While sitting at the Table Mesa bus stop in Boulder, Colorado waiting for a bus to the Denver Airport, I was amazed and delighted at the number and variety of cyclists participating in Colorado Bike to Work Day on June 22nd. From the serious weekend road bikers wearing tight spandex and cycling jerseys advertising rides from bye-gone eras before their protruding beer bellies stretched the shirt to it’s limits, to the one-time wanna-be-a-good-sport type riders wearing gauzy, white linen pants, and light cotton blouses, with their helmut strapped to their designer leather laptop totes rather than placed on their heads, the participants I saw seemed to be enjoying their morning commute.
I was wondering if the regular cycle commuters pour themselves an extra dose of patience with today’s morning coffee knowing they must be prepared to circumnavigate the challenges of inexperienced cyclists. Things like stopping mid-trail to answer a text, riding in a slow group making it impossible to pass, weaving back and forth like a snake, using the wrong gears, stopping in the middle of the path with the bike perpendicular to the trail to snap a selfie with the mountains in the background can be annoying and dangerous to the speedy every day cycle commuters on auto-pilot. I was also hoping that many of the regular commuters would be welcoming, helpful and friendly to the one-time riders.
I was wondering if the one-time Bike to Work participants had a fitful sleep last night worrying about their route, getting to work on time, solving mechanical problems, getting lost, or feeling sweaty all day.
I was remembering all the times and places I’ve cycled to work BEFORE it was an “event”. In the late 70s and early 80s I always cycled to work. In summers, I cycled to the pool where I was a lifeguard. During my college days at the University of Colorado, I cycled everywhere. Boulder was, in fact, a bit of a leader in developing cycling paths and promoting the cycling culture in Colorado. The fact that it was so easy to ride everywhere and cycling was so common probably impacted my love of cycling more than I’d realized until watching this morning’s commute.
Marriage, having children and working at jobs in cities with no cycling infrastructure or jobs too far from home put cycling to work on hold for the next 18 years. Interestingly enough, my cycling to work was resurrected in the most unlikely of places – Turkey.
My first year teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) was in eastern Turkey in a town called Malatya. After 4 months of being confined to the inflexibility of the daily, school-provided van transport for all teachers that arrived and departed at the same time as the students, I was motivated to find a more freedom-producing and flexible solution. I knew that riding my bicycle would actually be faster than riding in the hot, crowded, noisy van that zigzagged and bounced through town for an hour each way.
Before attempting my first Malatya Ride to Work Day, I had to overcome several obstacles. I had to notify the van driver who spoke no English that I would not be at the bus stop. I solved this problem by texting a Turkish teacher who could explain to the driver than I wouldn’t not be on the van. (I did NOT tell her I would be riding my bicycle because that would be met with all kinds of “nos”) Next, I had to find a route. The roads in Malatya are notoriously dangerous. Traffic signals are suggestions but not often followed. Having been threatened buy a local man that I would be the, “First and last woman to ride a bike in Turkey” meant that I needed to disguise my femininity. Choosing less busy farm roads and donkey paths took me away from the danger of high-speed traffic, but put me more in the path of conservative men not happy to see a woman on a bike.
I chose to wear nondescript black pants, a black Adidas hoodie, dark glasses, gloves, and a helmut to protect myself from the stares of unwelcoming men. I chose slightly busier roads with more people and less chance for cat-calls and angry stares. Finally, I planned enough time to arrive at school before the other teachers, find a place to lock my bicycle, use an isolated bathroom to change into my professional attire and heels, and re-enter the school building at the same time as the teachers and students. I was very self-conscious about cycling and my solution was to leave no evidence of my transportation choice.
