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Human-powered commute: wheeling to work

As Greg Cantori speeds down South Hanover Street and begins the gentle climb over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, he looks like a banana in motion:

He's wearing a bright yellow shirt, bright yellow gloves, bright yellow socks, and bright yellow bicycle helmet.

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"That's my ride-to-survive color," says Cantori. "Here's my rule: The weirder you look, the safer you are."

Despite (or maybe because of) his garish appearance, Cantori would make a worthy poster boy for Baltimore's annual Bike to Work Day, which -- for all you oblivious automobile junkies -- is today.

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The 45-year-old executive director of a philanthropic foundation in Hampden, Cantori has been pedaling to work, when the weather cooperates, for 13 years, usually leaving his Pasadena home at 6:15 a.m. while the air is relatively exhaust-free and arriving at his office by 7:30 a.m., before the photocopy machines have even warmed up.

He rides a bright red Cannondale touring bike with wide tires to help cushion potholes. It weighs a hefty 42 pounds fully loaded with fenders, rear rack and small gear bag. Cantori -- a bicycle mechanic during his undergraduate days at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- powers along at a steady but strong 18 mph: 22 miles each way; some 7,000 total commuting miles a year.

Cantori regularly rows a shell on Bodkin Creek, sails, and takes his dog on long walks. But cycling is what keeps him most sane, as well as fit.

"He gets sort of cranky if he doesn't ride," says his wife, Renee. "He feels he needs to get out on the bike if it's been more than a couple of days."

No one has ever mistaken South Baltimore for the south of France. The first half of Cantori's commute is relatively peaceful. Then he crosses the city line and, immediately, the shoulder of the road disappears. The landscape turns industrial.

By the time he hits the intersection of West Patapsco Avenue and South Hanover Street, Cantori is in "grin-and-bear-it" mode. Trucks and buses and cars clog the roadway, battling him for position. The hostility index soars.

"It's very sad to see folks trapped inside their motorized wheelchairs, thrashing, screaming," Cantori wrote of angry motorists in his online commuting diary in January after witnessing a traffic tantrum.

Some drivers curse him for having the audacity to be on their road. Others have to be on their road. Others have tossed half-full beer cans.

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One day, Cantori caught a whiff of what smelled like a dead body. He later called the police and, indeed, it turned out a homeless man had expired in knee-high weeds by the roadside.

What may sound like a nerve-racking daily ritual is Cantori's favorite stress release. He's not moving entirely through enemy territory. There's that friendly chap in the Jaguar who always sticks a hand through his sunroof and waves; the guy in the red truck who always gives him the thumbs-up sign.

Just being on a bike lifts his spirits, but watching the sun rise as you glide over Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge -- puffs of morning mist rising from the water, early-bird crewers catching a workout -- can border on a mystical experience.

"I feel like I'm floating across the road, almost flying," says Cantori.

Traffic builds to a crescendo as he nears the Inner Harbor. Vans and trucks engulf him. His Cannondale suddenly seems like it's made out of pipe cleaners.

"I call this the mice among the elephants," says Cantori, feeling small as he waits for a red light to change on Light Street by the Key Highway merge.

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Shoot up Calvert Street from Pratt, ride north on an incline for about a mile, slice left behind the train station and pick up Falls Road, negotiate the construction zones and finish strong on the two hills leading into Hampden.

Time to shower, change clothes and reflect on how lucky he is not to be trapped inside a "motorized wheelchair."

"Car commercials try to show cars as exciting -- jumping hills, riding rugged terrain," says Cantori. "The reality is a cyclist gets to experience that fun every day."

At 5 feet 11 and 163 pounds, Cantori is built like Lance Armstrong: lean up top, bulging calf muscles below.

He never gains more than 7 pounds because he logs so many hours on his bicycle. "It's a high-calorie burner, and it's not traumatic to the body," he says of cycling.

Yet bike commuters remain a novelty act in America. Automobile dependence seems an ingrained cultural trait.

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"If everybody who lives under 10 miles from their workplace rode [their bike] once a week, that's a huge impact on air quality," says Jamie Bridges, bicycle-pedestrian planner for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a nonprofit organization active in regional transportation and air-quality initiatives.

It helps, of course, to get into the habit early. Cantori lived near Culver City, Calif., until age 10 and remembers exploring abandoned movie studio back lots on his bicycle, pedaling through faux cowboy towns and World War II battlefields.

His father taught school in Egypt for four years, and Cantori rode everywhere in Cairo. He got so accustomed to getting around on two wheels that he didn't bother getting a driver's license until he was 23.

Kids today are different. They're more likely to depend on their parents for chauffeur service. They're less inclined to hop on a bike and just take off.

"It's a very sad thing," says Cantori. "I think they're missing out on the adventure and the responsibility."

He and Renee like to take "human-powered vacations," meaning bike trips. A few years ago, they went to the Netherlands. In a way, it was like being on a Hollywood back lot again. Everything seemed so perfect.

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The Dutch are fanatical cyclists. About one-quarter of them supposedly commute by bike. Cantori saw old women with rock-hard calves riding to the market, businessmen in dress suits riding to the office.

When school let out, children climbed on their bicycles and rode home together, often with arms draped over one another's shoulders.

"Legions of them, all riding and laughing," says Cantori. "It was fantastic."

Carless

Greg Cantori insists bike commuting isn't only for veteran cyclists. "Anyone in average health should be able to ride 5 to 10 miles to work," he says. Here are a few ways to get started:

Browse Cantori's Web site at www.cantori.com. You'll find his bike commuting diary and cycling-related links. Cantori is a board member of One Less Car, a nonprofit group working to create a more bike-friendly environment. For details, go to www.onelesscar.org.

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Visit a local bike shop. Most owners will help novice commuters by explaining the necessary equipment and road etiquette. Some offer introductory cycling classes. Cantori is a fan of Light Street Cycles on Federal Hill.

You can never be too safety conscious. In addition to wearing a helmet, Cantori rides with a headlight day and night, and has plastered his shoe tips, pedal crank and wheel rims with bits of reflector tape.

He always waits in line with cars at red lights: Many drivers don't look kindly on cyclists who jump queues.

Want to practice before hitting the road? Cantori recommends the B&A; Trail in Anne Arundel County because it's paved and flat. It's a "great place to develop basic bike skills," he says.


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