August 3, 2009 / 10:05 AM / 8 years ago

Bicycling: easy riding for rocky times

<p>A cyclist rides along a bicycle lane in Beijing November 19, 2007. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Want to strike a blow against rising transit fares, costly oil, global warming and obesity at one fell swoop?

Ride a bike.

Not since Dorothy’s dog-napping nemesis pedaled inside that Kansas cyclone in the “Wizard of Oz” has the humble bicycle been lifted by such a perfect storm.

“There aren’t many other fun things you can do to get healthy, protect the environment, and save money on oil and transportation at the same time,” said Barbara Ross, of Time’s Up, a grassroots environmental group that promotes cycling in New York City.

Ross, a cyclist for 15 years, is delighted these days to see so many New Yorkers pedaling along the new, green-colored bicycle lanes that line major Manhattan avenues.

“With more people on the street, we’ll keep the bike revolution going,” she said.

Ross is also a regular at Critical Mass group rides.

Leaderless, free and open to all, those events began in San Francisco in the 1990’s to encourage urban biking. Now they take place in hundreds of cities worldwide.

And then there’s the Lance effect.

“Lance Armstrong plays into the concept that it’s okay to be on a bike,” Ross said of the seven-time Tour de France champion who gave biking its first global superstar.

“But for me cycling is a functional way to get exercise,” said Ross. “I‘m just a commuter.”

Despite its trendy present, the bicycle has always been a sensible way of getting from A to B.

German Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn invented the Running Machine, a pre-bicycle, in 1816, as a way to get around his gardens. It was steerable, pedal-less and made entirely of wood. The baron pushed his feet against the ground to make it move.

Things improved when French carriage maker Ernest Michaux invented his pedal in 1861, paving the way for early vehicles like the Penny Farthing, the Hobbyhorse, and the Boneshaker.

The streamers, banana seats, helmets and training wheels came later.

“I just returned from a 25-mile ride, beating out a thunderstorm,” Dr. Barbara Bushman, of the American College of Sports Medicine, said in an interview.

“As exercise, bicycling accommodates people who would not be candidates for high-intensity running,” said Bushman, a professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Missouri State University.

An avid trail biker herself, Bushman said bicycling is primarily a cardio workout that targets the lower extremities.

“A comprehensive fitness program must also look at resistance training and flexibility,” she said.

And she cautions would-be riders to take a moment before putting rubber to road.

“Get the seat and handlebars set up appropriately,” she said. “It’s just crazy how some seats are too low. People can really burn their legs out.”

If there’s a downside, blame Mother Nature.

”You’re a bit at the mercy of the weather,“ she admits. ”I’ve had friends wind up with frostbitten hands. There are days when it’s too dangerous.

“But bicycling can be an adventure,” she adds. “You can go places, and cover more distance than in a running or walking program.”

She sees it as a win-win situation.

“Not only are you saving dollars on gas costs, but doing good things for environment, as well as for your health,” she said.

“So actually, it’s a win-win-win.”

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