Some of these things are not like the others… Yet this is Christmas in Washington!
It was snowing this morning when I left to catch an early bus at 6:29. The roads were clear but the heavy flurries of flakes made it difficult to see. The bus drove through a mess of snow on the freeway, followed by some very cold rain when we got downtown. (Similar, if sightly warmer, weather is forecasted for the foreseeable future. Not a great sign for happy commuting.)
When I got my bike off the bus, the side facing out was caked with slush. This is what it looked like after I rode it down to the parking garage and a bunch of slush fell off.
On top of this, I am spending the whole day today and tomorrow in training, which means arriving at 7:30 am, and then I need to stay late to actually get some work done afterwards.
For some added fun, Benji has also come down with a nasty cold. He coughed so much he vomited yesterday afternoon, but slept OK overnight with massive help from the humidifier. Naturally, this happens right when I’m gone extra-long days.
I’ll be honest: I wish this week was done.
Evening update: I rode my bike home. The first couple miles, I rode through an inch of melty slush that fell right before I left. The traffic through downtown was literally stopped pretty much everywhere, and I saw many forlorn people waiting for buses that were probably laughably far off their schedules. As I left the parking garage, I heard the cop whose job it is to help cars turn out into traffic ask the driver next to me, “Where you going?” [inaudible response – maybe Bellevue?] “Well, good luck!” –I later learned that freeways were intermittently shut down much of the day.
I had a very slow commute, despite trying to maintain a decent pace, and I’m not sure why. It wasn’t the road conditions — after I crossed Mercer St. on Dexter, the slush miraculously vanished, leaving wet roads and increasingly chilly temperatures. But by some miracle I didn’t even get precipitated on at all — no wintry mix, no mixed rain/sleet, no freezing rain, not even any regular old rain. It all paused for a couple hours while I rode home.
I know I should be grateful (on many levels! By catching an hour earlier bus, I missed the bad morning traffic; by riding home, I missed the evening commute snarl), but I finished just feeling depressed that it was my slowest commute in several weeks. My LEGS felt like I was going 20 mph but somehow my speedometer kept saying closer to 15 mph. Sigh.
Also, Benji spiked a fever during the day, which means he has to miss school tomorrow, and tomorrow is the day his class is going to visit the vet clinic. Darn it! I am grateful, however, that my mom is able to take Benji for a second day in a row and for a third day this week. Benji’s doctor approved a small dose of cold medicine to help with the coughing, which has gotten really bad and is keeping him from sleeping.
WHY, universe, WHY??????
I spread out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
So you’re interested in commuting by bike. Often one of the first questions people have when they start thinking about using a bike as a means of transportation is “What kind of bike should I use?” I’m going to provide a little bit of bike purchasing advice that’s based on my experience, but you don’t actually need a special bike for commuting. All you need is a bike in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry your stuff.
However, lots of people buy commute-specific bikes, for good reason, so I’m going to throw my $0.02 in. I emphasize planning and thinking before going out and buying a bike because most people buy a first commuter bike and then later wish they’d bought something else. My discussion below is aimed at to helping you home in on features you want so you can buy the right bike the first time.
Define your list of needs.
When you decide to go by bike, first think about a XXX factors:
- What is your budget? You can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000 on a commuting bike. Expect to spend between $750 and $1500 for a good commuting bike from a reputable bike shop.
- How often do you want to ride? Think about what your long-term bicycling goal is. Do you want to ride 5 days a week year round, whenever the weather permits, or just every occasionally?
- How many miles will you ride? You’ll probably want a different bike to ride 10 miles each way than if you ride 2 miles each way. If your normal commute is long, consider a multimodal commute where you drive or take the bus partway, park, and ride the rest of the way.
- Do you want to use this bike for other things? If you want to take this on long club rides, on gravel trails, for towing a trailer, or for other specific uses, make sure you find a bike that supports those activities.
- How hilly is your commute? A 50-lb Dutch-style bike is great in flat New York City, but on the hills of San Fransisco, you’d probably prefer something a bit lighter-weight. Single-speeds and fixed gear bikes are popular right now, but aren’t so practical for most everyday bicyclists.
- Do you want to carry stuff on your bike? Many bike commuters use a rack and panniers (saddle bags), but a backpack or messenger bag also serve many commuters well. If you want to go the rack-and-pannier method, budget extra for those items. Some bikes do come equipped with those, but many don’t.