Cycling in Malatya became the highlight of my life there. While cycling each day, a farm girl whose job it was to walk the family cow up and down hills each day to find small patches of grass and clover for the cow to eat, waved to me and ran along beside me beating her cow with a stick and shouting a joyful “Merhaha” (hello). After several weeks of running beside me, she invited me to her family’s mud home for tea, coffee and cheese from their cow. The house was a primitive mud hut, the floors covered with Turkish carpets, the chipped coffee cup filled with steaming Turkish coffee a symbol of hospitality. Within minutes the tiny room was crowded with neighbors, family and friends who had popped in to stare at this strange lady with a bicycle. Someone produced an ancient flip-phone and started taking photos which gave me the go-ahead to snap a few of my own.
My cycling to work in Malatya was an inspiration to one of my colleagues and her mother who lived in an apartment overlooking my route. Each morning and afternoon unbeknownst to me, this mother would watch me from her fourth story apartment window. After several weeks her daughter Zeynep told me her mom wanted me to come for Turkish coffee and delicious homemade snacks. Through her daughter’s translations, the mom communicated how much she admired the freedom my bicycle represented and wished she could do the same.
My cycling to work in Malatya was also an invitation for several miscreant male students to puncture my tires and laugh at my face anger and dismay. Because this was a gated and locked school campus I could NOT accept the headmaster’s suggestion that some vagabonds had caused the damage. In order to save face of the school, I did not name the culprits but I did gratefully accept a car ride to a bicycle shop and school-paid repairs to the bicycle.
The following year I took a job in Izmir, Turkey on the Aegean Sea. I chose Izmir over Istanbul because of the better cycling environment. During a week of van rides to teacher orientation, I scouted a safe route to work, delighted to discover a cycle path most of the way. On my first weekend off, I cycled the16 kilometers from my neighborhood in Mavesehir to Cigli, the location of the school. I carried several spare tubes and lots patches because the ride was very remote and the quality of tubes substandard.
On my first Izmir Ride to Work day, I left extra early so I would have time to change a flat, if needed, and still arrive before the school vans. Even after a year of living in Turkey, I was still very self-conscious about cycling and leaving the “group mentality” of the van. I arrived very early to school with no problems, locked my bike near the shelter for motorcycles and walked to the school gate. Because I had not arrived with a large pack of teachers, it took some convincing of the guards to let me in.
After the school day ended and the the last bell rang, I walked to the girl’s bathroom to change. I carefully rolled up my white teacher’s lab coat so it wouldn’t wrinkle and stuffed it into my purple backpack. I changed back into my cycling still damp cycling attire, waited until most of the students and teachers had left campus, exited the school gates and retrieved my bicycle.
I cycled the 32 kilometers (18 miles) roundtrip for most of the school year in Izmir. I cycled through large downpours, was chased daily by a pack of wild dogs, admired the graceful flamingos standing on one leg, and grinned at daily walkers along the path. I cycled almost every weekend to beautiful places.
As the year progressed, I become more bold with my cycling and less concerned about hiding my mode of transport. I quit starching and ironing my white lab coats because they wrinkled as soon as I put them in my backpack anyway. I left home later often arriving at the same time as the school vans.
During the rainy season – November to February – I had my share of flat tires. There is something about the heavy rain that floats the slivers of glass, pieces of steel belts, or rusty nails to the trail surface. Luckily the flats always happened on my way home from school.
By May, many students had noticed a solo cyclist riding the bike path each day and asked if it was me. They thought my cycling looked fun and began to wonder if they could do it. One male teenager even asked if he could ride with me. Because the school did not allow students to cycle to school, I told the 16 year old, we couldn’t make it an “official” ride together but there was nothing stopping his parents from allowing him to ride and the two of us just happening to see each other on the path. One glorious early June morning I had the pleasure of witnessing his pride, satisfaction and glory at having completed his first ride along the Aegean Sea, through the wetlands filled with pink flamingos blue herons, and through the pine forest close to school.
Although I was unable to participate in this year’s Bike to Work Day, I do believe that my commitment to cycling to work in Turkey, made a small impact on the cycling culture there. From the Turkish women who saw my cycling as a symbol of freedom to the students at my school who saw the cycling as a beautiful, healthy mode of transportation. Cycling was, and continues to be, my favorite way to commute.Colo