Commuting by Bicycle
To some people event the thought of commuting by bicycle is an unfeasible undertaking. But in reality commuting by bike can be a serious alternative to jumping into the car and travelling those clogged car lanes to your place of work.
The benefits of riding one's bike on a daily basis can be tremendous. Just imagine, free aerobic exercise without going to a gym and not taking up much more time than driving to work! And think of all the smog and other greenhouse gases that are not being produced by cycling commuters. Not to mention the traffic jams that can be avoided when cycling, after all, when did you last see bikes in a traffic jam?
Alas though, all is not effortless... to commute successfully and enjoyably, one must have some basic co-operation from one's employer - regarding end of trip facilities - coupled with some fundamental preparation in regards to suitable equipment and routes.
Commuting short distances may not require any actions out of the norm, but longer commutes will generate the need for a change of clothes and perhaps a shower if possible; you may think you smell OK after your ride, but your co-workers probably know otherwise! Remember to remind your employer - although he/she will probably notice - why you are so refreshed and awake on a morning now that you commute by bike, this may encourage them to provide some facilities if none are present.
And what a way to relieve stress after a hard day on the job... a nice bicycle ride home to work out any tensions left over from the day at work; arriving home invigorated and ready to enjoy your evening at home.
My commute is a 64 Km (40 mile) round-trip and I am fortunate that the climate here on southern Vancouver Island allows me to commute year-round, barring occasional black ice or even a (Heaven forbid!) dreaded snowfall.
After a 32 Km leg, I can definitely attest to the needs of a shower! I have a locker room with shower facilities at my place of work, so that showering and changing is not a difficulty. You may not be so lucky, but with some improvisation, other ways to freshen up and change can be initiated.
Here are some suggestions that I have garnered from my and others' commuting experiences...
Many cyclists choose a mountain bike for commuting and although it is very suitable for a shorter commute, of say 15 Kms or less, I tend to find that riding longer distances on pavement with a mountain bike, to be very tiring and somewhat slow. But if a mountain bike is all you have, then so be it.
Ditch those knobby tires for road use though! One of the best items, to equip your mountain bike with, for commuting, are some slick or semi-slick tires that can withstand some higher pressures, which in turn will decrease the rolling resistance of the wheels. That translates to an easier ride! I can't believe how many bikes I see on the road, with really aggressive knobby tire treads, that will never see the light of a dirt road, and the owner's insist on mashing the pedals and driving these "tractor tires" on smooth pavement! Why kill yourself? If you occasionally ride on trails, then semi-slicks will work fine for pavement and trail; you can always decrease the tire pressure for off-road use to smooth out any bumps.
Hybrids are also very good bikes for commuting as they are a cross between a mountain bike and road bike, thus allowing the rider some latitude with regards to road surface.
I converted an older Trek sport road bike into my commuter; I managed to shoehorn some fenders onto it, added some really durable tires, lights and a rack, Presto! Now I don't have to worry about riding my good bikes in any diverse weather.
If you plan on commuting where there can be significant rainfall, then invest in a pair of good (full) fenders. Not only will they keep the road grime from spraying up your back and down the crack of your butt, but they also protect the components of the bike from road silt and sand, which can grind away at your chain and cogs, greatly reducing their life. I have even made mud-flaps for the front and rear fenders of my bike, to catch even more crud before it hits the bike's components. The rear mud-flap is more of a courtesy to other cyclists whom I may pass or are travelling behind me. I can't stand it when a bike passes me (a rare occasion J), on a wet road, with one of those Mickey Mouse rat tail rear fenders and those great big wide knobby tires spraying up all kinds of crap at me! Those are usually the riders that pass and then pull straight in front of your way, giving you a face full of dirty wet road dirt! Grrr! Be courteous when passing another bike, especially in wet conditions, wait for a short while before pulling in front of the bike that you just passed.
Plan on doing some basic maintenance every weekend, and give the bike a clean; you'll be surprised how dirty a bike gets when used on a regular basis. In general, bikes used for regular commuting will need more frequent maintenance than ones that are used just for recreation. Keep the chain well lubricated and the shifters in good adjustment. And top up the air in the tires, they lose pressure over time, as rubber is not completely impervious.
Always carry a patch kit and pump. I also carry a spare tube, tire boot material and some basic repair tools. It's much easier to put in a new tube, than to patch a hole in the damaged tube at the side of the road, when you're running late for work and it's dark and rainy! Just make sure that you remove the debris that caused the flat from the tire, before installing the new tube. You can repair the damaged tube in the comfort of your workplace at lunch time.
Equip your commuter bike with a rear rack and trunk bag or small panniers, so that you can carry your lunch, clothing, work product etc. safely.
