The Bike Commuter?
This is not brain surgery...all it takes to be a bike commuter is a bike and a job. If you are insane enough to forgo the pleasures of a car for a bike...this page is for you!
Pros and Cons
Why ride a bike to work? Aside from the stock answers below, for me the reason is simple....I feel better when I ride to work, physically and mentally. There is nothing magic about riding to work as opposed to, say, riding your bike every day to the mall, to the dog track, or wherever you like to spend time. Its just that most of us have to work every day and this is a great opportunity to do what you have to(going to work) in a pleasant way. Bike travel is fast enough to get there in a reasonable time, yet slow enough to keep you in touch with the environment to enjoy wildlife, scenery, children at play.
It takes too much time
Biking to work will probably take twice as long as driving, unless your drive usually encounters bad traffic jams in which case biking may be faster. The added time can be quality time, particularly if your route allows you to take pleasant back roads. If you didn't ride, you would probably spend the same time exercising in a stuffy indoor health club.
I worry about cars
You should. Cars own the road and often don't notice bikes. There are many things you can do to reduce this worry, like: make sure you are ALWAYS aware of the cars near you, be visible, be a consistent rider (no weaving around), take back roads.
What if it rains?
You will get wet. There are two approaches to rain: confront it or avoid it. If you live in Seattle and would like to ride to work more often than once a month, you will just have to confront it. Get some good (expensive) GoreTex raingear, fenders, lots of plastic bags and ride regardless of rain. However, aside from getting wet, you will be covered with road grime -far worse than rain (on a hot day a rain shower feels pretty good). If you wear glasses, visibility will drop to near zero. Your shoes and briefcase will be soaked (that's why you have a lot of plastic bags). For these reasons most bike commuters prefer to avoid rain.
Even if you try to avoid rain you will get rained upon now and again. Your weather radio or NEXRAD on the WWW will become a good friend, but it is far from infallible.
What kind of bike should I have?
Probably the one you already own. If you are thinking of buying one, personal preferences will take over. Do not ever buy a cheap bike (under $200) from your neighborhood discount store. They may be fine for kids, but you will grow to hate them (cheaply made, heavy, unreliable, do not work smoothly, rust, do not stay in adjustment). Good commuter bikes cost $300-500 (you can spend a lot more, but will notice diminishing returns).
Of the three main bike types (road bikes, mountain bikes, cross/hybrid bikes) I own one of each, but prefer the cross bike for commuting. Why? Road bikes are fast, but force you into an aerodynamically efficient but uncomfortable riding position - one that, to me, makes it harder to keep track of the cars around me. Besides, the skinny tires of road bikes are designed for smooth pavement - not the rutted, patched roads I take to work. This is a personal preference as there are many people who commute on road bikes. Mountain bikes are OK, the riding position (sitting upright) makes it easy to keep an eye on cars, they are rugged and with their fat tires absorb ruts and patches easily...but they are slower than a cross bike, probably due to the fat tires. Thus, my PERSONAL preference is for the cross bike. It's moderate width tires allow for speed, but also handle ruts. You sit upright to better keep an eye on cars.
What route should I take to work?
Have several. A fast one and a pretty one, at least. Find one that avoids cars and finds cows, covered bridges, and woods....it will be your favorite, even if it is longer. Riding in traffic can be dangerous, apparently bike makers use stealth technology because bikes are invisible to motorists. So, ride defensively. Always know where the cars are around you - and what they are doing. You have a legal right to use the roads, so don't think that you must ride in the weeds. The best is to ride near the right side of the road, not right on the edge, as this will leave you little maneuvering room, but 1-2 feet from the edge. Ride in a straight line, as motorists are justifiably angry at bikers who weave in and out unpredictably.
Joys to experience
Deer on a field, alert and beautiful. The heron fishing for breakfast in a stream. A child swinging on the limb of an old oak. The eagle soaring far above. The old man rocking on the porch. A beaver dam under construction. The clouds building for a thunderstorm. An eagle soaring in the thermals. The placid stream, alive with damselflies. The satisfied experience of being physically tired (as opposed to being mentally exhausted).
