Harold Karabell gives us an insight into how he uses his Brompton and why he loves cycling in St Louis and other cities around the U.S.
How would you describe cycling in St. Louis?
For an educated cyclist—one who’s become knowledgeable either by experience or by having taken a good traffic skills course such as Cycling Savvy or by some combination of the two—bicycling in any city in the country is truly a joy. Without exception, cities are best seen and explored on two wheels. St. Louis is a relatively small municipality, an historic city of only c. 60 square miles that has not expanded physically since 1876. It is a city with a population severely diminished from its 1950 peak, but one surrounded by suburbs and exurbs that seem to stretch without end to the north, south, east, and west of the Mississippi River. Because of the City's small physical size coupled with a mostly pre-automotive grid of interconnected streets, bicycle commuting is quite easy within St. Louis itself. Through a combination of bus, light rail, and
off-road trails, it is possible, although not always easy, to travel on two wheels beyond the old ring suburbs.
The City of St. Louis, in conjunction with local bicycle enthusiasm organization Trailnet and taxpayer-funded Great Rivers Greenway, has made a serious effort to construct a network of both separate infrastructure and off-road trails. Like everywhere else in the country,
the infrastructure ranges from on-road sharrows to door zone bike lanes to separated and protected bike lanes and side paths. These vary greatly in terms of design, safety, and maintenance. In general, however, it is both possible and desirable to practice lane control without much difficulty at all anywhere in the historic city. And like all other cities throughout the country as well, St. Louis has seen a significant increase in the past decade alone in the number of both transportational cyclists and recreational riders.
How do you use your Brompton bike?
My regular St. Louis ride is a Surly Cross-Check, the company’s cyclocross model. It’s a joy to use for commuting, shopping, and just plain pleasure. But when I want to add even more joy than usual to my ride, I turn to the Brompton for the full range of my transportation needs, including even some fairly heavy hauling--such as shopping for my 15 year-old cat, a formerly active indoor-outdoor Tom who in his dotage now mainly lives to eat. Several years ago, Karen purchased the Brompton for me as an anniversary present, with the intent that the new bike would become my other regular travel companion. Her own folding bike is, inexplicably, a BikeFriday, but she knew that the Brompton’s portability and ease of operation would be the better choice for her husband of three decades. After so many years together, Karen wisely understood that I never could abide the time and the tools required to assemble and disassemble a bike like her own.
Apart from airlines, trains, the occasional bus, and my own two feet, the Brompton has become my exclusive means of transportation in cities throughout the country. The T Bag is my sole piece of luggage, not including the hard case in which the Brompton travels while in-flight. The bicycle’s rear rack and bungee cords sometimes carry a bag or two for others who might be traveling with us.
Most recently, I rode the Brompton in New York from Penn Station and across the Manhattan Bridge as far east as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. On a several hour layover in Chicago, the Brompton took me within three houses of President Obama’s residence in the Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood; the Secret Service’s interest in the bike no doubt helped moderate what otherwise might have been a harsher response to an unauthorized visit.
Two years ago, on a trip exclusively to Manhattan, the Brompton traveled nearly the entire length of the West Side Greenway, from Lower Manhattan to the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Then it was back to the Village through Harlem and the East Side, all on avenues and cross streets. In the several years that the Brompton has made it possible for me to explore urban America easily and joyously, the bike’s sole complaint has been with the hills (mountains?) of San Francisco!
How did you get into cycling?
I’ve long had a serious quarrel with car culture. More than 40 years ago as a young adult I began to explore alternatives to auto-dependency, stimulated, in part, by a counter-culture emphasis on environmental stewardship and simple living. But that initial interest became a nearly full-time transportational choice only approximately 20 years ago, for all the usual reasons of culture, foreign policy, and health. I have absolutely no interest in racing and little more in long-distance riding. But nothing gives me more pleasure than cycling my way to a date with a good veggie burger. Forty-five years ago I knew only one—yes, one!—adult who rode his bicycle with any regularity whatsoever. And veggie burgers were non-existent in most American restaurants. Sometimes the culture does change for the better!
What advice would you give to anyone considering cycling in St. Louis?
Save your money to buy a wonderfully-built and hopefully long-lasting machine like a Brompton or a Surly; try to live and work in a sustainable neighborhood; take a good bicycle education class like Cycling Savvy; obey traffic signals and all other rules of the road if at all possible; use redundant lighting at night; always give that rare rude and hyper-territorial motorist a full five-fingered salute; stay well-hydrated in St. Louis' extremely hot and humid summers; and beware of potholes and longitudinal cracks, which the city sadly has in abundance. Apart from that, just enjoy the ride!
When you’re not commuting, where are your favorite places to visit by bike?
Any place with a good veggie burger, of course, and maybe a Steigl Radler as well (I usually caution against drinking and driving. But the Radler, as its name implies, was brewed specifically with bicyclists in mind)! Too many St. Louis neighborhoods have hemorrhaged population and capital in the past 60 years, but every neighborhood in the city, rehabbed or otherwise, retains a wealth of remarkable, all-brick structures. There is no better-built city in the entire country.
St. Louis’ two historic “rural cemeteries” are among the very best places in which to view magnificent funerary architecture and gorgeous foliage, as well as to contemplate the transitory nature of life for even the once-famous and the once-rich (with the graves of such luminaries as William Tecumseh Sherman, Tennessee Williams, Dred Scott, Kate Chopin, William Clark, Thomas Hart Benton, Adolphus Busch, and William S. Burroughs, among others).
If you could go on one cycling adventure, where would you go and why?
Usually back to the last city that I’ve explored on two wheels! I’m ready to stow the Brompton in my sleeping car compartment on Amtrak and head back to Brooklyn, re-visiting beloved haunts and seeing everything that was on my initial itinerary but that I missed for lack of time rather than of desire.