By SJ Punderson
Editor’s note: This is the first profile in our Routes series, written by SJ Punderson, which takes a look at Philadelphia cyclists and their routes to and from their daily destinations. For more information, click here.
There isn’t much Elisabeth Reinkordt can’t do on her trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker commuter bike.
“I’ve carried a pizza,” Reinkordt said during a recent visit to her South Philadelphia row home to talk about bicycling in Philadelphia. “You have to be able to ride one handed and balance the pizza on the front. Use the right brake, which controls the back wheel. The left brake is connected to the front tire, so you’d go over the handlebars if you used that one-handed.”
Ceramic cats paw at the window of Reinkordt’s cozy South Philadelphia row home, which she shares with husband Willem Heydendael. On a foggy weekday morning before we headed out on a ride together, the clouds over the city skyline were swollen but undecided.
“I’ve got fenders and rain gear,” she said.
I, on the other hand, did not.
“My college roommate lives on my block,” Reinkordt said, before noting there’s great mix of inter-generational Italian families, along with some Central American and Vietnamese neighbors that make for South Philadelphia’s melting pot.
In “Cheesesteak Vegas”, as Reinkordt jokingly referred to the neighborhood, she has everything she needs close by. The Acme, the Italian Market, and bodegas were all within easy walking or biking distance.
She and Heydendael often pick up their Red Earth Farm CSA by bike.
Street motor vehicle parking, according to Reinkordt, is a nightmare, but the couple has one car.
“We mostly use it to get to bike races,” she said.
Before we left her home, Reinkordt wanted to show me the bicycle storage situation. We’d been discussing the challenges city-dwellers face when it comes to finding a place for their bikes. Reinkordt led me into the basement.
Tubes and tires were tossed like horseshoes over wooden stands in the unfinished room. Orange, bright blue, and black frames decorated the subterranean walls. A metal chainring seemed to reflect off a single metallic blue clip-in shoe that stood in the middle of it all, watching over the animated chaos.
“This is what happens when two cyclists get married,” Reinkordt deadpanned.
Ribbons still clung to the couple’s tandem bicycle that was dressed with colorful ribbon and a “Just Married” sign. Reinkordt and Heydendael were married this past summer in their backyard.
Reinkordt works in the Graduate School of Education at University of Pennsylvania. Her daily three-mile route weaves through South Philly, west to the Spruce Street bike lane, over the South Street Bridge and finally to Penn’s campus.
“Since 2014, I haven’t missed a single day of commuting by bike,” Reinkordt said. “Even in terrible weather, it’s the best, fastest, and cheapest way to get from home to work and back.”
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Reinkordt wasn’t always a cyclist. Her family moved to her grandparent’s family farm, 15 miles outside the city, when she was a teenager.
“When we moved to the farm, my Dad thought it would be a fun idea to bike there,” she said. “It was the most fraught ride ever! We ran over goathead thorns and got so many flat tires. My dad had this terrible little pump that he used. We would ride as far as we could, until he had to pump them up again, the whole way there.”
Bikes didn’t factor into Reinkordt’s life for several years after that, as she moved east for college. Eventually, she moved back to Lincoln and picked up biking again.
“Lincoln isn’t known for its public transit,” she said. “It’s a flat, car-centric city.”
Reinkordt bought a vintage Schwinn cruiser, and gradually became friends with other cyclists. Soon after, she got her first road bike. This was 2005, before ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft existed. For her, biking was the best way to get around.
“There was a summer where I went on increasingly long bike adventures,” she said. “I started riding further and further.”
By 2009, Reinkordt had participated in her first overnight bike trip, the Bike Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN). The week-long ride was a turning point for her.
“BRAN is 800 people riding their bikes across the state of Nebraska,” she said. “Basically, a tamer version of RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).”
“I was going through some personal stuff around this time and I realized this bike was providing me with a space where I had freedom, independence, and control at a time when I really needed it.”
Always on the look out for her next challenge, Reinkordt got into cyclocross.
“Cyclocross is a weird sport,” she said. “There are obstacles, steep climbs, and dismounting. It’s fast, hard and happens in city parks. It’s really fun.”
She’s been competing in cyclocross for over eight years now and currently serves as the volunteer co-director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s Women Bike PHL racing development team, along with Michelle Lee.
“We’re developing beginner women racers,” she said. “There’s a longheld myth in the bike racing world that women aren’t interested in competing. It’s quite the opposite, but conditions aren’t provided that make it appealing to women.”
Reinkordt is working hard to change that. She gets up early a few days a week to train with the team. The women learn more than just cycling skills, as they are shown how to lead rides, and how to safely ride together in groups.
“We do a summer series called the Women’s 100,” Reinkordt said. “It builds up to an eventual 100 kilometer ride that’s led by alumni from our development team. This summer, we rode to Atlantic City.”
Back on her morning commute, Reinkordt stopped to show me the sights. We passed her favorite crossing guard, who waved hello, outside the Universal Charter School.
“That guy makes my day,” she said.
At morning rush hour, the South Street Bridge was packed with pedestrians, cyclists, and cars. The intersection seemed to be a good example of how everyone got along when they stayed in their lanes. Cyclists 10-deep lined up behind us and waited for the light to turn.
“As soon as she moved to Philly, I was so impressed with how calmly Elisabeth dealt with traffic situations,” said Heydendael. “It was like watching a master class in measured responses.”
Several blocks later, Reinkordt paused at the intersection of 38th and Spruce.
“This would be an ideal place to try a ‘cyclists only’ turn signal,” she said. “Pedestrians go whenever they want, and impede the right of way of the cars turning. Add cyclists into the mix, and it’s a really big mess.”
Otherwise, she was happy to expound on the positives of being on two wheels.
“When I moved to Philly in my thirties, I instantly had a community of friends with bikes,” Reinkordt said. “That community keeps growing here. To be able to live in a big city and have access to mountain biking, cyclocross and road trails, that’s pretty unheard of.”