7 things I’ve learned from riding my bike

Bicycle in a park

Out & Healthy

Keep my mouth closed. 

New Jersey road sign
Always bicycle safely on New Jersey roads

Bugs fly into it. And because of our combined velocities, they usually end up slamming into the back of my throat, causing me to choke. If not, then they end up smeared onto my front teeth, like on the grill of a car, or maybe the windshield. And there are no wipers to clear them off.

Wear a helmet.

It only took falling off my bike once to convince me to start wearing a helmet. That was in 1992. I was two miles from home, wearing no helmet. I hit a pothole on Highway 79 in Freehold, mangled the front wheel, and fell into the road. Luckily, no car was coming behind me as my head was lying in the middle of the road. I picked up my scraped and bruised body, hoisted up the lame bike onto my shoulder, and limped the two miles home. I always wear a helmet now.

Wear a cap under the helmet. 

I have no hair on my head. And my scalp sweats. Bugs like sweat. Helmets have long air holes in them. One day recently I was riding into Cheesequake Park, just passing the toll both (they don’t charge bicycles to enter), when I felt a bug between my helmet and my scalp. I could feel it starting to bite me, so, still in motion; I unhooked the helmet, held it and the handlebars with one hand, and with the other hand, brushed off the bug, which by now was in full sting. It hurt. It hurt like hell. I stopped along the road, still brushing my pained scalp, feeling for a stinger, and for swelling. I checked my breathing to see if I was having any kind of allergic reaction. My ego bruised this time, I checked the inside of the helmet for ornery insects, put it back on, and rode the three miles home. I went inside to check for significant damage. Finding none, I went back outside, got on the bike, and rode another 12 miles, my scalp still smarting. Soon after I got home, I went online to order a biking cap.

Ride defensively. 

Drivers in New Jersey are not usually nice. It seems they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of road travel in a car, let alone on a bike. They don’t seem to grasp that I need more space on the road than the width of my bicycle tire. So, I ride as if any driver could potentially not see me. And I brace myself for the inevitable honk. My question is, “What good does it do to wait to honk until you’re right alongside me, scaring me after it’s too late to warn me? Or do you want me to fall over?” Oh, and I watch out for potholes. They are everywhere. It’s fun to look at pretty things as I ride, but if I broadside a pothole with full body weight, it won’t be pretty. If I get a flat tire, and I’m a ways from home, I can’t always count on calling someone to pick up me and my bike, or on the kindness of strangers who happen to take pity on me from their pickup trucks. I should learn to change an inner tube, and carry an extra one along on my ride. I already know how to put the chain back on the sprocket. It will fall off. My hands will get greasy.

Litter offends me. 

As I ride on the suburban and semi-rural New Jersey roads, strewn among the grass, wildflowers, and neatly trimmed yards, are newcomers to the usual discarded cigarette butts and cartons, snack wrappers, and beer cans. These recent additions are used facemasks and latex gloves, and little plastic liquor bottles like you get on a plane. They are everywhere. I don’t understand how someone could take so much care to protect themselves, and then toss garbage out a car window, endangering others, and destroying the beauty of the roadside. And, do people need plastic flaskets they can toss out the window so they don’t get caught drinking and driving?

Steven Russell on a bicycle
Steven Russell on a bicycle on a scenic New Jersey road

There’s a lot more sensory awareness on a bike.  

I see a lot. I feel a lot. I smell a lot. New Jersey is gorgeous. I live in a great area. I’m seeing a lot more of it now. There are so many trees! And all sorts of plants, some with flowers, some with beautiful smells. People like to cook. There are some really nice houses of lots of different types. Some people put a lot of effort into their yards. There are a lot of fascinating people out and about. Some of them say hello back to me. A few even say it first. There’s a public basketball court in the center of Matawan. On Saturday and Sunday morning a big group of guys play there speaking Spanish. I love it. I try to ride past every weekend. I would love to stop and watch. Not because half of them are shirtless. No, really. It’s not.

Don’t worry about how I look. 

I’m very exposed on a bicycle. People see me. I run into people I know. People tell me days later that they saw me from their car. (At least they didn’t honk.) Most of us don’t look great in Spandex. Nor in a helmet. And we sweat. The other day a woman honked at me. Oh, it was a good honk. Her window was down. Her arm hung on the sill. She was looking at me as she came toward me, and smiled as she made a staccato toot. At 60 I take that as a big compliment. I’ll take any compliments as they come.