Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Goal #2: Bike to work (What? Seriously?!)

Bicycling is one of the best ways to improve your health, explore a city you live in through a new perspective and perhaps meet other people who share the same goal.  The same endorphins making people happy and feed a "runner's high" are also created from something as simple as a long bike ride.

Riding the Music City Bikeway toward downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

Goal #2: Bike to work

If you haven't ridden a bicycle in a long time, you probably think riding a bike to work is a crazy idea.  Even some cyclists may agree with that statement.  Why am I doing this?
  • I wanted to try something new and have never bike commuted (even being an avid cyclist since 2004).
  • I wanted to save some wear and tear on my car, as well as gas.

  • I need base training for my 3rd goal to ride across Iowa this summer. 

I'm sharing some guidelines below if you are thinking about bike commuting or want to entertain the idea. Bike commuting takes a LOT of initial, comprehensive planning but I've witnessed many people pull this off successfully with great results. The following guidelines and remarks are subjective and are simply suggestions (not rules) by a cyclist, bike shop employee and fellow motorist. I know some guidelines here leave room for better suggestions from more experienced cyclists, so please share them below!

1. Look at the big picture and evaluate.

The longer your ride to and from work is, the more planning you'll need to execute.
Do you feel comfortable enough to ride on roadways shared with motor vehicle traffic?

Are you able to ride the distance equivalent from home to work at your current fitness level, including any hills you may face?

Do you have the right bike?  A commute of 20 miles will be uncomfortable on a hybrid bike versus a cyclocross bike or road bike, even with padded shorts.  A hybrid bike or city/beach cruiser is a great choice for shorter rides.  Mountain bikes aren't an efficient idea for any distance commuting due to their wider, knobby tires.  Department store bikes, albeit cheap, are very heavy and will make a ride even harder.  Visit your local bike shop to have them recommend what bike options work best with your goals and budget.

If you can't ride the distance, you can always "park & ride" from your vehicle or take the bus or train.  Riding the entire route isn't always necessary.

Expect challenges, as with any form of alternative transportation.  This includes friction some motorists have sharing the roads with cyclists.

How much gear are you going to be carrying?  A backpack, messenger bag or pannier(s) are a must for carrying your belongings.  Consider the added weight of your cargo when factoring in your fitness level of bike commuting.

Go for it if your benefits of improved health and happiness will outweigh the challenges that arise with bike commuting.

2. Thoroughly research your logistical needs that will arise at the workplace.

Is there a shower available?

Where can you change?  (e.g., locker room, bathroom, restroom, your office, etc.)

Where are you allowed to park your bike and will your bike be secure?

Where can you store your clothes, supplies, food, etc.?

Will you bring your change of clothes with you or will you keep your clothes at your workplace and change then?  If you peek at my bike commuting schedule below, you'll see I've chosen to refresh my wardrobe and supplies once a week on a rest day.

3. Plan your route.

At your current fitness level, are you able to ride a distance from home to work, including hills along the route?

Use trails, greenways, marked bike routes and existing bike lanes as close to your route as possible.  Doing so will take you away from heavier traveled roads and help ease frustration between cyclists and motorists sharing the same roads during peak times.

Use free online resources, like Map My Ride or Ride With GPS to draw a route that works best for you.  You'll ultimately need to transfer your route to a smartphone or print a cue sheet that you'll refer to until you know the route like the back of your hand.

Some municipalities even have a bicycle map with prescribed bike routes and trails.  Factor in these routes for your trip planning to ease your commute.  If you have an iOS device (iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch) a very useful app you can purchase is called Bike Maps, which downloads any published bicycle maps to your device and plots your location on these maps using the GPS chip in your device.

Is the route safe?  If part of your route may weave you through a questionable part of town, stick to more higher-traveled roads or during the daytime versus night.

Visit your local bike shop and talk to bike commuters or avid cyclists to get recommendations on routes.

4. Drive your route at the time you'll be bike commuting to and from work.

Look for physical hazards present along your route and mentally map them:
  • Broken glass and other sharp debris on the path you'll potentially be riding
  • Pavement cracks
  • Potholes
  • Storm sewer grates
  • Man hole covers
  • Railroad crossings (moisture makes train tracks slippery as ice, often from condensation that forms during the morning hours; always cross at a right angle or walk your bike, if necessary.)
  • Wildlife, including deer

Pay close attention to how heavy the traffic is on your route (again at the time you'll be bike commuting.)  Every cyclist has a comfort level established by their individual experience sharing roads with motorists.  There may be roads that just aren't suitable for riding or are prohibited to ride on.  Reconfigure and drive (again) the route, if needed.

