With $4.00 a gallon gas staring us in the face — and the near-certainty of $5.00 a gallon gas before the summer is over — here are some tips for those of you who are considering pedaling instead of driving to work.
1) Scope out your general riding fitness level. This is best done by starting to ride a bit now, if you’re not already doing so, before you actually start to commute. You want to see how fast you can ride, as well as much you can ride at a given stretch and in a given day. Most people start being able to do seven to ten miles in a day at around seven to ten miles an hour, but as their legs and lungs and butts all tone up, this improves quickly. Speed is important for commuting timeliness; most people prefer to keep each leg of their daily commute to an hour or less, so if you can ride at ten miles an hour for an hour, that means you can live up to ten miles from your workplace and still have a timely commute. If you are faster, and many people are, you can increase the commuting distance. (Of course, this will still probably take more time than the car, unless you live in LA or other places with perpetual traffic jams. But then again, think of time spent on the bike as time — and money! — not spent at a health club on a treadmill.)*
If you don’t have a bike, go to one of the local bike shops and give one a test ride. Don’t worry about being ‘too fat to ride'; people weighing at least 500 pounds have thrown their legs over bicycles, and pretty soon they weren’t 500 pounds any more.
2) Look at the road/mass transit options and/or terrain in your area, and pick your bike accordingly. Do you have paved bike/pedestrian paths, or bike lanes in your streets or roads, or roads with wide shoulders? Are these paths/lanes/roads reasonably well-maintained? Then you can get a hybrid bike or even a full-blown road bike, which has a rigid frame (i.e., without shock absorbers on either the front or rear wheels, though some hybrid bikes have shocks in the seat post), with or without drop handlebars (your preference). The ride will be stiff but fast; even a novice rider can within a week’s time achieve and maintain a speed of at least ten miles an hour on the flats. Going up hills will be slower, but you make up for it on the downhills.
If you live in a place where the roads are iffy and the bike paths aren’t paved, you might want to consider a hybrid or a "hardtail" mountain bike — that is, one with a rigid rear-wheel setup but a front fork with built-in shock absorbers. Eschew the 2.125-inch knobbies, unless you live in a really sandy area; if your riding is hardpacked trail interspersed with gravel or pavement, a 1.75-inch slightly textured tire will work much better and you’ll be much faster. You might consider a recumbent bike if you live in a flat area; they can generally go faster than road bikes, but they aren’t as good at climbing hills and many people don’t like having their faces at exhaust level when on the road.
Do you live in an area where you can take your bike onto public transport, and where it might be impractical to try to ride all the way to and from work? Or does the bus line not reach all the way from your work to home (or vice versa)? Consider this: A growing number of municipal bus fleets have bike racks on the front. You can also take your bike onto most trains, so long as it’s not too crowded. But what if your bus’ bike rack is always full, or the train you take is always crowded? Solution: The folding bike, of which genus the Brompton species is probably your best best, especially for the heavier riders out there; it can safely carry riders weighing up to 240 pounds, and I know of at least one who weighed more than that who rode a Brommie with no problems. As the video on this web page shows, you can fold a Brompton in less than thirty seconds into something with the same spatial footprint as a large briefcase. They’re not cheap — they start at about $1000 — but they fold up small enough to be taken on airplanes as standard luggage, which is handy for those people who have to go on long business trips and don’t want to spend $35 a day renting a bike.
Except for the Brompton, which has its own special folding pedals, I recommend getting some metal BMX-style platform pedals. Decent platform pedals are often half what a clipless system runs, and you don’t need special shoes either — I wear my sneakers in the winter and my Tevas in the summer. Avoid the "clipless" pedal system: Not only does it require you to buy special shoes which are essentially good only for riding, they are a pain when you have to do an emergency dismount and your feet are stuck on the pedals. The clipless system also relies on holes in the clipless shoes’ soles that are easily fouled by mud, which makes them useless for off-road riders riding in the rain. (Toeclips provide much of the touted advantage of a clipless system, without the need for special shoes; they still can be tricky to get in and out of, especially when you must do either in a hurry, such as when racing to get through a short traffic light.)
If you want a bike that combines low maintenance needs with versatility, and have less than $1000 to spend, you might want to check out the new series of commuter bikes by Breezer and Redline. Redline’s R530 bikes are especially nice: Enclosed chain (no need for pant leg clips/straps), seven-speed internal gear that can handle all but the gnarliest hills, a shock-absorbing seat post, and even a step-through model for women; they sell for $600 or so. Breezer Freedoms, which sell for around $450, are nearly as nice (and also have a step-through version) but only have a three-speed internal gear hub and don’t have a chain enclosure. Both the Freedom and the R530 have rear racks, so you can strap your briefcase to them – or better yet, get a suitable pannier to hang on that rear rack. Either bike leaves you enough left over from $1000 to outfit it with decent bike bags that can carry more, and more well, than you’d thought possible. Banjo Brothers makes an excellent and affordable series of bike bags, including the Grocery Pannier, which is shaped so that a standard full paper grocery bag slides right in, and the Waterproof Pannier, which will protect your stuff through the worst sorts of rain. You can also get messenger bags from them and from other companies; you can sling them over your shoulder while riding. Messenger bags (or "man purses" as some of us like to call them, as they serve a similar function to woman purses; and it’s about time you guys started recognizing the beauty and utility of purses) are perfect for those things you want to keep at your side and handy while riding, or to take with you directly into the office without having to pull them off of a bike rack. (Yes, they can safely carry laptops.)
