Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Adventures of Bicycle Commuting

I know what you’re thinking. “Bicycle commuting is for nuts.” Sadly, this is the common thought about cycling is the US, especially here in Omaha, Nebraska. If you ride a bicycle in some parts of the US, you’re typically assumed to fit into one of the following groups:

  • a bicycle nerd
  • a child
  • homeless, or too poor to own a car
  • being punished for DUI

I’m here to prove otherwise. I’ve got a regular office job. My family owns three cars. I’m not athletic. I’m just a normal guy.

About five weeks ago I decided to invest in my first “grown up” bike, hit the pavement and get active, while saving money on gas and parking, reducing my ecological footprint, and generally having a great time challenging myself to get to and from work under my own power.

Previous to my purchase of a new Trek 7300, I had only ridden K-Mart bikes. Whenever I had tried to ride those bikes, I was always uncomfortable, slow, and terribly inefficient. My ill-fitting discount store bike made me tired and after a while I totally gave up on trying to ride it. I suppose I was too naive to understand that buying a quality bike and getting selection, sizing and fitting help from a knowledgeable salesperson made all the difference in the world. My new bike is almost effortless to ride.

Now I’m riding about 50 miles a week commuting to my office in downtown Omaha. In gas alone, I am saving about $10 a week. If you figure daily parking at a $3/day lot, then I’m saving about $25 a week. Consider, though, that this is during the Summer months when weather is beautiful and dry. I’ll have to take each day at a time as Fall and Winter set in.

There are countless websites on bicycle commuting (see links below to some of my favorite), so you can learn much more for searching the web, but I’ll just list out what seems to be working for me.

Get a Good Bike Designed for Commuting

Avoid the “big box” retailers. Go to a local bike shop (often abbreviated “LBS” on bike related web sites) and leverage the staff’s expertise. Expect to spend $250 or more for a good hybrid bicycle (part mountain bike, part road bike). What makes high end bikes more costly are things like lighter frame, bigger wheels, quality components like shifters, brakes, suspension, tires, etc..

Don’t allow the salesperson to limit your fit to whatever is in stock. Have them explain the differences between their bikes. Ask to take the bike for a spin in the parking lot or nearby street or trail and get a feel for its shifters and brakes.

Customize and Accessorize

Don’t like backpacks? Get a back rack and panniers (think saddlebags). Panniers are great for carrying your work clothes or for trips to the store. They also make your bike look wider to traffic behind you (put the pannier on the left side). You can also use bungie cords or a bungee net to tie down other kinds of cargo.

Install a FRED (railroad slang for a flashing rear-end device) and a headlamp. New high-output LED technology allows for relatively small and extremely visible lights that help drivers see you when you ride on the road. I would also recommend a white, forward facing headlight. I use one (day and night) that can blink a couple of high-output LEDs, and have observed motorists notice my lights and do a double take. I’ll take two looks over one any day.

If you think you’ll be riding in the rain or on wet pavement, you can get fenders installed at your LBS for about $35. These will keep you and your bike clean and dry when riding in wet conditions.

Plan A Route

Use Google Maps, Google Earth, or to scope out a route to and from work. Also try driving your proposed route in your car and take note of lane width, grade, traffic volume, etc.. Be open to changing your route slightly until you find one you like.

If you live in Omaha, stop in the library or a bike shop for the ActivateOmaha bike map. You can view it online at This map shows not only bike trails, but also city streets suitable for bike travel.

Allow Yourself Time

It’s not a race. You don’t have to qualify. Just ride at your own pace to arrive at work or home without being totally exhausted. Over time, you will find your pace and endurance picking up and your commute times shrinking.


If you’re lucky enough to have a friend heading in the same direction, ride together for as long as you can. There is safety in numbers.

Dress Appropriately

At first I was afraid I would have to wear all the spandex and lycra to ride a bike. Trust me, you don’t want to see me in spandex and lycra. So then I rode a couple of times in a cotton t-shirt and found it didn’t work well when things got hot and sweaty. After a trip to the sporting goods store, I discovered various brands of “stay dry” materials that wick away sweat without leaving wet spots on the material. Under Armour is an example of one such brand, but other (cheaper) brands are available in the sporting goods stores and stores like Target and K-Mart. Get bright yellow or orange shirts if you can find them.

For shorts, try some that have a compression shorts style liner clad inside a looser basketball short style outer. Also, I’ve heard you can wear tight fitting bike shorts underneath looser fitting shorts. In either case, the tighter fitting inner shorts help prevent chaffing.

Wear a Helmet and Gloves

The helmet is a must. The gloves are optional, but help out greatly with grip when things get wet or sweaty.

Educate Yourself about Bicycle Commuting

Read as much as you can on bike commuting. Here are some sites I find useful:

Have Fun!

Bike commuting isn’t all about saving money and going green. It’s also a great way to get a workout in time that you would otherwise be sitting in a car. Riding a bike is fun and is about the closest you can get to flying without leaving the ground.

1 comment:

brady said...

Solid. You're a regular commute by bike pro.