Story last updated at 5/16/2012 - 1:34 pm
Juneau may be known as "little San Francisco" or "North Portland" in some circles, but let's face it: Juneau isn't San Francisco or Portland, even if the weather in March transported us to warmer climes for a short time. In most regards, Juneauites are predominantly happy that our snug little community isn't one of the aforementioned cities - with their traffic, crowds of people, and intolerably long distance from wilderness and outdoor adventure a la Alaska. Of course, there are other aspects of those fabled cities that entice us, draw us and cause us to pay exorbitant rates to fly south for a short vacation "outside": cheap and abundant restaurants with good food; storms that last only a day or two instead of months on end; music and arts scenes with offerings for every taste; and weather that is almost always good for biking.
Across the country, May is Bike Month, and celebrations include Bike-To-Work Week May 14-18; the first-ever Bike-To-School Day (was May 9); and Bike-To-Work Day, Friday, May 18. The League of American Bicyclists organizes Bike Month. Although the biking community in Juneau is fairly loose aside from Juneau Freewheelers and their race program, various groups and advocates are putting together fun and educational events around town all month. Stop by Cycle Alaska's Park & Ride, refreshment, and repair center at Twin Lakes on the morning of the 18th for more information on upcoming events.
Far from being a special-event-only pastime, biking has a way of getting under the rider's skin (and not just from nasty falls). I first managed to balance on a bicycle without training wheels near the swings at Cope Park some time in 1981 or 1982; my memory is of a still-damp dirt surface full of potholes and undulations, slick mud spots where my tires squished, and a sudden realization that I was balanced, independently, on a miraculous device that gave me wings.
It has been a joy for me to see my neighbors taking to two wheels this spring (while it lasted), families strung out along the road with the youngest bobbing along in a trailer or strapped into a seat behind their parent; roadies in their peloton, drafting to cut through our ceaseless winds as the wind their way over every scrap of asphalt in town; muddy youths returning from as-fast-as-you-dare downhills with smiles as wide as the travel on their frames will allow; and of course the odd transplant from SFO or PDX with their single-speed fixie, looking with despair at the hills of downtown and the distance between town and the valley.
The fact of the matter is that regardless of our weather, the long distances between destinations, and the often-less-than-ideal maintenance of bike lanes and sidewalks, lots of Juneauites simply love to bike; in the words of one avid cyclist with thousands of miles on non-Juneau riding behind him, Juneau is simply one of the best places to bike in country, if not the world. Most of our major roads have ample shoulders (Thane Road and its non-existent shoulders notwithstanding) if they don't have dedicated bicycle lanes; drivers are, for the most part, polite and accommodating to bicyclists; and the vast majority of our roads are relatively flat, never rising more than a few hundred feet above sea level.
Juneau was named a Bicycle Friendly Community in 2011 by the League of American Bicyclists due to our combination of infrastructure, community involvement, and sheer prevalence of bicycling in the community. In their award, the League noted that during one bicycle survey conducted in January 2011, there were at least two bicyclists at every survey point during every survey - even though this was during a period of 60-70 mph winds and single-digit temperatures.
As any fisherman, hunter, or other outdoors-person will tell you, all that you need to enjoy the out-of-doors in Juneau is quality rain gear, and the weather will never stop you again. With sunrise happening before 5 a.m. this time of year, and sunset not following until around 9 p.m., some bicyclists may attempt to ride all summer with only reflectors on their bikes, but our predominantly gray weather and often-reduced visibility, it is important to add both front and rear lights to your steed; lights are required not only by State law, but also by a modicum of common sense. After all, a simple misunderstanding of intended routes between a car driver and bicyclist will almost always end in pain and suffering for the cyclist, regardless of who is at fault in the incident. Lights and a helmet are much cheaper than a visit to the hospital, and will extend the times at which you'll be comfortable riding as well as making you safer whenever you hit the road.
Under Alaska (and most other states') law, bicycles are vehicles, and must follow the rules of the road. That means no riding against traffic on one-way streets, and definitely no riding on sidewalks in business districts. If you're riding in downtown, remember that those massive tour buses that have recently returned to our streets are even more dangerous than passenger vehicles when they run into you, so don't give them an excuse.
Follow the rules of the road, stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, use lights on your bike, wear a properly fitted helmet, wear clothes that are appropriate for riding in the style you choose (you don't need spandex unless you're opting for less wind resistance; biking in a suit and tie or a summer dress are both perfectly acceptable as well), and watch actively for drivers, pedestrians, and even other bicyclists doing things that might put you at risk.
Don't be afraid to "own the road"; as a vehicle, a bicyclist is entitled to ride in traffic, and motor vehicles must pass safely or wait until they can - you don't need to risk riding into the ditch to make way for cars.
When you arrive at your destination, be happy that you aren't taking up a parking space, that you didn't pay for gas, and that you're healthier for having ridden. In this day of skyrocketing health costs and twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity, making a decision to travel actively is an investment in your own health as well as our community's well-being. When the skies clear and the roads dry out, there's no excuse not to jump on your bike and enjoy the ride.
Although our weather was better in March and April than it has been in May, hopefully we'll get some spring weather again and we'll all take to the roads and trails around town on our two-wheeled marvels, feeling the wind in our hair and watching the smiles on each other's faces grow with every revolution of our wheels. And somewhere in our community, there's a five-year-old balancing on their bike for the first time without assistance, and realizing that they have just been given a key to the world, a ticket to ride anywhere their heart desires (in due time, and under a parent's watchful supervision, to be sure). Enjoy the ride.