Leaving home yesterday morning, I wheeled my Raleigh three-speed into a snowslide at the corner of Van Ness and 45th NW. The fierceness of the storm was unignorable, but not, I announced to a billion flakes, unbeatable.
Bicycling in the snow is part self-respect, part self-preservation. A few years ago I gave away my car, happy to be free of the rattles and the repair bills to fix them. So what should I do when a snow comes and the heat is on? Call a cab? Borrow my wife's car? I do not believe in abandoning ships, causes or bicycles.
My daily commute is five miles in and five miles out, most of the distance along Massachusetts Avenue. In good weather, self-preservation means that the enjoyment of the ride preserves much of what the self needs: contact with nature along the bike path, friendly hellos to walkers. Some people like atmosphere in restaurants. I like it in nature. I like it better when nature is at her blowziest.
In my first mile, Washington lay paralytically still. At the bus stop at the Massachusetts Avenue entrance to American University, some unlucky souls were putting their hopes in Metro. A spillover crowd, as lifeless as a snow fence, was already there. Apparently no bus had come in 20 minutes. But one came now. It was an express bus and did not stop. On the other side, like water torture in crystallized form, two other buses appeared. Both had "Not In Service" signs.
Through swirling snow, I passed the bus-waiters on both sides of the avenue. I silently wished them well and hoped that they made it to work in at least two hours.
The cars on Massachusetts Avenue were as slow as tanks. This was a fit moment to be a roving reporter, because the immobility of traffic made even a slow rove feel fast.
It increased safety, as well. A heavy snow, I have learned, is the only force that calms taxi drivers, the menaces of cyclists. They give up on the hope that they can make time, which is an illusion on the sunniest of days. But now, forced by Mother Nature to obey Father Time, they are far less the roadway threat.
Traffic was single lane for much of the way in, which gave us bicyclists the fair share of the road that should be ours all of the time.
The ethical issue of bicyling in snowstorms--this was about my fifth on two wheels, so I am drawing on stored as well as fresh data--is whether to stop and help push out the motorists whose vehicles skid into snowbanks. I look at their wheels spinning all that useless horsepower. The stuck cars seem to me to be like essays by Norman Mailer: going nowhere fast, but making impressive sounds.
My rule for helping motorists is to stop only for little old ladies in snowshoes. I saw none yesterday, luckily for them and for me.
In Dupont Circle, a car was abandoned in mid-curve with its hood up. A pair of skiers slid through the circle where six months from now, in the heat of July, bongo drummers will be in charge.
Snowstorms in Washington are like 3-D movies: they are mostly in the eyes. Much of the drama is concocted. We act as though going to a corner shop involves traversing a tundra.
On a bicycle, with wheels cutting through snow like candor through guff, the pleasures of travel are pure. All of the senses are alert. There is no hurry, because what is to be hurried through? A heavy snow is a treasure of beauty.
Too much of Washington, a city of copying machines, seems to view these storms as photostats of chaos. Exceptions, of course, exist. Biking past the Brookings Institution, I saw another cyclist. We exchanged waves, like the kings we momentarily were on the slippery road.
He was a messenger service rider, carrying memos between great minds in warm offices. Whatever the messages he bore, my fellow cyclist seemed to be enjoying the white upheaval as much as I. Unless you pedal through it, you do not get much out of it.