I fork over the equivalent of $6 and hop on the bike. It’s mine for the day. For the first time in weeks I have my own ride. This rusty contraption that holds two wheels together gives me an exhilarating rush of freedom. I grin like a mad woman for the first two miles. I’m so happy to be off my feet that I don’t even mind the motorcycles, cars and buses that come within inches of grazing my handlebars.
I could really get used to this biking thing. Slightly delusional images of myself biking through the San Juan islandsand completing triathlons in 8-panal bike shorts fill my mind as I roll down the streets of Suzhou on my pink one-speed.
Then the self doubt starts. I remind myself that this is a one-off. I wouldn’t be able to change a flat tire and I’d be screwed if a hill popped up. Who am I kidding? I’m not a biker! Then I think back fifteen years. That stops the negativity.
Because a decade and a half ago, I wasn’t a runner either.
In middle school I HATED running. With a passion. I used to conjure up every excuse in the book in attempt to get out of the 1/2 a mile “fun run” around the school. When the excuses didn’t work I’d make it about forty steps before slowing to a walk, red faced with over-exertion and shame.
But in high school I was jealous of the track team with their cool sweatshirts and their close-knit team bond. A friend talked me into joining the team on the false pretense that I could throw or jump – no running required!
It was a season of humiliation and misery. Throwing and jumping did not turn out to be my great hidden talents. But by the end of May, I could run a mile. Barely, but I could. I kept running all summer and something finally clicked. I joined the cross country team in the fall and to everyone’s amazement I somehow made varsity.
The rest of my high school days were filled with team dinners, mile repeats, races in the rain, captains patches on my letter jacket, and the finishing chute of a marathon. Since then, running has given me an excuse to travel. It’s been a cornerstone of friendships. It’s an escape from cancer diagnoses and the end of relationships. Plus running has kept my thighs in check. (Well, kind of). I don’t know who I’d be today if I wasn’t a runner.
So maybe I could be a biker. I power up the hill and avoid hitting a family of Chinese people on a scooter. I’m pedaling fast and smiling again. Who knows what great new things biking could give me? This ride through the smoggy streets of Suzhoumay be the start of something great.
To rent bikes in Suzhou, find the new Suzhou art museum on Renmin Lu (road.) Turn into the alley just past the museum (towards town). The alley is behind shot #2061. There will be a bike rental sign (in English!) pointing you in the right direction. Look for this guy:
He’ll hand you an explanation of his policies, which basically state that the bike is your until 6:00pm and you have to give him 200 yuan (about $30) as a deposit. The rental fee is another 60 yuan. The bike comes with a lock as well.
The shop is near the tallest pagoda in town, which is handy when you are finding your way back. That pagoda is on 1918 Renmin Lu.
The people of Suzhou are helpful almost to a fault. Every time I stepped to check out my map it wouldn’t take two seconds for someone to ask:
“May I help you?” Everyone would ask me this, even if that line is the only English they know. I started making up questions to ask people, because it was easier than declining or refusing any help.
“North?” I’d ask the helpful person, pointing in a random direction.
“North.” The helpful person would confirm.
We’d nod our heads at each other, satisfied with our mutual geographic knowledge and then head our separate ways.