Sometimes I think I am too easily led by the suggestions of others. When a friend suggested it would be fun to get a group together and ride in the Midnight Garden Bike ride through downtown Savannah at 8 p.m., not midnight, I thought why not and signed up for the event about a month in advance, but as the ride came closer I began to wonder about the wisdom of this decision.
I had also volunteered to teach a class out at Burton 4H on Tybee earlier in the morning and had been running errands all day and really did not feel like biking ten miles in the heat of the city even if it was at night. I even felt a sense of dread about it and did not feel at all prepared.
As the event came closer I discovered I could not find my bike shorts or my bicycle helmet. The back brakes on my bike had quit working and nothing I did seemed effective. At one point I got the brakes stuck to the wheel and had to pry them apart, but never got the brake cable to function and did not feel like sitting through a half hour fix it yourself YouTube video so just kept moving.
Both tires were flat from lack of air and use and the cheap pump I had bought at Walmart was doing a better job deflating than inflating the tires as mosquitoes the size of horse flies pierced the backs of my knees and swarmed around my head, making the experience even more of a trial than it really needed to be.
The bike still had mud on it from the last time I had taken it for a spin. I didn’t have anything to wear. I could not find my bike shorts or my leggings, so put on a pair of regular shorts with a longer leg coverage, but fully aware I would pay for the lack of padding with a numb butt and chaffing, but at this point all I wanted to do was make this thing happen so I could get it over with and post the pictures on Facebook to prove I did something other than sit at home and eat a bag of vegan chocolate chips while watching reruns of Batman and Lost in Space as it my typical routine for a Saturday night.
I had to use electrical tape to strap on a flashlight to the front of the bike and a head lamp red light to the back of the bike. I could not find my good camera which I think I left in bucket at Burton and have yet to discover in the house.
I had thought about using the plastic leis I had gotten at work to cover up the handle bars, but at this point I had barely a half hour to get downtown before the bike began, so just threw everything in the truck, grabbed a warm bottle of water and my Troxel riding helmet, hoping no one I knew would see me, and got downtown with about five minutes to spare before the group took off in mass from Telfair Square.
When I parked at Pulaski Square, the cicadas were deafening. I hopped on my bike to ride to the start point and had to laugh that the bugs sounded like huge cheering crowds urging me on… maybe this is what it felt like to be Lance Armstrong pre-steroids days.
The square was packed and I dutifully got off my bike and walked it through the square, looking for the registration, but only seeing beer tents and places selling raffles and bike helmets and lights. I propped the bike against a tree, found the sign up table and apologized to the older gentleman trying to read my computer generated receipt with the 2 point type in the last remaining sunlight on the last day of August. I think I could have handed him a grocery receipt from Fresh Market and he would have given me a t-shirt anyway, but again, I gave him my last name and he marked it off a sheet of paper where it looked like over 30 people had signed up but not attended. Maybe I was not the only one that night who did not feel like coming out and in all fairness it had been raining off and on all day and looked like it may be a wash out.
I tossed on the nearly neon blue t-shirt over my neon green shirt for lack of a better place to put it, donned my riding helmet, feeling like everyone was looking at me like I was a freak… you know the look you give a guy who shows up at one of these things wearing a superman cape and king’s crown with a beer belly big enough to house a pregnant Bulldog and her eight puppies and sporting a beard to shame a Muslim Imam?
I guess I really couldn't say anything about the beer belly though because I’d put on two extra pounds this week and skipped two workouts because I just didn't feel like moving and in reality, with people wearing balloon hats, ballet skirts and blinking light hair, how out of place did I really look in the crowd?
I still didn’t feel like moving and it was hot enough with one shirt on, though there was a beginning night chill that was nice, but still a bit too distant to be comfortable, like walking downtown on a busy summer day and catching a breeze from an air conditioned store front as someone walks out the door.
It was already turning dark. Boom boxes on bike trailers and in backpacks dotted the long line of cyclists with colorful blinking lights, balloon hats on top of bike helmets, colorful streamers bike strollers and baskets carrying dogs and babies.
I could not find a toilet or a water station anywhere in the park, though I am sure they probably had them, but it was too late now as we rolled out in mass from the park, wobbling our front wheels and moving at a very slow pace as everyone tried to keep a safe distance from everyone else and not dart from side to side without warning.
