I’ve enjoyed cycling for most of my life, but I’ve always considered it just a sport. I rode mountain and road bikes alike, but always for fun and fitness, not for conventional transportation. Any time I considered joining the gang of people who biked to work, I’d always find a good reason – or excuse – not to.
Last year I finally went from finding problems with the idea of practical cycling to finding solutions. The results exceeded my expectations.
Problem #1: Safety
Once I got serious about commuting by bike, I had to get serious about finding a safe route. Whether you work in a busy city or a suburban corporate park, you’ll find hazards in your path. Unless you live and work close to a restricted bike path, you’ll have to share the road with cars and trucks. These challenges require diligent planning.
Solution: Proper Preparation
Don’t assume that you’ll bike the same route that you’d normally drive. Use a mapping tool, like Google Maps, to find bike path information, including restricted and shared paths. I’m lucky enough to live in Denver, a city with designated bike routes, so I have a low-stress ride with reduced speed limits and a protected bike lane.
If you live or work in an area not covered by the major maps, check out a biking community like MapMyRide to find fellow cyclists and ask where they ride. If you can, drive the route once to look for dangers on the road and hidden obstacles. And make sure that you’re geared up for safety. In addition to a helmet, you’ll need functional lights on the front and rear of your bicycle, and a proper flat pack in case you get stranded.
Problem #2: Finding the Right Bike
My road and mountain bikes weren’t fit for daily commuting. Riding my mountain bike on the road was as cumbersome as driving an off-road vehicle on the highway. And taking my road bike to work was like trying to take a family trip in a Ferrari – it’s fragile and built for a nice day on the open road, not a slog through the city. Without racks for storing gear or fenders to block road spray, my light road bike wouldn’t make the cut.
Solution: A Commuter Bike
A cyclocross bike is a durable bike, designed for larger tires than a road bike usually takes. It’s built for light off-road use and easily accommodates racks and fenders. With my 18-mile commute, the cyclocross’s drop handlebars are ideal, but if you’re commuting 10 miles or less, you might prefer a mountain bike’s upright handlebars. Equip it with tires designed for city riding, and you’ll have a capable commuter. A commuter bike isn’t built for style or racing, so you can keep costs down by getting a low- or mid-level model that can take a little abuse.
Problem #3: Mother Nature
Especially in cold winter months, cyclists need to be ready for early nightfall and dark rides. Rainshowers will make your ride tougher; severe rain or snow can cancel your ride altogether. You don’t want to get to work drenched from a rainy ride, and unexpected weather changes in the afternoon shouldn’t ruin your return home. In addition to the rack and fenders on my cyclocross, I needed more gear to make my bike commute work.
Solution: Gear Up
I couldn’t avoid the need to buy some more accessories to survive my commute. I started by buying a headlight and a tail light for dark morning starts and early afternoon sunsets. While you might think that a rear light is enough to let others see you, check your local laws. Many cities require a functioning front light, even if you don’t think you need one.
Next, I bought a bag for my bike rack called a pannier. It’s like a saddlebag, and it lets me carry extra clothes, my lunch, some tools, and other essentials without putting the weight of a backpack on my shoulders. Finally, I picked up a decent cycling jacket and some other clothing odds and ends, like gloves, for riding in inclement weather.
Problem #4: Personal Hygiene
My shower is a sacred part of my morning routine. I’m not even fully awake until I reach the shower, so skipping it was unthinkable. Even if my office had a shower facility available, I couldn’t fathom relocating my morning shower from my home to my place of business.
Solution: A Hybrid Commute
Some people are fortunate enough to work somewhere with a gym and private showers, so it’s easy to recover from your ride and get to your desk clean and refreshed. I didn’t have that option, but I still found a solution.
Biking to public transportation is a good start. I did a little research and learned that there’s an express bus that left for my office from a station not far from my home. The ride to the station is, quite literally, “no sweat,” and all of the buses in my town are equipped with bicycle racks for commuters like me. When I arrive at my office in my cycling gear, I quickly change into the clean business clothes I brought in my pannier. For the trip home, I look forward to working up a sweat riding the whole way back.
If you don’t have a public transportation option (e.g. bus or train), take it easy on the ride in, and give yourself time to cool down before going in to the office. Then you can still get the more extreme workout on your ride home.
I’m saving a ton of money by biking to work. My express bus tickets cost about the same as gas did, so I didn’t find any savings on that front. But the cost of gas is only about half the cost of operating a car. My car needs fewer tire and oil changes, less frequent maintenance, and it will not depreciate as quickly. These are largely indirect savings, but they are important nonetheless.
If you can bike all the way to your office, or if you’re eligible for free or reduced priced transit passes through work or school, you’ll find more savings. And don’t forget to check in with a tax professional: Many states offer tax breaks for the expenses that bike commuters take on, including part of the price of the bike itself.
I also think I’m saving quite a bit time. Though my bus/bike commute in the morning adds 15 minutes to my journey and the ride home takes an additional half hour, I’m exercising and sneaking in a workout instead of wasting time sitting in the car. In the end, I’m getting more than an hour of exercise a day that I might otherwise not have time for.
The psychological benefits of cycling surprised me the most. After driving the same route for years, shaking up my routine was revolutionary. My commute had become so intertwined with the stress of a work day that starting the day on my bike makes me feel like I’m on vacation.
Finally, I get the smug satisfaction that I am saving the planet. Better yet, I know that I’m a little bit more insulated from fluctuations in the price of oil. If gas hits $4 or even $5, I can curtail my driving even further since I’m no longer locked into a daily commute by car.
Bicycle commuting isn’t for everyone. I am fortunate to enjoy cycling and to live in Denver, a city suited for bicycle commuting, give or take the occasional snowstorm. By focusing on solutions to your journey rather than the problems, you can improve your quality of life, your fitness, and your finances.
Where have you tried cycling to work? What problems did you face, and how did you solve them? Share your experiences in the comments below.
(photo credit: Shutterstock)