Two weekends ago, when the temperature hit the low 70s and the afternoon sun was warm, but not Memphis hot, my 13-year-old son and I put on our helmets and hopped onto our freshly serviced bikes for a ride.

I had not seriously ridden a bike for a generation, and my son had stayed within the three blocks of our home. But now, as he was getting older, I was encouraging him to explore beyond the neighborhood. And as school vacation was approaching, my wife was searching for a summer activity for him, possibly a camp out of state, about which he was apprehensive.

So we ventured out on our bikes, riding down Kirby Road, then stepping off to cross the busy intersection at Humphreys Boulevard before jumping onto the Greenway.

For those not familiar with it, the Wolf River Greenway is a corridor of protected green space with 10-foot wide pathways. The initial phase was completed in 2010 with trails connecting from Walnut Grove to Shelby Farms. Soon, it will stretch 30 miles from Downtown Memphis to Germantown and Collierville.

I had driven alongside the Greenway for a number of years, and walked on it on several occasions. But it is entirely different when you are on two wheels, compared to when you are on four wheels or two feet.

On the bike, the world moves more slowly than in the car, so you can see the strong current in the muddy waters of the Wolf River as it pushes soda cans and plastic wrappers toward the banks. You can feel the cool spring breeze, and the subtle impact of a headwind or tailwind. Compared to walking, though, on the bike the world moves faster so you are constantly stimulated by new sights — in solitude yet with a companion riding a few yards away.

Being on the bike, I was reminded of the pleasant feeling of my childhood in a suburb of Boston where bikes were the preferred mode of transportation. We would ride into the town center or join a street game of kickball, carelessly laying our bikes on the sidewalk. And I recalled how I had graduated from a bike with a gearless backpedal brake to a 3-speed, then a 5-speed and then the ultimate prize: a 10-speed bike with curved handle bars.

But now my incentive to bike was not transportation but exercise and companionship. On the Greenway, we encountered others like us. We passed a mother with a stroller, a jogger with ear pods, and a father with a trailer carrying young children. A lean biker dressed in yellow and red Spandex sped by us with two water bottles that looked like torpedoes on his bike carrier. Still, for such a beautiful day, I felt there were not enough people on the trail. So many were missing out on the experience that many had worked hard to help build and that our tax dollars had paid for. I also felt a bit embarrassed that I had not taken better advantage of this community treasure until now.

Trailways can truly transform a community. Trails connect neighborhoods and schools, providing a safe haven from traffic. In one survey, 60 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to exercise if trails were created in their community. In one study in Indiana, 70 percent of trail users said they were getting more exercise directly due to the trail.

One 2004 study from Lincoln, Neb., found trails to have significant direct health benefits: “Per capita annual cost of using the trails was $209 ($59 construction and maintenance, $150 equipment and travel). Per capita annual direct medical benefit of using the trails was $564. The cost-benefit ratio was 2.94, which means that every $1 investment in trails for physical activity led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit.”

While I agree with the medical benefits of biking, I am concerned about safety. Each year, more than a half-million people are treated in the emergency room due to biking injures, and 60 percent of the injuries are among children 15 years and younger. Wearing a helmet is critically important to prevent traumatic brain injury.

It was on our way back, while going down a hill, that my son became overconfident with his newfound freedom, and his bicycle wheels took a sudden drop on the uneven pavement close to the sidewalk. I saw his bike sway out of control for a split second. “Slow down,” I yelled from 50 yards behind. Quickly he regained control, enough to prevent a fall — a lesson well learned.

As we parked our bikes in the garage, I asked my son how it felt to venture out of the neighborhood, alluding to the out-of-state summer camp and spreading his wings.

“Cool,” he said with an approving smile.

Source : Commercial Appeal