I’ve had a long history with bikes. Going back to before I could remember, where the evidence is a photo of me scooting around my parents’ kitchen as a toddler on my baby tricycle. Then there was my first real bike, a gift for my 5th birthday (I think). I have recollections of a bubblegum pink frame and training wheels and being pushed up and down the long driveway in the front of the house, learning how to pedal and steer.
Obstacle evasion came next. I spent my early years in Pennsylvania farm country. My childhood home boasted a small apple orchard planted on a sloping side of the property. I distinctly remember my mother taking me and my bike to the top of this slope and giving me a firm push. I hurtled across the grass through the apple trees, learning how to move between them and – equally important – how to stop before hitting the thick wall of pines beyond.
Years later, I asked my mother (a retired teacher) why she used such unorthodox instruction methods on a kindergartener. In hindsight, the training tactics can look a bit extreme.
“I wanted you to learn,” she shrugged.
Learn I did. Not just basic bicycling techniques, but how not to be too afraid. This would go on to serve me well. For example, when I was 10 years old and hit a raised sewer cover, flipped over my handlebars, and skidded across the dirt and gravel of the road, taking off patches of skin from my right knee to ankle. I got up, dusted off, and walked to the friend’s house that had been my destination. Her mom hosed off my leg and maybe dabbed on some peroxide and sent me on my way. I continued on with my plans to play with my friends. To this day, traces of the scars are still visible.
As I got older, I upped my bicycle game, slowly progressing to nicer, newer, more specialized bikes. From the hand-me-down I was riding at the time of my handlebar somersault to an aqua Huffy (my first bike with gears), then a Bianchi Bobcat (my first legit mountain bike, purchased with money from my first on-the-books job.) And finally, a lipstick red Trek road bike, sleek, light, and beautiful. Built for speed.
I also biked in more exotic locales than the Pennsylvania countryside. I rode beside monuments in Washington D.C., evading drivers, pedestrians, and fellow cyclists. On Bainbridge Island near Seattle, I pedaled on roads that paralleled salmon streams and woods. I dabbled with e-bikes in Southern France, pushing up through winding hills among vineyards.
So I’ve biked around. But nothing could quite prepare me for the adventure of urban biking in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the city of rivers. The city of bridges. The city of steel.
The summer of 2023 ushered in a series of biking adventures which rolled to an escalating crescendo on September 16th.
The plan: Cover nearly 40 miles. Stop for lunch and a couple beers. Finish before dark.
The morning arrived and with it, some trepidation. It was the longest ride I’d attempted to date. I don’t know if I felt better or worse after a member of the group produced a bottle of homebrewed Lithuanian honey liqueur. It wasn’t even close to noon but I did a shot like everyone else. Thus fortified, we were on our way.
The ride started with gliding under the late morning shadows on a flat stretch along the river. We pedaled our way down to Point State Park, where we stopped for photographs in front of the fountain. Then we made our way across the river, eventually stopping at our first brewery and lunch at one of Pittsburgh’s most famous, most no-frills delis, Peppi’s.
As the day progressed, we visited a few more breweries, sent texts to friends who’d opted out of the adventure, and wound our way through the varied neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Seeing places at street level, without the insulating walls of a car and going at a speed where it’s possible to notice details, is a wonderfully connective way to travel. You’re not going through a city. You’re being in it.
Gradually we reached Highland Park. We climbed the steps to the reservoir, basking in the afternoon sunlight. Snapped a few more pictures. Congratulated ourselves on time well spent.
The afternoon was easing into evening when we made a last stop before our final ascent. Cait, who’d been a veritable sunbeam throughout the ride (and whose presence, we later determined, had provided a sort of talisman), left to attend a family obligation. In a twist that was truly Pittsburgh, the biggest hill came at the end. There was an impromptu decision for a final round – at this point, I opted for a non-alcoholic sparkling blackberry seltzer – and then we rolled out to face our last climb.
Two things happened almost immediately. First, as I was rounding a turn, I noticed that both my front and back tires felt unmistakably flat. Secondly, no sooner had the realization formed in my mind than the bike tipped, I fell, and both my bike and I skidded across the pavement.
After the momentary shock, I got up to assess the damage. My legs had various cuts and bruises, but what looked to be in far worse shape was my bike. My beloved red Trek lay in a mangled heap. Not only were both of my tires damaged, but my left handlebar had been bent backwards and my right pedal dangled helplessly. The chain had been detached from the derailer. I could walk, but my bike was unrideable.
In the commotion, John, the rider following me, had run over my downed bike, landing both himself and his bike on the ground. Fortunately, neither was injured. But our ride was over. There was only one thing left to do: walk to the end.
So we did, nearly a mile to the top of the last hill, my bike gallantly carried by my boyfriend Peter as I pushed his on the sidewalk. We stopped at the city park at the hill’s crest, taking in the Pittsburgh skyline spread out beneath us. We posed for a final victorious picture. I dabbed at my bloody knee with paper towels offered by strangers.
It wasn’t the way I’d expected the day to end. But the beauty of that September Saturday was that there really hadn’t been any expectations. The day would unfold as fate willed. (That’s not to say there wasn’t a plan. Peter had meticulously figured out the route and itinerary and had even done a test ride in advance.) But what would happen in those golden hours was anyone’s guess.
What happened was this: Seeing new things. Laughing. Being in a space of possibility. Being in a space for adventure. Being, in a sense, a kid again. No agenda, no responsibilities, just needing to get home before dark.
Amazingly, my bike was able to be fully repaired. She is better than new, with sturdy hardcase tires and a black-and-red handlebar wrap that looks sleek. And we are already planning the next adventure.