Ode to Bicycling

Just your average Seattle springtime bike ride

I mentioned riding my bike to the library in a previous post, so let’s talk a bit more about how awesome cycling is.

Second to meeting my wife Venessa, choosing to commute by bike is the one factor that contributes most to my quality of life, on a physical, emotional, and financial level. My bike is my preferred mode of transportation, a source of recreation, and a cheaper, more enjoyable alternative to a gym membership. I preach the awesomeness of bike commuting to anyone who will listen, and have helped a few people get started. Here are the tips I gave them:

Step 1: Decide if bike commuting is for you

The rewards of bike commuting are plentiful:

  • I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been
  • I get to the office feeling invigorated, my brain is alert and ready to work
  • I get the feeling of accomplishment from conquering hills and routes that were previously too challenging
  • It’s good for the environment
  • Depending on your commute, it’s quicker (15 minutes on bike vs 40 minutes on bus, for me)
  • It’s arguably cheaper than a bus pass and definitely cheaper than a car ride
  • Chatting with other cyclists along the way

There are also some not-so-great things:

  • Safety concerns
  • Riding in the rain 9 months out of the year
  • Worrying about your bike getting stolen, where to put it when you’re at work, what the policies in your office are
  • Getting to work sweaty. Does your office have a shower? If not, how will your coworkers feel about your odor?
  • Your pants won’t fit because your waistline will shrink and your leg muscles will grow
  • No time to read/listen to music (or whatever you enjoy doing on the bus)

Step 2: Pick a bike

Until you’ve been on a few different bikes, you won’t know what type of bike suits you best. If you have cyclist friends about your size, ask them if you can try out their bikes. Otherwise look at craigslist listings for bikes, and give some a spin. For a more humorous look at choosing a ride, see the “Equipment” section on this helpful Bike Snob NYC post

I was very happy with my touring-style bike as a commuting bike. It didn’t have as aggressive a position as a road bike, so it’ll never be the fastest. But it was designed to carry cargo, and it had small gears for getting up hills. I ended up swapping it for a cyclocross bike since it’s easier to commute on a ‘cross bike than it is to race ‘cross on a commuter bike.

My recommendation is to buy a bike with drop handlebars and STI shifters, that can one day accommodate fenders and/or a rack. Other than that, just get the nicest used bike in your price range.

A note on bike sizing: there’s no standard for bike size numbers. Each company measures a different part of the bike to determine the size. You can google for sizing guides with charts but there’s no substitute for getting on a bike and seeing how it fits your body.

Step 3: Bike gear

Some people go crazy with this stuff, but you don’t need that much. What you do need depends on what type of riding you do.

Here’s a list of the essentials, that can all be had for under $50 total:

  • Helmet
  • Floor pump (the #1 way to reduce flats is checking tire pressure every few rides)
  • Little bag (e.g. that goes under the saddle, between two bars of the frame, or in your big bag)
  • Repair kit that fits in little bag: spare tube, patches, a small pump, 2 little tire levers, a small multi-tool
  • Yep, that’s it.¹

You should get a lock if your workplace doesn’t offer bike storage in the building. But before caving in and locking up outside, I’d put up a fight on this point. Mention how much more productive an employee you’ll be knowing that your bike is safe through the day. Some cities have a program, like Bikestation, where you can lock your bike indoors for a yearly fee. An oft-overlooked defense against having your bike stolen is to not have a valuable-looking bike!

Step 4: Route selection

This one’s more of an art than a science. Get a bike map for the area you live in, and plot a route. Remember that the shortest path isn’t always the easiest. It took me a while to stop thinking like a driver. Go around hills. Follow other cyclists to see what they’re doing (when they merge, roads they avoid, etc) or ask them when stopped at red lights. I’ve found that cyclists are very friendly to each other and love to help out. Sometimes a busy road with a bike lane is actually less safe than a side road without bike facilities.

Steps Five through infinity: Ride safe

This is the most difficult one to write about because it literally is a matter of life and death. The first few times I rode through downtown, I got that panic warning from deep in my reptile brain. Same thing I used to get as a child when we had to swim at summer camp (I had a terrible fear of water).

I’m going to keep this simple and only offer one tip because it’s the most important safety thing I’ve learned, but it’s somewhat counterintuitive to a beginning rider: be a predictable part of the flow of traffic

The tendency for a new rider is to timidly hug the right edge of the road, always yield to cars even if you have the right of way, or ride on the sidewalk. Counterintuitively, none of these practices make you or the people around you safer!

You have the same rights and responsibilities as a car so the more you ride like a car, the safer you’ll be. The only legal difference between you and a car is that a cyclist is obligated to ride “as far to the right as safe”. Other than that, you’re just a very slow and slender car.²

For example, when you’re riding on a street with parallel parking, “as far to the right as safe” means “far enough away from parked cars that when a car door opens, it won’t hit you,” even if that means riding in the middle of the lane. Cyclists call this “claiming the lane” and it’s the most counterintuitive of all the safety rules.

“Share the road” goes both ways. So when cars are around don’t be a jerk and run lights, ride excessively in the passing lane, etc.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’d love to convert one of you into a bike commuter!

¹ You can add more gear later after you figure out what type of riding you do most. If you plan on riding…

  • in the dark, add: bright/reflective clothing, front and rear lights
  • in the rain, add: front and rear fenders, and optionally pack a poncho
  • longer distances, add: water bottle and water bottle cage, bike shorts or bike underwear (padded undies that turn any shorts into bike shorts)
  • while hauling lots of stuff, add: rear rack, paniers (bike bags)

² Your local laws may vary.

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