how to bike on black ice

my bike creaks and rattles down the hallway; salt crust and dirt clogs the chain and builds up under the fenders. someone in a black university hoodie stays at the door when i'm on my way out, holding it open so i can scoot past.

'there you go, get on out!'

and at the second door, someone on their way in holds it open for me, too. 'nice, one shot to get through!' i laugh, and the first door-holder laughs with me. 'just the way i like it!'

i nearly splatter into the curb as soon as my tires hit the sidewalk; the world is an unexpected sheet of ice, with a fine dusting of powder on top. my shoes have no tread, but they miraculously balance on the ground as i pause to collect myself.

none of the cars are happy in this. for the most part, they tentatively creep along, but there's the occasional daredevil whose decided that maximum velocity through every intersection is the only way.

against all my expectations, i can creep slowly uphill. there's fresh powder in the bike lane, which gives me more traction than trying to ride on the tire-beaten slick ice that encases the road.

here's how you survive on black ice:

i hopped between spaces where parked cars had left; those dry squares became islands where it was safe for me to put down a foot. memories flooded my body, of other times when i needed to balance and control my motion. you have to be calm. you have to be quiet. you have to know that you've got it, and know when you don't got it. never move aggressively, never show off, never let hubris take over when you've successfully navigated six slippery intersections without a single wheelspin.

i've had lessons in this before. a snowboarding instructor, trying to help me figure out how to straighten my legs easily enough so the edge of the board bit into the snow. a motorcycle instructor, constantly bellowing 'keep your head and eyes up', with reminders to look where you aspire to be, not where you wish you weren't. a surf instructor, who coached my timing because i didn't know it yet, but gave me the space to discover that when i stopped thinking about why something worked, it worked better.

the world is a mashup of anti-lock brakes firing, and i stare with disbelief that four blocks of rubber have enough friction to stop a minivan from sliding into me. other pedestrians share the look on my face, more than they usually do, of survival and worry for other people not in metal boxes or brick buildings. a pair of them come up behind me as i carefully remount at an intersection.

'oh, be careful,' one of them mother-hens at me.

'yeah. yeah, this is hard.'

'this is all ice,' the other one says as i gingerly walk my way across.

'yeah. i know.'

'just take the sidewalk,' he recommends. 'it's clearer up there.'

and i scoot past them, following one other set of bike tracks. the sidewalk is all snow, not yet packed, and i can hear the ice below it when my tires crush a pattern through it. two people walking out to their car in the parking lot, one of them inhales in shock. 'a cyclist!' she identifies. 'i can't believe it!'

she speaks in the tone of voice that motorists often do, that 'i am in an enclosed object and you cannot hear me, but even if you could hear me, i do not care, because soon i will be far away from you' declaration.

seeing is believing, ma'am, i say in my head. i'm safer biking than driving.

'but you could fall over!' i imagine her protesting, because her four wheels are certainly more stable than mine.

sure, but if i lose control, i'm much less likely to kill someone.

the conversation i wish i could have with everyone who chooses a car in these conditions. the hanging accusation that they are irresponsible for choosing their own comfort of being in a warm, four-wheeled object that will effortlessly transport them home, while overlooking the potential for harm that decision carries. every time they show concern for me, i wish they would acknowledge that they could be driving safer, they could be following the speed limit, they could be stopping at stop signs, they could be passing me with reasonable amounts of space.

a woman stands in the middle of the sidewalk, her back to me, texting. 'excuse me,' i chirp optimistically while i approach.

'whoa,' she turns, and she looks like she could be one of my aunts. 'be careful! don't fall down!' i laugh; i haven't fallen yet this season. i don't mind falling. it's the cars that might not stop for me that i mind.

it used to be hard for me to bike up this hill, in my city of hills. on a fair day with a freshly tuned bike, i'd struggle and stare down at my knees slowly bobbing up and down, because the sight of the endless slope rising above me would demoralize me. now, it's a gentle cruise with a week's worth of groceries on a grumpy frozen bike with questionable traction. this is how i know i've grown stronger, more stubborn, more experienced over the years.

this is how i know i exist.

24 January 2018 22:53

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