On Bike to Work Day, uphill battle tests endurance for sake of environment

KU Law Communications Coordinator Sarah Shebek on Bike to Work Day, before and after her uphill commute.

The hill stretched ahead of me, taunting me with every painful push of the pedals. A relentless trickle of sweat dripped into my eyes, and I gasped for air as though I was racing through the French Alps. I’d only been on the bike for about 25 minutes, but it felt like I was halfway through a triathlon. And the end still wasn’t in sight.

Ever since I bought my first true hybrid bike last summer, I had entertained the prospect of biking to work. We live only 4 miles away from the university, and most of the route consists of relatively flat, wide stretches of sidewalk that are both bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Although we bike around for fun in the warmer months, I’ve never mustered the time and energy to leave my car behind for the daily commute. That changed last month, when I received an email encouraging me to participate in Bike to Work Day. After a quick check of Weather.com and a quick consult with my supervisor, I made plans to hit the road for the first time the next morning.

That night, I gathered up my old drawstring bag from soccer and filled it with provisions for the day ahead. In a sort of grimly calculating way, I picked out an outfit that would be viable for both work and a workout, before throwing a Dri-Fit shirt into the mix since I sweat buckets during any sort of physical activity. For a moment, I panicked at the thought of leaving behind my beloved coffee thermos, before realizing it could be crammed into the water bottle holder on the bike. Bedtime came early that night, and I planned to make sure I was well-rested for the trials ahead.

I am not a morning person. It takes a lot of effort just for me to roll out of bed at 7:30, and I’m often grouchily stumbling around before rushing out the door. This morning was a little different – I set my alarm a few minutes earlier and managed to get up with a few minutes to spare. After re-checking the contents of my pack, grabbing my coffee, and waving goodbye to my fiancée, I was out the door with the bike. It was a cool, foggy morning, the kind you might expect in San Francisco over Lawrence, and while I normally welcome the sun, I realized that this weather was ideal for biking. Time to hit the road, and I was feeling great! The next 30 minutes or so were interesting, but rather than describe them in great detail, I’ve broken them down into a short play-by-play for your convenience:

7:30: Pedaled out of the driveway. Almost immediately ran into another nontraditional commuter, a small child headed to the nearby elementary school on some sort of crazy skateboard contraption. It looked pretty cool, but I was a bit let down when I realized he was moving nearly as fast as me.

7:32: Uh oh, this isn’t good. I’m already starting to breathe hard, and my legs are beginning to burn. I pride myself in maintaining a relatively decent level of fitness, but I guess “running fitness” and “biking fitness” are two different things.

7:35: I turn onto Inverness to avoid navigating a busy roundabout, pedaling directly past the elementary school. For a brief moment, I’m worried some parent rushing to school might plow into me, but I avoid a herd of SUVs and continue onward.

7:40: I reach the first main intersection at Clinton Parkway. From here it’s about 1.5 miles down to my next turn, which will take me past West Campus and up Constant Avenue onto the main campus. And I am definitely feeling it. The jacket I grabbed to ward off the cool air is already stifling, so I pull it off at the next intersection and stuff it clumsily into my pack.

7:45: I’m struck by the lack of biking commuters on the road or the sidewalk. Isn’t this Bike to Work Day, or something? I’m guessing they all know something I don’t – maybe there’s a secret trail they all take across town. I’m on one of those wide sidewalks, pushing along, and my legs are protesting because it’s one big gradual uphill. For a moment, I wish the coffee thermos in tow could transform to a giant bottle of icy water, but I push that blasphemous thought aside. Now more than ever, I’m thankful for the overcast sky and the misty air around me.

7:47: OK, I’m definitely pouring sweat. That Dri-Fit shirt is coming in handy, but I still feel disgusting. Gotta love that Midwest humidity. Biking up Clinton Parkway is a mixed blessing. The sidewalks are in great condition, and there really aren’t any major hills. However, every 200 yards or so, you run into a major intersection, and I ended up sitting through three or four long traffic lights waiting to commence my commute. For better bikers, this could be a major annoyance, but for me, it was an opportunity to catch my breath and reorient myself. It’s also important to check for turning cars before crossing each intersection, since I don’t feel like getting pancaked to the road today.

7:50: I finally see some fellow biking commuters! Woo hoo! One lady appears to be wearing scrubs, and I’m guessing she’s biking to the hospital down the street. Hard core. I want to give her a nod of acknowledgement as I pass, but by this point, I’m too tired. Maybe I should have had my coffee before the ride, after all.

7:52: Off Clinton Parkway, across another busy intersection, and through West Campus. This is the part of the ride I’ve been dreading the most, since it features a rather steep climb up Constant Avenue and a lack of flatness in general. I’m afraid I’ll have to get off the bike and walk, and that could be a major blow to my pride. But it’s nice to be away from the craziness of the main road, and I can actually hear the birds singing for a minute, which buoys me onward.

7:55: After a relatively non-eventful ride past the School of Pharmacy, it’s time for one final climb. I’m not getting off the bike at this point, and I set my eyes on the top of the hill, glimmering in the distance. I take a few sporadic pedals, stop to let the burning in my legs diminish, and jerkily pedal a bit more. On and off, on and off, up and up and up. I’m hit with visions of jersey-clad bikers racing up the side of an actual mountain, and that both shames and motivates me to push to the top of the hill. After an interminable stretch, I crest the top, just in time for a line of morning commuters to witness the end of my struggle. I look like a hot mess, but I’ve also gotten quite the workout, so I don’t care much.

7:59: I whiz down Irving Hill at a glorious pace, reveling in the breeze and my speed. As I cross the street and pull up by the law school, I’m pleased to see there are two bike racks to choose from, both right next to the building. A co-worker compliments my bike as I lock up, and I resist patting it like it’s a trusty steed or something. My commute is officially over, but the morning has just begun.

Biking to work was definitely more difficult than I thought it would be. Even though I picked a route that was as flat as possible, I still had to make up a good deal of elevation to reach the main campus, and the cumulative effects caught up with me pretty quickly. I have a feeling it would be the same challenge starting from anywhere else in town, since the university sits on such an incline, and perhaps that’s why I don’t see many bikers out for the morning commute.

Despite the challenge, it was nice to finally try a nontraditional form of transportation to work, and I’m glad I could help commemorate Bike to Work Day. It’s also nice to minimize my carbon footprint, even if in such a small way. I’d encourage you to give it a try, and see what you think. Even though it’s not necessarily easy, you’ll be doing your part to protect the environment, saving some gas money, and getting a great cardio workout all at once. Now, where’s my coffee?

— Sarah Shebek is Communications Coordinator at the University of Kansas School of Law.