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Kyle Eller: Bikes can be an antidote for high gas bills, road rage

I had a great commute this morning. I'm sure that sounds rather strange, especially when you hear I go from a neighborhood west of Mesaba Avenue (Duluth's version of the Mason-Dixon line) to the Budgeteer News offices in the heart of downtown, a ...

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I had a great commute this morning.
I'm sure that sounds rather strange, especially when you hear I go from a neighborhood west of Mesaba Avenue (Duluth's version of the Mason-Dixon line) to the Budgeteer News offices in the heart of downtown, a round-trip of about six miles.
By Duluth standards there are far better commutes. Like maybe all of them. The stone cliffs and occasional view of the harbor are nice, but let's face it -- the distinguishing characteristics of this trip are potholes, snarled traffic, a looping maze of freeway and what could generously be called urban-industrial architecture.
Absent is the panorama of Mesaba Avenue and Central Entrance, the glimmering sun or whitecaps on Lake Superior seen from London Road, the puttering through charming residential neighborhoods Woodland workers enjoy. Hillside residents get exciting hills, and Superiorites savor unexcelled harbor and sun views from the bridges.
Those traveling from southern bedroom communities at least crest Thompson Hill. The typical short slam down Interstate 35 is drudgery by comparison.
The difference today was that I wasn't sitting in a car, flipping back and forth between 0 and 65 miles per hour and zoning out to KUMD. I was on a bike, alive every minute.
The choice presents drawbacks, my acceleration -- maybe 0-20 in 30 seconds going down a decent hill -- for starters. I am continually being passed, and the trip takes me a few extra minutes.
There's rain and cold weather. Then there's the safety factor in sharing the same roads as SUVs. Not even counting downtown traffic, Michigan Street, Superior Street and First Street routes from the west are unattractive options. First Street is filled with blind curves. Michigan Street merges with West Superior Street anyway, and it's a veritable speedway in the morning. West Superior Street has heavy traffic.
Special danger zones are the merge point with Michigan and any intersection with Mesaba. Worst is the return trip, where leaving downtown on West Superior Street this intersection puts little biker man in competition with two lanes of irritable 60-mph Mesaba-to-I-35 commuters. Not recommended for cyclists, even with full body armor.
A better option is bypassing Mesaba via the walkway from West Superior over I-35, cutting on the bike trail toward the DECC and angling up to Michigan Street by the Depot.
It's not a shortcut, exactly, but a "safecut."
Even the health effects are debatable. Exercise, good; lungfuls of diesel fumes and exhaust, bad. There is no car-free Lakewalk through this part of town.
So what's to like about all this? There are the obvious things, like reduced gas costs. Greenies know pedaling is more environmentally friendly, powered only by morning breakfast cereal. (I, personally, give off few emissions, although your mileage may vary.)
There are more vigilant bike commuters than me. I do it occasionally -- late spring, summer and early fall, zero to three times a week depending on mood, weather and where my interviews are. But on the days I do, I help ease the parking crunch and the morning traffic for my fellow commuters. You're all welcome.
As you might guess, those aren't my main reasons. Briefly living at a different pace than the rest of the world has benefits. You notice things: near the Depot, there are some flower beds, shaped like butterflies. You can see this from the freeway, for less than a minute, but what you can't see is the rarely mowed section of grass right next to it, where a profusion of wildflowers spills yellows, purples, whites and oranges into the green. Beautiful.
And challenging as it may be to disengage myself from a car-centric mind-set -- unless I watch myself, I still tend to pace myself with traffic, rather than my body -- the stress relief is immediate when I do so.
This morning, I had 15 extra minutes of a glorious late summer morning, a blessing that would have passed largely unappreciated on my drive. I spend, literally, less than a minute outside when driving.
I'm in a different, better frame of mind when I bike. So yes, it's a physical challenge. The first day or two after every layoff even the mild hills on this route are plodding. I remember biking every summer day up the Soo Hill in Moose Lake where I grew up, usually in my 12-speed's top gear. It doesn't work that way anymore.
I've been rained on, and my helmet looks dumb. But I wouldn't trade that handful of enjoyable trips. If you're looking for a change of pace or a way to hit the oil companies where they hurt, you could do worse than a little morning and afternoon pedal time.
Kyle Eller is a Budgeteer reporter and columnist. You can reach him at 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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