Consider finding a weekly group ride from a local bike shop to improve your road riding and group riding skills while exploring new scenery.  For most riders, look for rides that are advertised as "no drop" rides meaning that if you do the ride and happen to fall behind with the rest of the group, you won't be left alone.  Group rides are a great way to learn good riding etiquette from experienced riders.

Have an idea of when the sun rises and sun sets which contribute to a low sun angle in the morning & evening which may limit your visibility among motorists you're sharing the road with.  Here is a great sunrise and sunset resource, including predawn and twilight, provided by the U.S. Navy.

Find where the bus transit and train stops are (if any) along your route.

Drive your route daily (and at the time you'll be bike commuting) for at least one week to memorize your route.

5. Have a backup plan for contingencies.

Know how to perform basic bike repairs and have basic tools with you if a mechanical problem arises.  Have a friend show you how to replace a punctured tube.

Ride with supplemental identification attached to your body, such as a wrist, ankle or shoe ID or dog tags containing blood type, allergies, health conditions/needs and emergency contact information in addition to your name.  I personally use a RoadID and wear it all the time while away from home.

If a stray dog runs out to you no matter how friendly it is or not, be on the defense.  Coming to a stop and using your bike as a shield and commanding the dog to go away does work.  While riding, many cyclists also resort to squirting the dog with a bottle or simply sprinting from it if they have the energy to do so.  Dogs only care about the territory they're protecting and not you.  Once they recognize you've left their territory, they'll back off.

Pack extra nutrition like an energy bar, gels or chews in case you need a quick boost.
If the weather will be wet, have appropriate rain gear.  Waterproof high-visibility jackets, rain pants and waterproof shoe covers and fenders are a big bonus on a wet commute.  Some bike bags even have a deployable rain cover.

Remember finding bus stops along the way I mentioned earlier if your commute turns into a rainstorm?  This would be a good time to stop your ride and pay fare for a bus ride if you're simply miserable and wet.  Have a friend who may be available and willing to pick you up if all else fails.

Ride with a sports camera, like a GoPro, to document any incident that occurs, including a collision with a vehicle.  Video is the best evidence in case of an accident or to document an aggressive motorist who might intimidate or intentionally harm you while riding.

Here is the result of planning tailored specifically to my goals and needs.  This may serve as a template on how to plan bike commuting.  Click to enlarge.

6. GO!

Know and obey all municipal codes, ordinances or laws that apply to your jurisdiction regulating operation of vehicles.  Bicycles are considered vehicles and cyclists have a legal duty to comply to the same laws that govern motor vehicles.  Here is an example of bike (and pedestrian) related laws of the Nashville, Tennessee, community I live in:

Helmets are a must.

Consider riding with a bright headlight and taillight in the day, in addition to the night.

Always signal your turns and when you're slowing down no matter if a motorist is behind you.  Communication is critical (and even legally required) when turning or slowing in addition to good riding etiquette.

When coming to a stop, slow down gradually as if you were driving.  Don't make a sudden stop as it will likely result in a collision and possibly a visit to the emergency room.

Don't tailgate.  Keep your distance from the vehicle you are following in traffic as if you're driving.  Tailgating is a quick way to irritate a motorist no matter in a vehicle or on a bicycle.

Take the lane when using a turn lane or at the stoplight if you are able and remember (again) to signal.

If you encounter an aggressive driver, ALWAYS keep your cool.  Depending on the circumstances, pull safely aside and call police immediately to report the driver, their vehicle and action(s) toward you.  If a police report is filed, it establishes official documentation that an incident occurred.  If an aggressive driver is listed in multiple police reports intimidating or harming cyclists, the driver could later be legally proven guilty of harassment.  If you choose to retaliate, know that all of your actions can be documented in a police report that driver could file against you.  Again, ALWAYS keep your cool.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN!  :-)

As a friend of mine says, "keep the rubber side down!"  In other words, ride safe!

I'm hoping some of these ideas may inspire you to be a more careful rider and perhaps a future bike commuter.  Again, feel free to post any comments you have below if you have better suggestions or simply have questions!

Wish me luck and pray for my safety as I'll give bike commuting a serious try beginning in April during 30 Days of Biking!  There's still time to sign up, so join me and ride a few minutes a day!

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