Pedal Power to the Rescue

Posted on May 25, 2011 by Jacob

On Monday I became a bike commuter for the very first time, and I can’t say that I was perfectly prepared for it. First, I don’t have anything resembling a roadside repair kit to fix problems with tires or chains on my 10-mile trip to work. I also had never ridden the route I took to work Monday before actually taking it to work. Sue me. I discovered a far superior route option the day before my maiden bike commute and I had to take it. The photo at the top of this post was my original route. It’s also not a very bike-friendly road. Four lanes of traffic, about half of which is log trucks or other tractor-trailers.

I did at least talk to an expert before my maiden bike commute. Jack Sweeney is one of the three guys behind BikeCommuters.com. It’s a site devoted to spreading the word of… Well, if you need me to explain that one to you, maybe you shouldn’t ride your bike to work. You also definitely shouldn’t be driving a car anywhere. It should be obvious. What may not be so obvious is one of the biggest pieces of advice that Sweeney gave me. You don’t have to get fancy to be a bike commuter.

“One of the common misconceptions of bike commuting is that all sorts of special equipment is needed — that’s a fallacy. While many long-distance commuters will be more comfortable in cycling-specific clothing, the vast majority of potential commuters live within 5 or 6 miles of their workplaces. Because of that, nothing special is required — simply get on your bike and ride!”

If you choose specialized bike clothing for longer rides (in addition to their other benefits, bike shorts are heavily padded in the important areas), you can always take your work clothes with you in a bag. While I’ve just biked in a quick-drying athletic shirt and gym shorts instead of special cycling gear, I’ve packed the day’s clothes away in my backpack.

The bikes themselves don’t even have to be special in any way despite being reliable and well-maintained. If you live in a hilly area you probably want something with gears unless you enjoy suffering, but honestly, my mom’s beach cruiser is probably even better suited to commuting than my road bike. Hers has fenders to keep the mud and grime from getting kicked onto her clothes and a rack over the back tire to help haul her stuff around. I’m just not enough of a man to ride to work on a floral-themed bicycle.

And don’t let being a little out of shape be an excuse not to try this. I’m easily 15 pounds overweight and I have the upper body of a professional cyclist without the giant quads. I have been riding a lot this spring, but my first ride was in no way difficult. It was just slower. True, after my first 10 miles on the bike back in March, my butt was sore for three days, but my body has grown so accustomed to the saddle now that a 20-mile ride leaves my posterior no more uncomfortable than it would have been had I stayed home. Besides, if you’re out of shape now, imagine what getting several miles on the bike a day just as part of your commute will do for you. Read this post from one guy who used the bike to change his health if you need a more concrete example of what I mean.

Sweeney gave me tons more tips (some that I couldn’t or didn’t have time to take advantage of before my first ride) and I’ve collected those below in list form if you decide to try this for yourself.

He also advised me away from my original planned route, which took me 5 miles down the major 4-laned highway where I live. At the time, I thought the only other paved alternative turned the 7.5-mile commute into a 18-mile one, and the dirt roads here are so sandy that I wasn’t sure they were a viable option. Finally, on the Friday before my first commute, I discovered a third route that only added a mile and a half to my trip. As soon as I discovered it, my plan to be a bike commuter was a go.

This Monday I got up a little earlier than normal to make sure I got to work on time. I rolled out of bed around 6:05 a.m. and took a shower, packed up my work clothes, water, and other essentials in my pack and jumped on the bike and headed out. Unfortunately, I was riding the cheap mountain bike I got back in college instead of the nice road bike I’d been using the past couple of months because it’d blown a tire on Sunday. The fat tires and tired gears on this bike slowed me down, but I still had to time stop at a grocery store on the way to work to pick up breakfast when I realized I’d forgotten to pack one and still make it to work on time. Compare this to my normal schedule of rolling out of bed at 6:20 a.m. and struggling to make it to work on time. Not shabby, eh?

I had been concerned about the weather on my rides. I live in the rural southern part of Georgia and my car was telling me it was 100 degrees on Sunday. The high has been in the high 90s every day since. There’s no way I’d make it to work without stinking with that weather no matter how slowly I pedalled. Turns out that it’s not so bad at 7 a.m. I’ve actually started out slightly chilled at the beginning of my rides as the speed of the bike creates the sensation of a breeze. After about a mile, I’m no longer chilly, but I’m not sweating either. By the time I reach work around 7:45, I’m perspiring slightly around the edges of my helmet and my shirt is damp under the backpack, but I don’t smell bad. I’d get this sweaty just moving textbooks down the hall.

Finally, I can’t promise that the drivers where you live will be respectful and safe, but in three months of riding the roads near my house, including the 10-mile commutes this week, I’ve not once even had a close call with a driver. They pass in the other lane, give me plenty of room before they re-enter my lane and don’t even throw beer cans at my head. I’m a little surprised at that one. For some reason I had assumed I was going to get pelted with beer cans when I first started riding my bike. It just hasn’t happened yet.

In the end, bike commuting is not something I’ll be doing every day. After all, I work across the street from my wife and one of us has to take the kid to school. I’m not wasting any more gas by carpooling with them like I normally do than I would by riding the bike. It is, however, a very viable option for me during those times we have to drive separately. For example, I have to drive a gas-guzzling hand-me-down pickup truck every spring because of a change in my work schedule keeps me from carpooling with the family. Bike commuting will very likely become a part of my routine during that time next year.

Besides, if you’re like me and could stand to lose a few pounds, what better way to lose weight than to do it by using less gasoline? In the 20-mile round trips I’m making each day, I’m burning more than a thousand calories just getting to work and back home.

