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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  11/1/2003

On the Commuter Road Again

Oh my gawd! It's 6:55 am and it's 38 degrees out here. What on earth am I doing on a mule of a bike hauling 20+ pounds of books, clothes and lunch?

I've gone back to school and I'm getting there on my bike at least two days a week.

Last summer, when I was accepted to Foothill Community College's Pharmacy Technician program, I was determined to ride to my classes.

Now don't you savvy Silicon Valley folks get the idea that I'm hauling all that weight up the hill to the main Foothill College campus. All the Pharm Tech classes are held at Foothill's Middlefield Campus in south Palo Alto. From my house in Cupertino it's a fairly flat ride.

Besides being located on the flats, the PhT program has one more feature that makes it ideal for winter commuting. Classes run from 8:00 am until no later than 2:00 pm. So unlike my 9-to-5 workaday counterparts, I can ride home in broad daylight.

Charting the course

I got started planning my commute in August, when I first checked out the facilities. The place was once a high school but it now houses a City of Palo Alto community center. My question was: Would it support commuting cyclists?

First strong point: The sheltered bike racks right outside the Foothill office showed signs of frequent use.

When I found the community center offices, I got the lowdown on the showers. They're in the lady's locker room at the gym, which opens at 7:00 am. Great! What about lockers?

Oops! Sorry. All the lockers once used by Cubberly High School were ripped out years ago. Where was I going to stash my sopping bike clothes and towel? So I called the program director and asked for a corner in the classroom. No problem, she said. But, "what will you do when it rains?" she asked. (My answer: I'll drive.)

Next up: Sprucing up the mule. My vintage 1988 Cannondale touring bike needed new cables and a new chain. It hurt a lot just to sit on the old Avocet gel mountain saddle that had been there for more than a decade. A new seat, combined with new handlebars and brake handles, gave me the most comfortable position I've ever had on this bike. I added a red blinky tail light and I was ready to roll.

Now all I needed was a good route. There were three possibilities. I ruled out one for too many traffic lights and another for too many turns. That left a straight shot down Foothill Expressway to Arastradero Road, over the railroad tracks to Charleston Road and on to the community center at Middlefield Road.

A test ride accumulated 11.8 miles on my odometer, but I'd entered the parking lot the way a car would. A few turns around the playing fields behind the complex revealed a "back-door" bike-pedestrian entrance. By turning in there I can avoid busy Middlefield altogether. Best of all, it took me less than an hour to do. Fifty-two minutes, to be exact.

Still, I found I needed more than 10 minutes (usually 15) to shower, change and spruce up. That meant I had to be out of the house by 6:50 in order to get to class on time. That worked for about three weeks. But by the end of October it was just too dark to see the road before about 7:10.

I can hear you die-hard winter commuters now. Yes, I know there are good lighting systems out there. And they're terrific at making me visible to drivers. But I've yet to find one that let's me see what's lying in the road in front of me. So I'll pass on riding in the dark, thank you.

All I needed was one week off the bike before the clocks fell back and we returned to Standard Time. The extra hour gave me plenty of light early in the morning and I was back on the commute road again.

A love-hate relationship

So what's so great about commuting? Believe me, there are plenty of good reasons to get out there.

First of all, I love my morning ride north. Except for a couple of overpasses and an underpass, I'm mostly losing altitude. In fact, once I hit downtown Los Altos it's downhill all the way. With just four turns the whole way -- all of them right turns except one.

Believe it or not, there's precious little traffic before 8:00. The drivers who are out there, however, are downright polite to us few cyclists. They actually wait at intersections. They merge cautiously behind me to make right turns. Some of them even smile at me!

That's the love side. Then there are the less than lovely aspects:

If I'm running a few minutes late, there's this bus I have to deal with between El Camino Real and Middlefield. The other day the driver came so close to me he grazed my panniers. Talk about terror! I reported the guy to VTA and they were extremely cooperative about getting the facts and giving him a bit of a talking-to.

Then there are the schools. Three of them in the last two miles. Frazzled parents in a big hurry to drop off their kids -- often right in front of me in the bike lane. Crossing guards pushing buttons for every crosswalk in an intersection. Kids running, skating, biking and boarding helter skelter. Schools freak me out.

And the weather. First we had blistering heat and I rode to school in shorts. Then we had a bit of chilliness. Then we had the record-breaking heat wave of late October -- searing sun before 8:00 am. Now it's cold and often damp in the morning, and sometimes barely tolerable even in the afternoon.

That's the worst part -- the ride home in the afternoon. After five to six hours of intensive classes, I'm pretty tired. I'm still hauling all that weight (minus my lunch, which is now in my stomach).

All the altitude I lost on the way out (meager though it was), I now have to regain on the way home. Instead of easy right turns I now have some tricky left turns to execute. The worst of those left turns is in Palo Alto, a "bicycle-friendly community" Yeah, right. Whoever designed the intersection(s) at Arastradero and Foothill had it in for bicyclists.

But when I draw up my commuting balance sheet, the bottom line is still way over on the positive side. I'm getting terrific exercise hauling all that weight around. I arrive in class in a great mood. I'm saving gas along with wear and tear on my poor old hatchback.

How about you? Are you on the commute road? If so, glad to have you along. If not, why not get started as soon as the light comes back? The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Ken Kifer have some good tips for getting started.

Now that I'm a full-time student, I'm finding myself overwhelmed with homework and exams. Unfortunately, I need to cut back on a few other things, like writing this column every month. Starting in January (February, actually), you can read a new installment every other month. By next summer I hope I can get back to once a month. Thanks for understanding. And keep pedaling.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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