I recently received a request from our esteemed Iron Chef, inquiring on many details about how to successfully bike to work, since I've been writing about it for a few months now. So I shall first address his questions, and then try to add anything else I can think of at the end.
How did you get started riding to work?
After I was able to bike 20 miles in one ride, it occurred to me that it's about 20 miles from my apartment to work. This was just idle curiosity at this point, I wasn't seriously considering biking to work yet. I'm not a morning person, and 20 miles was wiping me out at that point anyway, so I just didn't think it was realistic.
About 2 months later I was finally at a point where I wanted to attempt my first metric century. The theme for that ride was "Le Tour de Buffalo", as it was happening at the same time as the Tour de France. I wanted to take a tour around the entire city on my bike, and see all the neat things about this city that you tend to skip over as you drive in on the freeway. So I made a list of all of the historic buildings and monuments and parks that I knew of, and tried making a loop around the city to hit as many as I could within 62 miles of riding.
It just so happens that the building I work in is a very historic building, and since it was actually the closest monument to my apartment, I decided to just take a direct route there as the first leg. When the day of the tour arrived, I was amazed at how awesome I felt when I finally reached my work building, and that it only took an hour and forty minutes. This is the point when it finally dawned on me that biking to work was no longer a crazy idea, but perfectly realistic. The next day I decided that I was going to bike to work once during the upcoming week. Since I was busy Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I picked out either Tuesday or Thursday for the ride. On Monday I took a change of clothes into work in my messenger bag and left them at my desk. Unfortunately it was pouring rain on Tuesday so I didn't ride that day. But Thursday rolled around and it was a beautiful morning, so I rode into work, and it was awesome.
How did you pick a route and did you have to modify the route a few times?
Well my first route was based on "shortest distance". Since I was initially daunted by the length of the commute (remember, when you commute you have to do it twice!), I felt that the 19.2 mile shortest route was the absolute most I was willing to cycle. This was probably a bad idea. No scratch that, this was definitely a bad idea. The first 10 miles are great because I've got a wide paved shoulder to ride in. But after that it becomes very dangerous. The next 3 miles have no shoulder, but there is a sidewalk.
On the first three commutes I took the sidewalk, but that was very bumpy. After that comes 4 miles of no shoulder and no west-bound sidewalk. So I switched sides and started riding on the left-hand sidewalk. This was an even worse idea, because cars at intersections generally never look right if they're turning right, so they don't see you crossing the intersection. There's a term for this behavior, it's called "salmoning", as in you're riding against the current. In some ways it's even worse if you're on the sidewalk than the road... at least you're usually more visible on the road. Then the last few miles have a right-hand sidewalk again, which I took.
After the first three commutes I gave up on the sidewalk approach. It was just too dangerous, cars at intersections never see you. In a more crowded city it would also be dangerous to pedestrians... but that's not something we have here in Buffalo. In those first 3 commutes I never actually saw a pedestrian on the sidewalks. I was still only commuting once a week at this point, so after three more weeks of riding and practice on my fitness rides, I finally felt confident enough to ride with traffic. This went better than the sidewalks. Certainly much faster. But ultimately this route was just too dangerous. The traffic goes 55 even though it's marked 40. They don't pay attention to you and I finally decided enough was enough and quit this route once and for all.
I tried out a 19.6 mile route on less-busy roads. It takes more time because there's more lights and the reds are longer. Unfortunately this route did not work for me either, because it was ultimately just too bumpy. I was worried about breaking spokes on this one.
So after that I tried an even longer 20.2 mile route. This one eliminates all 10 miles of the non-shouldered road and replaces it with 11 miles of shouldered roads. More stoplights means slower traffic too. There's one dangerous intersection I go through which I still haven't done on the road, however. It's a "double intersection" as the road ends, I have to turn right onto a very busy 6 lane 55mph road, cross 3 lanes of traffic, make a left onto a busy 4-lane road, also 55mph, then make another left onto the street I want to be on, all within a span of about 0.15 miles. To avoid this mess I just take the sidewalks and cross at pedestrian crossings for the 0.15 miles, then get back on the road. I figure 0.15 miles of sidewalking on a 20 mile route is acceptable. So far this remains my favored route. It's longer and slower (due to the lights), but it's safer. Ultimately it takes me an extra 10-15 minutes to take this route over the first one I tried, but when you consider things in the long run, what's an extra 30 minutes compared to the rest of your life?
