October 2, 2007

From the Archives: Commuting How-To

I often get queries from co-workers and other riders I talk to about ‘HOW’ I get to work – how do I ride on those busy streets? How do I keep my clothes nice? How do I clean up once I get there? These questions many times reveal of the asker what their primary excuse is for NOT riding to work, and there is a reasonable solution for every concern. Sometimes you simply CAN’T make a successful commuting plan – but in most cases you CAN, with a little thought and planning, ride to work without disrupting your life too terribly. It’s possible – it just depends on HOW you do it:

Step 1 -- The route:

Fear is a terrific motivator – and nothing is as fear-inducing as riding a bicycle on a shoulder-less, 6-lane major thruway in a busy suburban business park. If you don't know how to read a map, riding on these same roads that you would normally drive to work on will teach you to learn how. Every city has its major traffic arteries, but you cannot get to your house, for instance, without the capillaries - not to put too fine an anatomic point to it. The residential 'maze' will quickly become your best friend as soon as you realize that the 6-lane mega-thruway you normally sit in your car through is not place for a cyclist, even though we have every right to be there. It's simply not a good idea - and NO FUN, indeed. Remember – commuting, apart from solving a gas-price, health, or environmental problem for the rider – should ultimately be FUN.
What is FUN is discovering that you can, generally speaking, get exactly where you want to go by bicycle without having to spend any white-knuckle sessions on the major roads - and you will probably only add an extra mile or two doing it. Use your resources on the internet, online mapping applets, or a good paper map will do the trick nicely. It may not be easy, depending on the area you live in -- consider several factors when choosing your route, including these:

- Is the street considered safe, or is it a high-speed bypass for a select few motorists that use it to avoid traffic on a major road only a few blocks away?
- When you are forced to cross a major road, is there a traffic light or a stop sign? Does cross traffic have to stop? Will they see you?
- If you plan to ride in the rain, does your route dip close to any creeks or run-off fields? Will the road be covered if it rains, and do you have an alternate way around if that happens?

Even if you are very familiar with your area, I always recommend pre-riding/driving your chosen route. Even the best cartography houses miss something once in a while, and they certainly don't provide monthly updates for road construction. Also, it’s important to note that things look and feel VERY different on a bicycle then they do in a car – a route that seems tranquil in a car may actually be hard to navigate on a bicycle, due to cross-streets, steep hills, or things as trivial as speed-bumps. Before that first ride, use your new route as an alternate drive to work and make sure it's well-paved and open and familiarize yourself with major intersections and crucial turns. After a few runs, you'll be able to navigate it like second nature. Once you have a primary route in place, you might also consider one or two alternates as well. You may want to change things up mid-week to keep things interesting, or run a quick errand -- another fun challenge is finding a way to get to your local bike shop from your commute-route, in case you need to buy an extra tube or just to check out the latest gear.

Step 2 -- What about clothes?

Now that you know how to GET to work, you have to face the fact that you probably won't be able to wear your cycling shorts to the board meeting!
Whatever will you DO???!!!
Don't panic! Even if you work somewhere that doesn't require a suit and tie, chances are cycling clothing is not on the list of acceptable attire. So, you have a couple of logistical choice to make.
There are two schools of thought on this subject: To pack, or not to pack.
Option one has you driving to work once per week to drop off your 5 changes of clothes, and take home what you have already worn.
Assuming your wardrobe is up to the task, you can start a simple rotation of ten outfits; five in the drawer or locker at work, and five at home - waiting to be washed for the following week. This method allows you to commute by bike with little more than you'd normally carry on a weekend ride - a simple seat-bag for bike repairs will do, but you can enjoy your mileage back-pack, or rack & pannier, -free.

Then comes the 'pack' option:
Some of us only own maybe enough pair of dress pants to get us through the week, so the above becomes a stretch.
Backpacking, or using a system of a rear-rack and a rack trunk or pannier, becomes necessary. The biggest question I've heard in this arena is WHAT ABOUT WRINKLES??? I'm as concerned about my appearance as the next guy, so I take care to ensure that the only reason someone knows I ride to work is when they see my bike outside. The textile market is becoming quite high-tech these days, with wrinkle-free, perma-crease pants and no-iron dress shirts hitting racks everywhere. Laundry is not my favorite thing to do anyway (would rather be riding!) so whether I ride or not I have fewer steps to perform on laundry-day with these fabrics, and they look great.
The best advice I can muster on packing these clothes into a backpack is to fold carefully. A little patience while you prepare your pack for the next day will ensure you come out of the restroom looking neat and professional, should your job call for such things.

More on the actual 'pack' part of this subject can be found in the GEAR section, where I'll dive further into backpacks and panniers, etc.

Step 3 -- Avoid the stank.

