The kindness of strangers

Carrying my bike down my front porch steps into a cold early morning drizzle I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I wanted to show up rain-soaked to take a class with a bunch of strangers — even if they were all cyclists themselves. But I was already in my gear, pack loaded, and I didn’t feel like changing.

I made my way around Lake Calhoun, hopped on the Midtown Greenway to the River Road, and crossed over the Ford Parkway bridge. As I headed north toward campus, the mist turned to light rain. Parking my bike in a nearby ramp, I found my way to the third floor of the Transportation and Safety building and into the conference room that would be my home for the weekend.

Over the next few minutes, a dozen other bedraggled cyclists trickled in, unpacking pannier bags and backpacks, removing wet shoe covers, and studiously readying notepads and pens. All were complete strangers to me — or so I thought.

We were embarking on our first of five days of training by the League of American Bicyclists to become certified cycling instructors, equipped to teach safe road biking. Given the recent spate of fatal bike accidents, our training couldn’t come soon enough.

Biking in the Twin Cities is growing at the fastest rate in the country according to recent census data. In Minneapolis alone, those cycling to work shot up more than 50 percent last year.

Fortunately, the rate of serious bike accidents appears to be rising more slowly than might be expected. Of course, that’s small solace to the family and friends of cyclists killed this year, including four in September alone.

So I was warmed by the selfless responses to the question: “Why are you here?” posed by our instructor, Steve Clark, Transit for Livable Communities’ Bicycling & Walking Program manager. All wanted to promote safe biking and teach others the joy of riding with confidence on the road.

There was Tom from Maplewood, a cyclist in his early 50s, who discovered biking just a few years ago and now rides nearly 40 miles roundtrip to his finance job in Minneapolis; Mary from MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation), who pleaded with classmates to send her e-mail and get involved in the construction project planning process; and Tracy, a self-described “bike retailer” who brought in free inner tubes for everyone on the second day of class.

Then there was Steve, who sat across the table from me with a wry and knowing little smile whenever I looked over at him. Perhaps I had seen him on the road somewhere?

At the end of the first day, as we geared up for the ride home, the rain was coming down harder than ever. Tom offered to join me along the River Road. We chatted amiably about biking and life as the cold rain pelted us and wind gusts swallowed our words. He rode five extra miles in the downpour just to talk.

Day two was test day. After finishing our written exams, we headed back out into the rain for road testing. We traded off leading our groups through traffic, signaling turns, crossing multiple lanes of heavy traffic, positioning ourselves properly in our lanes.

During a break, I turned to Steve and said: “You look really familiar. Did I meet you during one of my rides to work, maybe at the café in Hopkins?”

His smile broadened. “You were riding your bike back from Duluth and you got lost. I helped you find your way back to the parkway.”

I was dumbstruck. It had been over a year since our chance encounter near North Mississippi Park.

“Steve!” I exclaimed. “North Side Steve? I don’t believe it!”

A year ago last June, I took a one-day solo bike ride back from Duluth to Minneapolis. After more than 10 hot hours on the bike, I was a little tired and more than a little disoriented. Steve found me down by the water’s edge folding and unfolding my map.

He said he’d help me find my way but only if I promised to come back and ride the trails in his neighborhood again. Here was a true ambassador. A neighborhood champion. A proud resident of the city’s North Side.

“It’s a deal,” I said. He guided me along a labyrinth of paths I never could have navigated alone. I thanked him heartily when we reached the familiar terrain of Victory Memorial Parkway and rode the last 10 miles home basking in the afterglow of our exchange.

For weeks after the ride, I reminisced about its highs and lows, always coming back to the memory of the friendly stranger who set me back on the right path. I returned to ride in his neighborhood, but after a few months of doing so I figured we’d never cross paths again.

And now here he was, remembering me as well as I did him. In fact, he reminded me that the trip was a Father’s Day gift from my wife and suggested I thank her again.

I don’t know if cyclists are friendlier on average than most people, but I do know that strangers who meet on bikes aren’t strangers for long. Sure, it was just one rainy weekend in September, but I consider these people friends, even if we don’t cross paths again for years.

Best wishes to everyone working to build safe and friendly communities, for cyclists, and for all of us.

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