What worked as far as equipment and such?
Rear Blinkie Lights. When I first started riding on the road, cars would close on you fast, and only realise you existed much too late to actually do anything about it. The day I put a blinkie rear light on my bike, I noticed cars would merge from the right lane into the left around a half-mile before they came upon me. It was amazing how different things were with the light. Before this I was wearing brightly colored shirts, but that didn't really help them see me until it was too late. Get a rear blinkie light. Get two actually. I haven't verified this but I've been told that a single blinking light can screw with a drivers distance-perception, so if you have two lights: one blinking and one solid, they can judge your distance much easier.
A Mirror. Mirrors are not a replacement for turning your head and looking behind you when you want to turn left or take the lane, but they are an excellent aid in keeping track of how much traffic is behind you so that you have a good idea of what is already behind you when you do want to make the turn.
Panniers. Bought a small set of panniers, Bontrager City Double Panniers. They were overpriced, but I've more than got my moneys worth out of them regardless. The neat thing about these is that they just clip on the sides of your rack, and you can just pull it off when you're at work and carry it in with you. No velcro or straps or anything. They've even got a shoulder strap. It was very convenient. When you get to work you're going to want something that's easy to take off the bike, because you're not going to want to have to fiddle around. Time is already limited, and futzing around with logistical issues day in and day out is going to get old real fast. You want it to be smooth, just like getting out of your car and locking it. Otherwise you may get some of those "why am I doing this?" thoughts, which if you're just starting out, can absolutely kill your chances of continuing with the commuting.
U-Lock. Buy a U-lock. The best you can buy. Don't go for the biggest, however, because bigger locks are usually easier to break. The idea is to get one that has JUST enough clearance to hold your wheel, your frame, and the post, with little or no extra room for an attacker to wedge a tool in and begin taking the lock apart. I ended up buying an additional cable lock which I run through my rear wheel, frame, and Brooks saddle, in case anyone is smart enough to realise I've got a QR and an expensive saddle.
Plastic Grocery Bag. It's going to rain while you work one day. Your bike is outside. Your saddle will get soaking wet. If it's a synthetic saddle, it'll be annoying because it'll soak up the rain. If it's a leather saddle, it'll be destroyed. When you park your bike at work, take a grocery bag out and put it over the saddle. Wrap the handles through the saddle rails and tie them together tight. Then tuck the excess baggage underneath the saddle. If you don't make it tight, occasionally the wind will be strong enough to grab the bag and work it off the saddle. This has happened to me several times, but since I started tucking and tying it, I've had no issues.
CO2 Inflator. I carry a hand pump as well, but I carry a CO2 inflator because when you get a flat on the way to work, you don't want to have to waste extra time hand-pumping the tire all the way up. This can shave valuable minutes from your commute on bad days, and you'll be thankful for it. For flats on the way home, I'll use the hand-pump though.
Zip-lock bags. My panniers are not waterproof. It will rain. Water will seep into the panniers and do bad things to anything in them. So now I have a large ziplock for my tubes and my multi-tool, and a small ziplock for my wallet and cellphone. Works like a charm. Alternately, you could get a rain cover for your panniers. I've got a Topeak MTX DXP trunk bag on order with a rain cover, so the ziplocks may be on their way out for me. We'll see.
Fenders. I wrote a whole post about these. Get them. You will ride on wet roads more often than you would think. You will be happy when you get to work and your clothes, shoes, panniers, water bottle, etc, are all dry. Don't chicken out and get cool-looking Mountain fenders either... get the full old-fashioned fenders that cover 1/2 the rear wheel and 1/4 the front.
What didnt work?
I've been having issues with my tires, but I'm working with the manufacturer about it. It may be my fault as I may have chosen an inappropriate tire for the job, focusing on speed rather than durability. When commuting it's much better to get a durable tire, because even though you may be 5 minutes faster on days when you get no flats... you'll be 30 minutes slower on days when you do. I've learned this the hard way.
What do you carry as far as tools and such to fix stuff?
I come prepared with a lot of things. Some would argue that it's overkill, but I've always been a boy-scoutish type person and I believe in being prepared. I carry:
- Two tubes. Two flats are unlikely, but easily within the realm of possibility. When time is an issue, you don't want to have to patch a tube on the road.