The discussion of bike panniers and messenger bags leads directly into my next subject:
3) So what else do I need? Here’s a basic list of tools and necessities you can use to get you through most things (for anything really serious, the best tool is your cell phone, which you use to call a cab to take you to work or the nearest bike shop):
— A frame pump (Zefal, ToPeak and other companies make them) to carry on your bike. For home use, a freestanding floor pump lets you fill your tires faster, but frame pumps (so called because they mount onto your bike frame, of course) will get you where you need to go if you have to change tubes or refill a patched tube. Once a week at minimum (it should be before every ride, but we know you won’t do it that often), you should use the floor pump’s gauge to check your tires to make sure they’re inflated to the correct pressure (which is usually shown on the tire’s sidewall in raised letters); after a while, you’ll be able to tell by feel if your tire is inflated to a proper PSI.
— Tire levers. Tire levers are used to pop your tire off and on your bike. (By the way, a very good guide to changing a tire can be found here.) The short cheap plastic ones will work, though with certain tires they really can be a bear unless you’ve got the hand and upper-body strength of Jack LaLanne. Metal ones are better, longish metal ones are best — though make sure that they don’t have any rough edges that could puncture an inner tube.
— Spare tubes (at least one, preferably two) and patch kit (if you want to save the tube). Patching a tube takes more time than changing it, and the patched tube may not be as strong as a new tube with no patches, but you may need to do so if you run out of spare tubes (which is likely to happen if you accidentally install your tube and tire in a way that guarantees the dreaded "pinch flat"). Besides, patch kits take up less space and weigh less than tubes.
— A bike helmet, with a folding or flexible mirror attached to the visor. Helmets are good not just for the obvious reasons (as any EMT will tell you), but because you can get rearview mirrors mounted to them. Learning to use a helmet-mounted mirror can be tricky at first, but if you do any sort of riding on city streets, they are exceedingly useful, and if you have peripheral-vision issues (or wear glasses which tend to train you not to use your peripheral vision), they are mandatory. Helmets like the Bell Citi have their visors designed specifically to accommodate folding bike helmet mirrors.
— A lightweight reflective vest, designed for cyclists. Reflective vests are good, especially if your commute takes place at night. You want cars to see you as you’re riding down the road — and not just the cars that are currently moving. One of the most common bike-car accidents occurs when a driver of a car opens up his or car door without looking to see if the coast is clear, and smacks into a cyclist. This is called "being doored", and the way to avoid it is to ride at least a foot and a half away from the sides of parked cars, and to be aware of any persons in parked cars that look ready to open their car doors as ride by.
— Lights, both headlights (white) and taillights (red). CatEye and Planet Bike make good and affordable lights. Again, you want to be seen as much as be able to see. Bike lights make that happen, especially since they can be made to flash in patterns not normally seen on cars; this helps to let car drivers know at night that the slow-moving thing in the right side of the road is a cyclist, who might damage their cars if they hit it. You can mount them on your bike, on your helmet, pretty much anywhere. They can be as cheap as five bucks or run well into the hundreds for generator models. For those who want to go off the grid, Reel Lights allow you to ride all lit up without generators or batteries.
— Bike clothes: Bike shorts and tops in summer, long pants with padded bike briefs underneath in winter. (Yes, Virginia, people do ride their bikes in winter. You just need to put on woolen layers on yourself and studded tires on your bike.) If you ride more than five miles one way to work, you will work up a sweat, and you don’t want your work clothes to be sweaty and stinky. Pack your good clothes in the messenger bag or pannier of your choice and change when you get to work. (Many offices are making arrangements with nearby fitness clubs for bike-commuting employees to use their showers; check to see if your office does this.)
— Fenders: Ack! How could I have forgotten this? Anyway, Joyous remembered it for me. If you ride in the wet — and if you plan to do daily commutes, you will — you will want fenders to avoid the dreaded "skunk stripe" up the back of your clothes, especially if you wear your work clothes while riding.
— Bike locks: Another all-important thing I forgot! Thanks, Cinnamonape!
Hope this helps you biking newbies. I also suggest checking with your local bike shop to see if they offer classes for bike commuters; if they do, take them. Happy riding!
*JiminTampa reminds me to say that even if you can’t commute by bike, you can use your bike to replace a lot of those car trips to the store to get one or two things. I use my bike for that sort of thing all the time: Picking up some milk or orange juice or food from the Chinese place or the KFC, et cetera. Use http://www.walkscore.com/ to see what’s within easy walking distance in your area.