Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bike Commuting 101

arcata bottoms

Ace reporter and KSLG DJ Jennifer Savage recently asked for advice regarding what kind of bicycle and equipment she would need to commute to work.

If her commute was short like mine (4.5 miles round trip) I would suggest that she simply ride whatever bicycle she already owns. Just pump up the tires and go.

In a town like McKinleyville you can get by with almost any kind of bike – a road bike, mountain bike and even an old clunker. Nearly everything in town is within three miles or less of everything else and it’s relatively flat. McKinleyville is actually the ideal town for getting around on a bicycle, although you wouldn’t guess that based on the dearth of bicycles on the road.

But Jennifer wants to commute to Ferndale, which is about 24 miles one way. She would have to tackle some traffic, several hills and, depending on the weather, a strong headwind.

That’s a lot of miles and some tough terrain for pedaling to work, especially if you add inclement weather to the mix.

The trip is far enough, and difficult enough, that I don’t feel qualified to give her any advice about it at all. But I will anyway.

I would suggest that if she has a decent bike, she get it in proper working order and do a test run. See how the bike works. Climb some hills. Pedal 15 to 20 miles. If she’s comfortable with this, then she can easily do the commute one way.

If I were her, I’d be tempted to use Redwood Transit to get to work. Then I would bike home. You can click on the link for “Jack’s Electric Bicycle” on the left and look through the archives for my blog entry regarding using a bicycle and Redwood Transit.

If she has a choice of bicycles, I would suggest a road bike over a mountain bike. Those fat tires on a mountain bike really slow you down. Then again, the most important thing is that she feel comfortable on the bike.

In my personal experience, a great way to change the whole feel of a bicycle is to change the handlebars. I never used my road bike until I swapped the standard 10-speed “drop” handlebars for mustache handlebars. Now it’s my favorite bike. There are lots of different options. For instance, check out the handlebars on my Schwinn Suburban, shown in my Dec. 15, 2006 Weekly Bicycle Wrap. Drop bars also make a lot of sense. They provide a lot of different hand positions. But they’re not for everyone.

As for equipment and accessories, here are some suggestions:

• Helmet. This is a necessity. No ifs, ands or buts.

• Tool kit. This should have everything necessary to repair a flat tire. I carry a bunch of tools, patch kit and spare tube. If a bicycle does not have quick-release wheels, a wrench will be necessary.

• Pump. I carry both a mini pump and one of those CO2 cartridge doo-dads. I haven’t tried the latter – yet. Test out the pump ahead of time. I learned this lesson the hard way after I got a flat and discovered that my pump didn’t work. I ended up walking my bike home.

• Water bottle

• Fenders. To stay dry and keep one’s face and ass from being covered in mud and grit, get fenders. I have several bikes and I use the ones with fenders when it’s raining. When I have time, I plan on installing fenders on my favorite road bike (see photo above).

• Lights. If there is even a remote chance of riding in the dark, lights are necessary. For safety purposes, riders may even want to use them in the daytime. I have a pair of cheap lights from Kmart with bright, blinking LEDs. I use them at night, in the fog, or when I just plain feel paranoid about cars, which is a lot of the time and for good reason.

• A lock

• A bag, panniers or backpack. I have something called a “rack trunk” (see photo above) that I like. There are lots of different options.


• Gloves. I like wool gloves with the fingers cut off.

• Ear warmer. I took an old wool beanie hat and cut the top off. That left a nice band that wraps around my head, covers my ears and doesn’t interfere with my helmet. This is the cheap option. Or a fancy ear warmer can be purchased at a bicycle store for about $10.

• Windbreaker/Raincoat. A lightweight waterproof polyester windbreaker works for me when it’s dry or the rain is light. Underneath the windbreaker I layer my clothing. Layering is the way to go.

• Rainpants. I put rainpants over my regular pants.

When there’s a light drizzle or even medium rain, I’m pretty comfortable. When the rain is heavy, I’m a miserable wretch. Everything leaks. I come home cold and soaking wet. I’m still working on this problem and hope to have it solved in the coming months as I improve my gear.

Below are some interesting links. You'll want to read the archives.

Kent's Bike Blog

Bike Year


Blogger Jennifer Savage said...

Thanks, Jack! I'll print this out and get planning!

The bike I have now (a hand-me-down mountain bike) is fine for the Manila-Arcata flatland commute, but after repeatedly experiencing being passed by serious cyclists on their sleek machines, I'm looking toward buying a faster bike -- it's on the list right after "new wetsuit."

10:44 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

Keep your eyes open for a used bike. If you get lucky, you might find a gem. The road bike I ride was purchased for $15 at a garage sale in Arcata circa 1990.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Fritz said...

24 miles one-way is a looong ways for somebody new to this. I'm a technophile road cyclist and had 20+ mile bike commutes for several years, but that's three hours a day in the saddle every stinking day. Unless you really love it, you'll hate it. Your advice to go multimodal is dead on.

For that distance, Jen will commute in the dark for part of her ride so lights are a necessity. Ensuring the bike is in good working order is a must -- breaking down 10 miles from home isn't fun.

