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The Trials and Errors of Bike Commuting

A cycling newbie learns how to love her life in Boulder with no car.


The first time I tried bike commuting I was in my early 20s, living and working in downtown Pittsburgh. I lived a mile and a half from the office and imagined cruising across rivers and bridges would be a delightful way to expedite the commute. I picked up a vintage, sky-blue Schwinn Suburban off of Craigslist, attached a handlebar basket from Amazon, and brazenly set out on two wheels. My bike was cute and I was excited. This enthusiasm, however, rapidly declined. Navigating the hazards of rush-hour traffic and an absence of bike lanes quickly ended with me crying at a bus stop in the rain and calling my boyfriend for a ride home. I quietly let that bike gather dust for the rest of the lease term before reselling it and moving out.

Nearly a decade later, I landed in Boulder and began flirting with the idea of trying bike commuting again, intrigued by boasts of Boulder’s extensive bikeways and charmed by rumors that the city plows bike paths more readily than streets after winter snowstorms. I wanted to incorporate more fresh air and physical activity into my days and saw biking as an opportunity to do so, with the added benefits of reducing my environmental footprint and transportation costs. A friend in Denver offered a hand-me-down road bike she no longer used and enabled my two-wheeled adventures to resume.

Over the summer, I made light use of the creek path, riding to and from the farmers market for a weekly supply of veggies. For most other trips I opted to drive, maintaining reverence for the cyclists pushing along busy routes like Highway 36, Foothills Parkway, and The Diagonal Highway. Though my ears perked at any mention of pedaling up the long, steep slog of Flagstaff Road into the Flatirons or up dirt mountain roads to Gold Hill, I continued to admire the assemblage of Boulder’s cycling community from a safe distance, behind my steering wheel. That is, until an untimely car accident at the beginning of November spurred me to pull the 30-year-old steel-frame road bike from my padlocked shed and saddle up as winter arrived on the Front Range.

The opportunity I’d been asking for was now thrust upon me. I enjoyed the idea of riding my bike a few miles further a few times a week for a few more weeks, but in practice, the act itself was far less fun. The backs of my knees became sore from the sudden increase in activity, the muscles along my spine constantly tense from bracing against the icy paths and cold air, and balancing a pack of daily essentials on my back was a challenge. Confronted by a big dump of white stuff the weekend after Thanksgiving, I found out the hard way that my lightly-treaded road tires were a horror show in the snow.

Curious about the potential of installing wider tires and wanting my front shocks examined, I made an appointment with an independent repair shop offering a watch-and-learn experience. I learned the part of the bike I had a question about is actually called a fork, and not only was mine completely busted, it was also virtually irreplaceable due to age. If we replaced it with a newer part, it would interfere with the alignment on a bike that already didn’t fit me well. And, no, putting wider tires on this frame was not an option. I got a lesson on forks, tires, frames, and braking systems, and left with a realization of the previously unimaginable: I was going to have to get a mountain bike.

Somehow, as a novice cyclist, I was talked into buying a second bike, in December, and it made sense. I tested out a few secondhand options and found a Cinderella fit with a blacked-out aluminum hardtail that felt right. With this transaction, I also felt something shift within me. I took ownership of my circumstances. I wanted to be doing this. I started having fun.

Over the past four months, my mind, body, and gear have been in a constant state of change. My cargo system has evolved from just a backpack to a rack with a bungee cord, to a milk crate, and now a two-pannier set up. Though challenging at times, figuring out what I like is part of the fun of trying new things. In the middle of writing this, my vehicle was deemed a total loss. So, as winter softens and the days get longer, I’m leaning into bike life and stoked to explore new routes and trails in the coming season.

Ashley Gilbert is a sustainability consultant, small business owner, and budding cyclist living the dream while chasing it in Boulder, Colorado.

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