I still felt in a daze, like I was in a competition, not a fun ride. I should have called up some friends to see if they would ride with me, but it seemed like everyone was busy with other things and I did not want to be a pest. The two ladies next to me included me in their conversation and we laughed about how hard it was to stay on top of a bike moving at three feet a second with twenty other bikes on either side of you and twice that much in front and back.
It was neat looking up and seeing a sea of red and white lights snaking around the corners, but almost impossible to see anything or look at the scenery for fear of running into or over another cyclist.
It took about a mile to really get into the ride and settle down into a rhythm and even then there were interruptions in the flow of traffic and a need to constantly look at the road and people right beside you.
About two miles into the ride, while still feeling a little conspicuous about the riding helmet I was wearing, I spotted a young black woman with a round silver helmet that looked a bit like a Cyberman from Dr. Who. I don't think she was trying to intentionally look like a Cyberman and to be honest it sort of looked more like a mirror ball on her head, but after staring at it for ten minutes I kept looking for patterns and the Cyberman sort of popped up.
It turned out it was a mirror reflective skateboard helmet, and while I was kind of glad I was not the only one wearing out of the ordinary bike headgear, I was also reminded at that point, that I had not seen any other black people or Hispanics on the ride. It seemed it was mostly white middle class riders and a lot of families, some with tandem bikes and others with bike trailers hauling the kids, both two and four legged along for the ride whether they wanted to come or not. Though most seemed to enjoy it.
It was hard to pedal with so many people and every time we reached a corner, traffic slowed to a literal crawl as front wheels wobbled and bikes became scooters with one foot on the pedal the other on the ground pushing off and stopping repeatedly.
The music coming from the boom boxes was good, though at one traffic jam we had blue grass competing with jazz competing with Katie Perry in a cacophony that made the cicadas sound rhythmical.
About two and a half miles into the ride someone pointed out we were approaching Forsyth Park. It was hard to tell where you were because it was dark and crowded and the flashing blue lights of the police cars was somewhat disorienting, though it was wonderful to have them there keeping us safe and putting themselves in danger standing in front of a line of cars with upset drivers who wanted to dart out into the bike traffic and ignore the glares of the officers suggesting they do otherwise or else…
A little while later I was totally lost again, we kept turning down different roads. One street went downhill and made a sharp turn over rail road tracks. A part of me wanted to be adventurous and not use the brakes, but I figured with the back brakes gone, if I did have to stop at high speed, it would probably not be pretty, so slowed down the turn and played it safe.
When it was safe to look, I saw we were on 37th Street and then on Washington, around Daffin Park, and taking a short cut into the Grayson Stadium parking lot and riding right behind the Sand Gnats field as they played a double header, one of their last games of the season.
One of the cyclists said it would have been neat to let us all on the field and take a lap around the diamond before heading out on the road again, but I guess that would be problematic with so many bikes, but still, it would have been fun!
Seeing the bright lights and hearing the sounds of the game was a treat in itself as we headed back out on winding dark roads hoping the lead riders knew where they were going as we traveled like trail horses nose to tail without any real clue as to where we were headed, but hoping it was back toward home.
A number of downtown residents came out to sit on their porches and curbs and cheer us on, while the late night drunks were just getting tipsy and stood on the street corner seeking as many high fives as they could from passing cyclists.
Even a trolley bus pulled over at the Colonial Park Cemetery as riders leaned out and slapped the hands of passing cyclists showing a great spirit of cooperation rather than getting upset that they had to sit on the side of the road waiting for all of us to go by. Might as well make the best of things and they surely did.
A few tourists and bar hoppers risked their lives to dart in front of cyclists who swerved to miss them as their companions on the other side of the road hissed in fear for them and breathed a sigh of relief while chastising them for putting the cyclists at risk, never mind themselves. It was an interesting dynamics for sure.
A group of young teen cyclists joined us from outside the group. They did not have lights or helmets and rode dangerously fast between cyclists causing many to nearly crash into cars to avoid them and while they made a few people upset, a lot of other people wished they had the nerve to be so bold and speed past the slower riders themselves, though others were just enjoying the ride in no hurry to get back to Telfair Square.
Many downtown residents had ridden their bikes from home to the square and joked that they should just leave the ride when it went past their house, but none of them did, though they did seem fascinated that their own homes were actually on the tour route and added to the conversation by telling other cyclists about the homes near them and who lived there and some of the problems they had with the people living there! Nothing like a little southern gossip to fill in the gaps from the failing boom boxes which apparently did not handle the cobblestone streets very well and quit working half way through the ride.