I wear a helmet, but on my priority list it's a bit further down -- they're only necessary if you actually fall off your bike or get hit. The greater priority is to avoid falling in the first place. Ditto for knee pads and wrist guards and the other safety gear I see some cyclists wear.

Long commutes result in much more heat generation (and sweat!), so Jen will wear less clothing than the two-mile commuter. She will want to bring water with her.

Regarding raingear -- yes, better (and more expensive) gear results in a dry ride. She'llwant something well ventilated, though, or she'll just get wet from the sweaty sauna effect.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Hank said...

Jennifer -- What you want to do is get a BMX, so you can do some tricks at the Arcata Skate Park at the end of your ride.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Fred said...

I'll have to admit to not even owning a bike right now but, back in the early eighties, I rode to and from work for most of an entire summer- an eight mile trip one way.

I was going to suggest a bike with wide, heavy duty tires, since I'd had occasional problems with the 12 speed road bike I had. The roads around here can be rough on the rims and tires. I had to replace an entire wheel once because of hitting broken pavement in the dark.

But Jack's probably right: Doing that kind of distance you'll probably want a road bike.

Fritz is right about knee and elbow pads. That was something I meant to get but never got around to for some reason. One other thing I recommend, that I see few bike riders wear, is safety glasses.

You'll see many wearing sunglasses, and that will do for daylight hours, but what about riding in the dark? There's all kinds of overgrown areas where you might end up with a branch, or some such, hitting you in the eye as you're flying along in the dark, not to mention an errant pebble being thrown at you from a passing car. I'd keep a pair of non- tinted safety glasses on hand for riding at dusk and night.

Though very pricey, I strongly recommend gore- tex rainwear. It breathes, at least to some extent, so you don't end up essentially wrapping yourself in a plastic bag like you do with conventional rain gear.

I used to wear a windbreaker when I rode to work. Not waterproof, just windproof. When I'd get to work the inside of it was soaking wet from sweat. I'll admit to not noticing it much when riding, but it was kind of yucko once you were done and had cooled off. Gore- tex raingear doubles as both a wind and rain breaker.

Like Jack said, 24 miles is a long ways to go. Best to have an alternative way to get home if need be. I hadn't thought of the transit system but that makes sense. Get a bus schedule.

That said, as much as I hear people say that riding your bike gets you to work tired, I found it the exact opposite: I'd get to work feeling refreshed and energized. Even more surprising, I usually looked forward to the ride home. It made going to and from work more of an adventure than just a drive and that was despite the 10 to 20 mile headwinds I'd often encounter driving home.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Savage said...

Thanks for all the advice! I'd already scouted out the bus-and-bike option. I can catch the 8:44 a.m. Manila and make Fernbridge at 9:36 a.m., then it's a 3.7 mile ride to the station. A bit tight for a 10 a.m. show, but as long as the bus arrived on time, it should work.

Ideally, I'd work toward riding all the way home, but an option is riding to CR (no Fernbridge bus again till too late) and catching the bus home from there. I figure that might be a good way to work up to the full distance.

Fritz, do you recommend a particular brand of raingear? And how do you all deal with "the sweat factor"? Do you bring a change of clothes or just kinda air out? I switched from riding with a backpack to hanging a bag on my handlebars so my back wouldn't get so sweaty (ewww), but it hasn't seemed the most efficient way to ride. How does one carry stuff? Basket on the back of the bike?

Once I finally rode my bike to the Eye, I loved it, once I was off the highway; the 255's shoulder is so scary once one is past the Mad River Slough.

Hank, you know that riding bikes at the SKATE park is totally illegal, don't you?! :)

Fred, the point about safety glasses is a good one. I wear contacts and the littlest speck in my eye can quickly turn into a big problem. Sunglasses help, but if it's too cloudy or getting dark, they're worse than nothing.

Fred said: "I'd get to work feeling refreshed and energized. Even more surprising, I usually looked forward to the ride home. It made going to and from work more of an adventure than just a drive and that was despite the 10 to 20 mile headwinds I'd often encounter driving home."

Yeah! Even though I always start with a bit of dread, once I get going, I feel so good! With the winter and my new schedule, I don't get to bike nearly as much and have missed it – hence my interesting in incorporating biking into the new commute. Thanks again for all the useful suggestions! I'll keep you posted.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Visit the link below for a simple pannier. Click on "bags" near the top to view other options.

I can loan you my cheapo panniers if you want to test them out.

Also, don't rule out using your mountain bike. It might do the job. I wonder if you could put thinner tires on that bike that would improve the performance without costing too much? Might be worth wheeling into a bike shop just to hear what the clerks have to say....

8:37 PM  
Blogger Fred said...

Anyone ever have the panniers(?), or bags, on their front wheels? I used to have some on both the front and back of my bike.

It never occured to me, and I was quite surprised how much the wind affects your bike when you have the bags on the front. One good gust of wind can knock you off course as they'll turn the front wheel.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Rose said...

You can often get a nice bike at the pawn shops.

4:28 PM  

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