The September Full Moon
At midnight on a late summer Saturday night, hip-hop music emanated from the traffic-jammed cars surrounding me as I traveled west along Edgewood Avenue with a bike posse. On my first group bike ride, I was both excited and nervous. This ride was supposed to make it across town and back (over 10 miles). Most car-driving Atlantans would be rightly terrified of biking this route. Car traffic, hills, and potholes are enough to scare the average Atlantan. While I was safely helmeted and well-lit, without the collective courage of this group, I likely would have stayed in the boring bar where I started my night. On my own, I could not have imagined cycling across Atlanta. But for that September Full Moon ride, I could have lived forever in ignorance and boredom in my own hometown.
Our motley crew comprised a ride leader on roller skates followed by cyclists of every race and age. We snaked our way through bumper-to-bumper clubbing traffic on Edgewood as onlookers stared at us. Occasionally, a cheerful drunk would greet us with a smile and a “HEY there!” More often, though, car drivers actively ignored us. They were stuck in gridlock; we cyclists were free to weave between lanes. This small gloat eased some of my tension.
Along with the heat, enthusiasm began climbing out of me. Without the layers of car steel as separation, the bumping music sent electric pulses through my body. My Saturday night fever grew, and I felt part of the night’s clubby scene. My bike and I connected with the groove and felt like I was dancing along with the city.
Watch for Plates, Grates, Poles and Assholes
That night, the road hazards that first presented themselves became more apparent. Car drivers seem either distracted, indifferent, or actively vengeful. As we made our way to the west side of town, the occasional smell of Mary Jane and intermittent car honks punctuated our ride. En route, we encountered a sharp left turn and an immediate incline which slowed us all down. A shiny red Dodge Charger got behind the slowest rider (me) and began revving its engine. The car was less than three feet away and intimidating. When I reached the top of the hill, the Dodge and I were waiting at the same red light. As we were stopped together, I told the driver NICELY that his revving was scary. He laughed and told me he was “playing.” Then, the light turned green, and the Charger rolled up his window and sped off. This driver was driving recklessly. I noted the license plate; the other cyclists were unphased. While he was wrong to drive like that, the flow of the evening was so good. The road called us onwards. I let it roll off me as we caught a pleasant downward hill into the west side of town.
I recalled my high school prohibition from entering this neighborhood. It was not considered safe when I was growing up. Now, here in the West End, was another happening corner. A few cool venues caused slowed car traffic. A whole line of scantily clad ladies was waiting to get inside a club. Meanwhile, crowds poured from parking lots and meandered along sidewalks to bars and clubs. From my bike, the excitement was palpable. That first ride showed me my old town in a new way. The Beltline has impacted the city incredibly by connecting previously segregated parts of town. Now, there are open public spaces to hang out and chill. Walking paths meet with restaurant patios giving Atlanta a lively and dynamic vibe. I notice this as I remember my readings about legacy residents being displaced by growing rents, especially in southwest Atlanta.
After we passed the new westside developments, our group found a monster incline around The Gulch. Here I got a real sense of group ride camaraderie. I was sure my clunker of a vintage Schwinn bike was malfunctioning. I found it lying around in my mother’s garage not too long ago. The bike needed TLC, just as I required instruction for going up hills. Oh my god, the HILLS in this town! As I struggled with matching pace with everyone else, I hopped off my bike to push it up the steep incline. A veteran older rider offered to help me. I dismounted and let him take a look at my gear settings. This form of volunteerism was both refreshing and encouraging for me. As I continued to ride, I noticed that there are many good bike Samaritans among the group rides.
No club, dive bar, or café could meet the zest of cycling through Atlanta’s entertainment district on a Saturday night. After the ride, I felt electric. Every cell in my body demanded I dance, move, groove. Thanks to this ride, I felt thoroughly connected and immersed in the city for the first time since my repatriation. While I developed my passion for bike riding in Tokyo, riding where I grew up is a whole new beast. Since that Saturday night, I haven’t seen the city the same way. Since then, I have been hooked.
Bikes with the Final Word
Atlanta does not immediately pose herself as a bike-friendly town. The tenor of car driving is aggressive and irreverent towards human life. The public infrastructure is entirely car-based. For the tiny bit of bike infrastructure, there is very little enforcement. Cyclists are left to fend for their own safety. While mutual aid and camaraderie are the natural results of being relegated by the car culture, the future is increasingly anti-car. Cars are pollutants, dangerous to pedestrian safety, and cost us a time tax. They increase the cost of street maintenance, take up too much parking space, and are expensive to maintain. As the city embraces more progressive demands from its residents, the gospel of bike life is spreading. Until then, Atlanta is a car town with an addictive bike habit.