Op/Ed

Faith Gong: The family that bikes together

Our family’s pandemic coping strategies have failed to follow national – or even logical – trends. We were already living in Vermont, homeschooling, gardening, and keeping chickens when COVID-19 hit, so we had many of the boxes checked already. In fact, the pandemic prompted us to send several of our children back to school, because of the crushing social isolation of homeschooling during COVID. Sure, we did some mainstream things like buying a large inflatable pool for our yard, walking our driveway obsessively, online yoga videos, and binge-watching The Mandalorian, but I may have been the only person in the world who stopped baking sourdough in response to COVID: It took a pandemic to make me emancipate myself from my starter.

One pandemic-related trend was dubbed: “The Great Bicycle Boom of 2020.” When it became clear that COVID-19 would be sticking around for a while, bicycle ridership and sales increased dramatically. For reasons of both recreation and safety — riding bikes was perceived as safer than riding public transportation — people scrambled for bicycles, leading to supply-chain shortages.

On one of our mid-pandemic daily driveway walks, I floated the idea of upping our bicycle game to my husband. Our four daughters, who love riding their bikes, barreled past us, riding back and forth along the quarter-mile stretch. The issue was that neither my husband nor I had a bicycle — having had two stolen during our years living in the San Francisco Bay Area — nor did we have any way to transport our toddler.

“Maybe we should look into getting ourselves some bikes and a trailer so we could all ride together somewhere other than the driveway,” I suggested.

My husband hemmed and hawed and furrowed his brow. If you’ve read this column for any length of time, then you know that my husband takes safety very seriously. He is all about goggles, helmets, sunscreen, and KN-95 masks. Back in January 2020, when he sensed a pandemic heading our way, he stocked our basement with canned goods, medications, batteries, and large plastic jugs so that we could lug water up from the stream if need be. (He later admitted, “I may have prepared for the wrong emergency with the water jugs.”) He drives the speed limit, which most people fail to do on the shoulder-less road off of which we live. The idea of our family of seven people riding bicycles along that road was a deal-breaker for him.

Imagine my surprise, then, when on yet another driveway walk last month my husband asked, “How would you feel about us all getting bikes?”

I tried to play it cool, but I may have ended up shouting something along the lines of: “Yes! Isn’t that what I suggested a year ago?!?”

Once my husband gets an idea into his head, he displays none of the caution that he brings to issues of safety. In a matter of weeks, he took stock of the bikes our children had already, figured out who needed new bikes, and purchased three repurposed bicycles and a gently used toddler trailer from Little City Cycles in Vergennes. (He also made sure that everyone had a well-fitting helmet, of course).

When I took my new bicycle for a test spin in our driveway, I hadn’t ridden a bike for any length of time in over 20 years. I grew up biking often — helmetless, of course — around paved suburban streets. My last salient biking memory is of the summer I spent at college, when I took my bike with me to campus. One afternoon I hit a curb and fell hard on my tailbone on the pavement. I spent the next week sitting on a bag of frozen peas, and my biking lifestyle fizzled.

It does seem to be true that you never really forget how to ride a bike, but I certainly felt rusty as I took my first turn down the driveway — literally rusty, as if joints and muscles that had gone unused for decades were beginning to creak into motion again at last. But after a couple of laps, during which my husband and several children joined me on their bikes, some of my former confidence had returned. I wouldn’t say I was flying, exactly — I was certainly aware of just where I’d be sore the next day — but everything was a little more fluid.

The real tests were our first whole-family bike outings. We’re just starting to incorporate this new activity, so we haven’t gone far yet: Our first two destinations were Creek Road and South Street Extension, two sparsely traveled dirt roads in our town.

The biggest challenge for our family is leaving our house: My husband loads seven bikes and a trailer into the back of his truck, we gather helmets and water bottles, and we round up all our children — and confirm that they’ve used the bathroom and put on shoes. It takes about two hours. Really.

But both outings were a success if measured by lack of complaining, tears, or injury. All of the cars we’ve encountered thus far have been courteous. My children would likely tell you that Creek Road was the easier terrain because it’s flat, but that we got hit by a large number of tiny black bugs on the day we rode it. South Street Extension had more hills, fewer bugs, and occasional piles of horse poop. Both were lovely, one taking us along the winding banks of Otter Creek, the other carrying us past horse farms and pastures.

The interesting thing about bicycle riding as a family is that it isn’t a particularly social activity. In order to avoid being hit by cars, it’s advisable to travel single file, which makes conversation difficult. This is fine with our 12-year-old, who simply wants to ride faster than anybody else and is usually a speck in the distance by the time the rest of us have gotten started. At various moments along each route one of my other children would decide to pull up alongside me for a chat, and as much as I appreciated their company, I was also continually in danger of being pushed off the road’s shoulder as they wobbled towards me.

So I can’t recommend bicycling for those in search of an activity that will promote meaningful family bonding. But I recommend it wholeheartedly, perhaps for reasons best expressed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Perhaps we’ll see you on the road. (And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!)

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch. 

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