Okay, I'll admit it... every time I hear stories about bike commuters in the city, it fills me with pangs of jealousy, and some days I'll even descend into a mild (non-medical-grade) depression about the non-attainability of city commuting in the country.
The truth is, commuting in rural areas is a completely different affair than city commuting. It requires different equipment, different tactics, and a different mindset. Now, I haven't been commuting for decades, but as a native resident of one of the more culturally backwards areas on Earth, I've been witness to more than my share of rural miles. And as jealous as I am of the city, I think commuting in the country has its own appeal.
For those of you who brave the back roads and highways, I salute you. You can safely tune back into your routine of picking beer bottle glass from your tires, charging your headlight batteries, wiping roadkill off your downtube, and taking a stout swig of whatever it is that gives you the courage to ride the next day.
Those of you readers who live in the city* and commute there, I've decided to give you a brief glimpse into the life of a rural commuter. This is strictly anecdotal, but please remember, this is as accurate as I could make it without scaring the kids.
The Rural Commuter: Part Uno
The alarm screams for my attention. As I stumble to disarm it, I read the numbers "4:30" and cringe. I only went to bed a few hours ago, it seems like. But I've decided to ride today, so that meant I spent more than an hour last night preparing my clothes, picking slivers of glass from my bike's tires, patching tubes, checking the weather, carbo-loading, and compounding my sleep deprivation.
I get dressed in between bites of instant oatmeal. How many layers today? I lost count. Oh well, it'll be enough. Shouldn't be too cold, except there's a headwind... always the headwind... which means an extra 10 minutes to get to work. I briefly daydream about an electric assist bike, then I shake myself out of my stupor and chug down half a water bottle of water that's stale from last night.
I sigh and finish strapping and velcroing everything, and grab my bike. Holy cow, it weighs a ton. I open the front door and am greeted with a blast of near-freezing wind and 90% humidity. It feels like someone is siphoning the heat from your body with a freeze ray. I almost have second thoughts, but I'm already dressed, so I suck it up and drag the bike down the stairs, and then awkwardly try to close the door again without dropping the top-heavy bike on the ground.
Then I get on and ride. My body, still unsure about digesting the instant oatmeal, suddenly realizes I want it to exercise, so it kicks into ride mode. I can almost feel my legs smiling. It's going to be a good day.
I am serenaded by dozens of my neighbor's dogs as I proceed down my street towards the main highway. At least they're chained up... for the moment. I take note of who has left their trash cans halfway in the street again, looking for the telltale sparkle of glass in my headlight.
Turning onto the main highway, it's pretty quiet. But it's 2 miles of shoulderless, rippled, patchy road with a 40MPH speed limit. With a steady headwind. Legs are still fresh, so I settle into a comfy gear, and spin until I come up to a comfortable temperature.
It strikes me that out here in the country, it's quiet this early. I think it's even before God gets up. I marvel at how serene everything is, until my reflection is interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a huge diesel 4x4 truck with mud tires. Probably towing either a boat, or a trailer with ATV's or work equipment. For some unknown reason, drivers completely forget they're towing something when they pass a cyclist. I've almost been clipped by trailers more times than I can count, so I check my mirror to see how close they're passing.
With a rumble, the behemoth glides by uneventfully. Before I can release my breath, I notice there's another car right behind it... and also for some unknown reason, people passing assume that if the vehicle in front of them passed easily, they can too... without looking.
The second car squeezes by, a little closer than the truck. Then I notice there's a third... and the gap narrows even more as they pass. I notice the driver isn't even looking at the road. She's texting. In the early morning darkness, her phone makes the entire inside of her vehicle light up. I briefly entertain the idea of carrying bricks to throw at texting drivers, but my bike's already too heavy. If there were a car coming in the other lane, I would have nowhere to go. I briefly reminisce the time someone passed me without paying attention, and forced an oncoming car to run off the road.
Right. Back to the serene landscape...