Perfectly pressed clothes will be the last thing someone will notice about you if you reek to high heavens -- avoid “the stank” by riding smart, and keeping a few supplies around the desk, or in the pack. Personal cleansing wipes and body sprays are excellent to pack along; primarily alcohol-based, these are PERFECT for clean-up after a commute. Combine this with some deodorant, talcum powder to absorb moisture and odor, a splash to the face in the sink and some aftershave, and you are ready for the day! Don't forget to brush the teeth, too. Never hurts! Girls will always have a harder time with this particular step. “Roughing it” in the corporate world is simply not an option, and particular issues like hair styling are of the utmost importance. Helmet hair won’t cut it. While some die-hard commuters with a few years under their belts are satisfied to change their hair-style to accommodate their method of transport and ease of cleaning-up and primping, others prefer to maintain their current style. If your workplace has a fitness center, or a washroom with a shower, you’re all set – but anything short will require careful planning and consideration – but it’s always possible to commute to work and maintain a professional appearance.

Step 4 -- What about my bike?

Unless you have a 'beater bike', the loyal steed that has carried you on epic rides & countless weekend journeys will change a little bit if you start commuting to work, taking on a decidedly utilitarian feel. Headlights, taillights, etc, will all start popping up on your bike - maybe even fenders. (See WHAT for more on that stuff)
Regardless of what they are, cyclists LOVE their bikes. Personally, I'd be less heartbroken if someone stole my CAR.
LOCKS are essential, unless you are lucky enough to have an employer that doesn't mind you bringing your bike inside for storage.
You should spend a lunch break scouting out your office property and seeing what options you have for locking your bike.
Many companies have started providing bike racks and some even bike LOCKERS (very swanky) outside the buildings now. Make certain the bike rack is actually attached to something itself, however!
In a pinch you can lash your lock around just about anything within reason - standpipes, light-poles, parking garage poles, fence posts, etc.
Be leery of large, supposedly immovable objects like dumpsters -- remember that the average bike-thief may not be able to move it, but the trash truck sure can. Imagine the results!

Step 5 -- Time Management

Commuting to work must fit seamlessly with your current job situation in order to work well. If you are committed to commuting by bike, you should be prepared to make certain sacrifices in order to keep your attendance record in check. You will likely have to rise earlier in the morning, and you will likely be home a little later at night, but if you are currently going to a gym in the evenings, or drinking extra coffee in the morning just to get going, there is little room for argument with yourself. Above and beyond the savings you will realize in gas money alone, you could probably ditch the gym membership - you are getting a very good workout by combining it with your transportation. In essence, you are probably saving time in the long run in that scenario.
On the other point, by rising earlier and getting in the saddle, your body is getting a better wake-up call than coffee can provide - and you can get coffee at the office if you must!
Managing your time is key to bicycle commuting success - when you get home in the evening, go ahead and pack for the next day, or have your clothes for the day already folded from when you did the laundry over the weekend - you can simply grab the next day's outfit and slip it into the pack. Done.
Refill your water-bottle, check your tires to see if they need air, and leave things like your helmet, shoes and gloves near or on the bike so you don't fumble for them on your way out. Have refills of your toiletries ready to reload into the pack, and make sure your headlight battery is charged.
A few steps in the evening will save your morning - you can hop on the bike and go. Also, I offer these little quips:

- Ride sensibly to avoid getting too unreasonably sweaty in the morning, to reduce clean-up and changing time at the office. Save the intense training for the leg homeward where a hot shower awaits you.

- You planned a good route to avoid traffic hassles, but remember to look for glass or nails -- make sure you have what you need to fix a flat fast and get rolling again. For the commute, go with tubes in the seat-bag -- using patches assumes you know exactly where the hole is, which adds time to your repairs. Another trick that I recently employed: in a rush already, I left work late, changed clothes, and went downstairs to find (AHHH!) a flat tire! Being only a few miles from where I needed to be, I decided to save time by inflating the tire with my pump and just riding it home, doing the actual repair later that night in the garage: anything that took 8-hours to leak air will certainly last a few miles. Sure enough it got me where I needed to be on time – the tire JUST getting squishy as I arrived. A quick inspection of the tire to ensure the sidewalls had not been damaged, and a new tube fixes the issue. Carry on! This is a prefect example of how to choose your equipment: use a PUMP during the week – save the more expensive CO2 inflator cartridges for the weekend! If my ride had been longer, I could have simply stopped, added more air, and continued.

- Know the neighborhood; from your route planning you should have at least one alternate route for each leg of your ride, in case an accident, construction, or -- oh, I dunno, sinkhole? -- prevents you from riding your normal route. Adventure is an integral part of cycling, but save that for the weekend rides so you don't have to figure out where you are when the clock is ticking.

- Ride with a conscious; avoid bike-rage! When you encounter the occasional motorist that cuts you too close or honks, although it may be hard to avoid, just keep your eyes front and your hands on the 'bars. An altercation with a probably-late-for-work motorist will not only make you late for work, too, and it could also be dangerous - it's never productive. Remember your mantra -- you're riding to work to BURN stress, not create it for yourself! Save that anger for the next big hill.

- Obey the rules of the road: WHAT? I thought you were talking about time management here, Dude!
Well, in a roundabout fashion, I am --- blowing stop signs and lights may SEEM to save you time, but it's illegal (primarily) and will probably only afford you a handful of SECONDS (do the math) -- if you have to blow thru intersections to make the work-bell on time, try leaving 5 minutes earlier!

Hopefully some of the above has helped start the wheels in your head turning about your own commuting plan!

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