I don't think I have the stamina
Nonsense. Sure the first time you ride to work you will be beat, but after a week or so you will be fine. Remember, getting to work by bike is not a race....you don't have to try and beat your time each day! You will find that if the job or weather keeps you from riding, that you can't wait to ride again...it's true.
I don't want to arrive at work all sweaty, and what about clothes?
You WILL arrive all sweaty...at least in the summer (yes, some crazy bikers ride in the Winter too). Employers like bike commuters because it helps them comply with the Clean Air act and reduces their parking problems, so see about having access to a shower at work or a nearby health club. The washroom washbasin will suffice for many riders.
You can bring work clothes with you, but they will probably look it! Better is to leave a change of clothes at work, renewing then when you bring your car. Maybe your employer will relax the dress code for bike commuters as an incentive.
Bike shops sell (hype) all kinds of "technical" clothing. Most are various synthetics designed to wick moisture, retain heat, etc. They are fine, are often striking, look cool, but, aside from bike shorts, are unnecessary. Bike shorts improve riding comfort by being tight, having a pad for tender derrieres, keeping you anatomy in place (guys), and preventing chafing. Being tight is a good thing for all bike clothes. Having a bee fly up your pant leg or sleeve is not one of life's more fun moments. Bees also fly into the opening on your helmet - quite disconcerting! Too bad helmet makers don't put screening over the vents. Speaking of bees and other flying exoskeletons, to be hit by a South-going bee when you're going 25mph North-bound is a memorable experience! A good reason to not mouth-breathe.
I'm afraid my bike will be stolen at work
It might be. Get your employer to provide a bike rack in a secure place (indoors preferably) where passersby cannot easily rip off your bike. Buy a good U lock and use it correctly. Even better is to bring it into your office, if you can. Then you may not need to haul around the heavy lock.
I need to take work home
As long as you're not an engine mechanic you can probably take whatever you need on a bike rack. You can purchase "briefcases" that attach to the rack. These are good for carrying papers, clothing and even a lightweight notebook computer (padded well). You can also purchase over-the-shoulder bags or fanny packs, if you don't mind encumbering your body with them (uncomfortable in sweaty weather). If your job is largely to play with a computer, you can easily take home a thumb drives, obviating the need for anything more than a small bike handlebar bag.
What about cold weather?
As long the roads are not snow covered or icy, don't let cold weather stop you. You will generate heat pedaling...if you feel cold - speed up. Your feet, hands, head and face need protection, however. Bike stores and ski shops have good cold weather gear to get. Don't make the mistake of wearing a jacket that seals you up completely, you will need a way of ventilating yourself to get rid of excess heat you generate when burning calories even on cold days. Pit zips (zippers in the arm pits) are great for this.
Type of Bike
As mentioned above, of the three main bike types (road bikes, mountain bikes, cross/hybrid bikes) I prefer the cross bike for commuting.
If your commute take you over less-than-ideal roads, you will appreciate a flexible frame...one that will absorb shocks rather than transmitting them right into your tailbone! Racers prefer stiff bikes as they want all of their energy to go into the wheel, not to flexing the frame. If this is important to you, then by all means get a stiff bike. Otherwise select a flexible frame (flexible is used here loosely, you cannot bend it by hand!). While there are exceptions, aluminum frames tend to be stiff and Cro-Moly frames tend to be flexible. I've never tested a carbon fiber bike as they are out of my price range.
Bikes come in a wide range of prices, from $100 to many thousands. Bikes sold in discount stores and costing under about $300 are to be avoided for commuters. They are built poorly, use cheap components, will be heavy, and will not stay in adjustment.
The $300-500 bike will suit most commuters just fine. What do you get with the $600+ bike? You get the latest (expensive) technology (like composite frames), even better components (shifters, brakes, etc), lighter weight (a few pounds), and a smoother operating piece of machinery. If you get pleasure out of a beautifully designed and built piece of machinery this is the bike for you. Some will spend a premium to save a pound or less, forgetting that the best way to reduce weight is for the rider to shed a few.
