Sunday, August 23, 2009

So Ya Wanna Ride Your Bike To Work?

Last week, I decided I was going to attempt to commute home from work. I would ride to work, but will need to get in better shape if I want to really think about battling those 8%+ graded hills. So I ride downtown, catch the light rail, and pedal the short distance to work.

And, I have had a few people ask me about riding a bike to work or elsewhere and have asked me for advice about the best way to do this. So, I am going to try to condense all the knowledge I have picked up over the years and try to make it easy to digest and make it easier for you, the reader or advice seeker.

First off, if you are thinking about, good for you! It is good exercise, it is safer than you think, and it can save you a lot of money. But, how do you start?

1) Obviously, you are going to need a bike. Got one? Good. What kind of shape is it in? Do you ride it at least once a month for some exercise, or has it been sitting idle for who knows how long? If it is the latter, do yourself a favor and take it to your local bike shop and have them give it a tune up. The mechanics can make sure it is running smoothly and even tell you if it is a safe bike to ride. Let them know that you plan to commute on it. Good mechanics will ask the necessary questions then. Depending on where you live, I would almost suggest taking it to a shop that focuses on repair and not sales. If you live in Portland, I would recommend City Bikes on SE Ankeny or the Community Cycling Center on NE Alberta. There are many good places to go and those are just two places I have done business with and have done very good work for a decent price. They focus on getting you back on the road with efficiency, not flair. I may go into selecting a good bike in a later blog. Stay tuned.

2) Bike in shape for the commute? Sweet! Now it is time to plan your route. Things to consider are this. How far is your commute? How is the traffic on the way there? If something goes awry with my bike, is there a bus stop nearby I can walk my bike to? What is the weather going to be like? These are important questions because they can make a difference if you commute daily or tried it one day and stopped.

I always suggest trying to find streets that have low traffic on them. This is pretty obvious, but drivers tend to realize they are cruising a residential area and need to watch out for kids and pedestrians and will cut cyclists a lot more slack. This is not always possible, but it is still important to find the safest way to get there.

Do you have a long commute? Or a short one with no bus service along the way? I would suggest carrying a spare tube, a small pump, and some tire levers in case of a flat. A bike shop sells seat bags and they are perfect for carrying these things along with tools to help. Often you can find a small, Swiss Army knife style multi-tool that will fit all of your needs. If you have bolt on wheels, however, you will want to carry a small crescent wrench, too.

3) Check the weather before you go! There are those folks out there that brag how they ride in a foot of snow or rain or shine or during earthquakes. However, if you want to be a fair-weather cyclist, you are basically joining the majority of bike commuters.

But, it does not mean it can't be done. I do ride in the rain here, but I am prepared for it. I have waterproof pants and a jacket. I have fenders and brakes that are supposed to help stop me with wet rims. I do need some shoe covers and that will be the next thing.

There are such a thing as studded snow tires for bikes. While I do think some of those people riding around in the lycra and spandex look kind of silly, there is a purpose for it. Riding year-round can be done. Again, the local bike shop can probably help you the best.

4) But how am I gonna haul all my crap? Good question. That can be tricky if you have to haul a laptop and other work stuff. The cheapest (and perhaps easiest) way is a simple backpack. It sits on your back and does not shift and does not add extra weight to the bike. However, if it is hot, your back will be sweaty. Messenger bags also do a good job. The bad is that they shift. The good is that they allow more of your back to be exposed and collect less sweat. I recently bought a metal rack that attaches to the back of my ride and found a bag that connects to the side of it. It holds quite a bit of stuff. I can easily hold my lunch, a change of clothes, my extra tubes and tools, and probably a few other things. The name for those is a pannier and comes from the name the things that people put on horses. Again, find a good local bike shop nearby and they can also help.

5) Am I going to smell like a locker room when I get to work? It depends. I mean, how hot is it? How far is it? Like me, do you sweat like crazy? There can be ways around this. Does the place you work have a shower? Find out and shower when you get there. No shower? I have heard of people keeping baby wipes as a way to wipe off the sweat when you arrive. Remember, the sweat beads off and evaporates when you ride and doesn't when you stop. Often if you sweat a lot, you will find it roll down and collect on your waist line. While there is no way to stop this, I have tucked several paper towels from the washroom and tucked it by my low abs and buttoned up. It does the trick!

6) Light 'em up! The most important thing you can do when you ride to enhance your safety is to be as visible as possible. Get a good set of lights for your bike. In a pinch, you can buy them at department store, but I suggest going to a bike shop. Honestly, the cheapest ones both of them sell will cost you at best a buck more at the bike shop and will be half the size and twice as bright. And, most of them will have batteries included, so it is probably cheaper. They will also have a better selection. Get the best thing you can afford. Your life is worth the five extra bucks to get something brighter. Also, wear bright clothing. Those yellow jackets do wonders. Cars will appreciate you for doing this.

7) Okay, this is good info. Anything else? Sure thing. If possible, leave your work shoes at work. Sometimes people have special clipless pedals and already do this, but you will thank yourself if it starts to rain or of you have to wear dress shoes. Also, search the web for the town you live and see if there is a bike commuting page. I was surprised to see that Billings, MT had one complete with tips and a map with safe routes.

Hopefully, this helps everyone. And, please feel free to ask me any questions.

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