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To work on two wheels


Gillian Hallmen is about to commit "bike suicide," as she calls it.

Once or twice a month she hauls her bicycle from the mudroom of her blue-shingle home in Overlea to pedal around Lake Montebello or take a leisurely ride on a park trail.

But this morning, she is tackling a trip that has received only her most fleeting thoughts in the past: riding her bike to work.

Hallmen, 32, decided to try this commute on an impulse after learning about the state's Bike to Work Day during a health fair at Coppin State College, where she is associate director of the school's counseling center.

"I don't see it being a one-time thing if I'm successful," she says.

But she has plenty of reservations.

Never having done this before, she's uncertain how difficult it will be to negotiate the hills she encounters. And she still has vivid memories of the cyclist she once saw slam into the opening door of a parked car.

Worried about the return trip, she has left her car at the college to drive home.

Her husband, Gary, is less than pleased about the whole idea. He wants to drive her at least part of the way into town.

"It's the traffic," he says, weaving his hand through the air.

At 6 a.m., he's pacing nervously around the living room as his wife tightens her helmet and packs up her cellular phone and a water bottle.

There's no changing her mind. It could be a one-time adventure, she says. Or it might be the start of a routine that would give her more exercise and mean one less car on the roads.

"Now I'm in, and now it's on," she says, heading out the door. She gives her husband a big kiss, promises to call when she arrives, then shoves off down Greenhill Avenue.

It turns out she had underestimated herself. The hills are not so tough after all, the traffic not too bad at this hour. There are no sudden car-door openings, nor the irritable motorists she had feared. And on a day when temperatures reach the high 80s, it's probably her only opportunity to feel a cool breeze.

Much of the trip down Harford Road is downhill, and Hallmen is surprised as she turns a bend to see the City Hall dome below and so close.

Her arms shoot victoriously into the air.

"There's the city!"

Within a few minutes, she's at the Inner Harbor, where she has decided to join about 50 other cyclists for a coffee-and-bagel gathering, organized for Bike to Work Day. Hallmen had expected the 5.9-mile ride to take her two hours, but she arrives 50 minutes after leaving home.

"It's a healthy way to get to work and a good way to help us clean the air in Baltimore," Redier White of the Maryland Department of Environment says about bicycle commuting. MDE sponsored yesterday's event, along with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Council and local businesses.

The bottom line: At least 1,300 miles are cycled instead of driven by commuters during the day, although it's impossible for state officials to know exactly how many people participate.

Most of the cyclists who show up at the Inner Harbor are die-hards. The miles they ride each week often include commuting time. For them, this is no sweat.

Hallmen is less confident. She still has a few miles to go, and she's worried that they'll be mostly uphill. Also on her mind: that she'll need a little preparation time before she gets behind her desk.

"I'm going to have to take a shower, fix my hair, throw on my heels and a suit," she says. To keep things simple, she has left a change of clothes at the office. "It takes a whole lot of planning and forethought."

At the harbor, she meets a colleague from work, Paschal Odemokpa, a dedicated cyclist who suggests a route to the campus that is less hilly than the one she had mapped out.

Even so, the second leg of the ride is harder. "Way harder," she says, her face beaded with perspiration. "I'm dying here."

It takes about 30 minutes to reach Coppin. By the time she arrives, she has cycled 10.5 miles, all before 9 a.m.

"I'm a little tired, but now I can brag," she says.

She had little difficulty moving through the traffic, yet it's an intimidating obstacle that will probably keep her from doing this again. If only the city reserved a narrow lane on some streets for cyclists, she says, "I think the drivers and the cyclists would both feel safer."

Penny Troutner, chairwoman of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Bicycle Advisory Council, says planned improvements to Charles Street should include bike lanes. The council is pushing for similar lanes to be included as other streets are upgraded.

But until then, Hallmen says, she'll probably try carpooling.

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