Shifters, brakes & seats
If you have an old 10-speed bike you will delight in modern shifters...they work beautifully. Trash the old bike or give it to that pesky nephew. Most bikes today come with 21-24 speed Twist Grip shifters. If you prefer thumb shifters....good luck finding a bike that has them. 21 speeds is far more than most of us need (I have yet to use my "granny gears", the smallest chain-ring in the front set), but that's the way they come. Might be useful if you are a sculptor at Mt. Rushmore.
Today's seats are a joy compared to the torture devices of yesteryear. None the less, your fanny will require some conditioning before you will feel comfortable in the saddle for hours on end. Build up gradually and you will have no problem.
Again, personal preference rules. Racers like clipless pedals (special shoes clip onto special pedals), but they are awful to walk in and require that you always have your special shoes handy. For the commuter, toe clips are more practical. If you have never used toe clips try them and you will wonder why you didn't earlier.
Bike shoe makers seem to have forgotten the commuter, concentrating on mountain bikers and racers. No one makes (to my knowledge) a commuter shoe with the following desirable features: stiff sole (makes pedaling easier/more efficient), no lugs (hard to slip in/out of toe clips with lugs), no shoelaces (to get caught in chain). Many opt for a pair of sneakers.
The tires that come on new bikes seem to wear out awfully fast. You will probably find that you will wear out two rear tires for each front tire. Replace them with a good brand. Some tires, particularly those for mountain bikes have aggressive treads - to get a good bite on dirt. On pavement, however, they will buzz your touche annoyingly. Select those with solid rubber in the center of the tread. Many bikers do not inflate tires enough. Get a good (metal) floor pump with a pressure gauge and inflate to the recommended pressure for the tire. You will have to pump the tires up at least weekly. Pedaling is much easier with well inflated tires as rolling resistance is reduced (but the ride will be harsher). Replace inner tubes every 4-5 years, as I've had blowouts with old tubes. Carry either a tire patch kit/tire irons or a spare inner tube (and a pump) as you WILL experience a flat tire -usually when least convenient! Tire patches will not help for a blowout, so an inner tube is preferred.
Wear one. I can't emphasize this enough. Attach one of the tiny rear view mirrors to the helmet, and you will be able to see who is coming up behind you with a quick glance.
Bike gloves are stretchy gloves that usually have a padded palm and no finger tips (good for scraping bugs off your front teeth). Avoid gloves that are too tight, as this will restrict blood flow to the hands and will result in the "tingles".
If you will be riding at dusk/night you need to be seen by cars (and it helps to see the road too). For the rear, get a big, bright, flashing red LED taillight. For the front, get a handlebar mounted light. These are either little ones that use AA batteries and are OK for letting cars see you, but do little good to see the road ahead. These are best for city riding where there are street lights, etc. Get a bigger unit for dark roads. These generally use C cell batteries. Check the battery life for yourself: generally disposable batteries are good for 4-5 hours, rechargables for 2 (varies with the light you get).
A major goal is to be seen by cars - particularly at dusk/night. Do everything you can to accomplish this. Put reflective tape all over the frame, on the rims between spokes, on the pedals, on your helmet, on your eyelids! I have velcro'ed a strobe to the top of my helmet! It looks pretty weird, but people notice me...and that's the point!
Be Visible (and audible!)
Since bike stealth technology makes you invisible to cars, you must take steps to be noticed. During the day, wear shocking colors, they will help and some think they look cool. At night, use lights and reflectors, on you and the bike.
Pedestrians can't hear bikes coming. Something happened when homo sapiens leaned to walk upright -- their ears acquired an uncanny ability to reject sounds from behind. Hence the line from Smoky and the Bandit: "What is behind me does not matter!" Well, maybe true if you're driving a Sports car 90 miles an hour. Not so good if you're walking down a sidewalk at 2 MPH and a bike is zipping up on you at 25 MPH.
