On Commuting

I developed the taste for road biking from commuting.  During one summer around ten years ago when the gas prices were higher than they had ever been, I started commuting with my Mt. Bike.  I figured out how much money I was saving on a daily basis and started to save up to buy a commuting bike.  I was naive and trusting during the first week as I didn’t even lock my bike up as I left it in the car pool parking lot before getting a ride to work.  Since then I have learned a lot about making commuting more economical, safe, convenient, etc.  Here are just a few ideas or lessons learned over the years.

Minimalism

If you buy a large house, you will eventually buy enough furniture to fill that house.  This is the same idea with commuting.  Because you won’t always be wearing the same clothes during the commute as you would at work, the transport of clothes is where the idea of minimalism makes sense.  If you buy a large backpack or panniers, you will start bringing items that are unnecessary.  I find ways to actually ride without any bags as often as possible.  On Monday I might drive my car and take in 2 or 3 different changes of clothes, and leave them in my office with all the necessary sink and shower items.  Doing so allows me to ride my road bike or triathlon bike to work and not always use the commuter.  I also stock up the break room fridge on Monday with the lunches for the coming week, and that alleviates the need to carry in a lunch daily.  Sometimes that Monday transport includes enough supplies for two weeks.  If this option isn’t available, other methods can be used to decrease the stuff you have with you while on the bike.  Less stuff on the bike decreases weight and increases speed which decreases the time you take getting to and from work.  Those three issues are big deterrents to more people not commuting.

Proper Gear?

I listed what my ideal for a commuting bike was in a post awhile back.  One of the key features for a commuting bike is a rear rack.  If you can get a rear rack and get the backpack off the back and all your stuff into panniers, it makes life much better for commuting.  This is for a few reasons.  It creates a lower center of gravity, and reduces sweating, reduces drag, creates less stress on your back and shoulders, and increases security of things being transferred.  Some people swear by riding with a backpack or messenger bag, and I do that at times too when I ride my road bike, but I stay away from it as much as possible.  Clothing is also a very important part of the commuting gear list.  Light, reflective, breathable, waterproof, and packable.  Basically the perfect holy grail of clothing articles cannot be found, but over the years and iterations you soon find out what works for you.  I have found that simple pure-wool running gloves are great for most cold temperatures I have experienced.  In fact Merino wool is a great material for commuting because it can also look good off the bike if necessary.

Transportation vs. Sport

Here in Germany there is a clear distinction between individuals that ride bikes for transportation and those that ride for sport. It is very common to see a 70 year old woman riding a bike that she has owned for 30 years to pick up some bread from the bakery. It is less common to see someone all decked out in spandex on an expensive road bike. Consequently, my ideas on commuting have changed a little while living here. I use commuting often to supplement my training, but rarely as a substitute. This means that I commute at a leisurely pace. Slow, Z1, No Sweat is basically the goal for my commute. This style takes longer, and sometimes I disregard this when my training plan and commuting need to have overlap, but for the most part if I keep my commute in the No Sweat range, I am then more willing and able to do it for 5 workdays in a row.

Security

Forethought on security is a good idea before changing your preferred commuting vehicle to a bike. For example, the questions of where you can park the bike and what other details or security issues that will include are important. I have gone through iterations of upgrading locks to the point that the lock I use now could only be removed during a robbery with power tools. In fact this lock cost me half the price of what my commuter bike did. Having had 1 bike stolen, and 1 lock ruined in an attempt, I no longer mess around buying inexpensive locks. Other methods exist for security, but no matter how much your commuter bike costs, the invasive feeling of having a bike stolen is extremely annoying and unpleasant. There is a special place in the afterlife reserved for bike thieves. Regardless, my practice is to error on the side of excessive security.

The Route

The most bike friendly route for your commute might sometimes be 20% longer than the shortest route. Bike lanes, large road shoulders, hard-pack dirt roads, alleyways, side streets etc. should all be explored as possibilities to include in your route. Having a stress free ride with minimal traffic is extremely important for me, and increases safety. I used to enjoy the rush of riding in between traffic lanes and sprinting to beat a light, but with kids at home now that rush is no longer justifiable. When seeking out a new route, I also look for the ones with the least stop lights unless crossing a busy road is required. Basically, after trying numerous different routes, your favorite route will eventually present itself. Don’t be afraid to try a new route.

Weather

I commute in all types of weather, with the only caveat being icy conditions (for obvious reasons). Some people use studded tires to minimalize slippery conditions, but I have yet to purchase such tires. Over the years I have accumulated the proper clothing for all weather scenarios. I have even improvised with ski goggles when necessary during a whiteout snowstorm a few winters back. During the winter your panniers will become fuller with weather appropriate possibility items. There are few more depressing feelings than coming back to your bike without the proper gear after a work day when the weather changed from summer to winter. It is best to have the weather gear available during the months of possibility rather than wanting it and not having it. Along with clothing adaptations it is necessary that your attention to everything else increase during poor weather. The visibility of automobile drivers decreases significantly, and they aren’t expecting a cyclist on the road during a snow or rain storm, so they aren’t accounting for your presence as readily as they would in the summer. Consequently my winter time speed average is always considerably slower to account for increased dangers.

Community

As a final point, I am amazed with the tight community that bike commuters form no matter where I have lived. As soon as you let another commuter know that you ride your bike to work, you are immediately admitted into a tight circle. The stories you possess and things you experience on your bike are shared and compared quickly and knowingly between bike commuters. Here in Germany there are 4 others that commute by bike in my office, and we all know each other and keep tabs on who rode today. My father in law commutes by bike, and I am positive it helped my approval rating while I was dating his daughter that I did too. In fact, nearly 6 years ago when I went to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, it was in the middle of my commute home. We spent more time looking at my 1983 Peugot that I had converted to a single speed than we did discussing the matter at hand. “Oh yeah, by the way can I marry your daughter?”

Commuting is a wonderful way to spend time on your bike. Unless you work from home, some length of a commute is necessary. I look forward to it before and after every work day.  If you are also a commuter and willing to comment, let me know about your commute including daily miles (kilometers), location, and the months of the year you are able to commute.  Thanks for reading.

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