Freedom from the grind: Become a bike commuter
Since you’re reading this, you have a bike. Are you commuting on it? Get away from the dangerous assumption that commuting by car is the way things ought to be. It isn’t.
Many of us first tasted freedom riding to and from grade school. We dropped bikes when we started to preen in junior high, and gave up for good when we were given the option of moving a few tons of metal between home and high school. Burning fossil fuel to move 6,000 pounds, one person and a small bag a short distance just doesn’t make sense.
If you take the energy stored in a gallon of gas and convert it to food calories, many cyclists could get over 900 miles to the gallon. What does your car get? The cost of operating a bike is pegged at three cents per mile, while driving a car solo costs 70 cents per mile.
There are other benefits, too. Riding means you don’t have to commit the absurd act of driving to a gym to work out. Transit doubles as exercise, a twofer that saves time and improves health. Commuting means you’re in control; no more sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You can also eat more and enjoy it. Gobble that leftover donut down; consider it re-fueling after the morning ride.
Parking options improve, too. Bicycles almost always get the rock-star spot while the poor chumps in cars circle for several minutes looking for parking — another environmental disaster and huge waste of time.
In today’s fast-paced world, time is valuable. Luckily, for most short trips — whether to the market, quick errands or work — riding can be comparable to driving. If you can manage 15mph, five miles can be completed in 20 minutes — with almost no time spent stuck in traffic. Between walking to the car, traffic lights, finding parking and walking to the destination, that five-mile trip in a car can easily run beyond 25 minutes.
Leave the rush hour traffic behind
Anyone with a bicycle can be a commuter. If you have only one bike, then you’ve got your commuter ride right there. Converting an old bike is becoming popular, and there are a number of ways to improve your ride for the task. As in racing, lighter is better — but not at the cost of reduced durability or the potential for extra maintenance.
If there’s one essential for commuter bikes, it’s bulletproof tires. Tires that have Kevlar or some other impenetrable layer reduce the likelihood of flats. While carrying a pump, extra tube and tools is always a good thing, flatting when late to work sucks. The right belted tires may mean the only flats you get result from riding the tires under-inflated. Many of these tires have thick treads, so they can last a year or two depending on how far and how often you commute.
The best commuter bikes are simplified, with the gearing appropriate for the ride. If it’s a hilly route, make sure you have extra-low gears so you don’t have to huff and puff to get where you’re going. With a flat ride, consider using internal gearing, a single speed or a fixed-gear in a ratio that is easy to pedal.
The fix is in
Fixed-gear bikes are becoming pretty hip these days, offering certain advantages when the conditions are right. They’re light because the chain is short and there’s only a single cog and chainring. You can also get away with just one brake in the front. The rear wheel is generally bolted on — making it harder to steal — and the same can be done to the front wheel. And you’ll never space out on the morning ride because the direct drive attached to the pedals means that when the wheels are rolling, the pedals are turning.
If you’re a newbie and you’re lusting after a new fixed gear, get one with a flip-flop hub and two handbrakes. A flip-flop hub allows you to switch from a fixed cog on one side to a freewheel cog on the other. Schwinn re-released their popular Madison model, and Swobo also has a stylin’ fix called the Sanchez.
Older bikes can be converted to fixed gears or single-speeds, whether they’re designed for road riding or mountain biking. The rear dropouts (where the back wheel connects to the frame) determines whether it will be an easy job or one requiring a savvy mechanic. Devices such as the Surly Singleator are available if you want to turn your freewheel into a single-speed.
Extra accessories for commuters
What lock you need depends on where you are and how long you’re staying. Sometimes, a cable is all you need for a deterrent; other times, a U-lock is needed for its security. Ideally, get something light enough to carry and always lock your bike when leaving it alone — even for a minute. Many companies are happy to accommodate bikes, providing bike lockers or secure storage areas.
Fenders keep clothes clean and dry on damp rides and can be a welcome accessory for commuters. They don’t have to be heavy and made of aluminum. Many are made of plastic and designed to be attached and detached quickly.
Every commuter should have at least one blinking light. Most are designed to clip onto clothes, or come with quick-release brackets that make taking them on and off bikes a breeze. A red blinking light for the back is essential. A white blinking light for the front is useful for alerting oncoming traffic.
Most commuters will find a bag or rack is a good investment. Using a small bag forces you to be efficient and take only the minimum, but not everyone has that option. While some believe messenger bags are the way to go because bike messengers carry all sorts of stuff, what they don’t realize is that messenger bags are designed for carrying large, oddly-shaped objects short distances. They’re not always comfortable when fully loaded over longer rides. Backpacks designed for bike commuting usually are long and narrow so the bag doesn’t easily shift when riding. They often have a back padding system to minimize sweat, multiple compartments and optional hydration bladders.
The big question
Is it best to ride in normal clothes or riding clothes? Most commuters base their decision on the distance covered. The big break seems to be at five miles. Less than five, many opt for street clothes — use some kind of band to keep pant legs from getting greasy or caught on the chain. More than five miles and it’s time to get changed.
And thus do clothes beget the sweat discussion. A shower at the destination, especially if it’s work, makes things easy. But there’s always dressing in layers, riding easy, and doing a quick manual spritz in a sink.
The hardest thing about forsaking your car for a bike is the first ride. It won’t feel right. But the more you commute, the easier it gets. Before you know it, you’ll be contemplating riding to work in the cold, the rain, the snow — anything to stay away from driving. It’s addictive. Luckily, it’s the good kind of addictive.
By J.P. Partland
May 03, 2007