Sunday, July 28, 2013


Bikes were not seen as a mode of transportation in my previous life as a resident of suburban America. They were children's toys. I received my first bike for Christmas when I was four. It was green and white and had a flowered basket in front, a Big Bird bell, and training wheels that came off the summer I had my tonsils out. I hung streamers from the handlebars and attached multi-coloured plastic bulbs to the spokes of the tires, which tinkled when I went slowly and spun around in a whirl of colour when I went fast.

We hauled our bikes out every spring when most of the ice had melted off the pavement, and cycled up and down the sidewalk and around the block all summer long. As we grew older, we were allowed to take our bikes on short trips to friends' houses or the tennis courts, or to cycle over to the grocery store and return the used bottles and cans. The latter we typically avoided despite the payoff (we were allowed to pocket the change), because it involved riding up Colvin with bags of beer cans hanging off your handlebars and ohmygod no. Just no.

The summers I was home from university, I liked taking long bike rides around town. Mostly I stuck to the parks and quiet streets until I was far enough away from home that I could be fairly sure I wouldn't pass anyone I knew. Otherwise, I'd have somebody running up to me later, exclaiming, "I saw you out on your bike! Where were you going?" I would have to explain that I wasn't going anywhere; I was admiring the view of the lake from the Albright Knox, shopping for houses on Nottingham Terrace, and racing up and down the hills in Forrest Lawn Cemetery. And that would be embarrassing, because people in our town didn't do that sort of thing. Taking your bike to the footpath by Old Man River's was acceptable; taking it out for a wander about town was weird. Riding a couple miles to the drug store could get you neighbours pulling over to ask if you needed a ride.

Things are different here in Vienna. I thought the city was amazingly bike-friendly when I arrived. There were bike paths everywhere I looked. Now that summer's here, I often find myself waiting at a stoplight with a dozen or more other cyclists.

"Bike-friendly", though? That might be taking it a bit far. Most days, I get dirty looks from pedestrians. People shout at me. A couple weeks ago, I had a man stop right in front of me, blocking my way, and tell me off for biking along what he considered to be a pedestrian-only street. Another time a guy tried to shove me into a wall as I rode past.

People here have a hard time deciding whether bikes are vehicles, it seems to me. They don't want you on the sidewalk, that's for sure. Ride on the sidewalk and you're guaranteed to have old ladies waving their canes and hexing you in angry German. But they see nothing wrong with wandering into a clearly-marked bike path. I have spent some time puzzling over why so many of them choose to leave the pedestrian path and stand directly in front of you when you're waiting on your bike at a intersection. Given the choice between waiting on the sidewalk for the light to change and going into the street to stand and wait in front of a car, they universally choose the sidewalk. So why come and stand in front of my bike when there is a nice empty footpath not two feet away?

I'm learning, though. I'm learning to anticipate who is likely to stray into the bike path (a newborn in arms is no guarantee they won't), to avoid the streets with a high pedestrian-to-cyclist ratio, and to duck when old ladies chuck hexes my way. I've even figured out how to switch gears. I have yet to shout obscenities at either a pedestrian or another cyclist, though. Every time I witness an instance of cyclist-roadrage, I am reminded: I will always be a foreigner in this world of biking.

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