- Three tire levers. Some people can change tires with just their hands. It takes longer in my opinion, so just use the levers.
- Topeak Alien II multitool. I've only had to use the hex-keys on it so far, and that wasn't even necessary, just wanted to tighten some bolts on my handlebar when they came loose. But you can never be too sure.
- Adjustable wrench. I carry this because the nut on my seatpost is larger than any of the wrenches on the multitool. If your seatpost slips down, you'll want to fix it. They have Quick Release seatpost clamps but I don't like those as they aren't strong enough for my weight.
- Glued Patch Kit. Don't do the self-adhesive, those things never work. It's possible you may get 3 flats, in which case you'll need the patch. If I get a flat in the morning I'll patch the tube while I'm at work, thus leaving me with 2 full tubes again when I leave.
- Tire Boots. If you slice your tire bad, you can use a boot to make it rideable.
- 4 SRAM "power link" chain links - If your chain breaks, usually it's going to be one link. So you can use a chain tool in the multi-tool to quickly remove the broken link, then replace it with a power link in seconds. Nice and fast. Never had this happen, but it works in theory.
- 10 regular chain links - If more than one chain link breaks, you can try to splice these chain links back into the chain. Unlikely but why risk it? If worse comes to worst you can simply shorten the chain and never use the big cogs, however.
- CO2 pump and 3 cardridges. More than enough to handle any flats I've come across so far.
- Hand pump. For those times when you run out of CO2 or don't want to waste a cartridge because you're not in a hurry.
- Presta-to-Schraeder valve adapter. Worst case scenario, you run out of CO2 and your hand pump is lost or broken. Find your way to a gas station and fill your tires with a car pump.
- Schraeder-to-Presta wheel hole adapter. I've got a Schraeder front wheel and a Presta rear. Not ideal, but it's what I've got. I run Presta tubes in both, with a hole adapter in the front. It's rather loose, and I can see myself accidentally losing it when changing a flat one day, so I've got a backup.
- 2 Spare spokes. If you break a spoke you can probably continue riding on the wheel until you get to a safe place. But if the wheel is too out-of-true, or if you break two or more, you're going to want to replace one. Luckily I've never had to do this on the road. Replacing a rear drive-side spoke is probably going to be next-to-impossible unless you've got a cassette remover tool with you. I wouldn't bother going this far, though.
- Eyeglass wipes. I wear glasses, and if they ever get too dirty to see through, I've got cleaners for them.
- First aid kit. Bandaids and antibiotic. Never had to use, but could be handy.
- Paper napkins. After changing a flat your hands will be dirty. Some people recommend latex gloves for that but I never remember to buy any. So these do for now.
How is commuting to work different than riding on the weekend?
The first thing you'll notice, at least if you work a 9-5 job, is that the vehicular traffic is greater and more violent. In the morning people are cranky because they haven't had their coffee, and are stuck driving to jobs that they hate and are probably late for, and the last thing they want to put up with is some jerk causing them to have to slow down. It's not a nice situation. But ultimately you just have to live and let live. They'll beep at you, curse at you, drive too close. Just ignore them and go on your merry way. Every once in a while someone will give you a thumbs up, and that will make your day.
You ride on roads you don't necessarily want to be on. When you ride on the weekend you are free to choose where you go, and how fast you go. On a commute, you've got the same destination every single day, and you don't really have the best options in the world. You can try different routes out, but there's only a limited number of them that will be practical; eventually the routes will get longer and longer as you keep trying to find the perfect road. Try to pick one that maximizes safety first, then speed, then scenery. If you commute often enough down a dangerous road, it's only a matter of time before statistics show up and hurt you.
Don't bother picking scenic routes unless they are really safe and aren't too far out of your way. You'll get bored of the scenery anyway as you'll see it every time you commute.
You will learn traffic light patterns because you ride down the same streets so often. Much more so than you ever did in a car. Ususally on a bike you will be able to see a traffic light for two or more cycles. This gives you an absurd benefit over cars, because you know exactly how much time it's been since the last time it turned green, and you can adjust your pace accordingly. After 4 months of commuting, I know my route so well that it's rare when I have to stop for a light anymore. I know roughly how fast I have to go to get to the light just as it turns green, or just before it turns red. This will allow you to zip past uncountable numbers of cars while they are sitting like lambs waiting for everyone in front of them to hit the gas. I enjoy laughing to myself when I pass a line of 20 stopped cars, hit the light just as it turns green, and looking in my mirror as the last 5 or 6 cars didn't make it through the light and have to wait for another cycle. You have to do these things to keep yourself amused.
