What do you remember about first learning to ride a bicycle? How old were you when you learned to balance on those two narrow wheels? Whose hand was on your back, steadying you, then finally releasing you with a gentle–yet slightly scary–push? Who cheered you on as you wobbled away, then ran to kiss your hurts when you inevitably toppled over? Do you remember the feeling of speed and freedom when you knew you had the hang of it? Did you have a favorite destination in those early days of cycling? And finally, do you still ride, or did you store your bicycle away to gather dust as soon as you received your driver’s license? Or maybe, like me, you still ride today? 

I love cycling, and have never stopped enjoying the experience of using my own muscle power to travel to the sounds of churning pedals, a zipping chain, and whirring wheels as I explore new routes or just cruise around Salina on the very familiar levee. I could include a paragraph or three here about the many physical and mental health benefits of cycling, but deep down, most of us are already aware of those. Instead, let’s just spend a day on a bike together, shall we?

My days typically start with a morning commute. Depending on the time of year and day of the week, I might be riding to teach classes at KWU, or to a part-time job at either the Salina Emergency Food Bank or the Salina Public Library. On many days, I’ll actually commute to two different jobs. I’m fortunate to live within two miles of all three jobs, which makes riding an excellent commuting option most of the year. I can cover up to ten miles simply on commutes, at least if I opt to take the long way home.

When I get up in the morning, I immediately check the weather and the forecast for the remainder of the day. Will it be a good riding day? We all know how unpredictable Kansas weather can be, particularly in spring and autumn, when temperatures might vary drastically over just a few hours. I once biked to the library on a nice morning in late spring, only to find a surprise snowfall covering my bike by closing time! (I wimped out and called a friend for a ride that day, mainly because of the slushy, dangerous streets.) If the forecast looks promising, I choose clothing that should be comfortable for my short commutes, yet still appropriate for my job. 

Before I start rolling, I make sure I have strapped the right leg of my pants so it doesn’t get caught in the chain. I’ve had that happen, and it’s hard on pant legs! I also double-check that I have my bike lock with me so I don’t have to worry about my ride disappearing while I’m at work. I load up my backpack or panniers, depending on which bike I’m riding, and head out. I also clip my phone into a handlebar holder and start Strava to track my mileage and ride time; I don’t ride fast on my commutes, but I like having a record of my rides, short and long. If I check “Commute” for the type of ride, Strava will actually give me an estimate of the CO2 I saved by riding! 

One of the aspects I most enjoy about riding is seeing downtown Salina or various neighborhoods at just 8-12 miles an hour, and at different times of day. I daresay I am more familiar with Santa Fe and the adjacent streets and alleys than many people who work there every day. I see murals in the making, notice new store openings, and just take in the sights and sounds of a city waking up, or winding down. It’s as if Salina shows me a different face on each ride. 

Of course, I can’t spend my entire ride rubbernecking at the view. Keeping my head on a swivel is key to arriving safely at work. At every intersection, whenever a vehicle comes up beside or behind me, or at any place the road surface might cause a fall, I’m looking ahead for possible detours or dangers. Normally, I leave early enough that I can stop to take a couple of pictures if anything new catches my eye. Finding a new photo op is always a highlight! When I get to work, I stop Strava, lock my bike, unstrap my pants leg, and prepare to start the work day. To tell the truth, my daily commutes can become routine if I let them, so I like to vary my routes when I can. I just like knowing that my car isn’t costing me gas money for such short commutes, too. 

For me, the best rides happen when I’m finished with work, though. On a long late summer day, I’ll zip home, change clothes, and head out for 20-30 miles around Salina. I love the levee for being so accessible and free of cars; in fact, I wish it were two or three times longer than it is!

The ever-present Kansas wind helps me choose a starting point for my longer rides. (Always begin riding into the wind, so you’ll enjoy a helpful boost as you wrap up your trip!) I usually start at either the northwest or southeast end of the levee. A south wind means I’ll hit the levee’s southeast end near Schilling and Ohio. Although the four miles from home against the wind to get there may not be much fun, once I’m up on the path, where the breeze is at my back, there’s no better feeling! Northerly breezes mean a ride across town to where the levee meets North Street, over by the stockyards. The first couple of miles pedaling north and west to Thomas Park can be a challenge, but then I turn southeast, and whee!! I’m on my way with a wonderful tailwind!

Although the levee is never far from the city, riders can experience nature in ways impossible from a car. I’ve seen many deer, several skunks, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, and foxes up close on my rides–and one time I stopped for a brief chat with a very aggressive and angry bullsnake soaking up the sun in the middle of the trail. The snake wasn’t about to move, all coiled up and hissing to imitate a rattlesnake. I took a couple of photos and a video with my cell phone, then headed on my way, excited by the encounter. I’ve also actually had to come to a complete stop to allow some skittish, unpredictable deer a chance to make up their minds about whether to cross the levee or head back down toward the river. It’s as if they are as curious about me as I am interested in them. 

My favorite encounters, however, are with the birds. Large black crows and ravens perch at the tops of dead trees, cawing noisily. Loud scolds (yes, that’s the word) of blue jays zip overhead, and the careful observer can catch sight of red flashes of cardinals, and even occasional black and orange orioles. At dawn or dusk, I might hear a hidden barred owl, and Vs of geese against the setting sun are reminders of the changing seasons. Robins, red-winged blackbirds, and mourning doves always provide musical accompaniment for summer rides. Nature is a balm for everyone’s soul, and birds in particular bring me joy.

At 61 years old, I am never trying to set speed records on my rides, though sometimes I do try to push myself for a no-impact cardio workout. If I really want to boost my heart rate, I can always chug slowly up Indian Rock! I enjoy greeting my fellow exercisers, sometimes even stopping to say hi to a friendly dog or two. I’m not even opposed to carrying on a brief conversation on the path, either, making human connections so rare in today’s online world.

When I finally turn into my driveway, hot and sweaty or chilled and shivering, I can look back on another ride with lungs full of fresh air and my heart full of the unique experiences every ride brings. 

Here are a couple of additional notes for your information. Salina Bicycle Advocacy Group has a presence on Facebook. If you are interested in meeting other riders and learning about cycling opportunities and plans in Salina, check it out, and maybe even attend one of our meetings.

Salina Public Library has a few books on bicycling. Nick Legan’s Gravel Cycling is an informative introduction to a very popular type of riding. The Recumbent Bicycle, by Gunnar Fehlau, will help you pick out and ride a recumbent bike. I like history, so Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good appealed to me with its history of bicycles and its overview of cycling around the world. Tim Moore wrote Gironimo! about his attempt to recreate the “very terrible” 1914 Tour of Italy using clothing, equipment, and a specially-made bicycle as much like riders over 100 years ago would have used. In 1914, 81 riders started the race . . . and only 8 finished. One even lost an eye during the race! Finally, Eben Weiss, aka “The Bicycle Snob,” has written some very entertaining and informative books; SPL has The Ultimate Bicycle Owner’s Manual for you to check out. 

I hope I’ve inspired you to dust off your old bicycle, air up the tires, and hit the road…or the levee. I’ll be sure to wave when I see you pedaling around Salina one of these days!