One man apologized as he sped through the middle of a nearly stalled group when he saw an open gap, stating he needed to “catch some air” and cool off, but mostly the ride went smoothly with few waits as police officers rushed from one traffic light to the next to stop traffic and let us through, earning that title of heroes in uniforms.
When we did have more open ground, traveling north on Drayton with both lanes open, many sped up and enjoyed the cool breeze and the freedom of having a normally heavily trafficked road all to themselves. The lights from the park also made the road easier to see and safer to maneuver so allowed a few brief glimpses over at the lighted gardens at The Mansion and the front yards of the older houses with their statues and manicured lawns and gardens with so many ornamental plants crammed into a six foot garden plot that it looked like a miniature rain forest had landed there.
The route gave everyone a good view of the city and it was amazing that no one in our group ran into anyone or fell off their bikes. Though there were a few equipment malfunctions, but there were plenty of people willing to stop and help.
A feeling of excitement arose as bikes wound back to Telfair for the costume contest winner announcements… a group of three women dressed as moss ladies and a man and woman dressed as Venus fly trap and bait.
Some stayed to drink beer and listen to music, but most of us, including me, left. It was almost more fun traveling with three or four cyclists headed in the same direction as me, back to the truck and we enjoyed the ride so much, we even took a farewell loop around a few more squares for fun and then bid one another goodbye as we headed back to home and a much needed cool shower.
It is not too often you can ride your bike downtown with a few hundred other people, looping around two parks and traveling over railroad tracks with a guy waving an orange light stick at you and crying out… “railroad tracks”, as everyone slowed down thinking it was an actual train coming at us and we were being warned to stop. After going through so many red lights and traveling down the wrong side of the road, I think we would have taken on the train thinking the police would stop it for us as well!
To be honest I just pedaled blindly through most of the ride, talking a bit and traveling form one radio boom box zone to the next enjoying the music and still wondering why it seemed like mostly middle aged white people took part in the event. I wondered if people from different ethnicities felt unsafe at night or just felt it was a white person’s thing and wondered if anyone else other than myself paid notice of this.
I suppose it was just as well that I could not find my good camera, as I really did not have my hands free to take many pictures anyway. When I got home, three of my friends had posted pictures of the event and I had not even seen them there, despite looking.
It would be wonderful to see a similar ride at Tybee Beach or through one of the neighborhoods at Christmas to see the lights, though imagine the logistics of keeping everyone safe would be prohibitive, but it was a great way to promote cycling in the city and get people more motivated to get out and exercise in a fun and safe environment.
The ride is part of a series of bike rides held over the Labor Day weekend and coincides with the Savannah Craft Brew Fest which features local breweries.
The Savannah Century, which features longer bike rides (up to 101 miles) for more serious bike riders, is held the next day on Sunday and covers a lot of the city of Savannah, Port Wentworth and Pooler.
While you may not think riding 100 miles on a bike is a fun way to celebrate the unofficial end of summer, riding bikes can be great family fun and gets you around a lot faster than foot power alone. A decent bike can be purchased for under $100 and a helmet for around $16. If you have a child, there are many organizations that will help find them a bike, even if it is refurbished and not new, you just have to ask around.
Bike riding isn’t just for children though. It is a fun way to get outdoors, get active and share your love of adventure with others while using your own body power and saving gasoline.
It does help to wear some cushioned bike pants if you are going to be traveling more than five or six miles and it is smart to take a bike safety course if you have never ridden a bike before or it has been a long time since you have been on one, especially if you have never ridden in the city where bikes must follow the same rules of automobiles on the streets or be subject to fines.
The money raised from this event went to fund the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, a nonprofit organization that encourages the city to maintain bike paths and plan for new bike routes when putting in new roads, as well as educating the public on bicycle fun and safety.
If biking on the streets is not your thing, there are hundreds of local gyms that offer indoor spin classes or stationary bikes. Some, like the Habersham YMCA even have reclining bikes, so you can sit back and read a magazine while your feet do the pedaling in an air conditioned environment! Then you too can brag that you biked five miles today, just don’t post a picture of yourself on Facebook or you might lose biker credibility and the intimidation factor that makes others envy you, though we like to think of it as our ability to motivate others to get out there and exercise your right to move and feel energized, no matter how you do it or where it is done.