Thursday, June 21, 2007

Learning to Commute on Your Bike

Kare 11 recently aired a story about how you can save yourself up to $5 per tank of gas by doing simple things with your car: maintaining proper air pressure in your tires; removing extra weight from your trunk; reducing your speed; and keeping the filters clean.

While respectable indeed, I'm here to help you save twice that amount AND help you get healthier in the process by riding your bike to work!

But before that, let me just say that I've been commuting by bike to work since I landed my 1st job at age 16 (almost 30 years). And if you want to count newspaper delivery, age 12. It's simply part of my life and who I am, but it doesn't need to be that way for everyone: riding your bike is as simple as enjoying the sweet smells of summer, lonely road sunrises in Fall, and the satisfaction of knowing that riding your bike is both environmentally and physically healthy. It's also a great way to build strong, lean legs!

And while on a tangent, let me also add that one of the most enteraining parts of my day these days is riding the greenway between the River and Uptown. Whatever it is, this stretch of bikeway s a constant parade of the variety and depth of the Twin Cities cycling community. I've seen: Dorothy with Toto in a basket; a Bride wearing a Wedding Gown; teen groups on bmx's with a boombox; more exposed skin than is otherwise acceptable in public; cruisers carrying uptown's uniqueness; recumbants with short, fat, tall, and; and very very senior riders on 3 wheelers. A photographer shooting A Day in the Life of the Greenway would have a very impressive book!

But, getting back into the bike lane, here are the things you need to know to get started with Getting to Work on your bike here in the Twin Cities:

1. The right Gear. You don't need to spend thousands on a bike or clothing, but you do need to have a well maintained bike and layered clothing. Go to your local bike shop to get set up (not Walmart or Sams). If you end up riding a lot (3+ days per week), you would do well to get fit for your bike - bike shop specialists match the geometry of the bike to the dimensions of your torso, arms, and legs. If you do $pend extra, spend it on rain gear: you will get caught in the rain, and being prepared to ride in the rain will help keep you in the saddle if you can only ride one or two days per week.

Despite the highly envied fashion appeal of bright, multi-colored jerseys, most cyclists really aren't pretending to be from theTour de France, but simply trying to BE SEEN and stay healthy on the roadways. And you should too. As it turns out, the best materials and workmanship normally do get tatooed with logos and sponsor graphiti (which helps pay for the garments), so they are indeed popular with experienced cyclists. What's important is that you own something very brightly colored to be seen on the road.

2. The right route. Planning a route is essential. You will discover and appreciate roads and neighborhoods cycling to work that you would otherwise never see, but some planning is required. Your local bike shop will, once again have local maps for commuters. First look for routes that overpass freeways where auto traffic does not interchange with the freeway, and plan the rest of your commute around those: the most dangerous part of any ride is crossing a freeway where cars and trucks are accellerating into merge lanes to jump onto the freeway. Bike pathways, bike lanes, and other wide avenues are normally well marked on local bike maps, but you will sometimes find residential street routes just as bike friendly.

Plan on trying a few different options: you'll need to experiment a bit to discover the best places to cross arterial roads, avoid traffic, avoid traffic lights, and feel separated from or safe with auto and truck traffic.

And perhaps most important of all - identify service organizations (coffee shops, convenience stores) along or near the route that might come in handy if you have a breakdown or need to rehydrate.

3. The right light. Lengthly Minnesota days are a true delight for cyclists. Mid summer you can start as early as 5:45AM and finish as late as 9:00 PM without the need serious lighting. For these hours, all you'll need is a $25 flashing headlight and a $25 flashing tail light. Buy and use these if you're riding before 8:00AM or after 7:00PM. While you may not notice any light from them, twilight hours, shadows, and sun glare make seeing cyclists difficult for motorists when the sun is low on the horizon. You'll need a more expensive halogen system if you ride earlier or later, and as daylight diminishes towards fall.

4. A change of clothes. Plan to sweat a bit, especially in humid summer conditions. You have two choices: you can either carry a pack, or bring a change of clothes to your office the day (or days) before your ride. Supply your office with soap and sundries if you are priviledged enough to work for an employer who has a shower and locker room. Stock it with a supply of pre-moistened handy wipes if not. HOT TIP! If you don't mind smelling a bit like baby powder, baby butt wipes do a fabulous job of cleaning the crevices and deodorizing after a ride.

5. The right place for your Bike. Many offices and office building have bike racks for daytime storage. It's plenty safe to leave your bike there if it is a well lit area with plenty of foot traffic. If it's secluded, however, or in a bad neighborhood, or if you have a really, really nice bike, or if you simply want everyone in your office to know that you are riding your bike to work (it is contageous!), you may prefer to stow it in your office or someplace nearby. In 25 years of riding to work, I've never been denied access to my office with my bike. You may get some curious looks, but no one will tell you that you can't bring your bike in the building. It is sometimes more convenient and less conspicuous to take the freight elevator or service entrance to avoid other workers arriving before you clean up and change. Unless you like mingling in tight biker shorts.

So there you have it! Enough to get started! Drop me a line if you have questions, or subscribe to our quarterly newsletter if you would like to get even more Minnesota health and fitness tips.