Warm Weather Bicycle Commuting Tips:

 

  • If you live somewhere with warm weather, bring a change of clothes.
  • Consider panniers rather than a backpack or messenger bag and your back won’t get as sweaty. You may also be able to keep your work clothes at work and keep them there during the week.
  • Drink water before, during, and after your ride. Dehydration should be avoided.
  • If you don’t have access to showers at work, keep deodorant and maybe some wipes at your desk to freshen up with once you get to work, although the greener option for the wipes would be a reusable washcloth. Sweeney says, “Remember, your coworkers already think you’re crazy for riding; the last thing they need is to get a whiff of your sweaty, post-ride nastiness.”
  • He also suggests you “try powdering ‘your boys’ (or ‘girls’, as the case may be) before and possibly after your ride. Things tend to stick together less with a liberal coating of baby powder or cornstarch, if you get my drift…”
  • Also, give yourself a little extra time to get to work. Taking it slower on the ride will reduce the sweat produced and getting there earlier will give you time to cool and dry off before changing into work clothes. If you need to push yourself, wait until after work on the way home.

 

General Bicycle Commuting Tips:

 

  • Talk to your local bike shop guys or cycling clubs. They often know of the best routes or can even get you special bike commuting maps to help you plan the quickest safe route for your area. There are also sites like MapMyRIDE to help you plan routes. I use the route feature on Runkeeper.com since I’m already using it to track my other fitness activities.
  • Do a test ride on the weekend (or whenever your off days are). You don’t want to be surprised by your trip when you’ve got a schedule to keep. Also, keep an eye out for safe shortcuts and alternate routes to avoid dangerous areas. I’ve already modified my planned route twice in the last two days.
  • Be safe. Follow the rules of the road and keep an eye on the traffic around you. Remember, you’re smaller than a car and not surrounded by walls of steel and glass. Pay attention. BikeCommuters.com has a good place to start researching your state’s laws.
  • Be visible. I wore a highlighter-yellow shirt on my rides and had hunter orange duct tape strips on the back of my backpack.
  • Know how to fix common roadside problems. Fixing a flat and other common repairs don’t require a bike mechanic. Talk to your local bike shop guys, or if you’re like me and don’t have those people to talk to, there are sites online that can give you an idea of how to do things. I’m currently working on developing this skill.
  • Consider commuting during hours with lower traffic volume. This won’t always be possible, but if your workplace is down with flexible hours, take advantage of it.

 

Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll find out that cycling is fun. You notice things about your surroundings that you wouldn’t from a car and I’m not sure there’s a greener mode of mechanical transportation available. Give it a try and let us know about your experiences.

10 Comments +

  1. [...] Spin on over to The Greenists to take a look at the article…a nice roundup of tips and observations for the first-time or newish bicycle commuter. You can read the full article by clicking here. [...]

    May 25th, 2011 at 8:30 am
    Pingback by A Hat Tip from The Greenists | Bike Commuters
  2. Well done, Jacob, well done indeed! I’m a bike commuter from a warm weather area (Phoenix) too, and bike commuting has changed my life. It’s a free workout in the morning and in the afternoon, and you’re setting a seriously good example for your kid and your coworkers.
    Congratulations and keep on riding!

    jt

    May 25th, 2011 at 8:41 am
    Comment by Jim Tolar
  3. This is very useful, Jacob!

    May 25th, 2011 at 9:44 am
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  4. This is such a great article! Good for you for giving this a try!

    May 25th, 2011 at 10:16 am
    Comment by Allie
  5. I wish I could bike to work but right now I’m traveling almost 200 miles a day (via bus) to get to Boston and back home.

    Good for you! (And for Mother Earth!)

    May 25th, 2011 at 10:18 am
    Comment by Howling Hill
  6. One good thing about taking the old beater mountain bike instead of your road bike is you don’t have to worry about it as much if you’re locking it up outside. Back when I was bike/bus commuting to an office I would wheel it right into my shared cubicle and try to keep it out of the way because there wasn’t anything to chain it to outside and I wouldn’t want to leave it out there anyway. If I ever become a bike commuter again I’ll buy a cheap(er) bike for the purpose.

    Nice work here.

    May 25th, 2011 at 3:20 pm
    Comment by mickey
  7. Excellent advice! It makes me wish that I could bike to work.

    May 25th, 2011 at 9:06 pm
    Comment by Julie
  8. I’ve enjoyed it. 50+ miles in three days. On the days that I’ve done the round trip I’ve burned more than a thousand calories a day according to Runkeeper. Plus getting the exercise before work made me feel better.

    May 25th, 2011 at 10:21 pm
    Comment by Jacob
  9. I love the pre-work ride – I have a shower at work so I can put in as much effort as I want on the way in.

    On the “lower traffic volume” note – this isn’t necessarily true for everyone. I’ve actually found that my nastiest driver-bicyclist encounters have occurred when I’ve left work early. The regular car commuters on my route have potentially seen me before and don’t appear to be as easily enraged for some reason…

    May 26th, 2011 at 1:25 pm
    Comment by Matt
  10. Hi Jacob,
    If you check out the first postings of my blog, there are lots more tips on preparing for commuting by bike. –I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m more a heavy-duty cyclist, since my most recent posts talk about heart rate training and personal bests. But I’m not a “serious biker,” since you’ll usually see me smiling on my bicycle.

    Hope your commutes are always pleasant!
    Tom

    June 3rd, 2011 at 2:34 pm
    Comment by Thomas Kohn

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Tip of the Day

If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It

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According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.


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