I love bike riding. It would’ve killed me if this COVID crisis had stolen riding from me, because it’s something of an addiction. I would’ve gone through a bit of a withdrawal, feeling like ants are crawling on my skin and such. I would’ve felt like I weighed 300 pounds. I would’ve had mood swings. Fortunately, it looks like bike riding is okay.
So around 5 pm today, I took my regular bike ride. It’s my usual time, more or less. It’s strange that riding your bicycle for an hour counts for self-isolation. I don’t touch anyone. I don’t get close to anyone. I just ride and sweat.
My regular bike ride is about 50 minutes long. If I don’t run into any interference from cars or pedestrians, I can usually make it to the first major intersection in 4:20. Today, I made it in 4:15, so I felt pretty damn good. At that point, I usually hit the WALK button, but today, I didn’t. Seriously, who wants to touch a WALK button these days? I just straddled my bike and waited for the light to change.
Since I live in the suburbs, I make most of my ride on the sidewalk. Nobody walks on the sidewalk out here. But today, at the 7-minute point, I began the steepest incline of the ride, and that’s when I saw him. He was a germ-carrying human being. He was walking towards me with a truculent insistence. It wasn’t a wide sidewalk, and I shuddered to think of passing within his airspace. The CDC, after all, says that you should maintain a 6-foot distance from other people.
So I jumped the curb and rode in the street. As I passed him, I wasn’t exactly six feet away from him, maybe 5 feet, so I held my breath. Then, after I passed him, I kept holding my breath. I was envisioning germs that he had shed floating in the air behind him like exhaust. I didn’t want to breathe in his exhaust.
Further on, I spotted two young women and their dog on the sidewalk. They were truculent and insistent, as well. I held my breath passing them, as well.
If I’m working hard, I can usually make it to the top of the first hill by 12:00, but today, I made it in 11:10. It was my version of a 4-minute mile; I was elated. Once you get to the top, of course, you can top the crest and speed to the bottom. I upshifted and gained speed. The wind was whooshing against my face and Beck was pounding in my earbuds. There was wild hillsides to the right of me and to the left of me, nobody around, and I was in heaven’s county, if for just a few moments.
When I got to the bottom, I immediately spotted a young homeless woman sitting on the curb. Although I was traveling at high speed, it looked like she had a bicycle and a Sparkletts bottle with her, which didn’t quite make sense, a disheveled young woman sitting on the curb in the suburbs with a Stingray bicycle and something you shouldn’t carry on a Stingray bicycle. With homeless people, I guess not making sense is the point. I held my breath while passing her, too.
At the 12-minute and 13-minute points, I passed two other people walking. It struck me as odd, because usually, I hardly pass anybody on my bike rides at this hour. Gradually, I began to realize what was happening. All the gyms are closed. Ah yes. Fit people everywhere are hankering for somewhere to work out, and they’re suddenly realizing what I realized many years ago, that riding your bike on the road is free, man, it’s free!
At the 22-minute point, I reached Ralph B. Clark Park, where I usually veer in and ride its picturesque streets for a few minutes. It’s quite pleasant. There’s a lake, geese, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, hares, and gently sloping hills. But to my surprise, today the park was closed. People were walking in and out of it, but there were barriers set up in the roadway and park rangers standing nearby. I guess parks qualify as dangerously social.
By the 31-minute point, I had exerted myself quite a lot, which pleased me immensely. Then I jumped off-road to my favorite part of the ride. It’s a trail that gives me the joy of riding on dirt. There are trees, uncertain footing, and tree roots to maneuver. At the midway point, there’s a steep hill, and I looked forward to it.
When I got there, though, I encountered something that began to really annoy me: more people. This was starting to really piss me off. It was a smiling young Asian couple and their two toddlers, who were riding little toy cars. I slowed down, smiled at them, and held my breath as I rode past.
A minute later, I ran across four different people taking their walks. I passed within only about a foot of one of them, holding my breath all the way.
When the dirt section of my ride was over, I hopped onto the sidewalk and crossed the street. It was getting on towards sunset. I was listening to Beck’s first big album, Odelay, in my earbuds, which seriously rocks. It’s weird, loud, and sprawling, and it makes me ride harder and faster. I pushed my body even more. Then suddenly, I passed three young women walking together. I smiled politely, but held my breath.
At the 41-minute point, I encountered my local shopping center. I veered off to take a look at the local gym. It was a sad sight. The parking lot was empty. There was a sign on the door saying that it was closed indefinitely. So that’s where they all came from. I took a picture, shook my head, and rode away.
When I returned home, I knew I’d gotten a good workout, but knew that I wasn’t going to bicycle at 5 pm anymore. From now on, I swear, I’m switching to noon workouts. Too much breath holding.
Update, 3/24/20: A doctor gave me further advice on airborne exposure during exercise today, and told me that “you’re not being paranoid.” He continued:
“People diffuse the virus when they breathe and it can travel in aerosolized droplets forward as far as a few feet. If they are breathing forcibly because they are exercising then they will aerosolize more frequently with their breaths and perhaps the spread will be diffuse further away. It is very unlikely but I can imagine a cyclist passing at the wrong time, in the wrong place and inhaling deeper (they are also breathing more heavily).
“There are two solutions:
“Option1: Mitigate risk. There are less cars around and so you should indeed consider riding at safe distances from pedestrians. If you are never passing pedestrians within a certain radius you should be fine. Roads are eerily vacant here in Chicago. Just don’t take anything for granted when it comes to motorized vehicles.
“Option 2: Ride with a bandana covering your face. I know this is not perfect but it is a barrier protection that reduces exposure. It shouldn’t be license to ride too close to people but it will give you added protection. The down side is that it might be uncomfortable. The bandana will significantly reduce exposure but it will not drop to zero. After a certain amount of time and if you encountered many pedestrians you might want to clean the bandana. Perhaps change it for a second one half way through the ride.”