This illustrates two things: 1. You should have a noise maker - a bell or one of those nifty new electronic devices that mounts inside your handlebar end. That way, you can overcome pedestrian's innate inability to filter out commotion from behind. ...and. 2. You ought to be courteous. What are you doing barreling down a sidewalk like a bowling ball, treating pedestrians like pins? Remember bikes are to walkers as automobiles are to cyclists! Here in Idaho, a sounding device is not required on a bike by state law but are a great bit of protection in the event of a law suit.
Work under the assumption that anything that can happen will happen. It always does. There are a lot more hazards where bikes have to navigate - along the edge of the road.
There's junk in the road. Keep looking ahead far enough that you can take a safe, slow, predictable evasive maneuver to avoid the random broken bottle, pot hole, small child darting out or car door swinging open. Believe me, getting "doored" is no fun! It happened to a friend of mine. She learned that the human cranium is stronger than the glass used in car windows! Always look inside "parked" cars to see if occupants are about to exit. Also, parked cars have a tendency to un-park and occupy the strip of road where you are intending to ride.
Try to stay out of cars' way. That means staying toward the right side (in most countries other than Japan and England) of the road. When approaching a stop sign or red traffic signal, I recommend carefully moving to the approximate center of your lane. This helps prevent cars from making the squeeze play. Cars drivers seem to think that cyclists only need about 3/4 inch of road at stop signs. This tactic also makes it easier - if possible at all - to make a safe left turn at busy intersections. Signal your intentions, especially when you want to turn left.
Unless you are violating child labor laws, most bike commuters will also be car drivers. The experience of a biker appearing de novo from a side street or between cars is unsettling and dangerous. The best riders are predictable - riding straight and signaling to cars their intentions.
Learn to signal your actions! Know the arm signals for stop, left- and right- turns. Actually make the signals when you should. I've been complimented by the denizens of cars many times as they pull along side at a traffic light, thanking me for signalling. Be a good bike ambassador.
Signal sensibly. Don't get so hung up on arm gesticulations that you forget to apply your brakes or maintain control of your bike. Signal far enough in advance that drivers will know what you're up to and you'll be in full control of your bike as you make the indicated maneuver.
Where to Ride
The safest are country roads with the occasional tractor or cow. Seek such routes, as they will also be the most pleasant. While your location may not permit this, it is worth going out of your way to find these routes. If you live in town, take residential streets, low speed arterials with bike lanes or bike paths. Remember, if getting to work quickly were your goal you would drive. My own commute takes me past two lakes, several farms, and over several pretty streams...and is only 5 minutes longer than a route with large trucks and irritated motorists.
Bikes are required to obey traffic laws, just as are cars. I know, I know...Idaho has the Idaho Stop Law stating that bikes can treat traffic lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs, but remember most drivers don't know that law. To go through a stop sign not only is dangerous but tarnishes the reputation of bikers and sets an awful example for any children that see you.
The biggest worry is the car that doesn't see you. Be aware of where cars are around you, and what they are doing. While I have been stressing the danger of cars, I don't want to unduly scare anyone. I have been commuting 26 miles a day for 6 years and have never been flattened by a car. The problems below are actually far more common.
You will have a flat tire, so prepare for it. To avoid learning how to fix/replace an innertube on the side of the road somewhere, do it at home first...just to get the hang of it.
It is said that dogs hate bikes because dogs have four legs and identify with cars that have four wheels (if this is so, then geese ought to love bikes). Whatever the reason, dogs DO hate bikes and many will run after you, nipping and barking at your heels. While getting bitten is rare, scaring you is not, and an alarmed biker is likely to run off the road or stop paying attention to cars. What to do? Some advocate carrying a squirt gun with ammonia or some other nasty concoction. However, getting your weapon to the ready and firing with any hope of coming close to the enemy seems unlikely (unless you have experienced this creature daily and are ready for it). My own solution is to ignore the beast and keep on pedaling. Upon daily confrontations, most dogs loose interest in the active chase, settling for the perfunctory woof (except for one particularly offensive cur who was guarding a gas station and never tired of nipping at my heels - I thought it justice when his master went bankrupt).
