Bike to Work Week starts May 12th! Many cyclists around the country will be taking to the streets next week to use their bicycles for their daily transportation needs. While many of us are pretty comfortable riding bikes for recreational use, we tend to do these activities in ideal locations away from traffic where there isn’t much to think about besides having a good time. Bicycle commuting and other urban errands, though, will most likely take us through areas that are out of our normal comfort zone. Sharing the road with trucks, autos, motorcycles, pedestrians, and other cyclists requires a lot of attention, bike handling skills, confidence, and knowledge of the rules of the road. It can seem overwhelming and dangerous at first, but with some experience, it becomes as normal as driving. Even quite enjoyable.
I began full-time bicycle commuting back in the Fall of 2007. At first it was a personal challenge to see how long I could go without driving. I made it through my first winter. Seasons went by, and then a year. Then two and three. After a while I stopped counting. It was no longer a challenge, just a way of life. I had made a lifestyle change that had become a habit. While it all seems routine now, I can still remember all the challenges I faced initially, and all the lessons I had to learn the hard way. So whether you plan to commute by bike next week, the rest of the month, or make a lifestyle change, the following tips will help you get on the road.
- Rules of the road – While a bicycle gives the rider the feeling of freedom, this doesn’t mean the rider is free to break the law. When I’m out riding, I see a few cyclists blowing through stop signs. Riding on the sidewalk. Or even riding on the wrong side of the street coming right at me in my own bike lane. I also see drivers that treat cyclists like pedestrians (a cyclist is only a pedestrian if they are off the bike walking it). I think a lot of people don’t know that bikes need to follow the same rules as cars, rules that most people are pretty familiar with. When riding your bike on public roads, follow the same rules you would in your car. Stop at stop signs and lights. Keep off the sidewalks as this endangers pedestrians. Ride with traffic on the right-hand side of the road. Riding predictably will help keep you safe, prevent cars from crashing trying avoid you, and give you respect from other roadway users.
- Which bike to ride – Which bike do you need to commute by bike? The one you have will probably work fine if that’s all you own. Some bikes are definitely better suited to the task though, and one must consider things like road conditions, distance to be traveled, cargo capacity, and portability. Mountain bikes can handle any terrain you may encounter, but a road bike will be easier to pedal and faster over smooth roads. A long utility bike may give you lots of cargo capacity, but may not fit on a bus bike rack or could be too heavy to carry up a few flights of stairs at the office. Start with what you have. After you gain some experience, you may consider a bike better suited to your specific needs. Also consider where you’ll be keeping your bike. Is it secure? You don’t want to leave your high end bike out on a public bike rack for hours on end unsupervised. It’ll disappear for sure.
- What to wear – If you’re lucky and don’t have to ride very far, you can probably get away with the same clothes you plan to wear to work. I like to be able to hop off the bike and walk directly into the office with no clothing changes. The mornings are nice and cool, so it’s pretty easy to arrive at work unspoiled if you live fairly close to work. For those that live further away and require more effort to pedal to work, it may be necessary to carry your work clothes in your pack or have something to change into stashed at the office. Some offices have a shower, but usually some cool water on the face or a wet-wipe is plenty. If you get sweaty on the way home, you’re going home anyhow. An ankle strap on the right leg works great for keeping your pants clean.
- How to carry your stuff – There are a few ways to carry your things, and all have their merits. A backpack or messenger style bag is really simple and portable. Messenger bags allow you to get to things without taking the pack off, but a backpack is more stable. Backpacks and bags decrease ventilation on hot days though, and place the weight on your body. Panniers get the load off your back, and don’t really affect bike handling with modest loads. You do have to worry about security though if the bags aren’t easily removable. Another way to carry a small load is with a basket mounted above the front wheel. Since they’re bolted on, you don’t have to worry about someone walking away with it as much. The downside is that the weight over the front wheel can affect your steering. Another strategy is to keep some stuff at the office. Dress shoes are a great item to stow at work. They’re bulky and you don’t really need to carry them back and forth each day.
- What needs to be in your pack – Think of what you carry around in your car. You have a spare tire, jack, cell phone, maybe an extra jacket, and probably a lot of other items just laying around that would be helpful if you broke down or had an emergency. When you’re away from the house all day on your bike, you need to think the same way. A spare tube, tire levers, mini-pump, and mutli-tool will cover most of the repairs you’ll encounter and don’t take up much room. At the very least, have a cell phone and someone that can come pick you up if you have a mechanical issue beyond your skill level or time to repair. A cyclists also needs to consider the weather forecast for the entire day. It may be sunny when you leave the house, but there may be thundershowers rolling in later in the day. Bring the appropriate clothing. Bring your lights if there’s a chance you’ll be riding in the dark. Sometimes you may have an after work function that goes on much later than expected. Water, lunch, and a snack are also good things to consider. Don’t forget your bike lock, wallet, eye glasses, phone charger, headphones, and other items you may need throughout the day.
- Securing your bike – Before you start bicycle commuting, you need to figure out where you’re going to keep your bike at your destination. The rules vary greatly at each place of business, so you need to check with the boss first. You may be able to keep your bike at your desk, in a spare room, or in a secure area outside. You may have to lock it to a bike rack or a tree. Where you’re going to keep your bike may determine which bike you’re going to ride. Remember, any lock or cable can be cut through or busted open with a jack. The more expensive locks just buy you more time. Don’t make your bike the most appealing bike on the rack to thieves!
- Map your route – The best routes to get to work in a car are often the worst routes on a bicycle. The bicycle allows you to get more creative with your route, since you’re going the same speed whether you’re on a quiet residential street or a high speed boulevard. Pick a route that helps you avoid dangerous traffic, or one that takes you through a more scenic route like a park or historical district. Google maps is helpful for planning your route, and it even has the option to map it for bicycle travel. For those in Carson City, Muscle Powered has safe cycling maps available around town or for download on the website.
- Do a trial run – Before your first commute, it is helpful to do a trial run on your day off when you have extra time. Time yourself riding at a casual pace, and see how long it really takes to get there. Additionally, you may find something you don’t like and want to adjust your route. Running late on a Monday morning is a bad time to figure out you’ve made some miscalculations.
- Ride with friends – Bicycle commuting with a friend or coworker is a fun activity. I’ve even met some pretty good friends along my routes. Not only does it give you some companionship, but there is safety in numbers. A larger group is easier to see, and you can share tools and other resources.
- Get Involved – Join a bicycling advocacy group. If there’s something you’d like to see changed, chances are someone needs your help to get it done. Many cities around the country have a bicycle advocacy group that works with local governments to make the roads safer for bicycles. They are always appreciative for more help. In Carson City, this group is Muscle Powered.
Looking for others to bicycle commute with? There is still time left to enter the Bike to Work Week Corporate Challenge. Riders from all over the city will be competing for miles and trips by bicycle. Although this is a friendly competition, it’s a good support group of other riders just like you. Visit Muscle Powered’s Corporate Challenge page for more details.
Next up, some tips to keep you safe on your commute.