If you plan to commute year-round, then you will unquestionably need a decent set of lights on your bike. And don't think that just a rear red flasher will do! A front white solid light is just as important, if not more so, than a rear light. And the front light is not just so that you can see the broken glass on the road when it's dark, but also so that other vehicles can see you approaching when they are waiting to exit from a driveway or cross street. Imagine yourself in a car when it's raining, the windows are a bit steamed up, there is water on the windows, it's dark outside, how easy is it to see that cyclist coming towards you that has no lights and is wearing dark clothing? Just about impossible!
Make yourself as conspicuous as possible. Install lights of decent power output (wattage/lumens) and battery life; rechargeable batteries for sure! There is an abundance of LED lights these days, either online, from bike shops or other retailer, but as with so many other goods, you do get what you pay for. So buy the best and brightest that you can afford, after all, how much is your life worth?
Most of the older lower wattage Halogen lights that use small dry cell batteries are barely effective in adverse conditions, but I suppose are better than nothing. The better quality Halogen lights, with higher wattage/brightness, are usually powered by gel cell batteries, nickel-cadmium or even lithium battery packs - all of which are rechargeable. Some of the better quality generator driven lights, such as Lumotec, are also very acceptable for commuting and can be driven by either hub, bottom bracket or bottle type generators. A few of the generator lights available now also have stand-by power for when the bike is stationary, such as waiting at a traffic light.
Newer technology has seen huge advancements in high output LED and HID lighting systems, some of which are extremely bright. The real advantage of the LED lights is that they use a lot less wattage to achieve similar brightness to a halogen lights; e.g. my one watt LED headlight is very comparable to my older 10 watt Halogen. Nevertheless, the LED lights do give a very white (almost blue) appearance to their beams, whereas the halogen bulbs produce more of a yellow beam. I personally find that the LED beam washes out more than the halogen, hence I have been running one 10 watt halogen together with a one watt LED for my headlighting system. For me, I have found this to be a good compromise for my ability to see wet, dark roadways; your mileage may vary depending on your road conditions and visual ability to see. I'll add that the one watt LED headlight is very visible to oncoming traffic and can be set to flashing mode for certain conditions.
The important thing is not so much to see, but to BE seen.
Which leads up to....
Comfortable clothing translates mostly to "bike specific" clothing. Cycling any distance in jeans or the like would probably be very uncomfortable and could lead to chafing and saddle sores. There's a reason that cyclists wear that snug fitting clothing... it's comfortable and functional. Good bike shorts have minimal seams in the seat area and a padded chamois to absorb and wick away sweat from the groin area, - yes, this means you don't wear underwear with bike shorts - which helps avoid any chafing. Also, hand-washing the shorts on a regular basis will keep your bike shorts clean and help to alleviate any potential irritation. Loose and flapping clothing is a no-no, as such items can get caught up in some of the workings of a bike; besides it doesn't look cool!
T-shirts made of cotton may be OK for short commutes, but if you sweat in them, they take forever to dry and feel clammy on your skin and could lead to you getting a chill. Polyester shirts or jerseys are a much better choice as they will wick any moisture away from your skin and leave you feeling drier and more, dare I say it... comfortable! Some of the newer "Smartwool" and Merino wool jerseys/clothing are also worth investigating for use in certain conditions.
Bike shoes and clip-less pedals can certainly help pedalling dynamics, but are not a real necessity for commuting. Good running shoes or boots used on "grippy" pedals with cages can be just as practical.
Special bike socks, such as "De Feet" can be utilised for commuting and they do have good wicking properties, but good quality sport socks will suffice also. I found lately, that in cold weather, Gore-Tex or SealSkinz socks over thinner wool bike socks work very well in keeping my feet warm. I still add over-bootees onto my shoes in really cold or wet weather though. The trick in cold weather is not to limit foot movement inside your shoes with too many layers of socks. If your feet are not constricted, they will stay warmer for a longer period of time than feet that are trussed up tightly inside one's shoes.
Jackets come in many varieties and styles and if you're serious about commuting, or cycling in general, you'll likely end up with two or three. They will all have their individual applications and attributes, to be utilised as the weather dictates....
For cold and wet weather I prefer a Gore-Tex jacket that keeps will keep me relatively dry and blocked from wind chill. Gore-Tex clothing is wonderful stuff, but quite expensive; nonetheless a good investment for the serious cyclist. Nothing will keep a cyclist bone dry though, as body vapour is high when encased in "waterproof" clothing. The breathability of materials, such as Gore-Tex, helps to wick away excess moisture from the body as activity increases. However, the key word is "excess," as no material can achieve 100% wicking performance in wet weather. Keeping as "dry as possible" is the best that one can hope to achieve. For warmer weather a windbreaker should be quite sufficient for cooler mornings and can be removed once you are warmed up enough to ride with just a jersey. Most windbreakers are polyester or nylon, some will have water-resistant properties, some will not. It's prudent to purchase a windbreaker that is water resistant, as it can double for a light rain jacket when the weather is too warm for the heavier Gore-Tex type clothing.
