I got my first bike at 6 years old. To this day I can still remember it and the world that bike opened for me. Suddenly I had the freedom to go beyond the end of my block under my own power. For a seven year old it was like a spaceship taking me to the edge of my universe. Funny how those memories stick with me, like one Saturday afternoon ride with my Dad on a trail covered in grass hoppers that bounced off my legs and spokes. From exploring the nearby pond, the neighbor’s cul-de-sac, the vast gravel pit wilderness behind my parent’s house, to finding my way to and from school, that bike gave me a sense of responsibility. It turned me into one of the big kids.
In college I was captain of the downhill ski team, and one of my teammates John Roberts introduced me to long distance bike riding. I rode in sweat pants, sweatshirt and tennis shoes. We would ride together into the hinterland of La Crosse County and then he would try repeatedly to drop me. He would of course succeed, but John would always return and show me the way home. I thought this was standard procedure. On occasion another newbie, Bob, from my dorm would accompany us. I still remember one time when Bob and I were dropped, suffering and cold he reached into his pocket and pulled out a full size can of cling peaches, lifesaver. This was in the days before energy bars.
I kept cycling, and eventually entered my first race at the Badger State Games. Pedaling those 11 miles was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I was hooked. Three years later I went on to compete as a Category 1 in 100 mile road races and was the highest finisher from Wisconsin at the National Critierium Championships in 1998.
After my racing was done I continued to use my bike as transportation. Robbie Webber from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin encouraged me to become a League of American Bicyclist Cycling Certified instructor. Even though I had ridden my bike for years over thousands of miles, I noticed that I had fewer conflicts on the road after I learned the basic safety concepts covered in LCI training.
With funds from a Wisconsin DOT grant, I began to teach middle school children bike safety. The classes were called “Bike Clubs” because no teenager would attend a bike safety class. In teaching these classes I discovered that quite a few children have never ridden a bike. This seemed profoundly sad given all the things my bike had given me freedom, responsibility, fun. I remember one student in particular who struggled to learn, but when he mastered the ability to ride nonstop up the long hill to school without stopping. He was elated, and I was hooked on teaching people about what fun it was to ride a bike.
I now have the privilege of working for the LaCrosse County Health Department under a Communities Putting Prevention to Work Grant to encourage people to walk, bike and be more active. The public health world has made the connection between the “built environment” and how it affects our health. Through La Crosse’s recently adopted Complete and Green Streets policy, we want to create an environment that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.
Wisconsin has an excellent Complete Streets law as well, which was adopted in January 2010. The state policy covers roads that use state and federal money, but most of the roads in Wisconsin are built and maintained with local funds, and that is where local complete streets policies like ours become important. To date in La Crosse County we have complete streets policies in La Crosse County, the Village of West Salem, the Village of Holmen and Wisconsin’s first Green Complete Streets Ordinance in the City of La Crosse.
I doubt I will ever be able to repay all the things my bike has given me – how to win, how to lose, a job, transportation, friends, a purpose, but I’m willing to try.