I notice that since it's sugar cane harvesting season, and I live in the middle of farmland, the road is covered with mud and chunks of sugar cane. Normal traffic has compacted the mud into concrete-like speed bumps. For the next entire 2 miles. The farmers, instead of loading their harvesters onto trailers to move to the next field, just drive the tracked machines down the road illegally. So in between the potholes and chunks of mud are sections of asphalt that's ridged like a washboard.
I manage to make it to the end of the stretch of road, where it intersects another highway. A car comes up on me, maybe 30 yards from the stop sign. I'm rolling at 15MPH, but they've never seen anybody on a bike go faster than about 5MPH, so they assume they can pass before I get to the intersection. By the time I stop, the car has begun to pass, realized they couldn't, and stopped at the intersection beside me, in the oncoming lane. Just as I'm scanning for traffic, I notice there's a truck (with a trailer, of course) trying to turn onto the street the car and I are occupying. I can't cross the highway until the truck moves, and the truck can't move because the idiot driver next to me is blocking his turn.
I eventually ride around behind the truck and trailer, and let the drivers sort things out for themselves. By now my legs are warm, and I decide to fight the wind a bit. I bump the downtube shifter, grab another cog, and dig a little deeper for an extra MPH or two.
I pass the local airport. Somehow, the person across the street leaving for work has decided to let his dog out to poop in the yard. Without a leash. Because, what could possibly go wrong?
Before I even see the dog, I hear the owner's futile attempts to override thousands of years of nature and stop the dog by yelling. Here's a tip, dog owners: That never works. At this point, I don't even see the dog, but I can gauge its size by how fast the gait is. Yes, there's a science to this. I stand and start increasing my speed, and guess the dog is medium-sized. Probably a young lab, or worse, a pitbull. Now I'm regretting pushing a little earlier.
Small dogs and large dogs don't bother me. Small ones are fun to mess with, and large dogs are usually too lazy to chase for long. It's the medium ones that are the killers, cause those suckers can run, and they have enough stamina to chase you for quite a while. It's especially bad if they see you coming and get a head start. I put on the full afterburners and hope it's not a pitbull. After a few pulls, I risk a glance back. It's a mutt, and he's already flagging. Sweet. No need for the air horn.
My legs aren't happy with me, but once the dog breaks chase, I spin back down and let them recover. Now I'm sweating profusely. I hadn't planned on interval training when I layered up this morning. Only 8 more miles to go.
What strikes me the most about rural commuting is two things: How lonely it is, and how peaceful it is. Granted, both have exceptions, and both have pros and cons.
In cities, they have bike parades and bike festivals and bike lanes and bike racks and bike trails and bike commuters. Out here, there's none of that. It's a very solitary affair. You get lots of time alone inside your own head, because going anywhere useful requires hours of time. The nearest store is 45 (or 55 with a headwind) minutes away. Anywhere you ride, you have to be completely self-sufficient, or risk being stranded miles from nowhere.
This brings the rural commuter to the point where they have to very deliberately decide to commute. It's not a casual thing, you can't just easily jump on the bike and go somewhere. You choose to commute. You're not going to call your spouse to wake the kids and bail you out at 5:00 AM. At least, not if you want to stay married, or keep commuting. Self-sufficiency is key.
Sometimes it's lonely. Not seeing another cyclist for months, even years, makes you feel like you're all alone. Sometimes it's peaceful. You can ride for miles without hitting a traffic light or intersection. If you're very lucky, you might even ride for a few miles without any cars around. You might even spot wildlife... a particularly special treat.
It makes you feel alive. Like you're shouldering your burden for the world. You're doing your part to make Earth a less sucky place. Nothing else matters, just you and the bike. You just spin, and ride, and rack up the miles. And when you arrive where you're going, the thought crosses your mind: "What if I didn't stop?"
And that's when it hits me. Every trip is like a miniature cross-country tour. Except you get to sleep at home every night.
I wouldn't have it any other way.
*Footnote: If your town has bike paths/parades/racks/lanes or other commuter(s), then chances are you live in what's called a "City."