‘Snowpocalypse.’ [A friend] offered me a ride home, but I declined and joked that I would EASILY beat him home. We bet a beer on it.
“My ride consisted of 90 minutes of treading through snow . . . up to a foot deep, getting blasted by wind, ice, and total whiteout. . . . My friend’s commute consisted of just shy of ELEVEN HOURS of gridlock and misery. . . . He burned half a tank of gas staying warm and arrived home near 2 a.m. and completely miserable.
“I won that bet, and I won that beer.”
In the middle was the “Um, newbie? You made a lot of stupid mistakes. Use your head” group. Some of you were a little harsh, but you gave me dozens of wonderful suggestions on routes, equipment, clothing, blogs, preparation, public transit, fitness and strategies. I’m already taking a new route suggested by one reader, which has shaved about 18 minutes off my bike trip.
The most common suggestion was that I drive a few miles, park near a trail and ride round trip. I had briefly considered this before my first ride but didn’t believe there were good places to park free. You set me straight on that. A couple of you were willing to trust me with your secret parking spots — as long as I promised not to print them. Deal.
And, of course, there were those of you “completely outraged that a coward and wimp would suggest that people not commute to work by bike.”
People! The column is called “The MisFits” for a reason. Vicky Hallett and I are novices at just about everything we try. And besides, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve ridden to work or back most days since that first attempt. I’m totally hooked. I even may have misunderestimated my fitness, as our mountain-biking former president liked to say. I think I’ll soon try the round trip.
Plus, I got into my first shouting match with a motorist who blocked my way the other day. That has to count for something.