Bad roads are a common problem. Chuckholes big enough to rappel down are common in Idaho and if you get into one, you will probably never be seen again. So, don't. Check out the road far enough ahead so you can see them. They are generally at the side of the road - right where you should be riding! Gradually move to the left (into harm's way) to avoid being swallowed. Here, you must be particularly alert to cars coming up on you, as you are drifting into their territory. Unfortunately, a filled chuckhole if often little better, as the road crews that fill them appear to compete among themselves to make the bumpiest possible repair! What do you do if you've been caught unawares and find yourself in a minefield of ruts? Hang on for dear life!
Gravel. Be careful of spots of gravel, particularly when cornering, as you may slip and fall.
The worst drivers are teenage boys. Worst, because their idea of sport is to: a) see how close they can pass you, and/or b) yell something at you as they pass, thereby startling you and providing for uproarious hilarity for them. I'm convinced they are all aliens in disguise. Your defense...see them coming (easy - they all drive Cameros) and prepare. Resist the urge to give them the (insert your favorite Nationality here) salute...they may take offense and you CANNOT outrun a Camero.
Second worst are drivers who WILL NOT CROSS THE CENTER LINE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. Picture a narrow back road. You are riding 18 inches from the edge. A station wagon with mommy and the kids approaches from the rear. There is no other traffic. Does mom cross the center line to give you a little breathing room....NO WAY!! Whoosh....you are sucked along in the vacuum!
The rule is...BE SEEN using any means necessary including things that make you look ridiculous.
Wear a Helmet
Many riders don't keep their tires inflated properly. If you inflate tires to the maximum within their rated range (60 lbs for a tire rated at 40-60 lbs, for example), you will find pedaling a LOT easier, because you are reducing road resistance. Bike tires loose air quickly, so pump them up every 3-4 days.
Clean your Chain
Chains need to be oiled to work, but oil collects dirt and dirt in a chain wears them out. So you must clean your chain a couple of times a year. A messy job. There are several devices sold that claim to clean chains while on the bike. I've tried them all and none work as well as the following (messy) method.
OK, now the chain is clean, what should you lubricate it with? I have tried everything from WD-40 (doesn't last), to engine oil (attracts dirt), to a teflon spray (works fine). My favorite, however, is wax. Wax lasts a long time and doesn't attract dirt. It is a pain to apply, however. You can buy suitable wax, or make it by melting paraffin (from grocery store) with silicone grease (hardware store). The chain must be dry to apply the wax and the wax must be hot. Run the chain through a can of hot wax slowly enough that the wax will penetrate into the chain. It will come out with a healthy coat of wax, which will break off all over your garage floor! A pain, but it works well.
On a new bike the shifter and brake cables will stretch with initial use. Most bike shops will adjust them for you for free (once), but you should know how to do it yourself. Most shifter cables have an adjusting thumbnut to make this an easy fix.
Here are two really wonderful books to help you keep your bike running and to decide what parts and when you should upgrade:
Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Maintenance and Repair.
This is an excellent book with a ton of exceptionally clear photographs illustrating just about any work you could want to perform on your bike. The copy I have is sevearl years old, so new things on the market like grip shifters aren't discussed. None the less, the advice is timely and pragmatic throughout.
Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Upgrading your Bike.
This is another great book. I hate to recommend another book from the same publisher, but these two books really do stand out. Upgrading is getting a little long in the tooth, written in 1988, but is jam packed with a Frank's superb advice.
I strongly recommend reading Upgrading before you go shopping for your first serious bike. You'll learn how to avoid blowing money on glizty components that don't improve your ride. You'll also learn to shop for the things you do need for comfort and durability. I bought my copy in 1994; I still consult it frequently.
Body (yours) Maintenance
In the depths of Winter, only the hardiest (craziest?) of bikers ventures out. If you miss biking, consider: getting a trainer to mount your bike on (good exercise, but boring), moving to Arizona, getting a stationary bike (not really a bicycle, an exercise machine), or getting warm clothing and riding outside when there is no snow/ice on the road (you generate a lot of heat biking, but protect head, feet and hands when below freezing).