You will be more annoyed than on the weekend. You will ride into headwinds and rainstorms that you would have just skipped if you were riding for fun. Usually these happen on the ride home. But that's all they are: annoyances. I've never met a headwind or rainstorm that stopped me from getting home safely. Just tell yourself, "hey, I'm burning more calories", or "hey, it's just water". You'll make it, and it'll make walking through the front door feel all the more of an accomplishment.
What to avoid/not avoid?
Traffic. Fast roads. Dangerous intersections. Thunderstorms. Left turns (only partially kidding).
Timing... how much time do you give yourself?
I'm lucky in that my job hours are flexible. There's no set time I must be there. In general I would shoot for being at work by 9am at the very latest in an emergency. I would wake up at 5:30am, take a shower, eat breakfast, read the news, then get ready to go. Usually by 6:30 I would be out the door. On my best days I could hit 1hr 10min on my commute, reaching work about 7:40. That was beneficial because then I could leave early. But since adopting a slower route, and since the mornings got so much darker after Labour Day, I now usually leave by 7:30 and get to work at 9:00. Unfortunately that means that if I have a flat, I'm going to get there possibly as late as 9:30, which has happened. So far that's been ok because if I leave at 5:00, I can still make it home by 6:30, and it's still light.
However, the DST switch is coming up rapidly. Once that happens, dusk will be around 5:30, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do then. I'll need to find a more powerful front light, because mine doesn't illuminate anything in the dark right now, it's too weak.
Don't forget you'll need to add time in the morning for changing your clothes once you get to work. I'll talk more about this in a bit.
In general I think giving yourself an hour of extra time when you first start out is reasonable, just until you get the hang of the commute and figure out how long things will take. Don't forget that you'll get faster too. My very first commute to work took 1:40, and my fastest on that same route was a whole 30 minutes faster, at 1:10. So after you get used to the commute, you can begin to cut more and more extra time off. You'll also get faster at changing flats too... :|
Here's what I do for clothing. At the beginning of the week I try to take a gym bag to work carrying 2-3 sets of spare clothes, and leave them at my cube. Do not cycle in dirty clothes, make sure you cycle in clean clothes. Take a shower immediately before getting into your cycling clothes too, and put on deodorant.
Then when I get to work I go to my cube, get the gym bag, go to the bathroom (not ideal, but it works) and change into my work clothes. In the gym bag I also carry a box of baby wipes and deodorant. I take off all of my clothes (socks, bike shorts, shirt, everything) and stick them into a plastic grocery bag, to keep them segregated from the clean clothes. I use baby wipes to wipe off the "body odor strike zones": arm pits and groin/butt mostly. If you're sweaty elsewhere give a quick wipe there as well. If your hair (if you have hair! I'm rapidly losing mine... grrrr) is soaking wet take some paper towels and dry it out. If there's a hand dryer that's even better, run your head under that. Once you do this, reapply deodorant and get into your clean clothes. If you've done things properly, you should not smell bad. Body Odor is caused by bacteria that grows in sweat, so if you took a shower before cycling, the bacteria should be at a minimum on your body, and the baby wipes will eliminate any colonies that may have started growing. If you cycled in dirty clothes however, that will be problematic, as bacteria in the clothes will transfer to your body and it may be in too large quantities for baby wipes to clean.
Then I get to my desk and drop off the gym bag in the corner, and then just switch back into cycling clothes at the end of the day and ride back. For the ride home I usually use the clean socks I wore all day, as well as the t-shirt I wore all day, as I don't really find it comfortable to change back into the dirty ones from the morning.
At the end of the week I take the gym bag home, and re-stock it with new clothes for the next week.
Occasionally I'll have one of those weeks when I can cycle on a Monday or Friday. In those cases I'll just stick a set of spare work clothes in my panniers, inside a plastic grocery bag to keep them dry if it's raining.
That's all I can think of at the moment, I hope this helps!