By: SJ Punderson
It was drizzling the first time I met Rich Laverty. The clouds were rumbling behind the South Street Bridge, the direction he had come from after leaving work in Ridley Park. Laverty, an engineer from Greeley Colorado, stopped mid-way through his ride home to Chestnut Hill to chat. He was about halfway into his 25 mile each-way ride. In retrospect, the weather was a good indication of the kind of cyclist Laverty is. Mild weather changes don’t seem to bother this guy.
As Laverty, 46, told me about how he ended up in northwest Philadelphia a few years ago, rain began to really pelt my phone, which was recording the conversation. I tried to tough it out, as he didn’t seem to notice.
“Weather will prevent me from riding sometimes,” he said. “I won’t ride in the snow.”
The rain had transformed into a full-blown downpour, and so we ducked inside to finish out the conversation. Laverty decided to continue his daily commute on bike when he and his wife, Kathleen, moved from Center City to Chestnut Hill. He does it less now, once or twice a week, but really looks forward to the alone time, and the exercise.
“I hate driving,” he said. “If traffic is clear, it’s a 45 minute commute, and if not, it’s longer.”
Many cyclists can understand Laverty’s aversion to sitting in car traffic. His total mileage, a whopping 50 miles, is the furthest of any of the Routes bike commuters interviewed thus far. He starts in Chestnut Hill, skirts the Wissahickon Park and hops on the paved path where Lincoln Drive meets Forbidden Drive.
From there, it’s Kelly Drive to South Street, where he exits the trail and follows Gray’s Ferry over the river, turns onto Lindbergh Ave South towards the Heinz Wildlife Refuge, where Bartram connects Lindbergh and Industrial Highway 291.
“Rich is a beast on the bike,” said Laverty’s friend, Andy Andrews. “The worse the terrain, the better he is. It doesn’t surprise me that he is one of the few that would make that commute.”
In college, Laverty started mountain biking. He was a self-described “very bad bike racer” for several years, which led him to start running. Over time, running injuries returned him to cycling.
“Riding a bike has been a part of my life ever since,” he said. “Now, I leave for work at about 5:30 a.m. and arrive by 7, shower and change.”
On his seventh birthday, a landmark celebration in the Laverty family, Rich received his first bike.
“It was the 1970s and BMX bikes were really popular,” he said. “But I didn’t get the one I wanted.”
By age nine, the young cyclist had taken on a paper route. He was delivering over 100 newspapers every day, and was able to upgrade.
“I traded up in several steps, until I had the nicest BMX bike possible.”
By the time his BMX phase came to an end, Laverty, 14, was playing sports every day, had given up the paper route and wasn’t biking. He wouldn’t get back in the saddle until college.
“I wouldn’t call it a dark period, but that was a time without bikes,” he said.
These days, Laverty is enjoying the moments he can steal on his bicycle. He rides a 14 year-old, welded steel SOMA frame in soft orange.
“There aren’t any decals on my bike because this past spring, I had it powder-coated at Bonehead Performance in Warrington,” he said. “The cost was reasonable and they know what they’re doing.”
Laverty isn’t the only person in his family that bikes. His wife Kathleen and nine year-old daughter Alison will sometimes join him for a ride on the weekends.
“I look at being on a bike as part of the package with Rich,” said Kathleen. “Exercise is just something he needs. He has always been into cycling, but when I met him he had just finished a 50 mile run and was training for a marathon.”
It’s pitch black when Laverty leaves for work on his bicycle in the mornings. He doesn’t wear headphones, says it ruins the experience. For safety he has a bright front light as good as any on a car and two red flashers on the back. Even though Laverty doesn’t make stops when he’s riding from A to B, he pays attention to the micro moments, one of his favorite parts about bike commuting.
“One morning, there was one person out rowing on the Schuylkill,” he said. “It was still dark, the moon was out, and there was a beautiful reflection. I wouldn’t have noticed that in a car.”
When tasked with which part of Laverty’s ride to join him on, I’ll admit that I went the easy route. Again, we met at Boathouse Row on a Friday afternoon. From there, I rode with him to Chestnut Hill.
Otherwise, I pedaled quickly to try and keep up with the lanky Laverty, who seemed to effortlessly glide up the hills near the Wissahickon Transfer Station. The final mile push of our ride had me gasping, as Laverty steered us up Valley Green Road near Valley Green Inn, which eventually turned into West Springfield Ave.
“This is probably the hardest part,” Laverty admitted, something he left out in all of our correspondence before the ride.
Dignity was the only thing that kept me pushing, albeit slowly, to finish out the ride.
When Laverty travels beyond Philadelphia with Kathleen and Alison, the family tends to sightsee on foot. As far as biking in unfamiliar places, he likes to feel out any of the local rules and customs before he rides.
“I’ve never been to any of the big biking cities, but Kathleen has,” he said. “I’d love to live in a place where there are more bikes than cars.”
For now, Laverty will have to settle for riding the river trail before the sun rises and heading home.
“I have an emotional attachment to my bike, to cycling in general,” he said. “I hope I can continue to do it for a very long time.”