The Bicycle Diaries

What’s it really like to pedal the streets of Philadelphia? For a week, one man trades his four wheels for two wheels to find out

DAY ONE: Equipped with my brand-new helmet (Kmart, $14.99, sleek metallic blue) and not-so-new bike (neighbor’s garage sale, $20, unfortunate shade of yellow), I pedal off from my house in Drexel Hill on my nine-mile trek toward the city and quickly encounter my first obstacle: It may be impossible to actually get to the city. The problem is Marshall Road, a curvy, high-speed thoroughfare that cuts through Upper Darby. With no shoulder or bike lane to ride on, the only options are to pedal furiously to keep up with the cars, or bail out onto the bumpy sidewalk. I opt for an ungraceful hybrid of the two that leaves me wondering if I’ve lost some teeth. Things improve slightly in West Philly, with the bike lane that runs down Spruce from 63rd to 34th. Still, I feel like I’m part of a video game, though I can’t decide whether I’m playing it (trying to steer around various obstacles) or inside it (with a bull’s-eye on my back). I arrive at the office sweaty and slightly stunned.

Desperate to avoid the Marshall Road terror, I opt for a slightly longer route down Baltimore Avenue. While it has a bike lane, it also has trolleys — lots of freaking trolleys — and so at several spots I’m certain I’m going to be sandwiched between a hulking streetcar and a Kia pulling out. The other problem is the, shall we say, quirky nature of Philly’s bike lanes. At one point on Baltimore Avenue, the lane just disappears for half a block, with the clear implication that the cyclist should simply levitate into the sky like those kids in ET. And at the intersection of 30th and Chestnut, in order to accommodate a turning lane, the bike lane juts into … the middle of the road. Really?

DAY THREE:  In a world divided into bikers and the people who hate them, I now find myself clearly siding with Team Cycle. I’ve come to understand that cyclists routinely skirt traffic laws less out of arrogance than self-preservation. As I ride south on bike-lane-less 23rd Street, it dawns on me that the only way to avoid being crushed by a stampede of cars is to jump the light and get out ahead of them. Not that this is always foolproof. When I’m back on Marshall Road, pedaling home, the rabid pack eventually catches me, forcing me onto the sidewalk — where I almost careen into two women and a four-year-old. I jam on the brakes, slide on the cinders, and end up prone on the sidewalk. Have I mentioned how much I’m enjoying this?