In cool weather, layering of clothing is very important and will keep you warmer than just wearing one large, thick item of clothing. In winter, I wear a long sleeve polyester jersey, followed by a fleece vest with windproof front panels and then the Gore-Tex jacket on top. Below the waist I have my bike shorts, with long legged thermal cycling tights (waterproof fronted tights in rainy weather) on top, and then footwear as discussed above. I find this outfit good enough for anything from 10°C, down to -5°C. As the weather improves, I adjust accordingly with a lighter jacket, leg warmers instead of tights etc.
Suitable gloves are also a boon and should be reasonably well padded and not too tight to prevent discomfort and numbing of the fingers. Many different varieties of gloves are available, and the fingerless ones are great for the summer, while long-fingered and insulated gloves are best for winter use. I found the "lobster claw" type glove to be the warmest for winter riding - they're like a mitt, but split between the middle and ring finger. Thick ski gloves work well too. Rain gloves - usually made of neoprene - are also obtainable and even waterproof, Gore-Tex glove covers exist. My favourites for rainy days are the SealSkinz brand of gloves - very comfortable, but unfortunately not super warm for cold wet winter days.
Oh and don't forget the ear muffs! Check out you local bike store for the many different types of ear coverings that prevent your thin little ears from developing frostbite! I use the type that are incorporated into a headband, which I wear under my helmet, and find that they are more than sufficient to ward off the cold.
I mentioned the helmet! A really contentious piece of bike gear. There are many proponents to the usefulness of bike helmets, just as there are many that will choose to discredit the benefit of wearing a helmet. I personally always wear a helmet and even though it's usage is mandatory in the province where I live, I would still wear it, regardless. I have had two or three mishaps at various times and can verify that the helmet I was wearing saved me from serious head injury on at least one of those occasions.
Notwithstanding, a helmet is pretty useless if one is hit by a vehicle travelling at high speed. The helmet's true effectiveness comes into play when one is involved in a low speed fall or collision; when one's head bounces on the pavement, light pole, car etc. Funnily enough, travelling at low speed, close to home, is when most people will disregard the wearing of a helmet, and yet it is in that situation, where most hazards exist. Cycling on the shoulder of a highway is quite worry free when compared to negotiating the streets of a busy town or city! It's on town and city streets where most accidents between cyclists and motorists occur, and it is also there where the bike helmet can be the most beneficial.
One last thing on helmets, if you're going to wear one, wear it properly, square and level on your head - it's not a beanie to be shoved back to your crown - and the straps should be snug under your chin!
I won't delve into mandatory helmet laws (MHL), except to say that many of the most vigorous opponents of MHL will not wear a helmet just on the basis that it is a mandatory requirement in some areas; somewhat similar to cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, I'd say!
Keep in mind that the clothing you wear should be highly visible to other road users; most bicycle specific clothing is either light coloured or has reflective panels and patches. Wearing dark coloured clothes and riding without lights can be a recipe for disaster. Winter clothing always seems to be manufactured in dark colours, and if that's all that is available to you, then consider wearing a reflective vest and/or reflective bands that can be "Velcroed" around ankles and arms. Once again, BE seen!
Occasionally, you may have to drive or take a bus to work. Take advantage of those times to transport a few changes of clothes, toiletries, food items etc. to your workplace. Advance planning can be very beneficial and allow you to cycle to work more often.
The Route that you plan, should be as enjoyable as possible. Perhaps if your commute is not too long, then a bike path or trail could be incorporated. If your commute is a fair distance then speed and time will probably determine that you ride on main arteries. However, even when using main arteries, a route can be varied for a change of scenery. Check out local street maps for alternative roads.
Get to know your different route options and perhaps ride them for fun, before using them to commute. This will give you a feel for road conditions and reveal, any streets where traffic could be high or, areas that could be risky or difficult to negotiate by bicycle. Avoid seedy areas and any places that tend to have loose dogs roaming on a regular basis. Try to envision if the route you plan would be safe in all different kinds of weather and light conditions. Would help be close by in case of an emergency, could you find shelter in a storm? Try to leave in plenty of time... avoid rushing which can lead to inattentiveness for road and traffic conditions.
Don't be tempted to ride your bike on sidewalks. By riding on sidewalks, you will create a hazard to pedestrians and be unpredictable to motorists. You are riding a bicycle, which is a vehicle, not a toy; so act like a vehicle, observe the rules of the road, signal your intentions and be predictable.
With a little pre-planning you can make commuting the most enjoyable parts of your workday.