Four years ago, I started commuting to work by bicycle. I didn’t make a big deal about it, nor did I care what anybody else thought. I just started riding. Now, I ride most of my trips every day, year round. Bicycle commuting appealed to me because first, I enjoy cycling, second, I wanted to make a base level of physically activity an automatic, daily habit, and third, I suspected biking would save me a lot of money. I still do, I have and it has.
I’ll be the first to say to anyone that commuting by bicycling is not for everyone. If this is your reaction to the simple idea, cool, continue to do whatever works for you. I’m not here to tell you otherwise.
But, if you have any interest at all in giving bicycle commuting a try, I can tell you that the benefits to your health and finances alone will far outweigh any of the negatives you’ll encounter. I write this now because here in the last month of 2016, with the reality of another new year barging its way into your consciousness, many of you will start thinking about making life changes. Maybe it is your health. Maybe it is your finances. Or how you manage your time. I can tell you that choosing to build a habit around something as simple as riding a bike to work will positively impact all that and more. So, even though, as I’ve written previously, I’m no fan of New Year’s resolutions, I know you’re going to start thinking about them anyway. We all do. If one of your’s happens to be bicycling to work I’m here to pass along the following five tips that, if followed, will keep you rolling in the new year. Do just these five things and when 2018 comes around you’ll look back on your year and say, wow, I did it.
Okay now, in priority order (I’m not kidding):
1. Be realistic about the distance of your commute. Because distance equals time you must first consider how far you plan to ride. I’ve found that 12mph (19.3kph) is the sweet spot for my morning commute. My one way of just less than nine miles equals a 40 minute ride – a slower pace takes more time than I’m willing to commit and faster results in a sweat tax that for me is hardly worth the few minutes saved.
One of the most common reasons given for why people are not more physically active is that they don’t have enough time. So, assuming barrier number one is time, you’ll need to determine how much you can reasonably devote to your commute. Keep in mind this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t need to replace your entire commute with your bicycle. Splitting the distance is fine too and in some instances necessary but regardless, you do need to identify your distance/time equation. Use a 10-12mph (16-19kph) pace as a starting point and adjust from there.
2. Seriously consider your route. By seriously I mean do not rely on Google Maps or any other online route planning tool to determine how to get where you need to go. Yes, but it is so easy to do. I know, you just use some mapping app to find a route from one place to another and you are on your way. The problem is that in regards to bicycle travel, many of the route suggestions will include roads that frankly you’d be crazy to ride on.
There are much better although analogue alternatives – the maps put out by your city or local bicycle advocacy group. In Denver, for example, you can go to the Bike Denver or Bicycle Colorado websites. These maps are at least designed with the needs of the bicyclist in mind and principal among those needs is lower motor vehicle traffic volume. Bicyclists are not drivers and if you are just starting out you’d do best to not try to commute like one.
3. Ride the bicycle you already have, if. You’ll read this all the time in posts or articles about bicycle commuting and in general the advice is sound – ride the bike you already have. The intent underlying this advice is that bicycle commuting doesn’t require any special equipment least of all going out to buy a bicycle that will cost you a good chunk of money. This part is true, it doesn’t. However, the problem with this advice is that the folks giving it have no idea what sort of bicycle you have nor the route you’re going to ride. And it is possible that for you and your route, the bicycle you have isn’t the best choice. Do you really want to lock your expensive road or mountain bike on the street all day in a major city? I don’t. Or is that heavy, single-speed beach cruiser that you bought for weekend fun rides the best option for climbing up that steep hill on your way to the office? Probably not.
So, consider this advice thoughtfully. If the bike you already have is an all-around performer, nice but not too nice and has enough gears to handle varied terrain than yes, give it a go. If not, consider getting yourself a bicycle that won’t make you worry about it being where you left it or cause you to scream when on your evening commute you’ve only got one gear while climbing up that hill that calls for a bike with three.
4. Get a real lock and learn how to use it. I am continually amazed with how often I see poorly locked bicycles. And it doesn’t matter what type of bicycle either – vintage, new, road, mountain, expensive or not, whatever. Unless you know for certain you can stow your bike in a secure location or keep it with you from the moment you leave your home to the time you return, you’ll at some point need to lock it up. You should get a good quality U-lock at least and then learn how to use it correctly. Anything less is simply inviting your bike to go missing and nothing will stop your beginning bicycle commuting habit quicker than, you guessed it, no bicycle.
Seriously, if you choose to willfully ignore this advice, I have an alternative proposal for you. Just give your bicycle to me. I will then give it to the Lake Arbor Optimist Club, an organization that takes used bicycles (I donated my old commuter to them) and gives them to needy kids. I’ll even make sure to pass along your contact information so you get full credit for the donation. Or find a similar organization where you live. At least your bike will go to a worthy cause.
5. Learn to repair a flat tire, or. Lastly, this tip concerns something that is not a question of if but a question of when. All bicyclists will eventually need to deal with a flat tire. If it happens and you’re near a bicycle repair shop that’s open and you have the time to wait, well lucky you. But all too often, flats happen at the worst possible moment. You’ve two options to avoid being stuck – learn how to repair a flat or attempt to prevent the flat in the first place. Option one is less expensive than option two. For option one you only need to prepare yourself with basic skills, one simple tool, a spare tube and a means to inflate it. For option two, you attempt to prevent flats by either installing puncture resistant tires on your bicycle or put liquid sealant inside your inner tubes. Or both. You get a gold star if you pursue both options.
That’s it. Five tips to from me to you that are worth a whole lot more than you paid for them. Of course, there are other things you can do to make bicycle commuting safer or more enjoyable and I encourage you to contact your local advocacy group to learn what they are. Because, ultimately I want you to succeed and know that for each person who chooses to ride their commute, you are benefitting not only yourself but making bicycling safer and better for us all.
I hope to see you out there.