Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wiggle Room

True confessions: if I can avoid a hill, I’d just as soon do so. Well, at least the UP part of it. I felt like less of a wimp when I read the recent report on what bike riders really want. Turns out I’m not alone. Non-commuters will ride 1.7 flat miles to avoid 1 mile with a modest 2-4 percent upslope; even we hardy commuters will go 1.4 miles…and the steeper the slope, the greater lengths we’ll travel to avoid it.

For some time, I’d noticed that when I consulted Google maps to plan out a bike route, it suggested a zigzagging path through my neighborhood. I was in the habit of riding slightly farther, in order to get on the bike path as soon as possible, when I intended to travel east. When I take the path, the early stretch on the Custis Trail has a few steep up hills. When I go to the yoga studio, I usually take side streets, instead of the path, but still have three big hills to climb in the short 2.5-mile ride. When I looked up directions to yoga on Google, it again stubbornly recommended the strange zigzagging route, even though it was clearly longer.

Finally the light bulb went off. I remembered my excitement last summer when I learned about the San Francisco wiggle, a genius, east-west route through that city’s valleys, which allows bike riders to avoid the steeps ups and downs that characterize San Francisco. Could Google maps be kind and generous enough to be pointing me toward my own little Arlington wiggle?

In Google I should have trusted. This funny little zigzag through my neighborhood doesn’t avoid all hills, but it definitely minimizes the amount of climbing I must endure. Last Sunday I took the Arlington wiggle to the yoga studio – a slightly longer, but far less taxing ride. I also took it on a trip to Clarendon, where I purchased a brighter bike light (with a rechargeable battery, yay!) for these short days.

The wiggle is changing my life. One might be inclined to think it’s a change in the wrong direction – toward greater laziness and sloth. But I don’t see it that way. Some days I’m up for the challenge of hills and imagine I will still climb them – especially if I just want to take the most direct route or am feeling especially strong and energetic. But other days, the thought of those big climbs is enough to make me avoid the bike altogether. Knowing I have the option of the wiggle makes it easier to get on the bike. Once I start pedaling, who knows, maybe I’ll decide I’m up for the hills after all.

But I also realized that there are times when it’s better to take it a bit easier. Last week, I was fighting a cold, but nevertheless bike commuted a couple days in 40-ish degree weather. I could feel that I didn’t have my usual amount of stamina and, in retrospect, I think it would have been wiser to choose metro over bike. So today, I compromised. I didn’t bike the full 10 miles to work, but I also didn’t bike to my nearest metro stop, which is just under a mile from home. Instead, I biked to the next metro stop (Ballston) – an easy 3-mile ride (using the wiggle) – with the added advantage of a 70-cent fare reduction, each direction. Don’t laugh – those savings can add up and my new light was expensive! In any case, I’m glad to have a little extra “wiggle room” in my bike route options.

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