- Do you want to ride in the dark? Some commuter bikes come equipped with dynamo-powered front and rear lights already. Most bikes can support lights, but budget for a good, bright front light ($100 to $150 is about typical) and a couple of blinking rear lights ($30 to $40 each).
Refine your list of needs.
Once you’ve thought about that, ride your current bike (if you have one) on your commute for at least a month. Keep a list of the things you like and don’t like about it. This, like the planning above, will help you start getting a better sense of what you actually want out of your commuter bike.
What Kind of Bike?
With your refined list of needs in hand, you can start thinking about what kind of bike would serve your needs. I’m not going to recommend specific bikes because there are so many excellent “urban” or commute-specific bike models out there these days and every commuter’s needs are different. However, check out bikes from Trek (and associated brand Gary Fisher), Specialized, Jamis, Surly, Giant, and any of the other major brands.
Features to Consider
Features to look for that make a bike good for commuting can include:
- Fender mounts
- Rack mounts
- Dynamo-hub powered front- and rear-lights, if you want to avoid the hassle of batteries — either way, plan on buying lights and using them day and night
- Sturdy frame
- Comfortable geometry for you — this can mean anything from a road bike with drop handlebars to a fully upright cruiser-style bike
- Gearing suitable for your terrain
- Reasonable weight — many Dutch city bikes and cruisers tend to weigh in at over 40 lbs, which becomes a lot of weight to haul around if you’re riding any distance or up any hills
- Easy-to-use shifters — you can always learn new shifters, but odds are you’ll develop a preference as you try different things, and it’s worth having shifting you like since you do it often
- Place for a bell — much nicer than having to holler “on yer left!” constantly
- Smooth, fairly skinny tires
Here are three different commuter bikes that all have most of the features listed above.
The Road Bike Option
This road bike has a touring geometry, which makes it more upright and less aerodynamic than a racing bike. It has a rear rack and the option for a front rack, fenders, lights, a wide range of gears, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is comfortable for riding short distances in regular pants or longer distances with bike shorts. The tires are narrow (23x700C), high-pressure, and puncture-resistant, with a reflective sidewall for better nighttime side visibility. I ride this bike on my daily 40-mile round-trip commute.
The Hybrid Bike Option
This is a hybrid bike with a very upright geometry, curving handbars and comfy grips. It has a rear rack and fenders, some cheap clip-on lights, very low gearing that makes climbing hills easy, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is quite cushy and comfortable for riding in regular pants for short to intermediate distances. The tires are slightly wider and medium-pressure, not puncture-resistant or anything special, really. I like to ride this bike on short errands when I just want to wear regular clothes.
The Cargo Bike Option
This is a workhorse bike, a Specialized Hardrock with a Free Radical Xtracycle extension on the back that makes hauling large loads feasible (but not pleasant, particularly up hills). I converted it to have drop handlebars some time ago, but now I think I’d like to go for a more upright geometry with handlebars like the red bike. It has a fairly cheap headlight, extremely low gearing that’s necessary when it’s under load, and it weighs a ton. The seat is comfortable enough for regular pants but padded shorts help. The tires are extremely wide, puncture-resistant, and durable. I like to ride this when I go on trips to the grocery store or to pick up things that don’t fit in a regular set of panniers.
As you can see, there are many different options when you buy a commuter bike. Generally, if you buy a good brand from a reputable shop, you’ll do well.
In addition to the bikes billed as “urban bikes” or “commuter bikes” — many of which come either equipped with commuting essentials or readily accept them — consider touring bikes like the Jamis Aurora, which are built to carry heavy loads and be very comfortable over long distances; and cyclocross bikes (I had a LeMond Poprad, an excellent commuter but no longer manufactured), which tend to be very strong but lightweight and often are rack- and fender-compatible.
The Latest Cool Things
A word on some gimmicks:
- Carbon fiber isn’t necessary on a commuter bike. Many bikes come with carbon fiber forks and seatposts, and it’s the latest cool thing for bike technology. Carbon fiber can make a bumpy road feel smoother on a ride, but a good steel bike can have a very similar feel without the downsides of carbon fiber (primarily its propensity to shatter or crack when impacted). Whatever you choose to commute on, make sure it’s a rugged bike that can take some banging around.
- Fat, knobby tires aren’t good for riding on roads. Unless your commute includes some singletrack or a path covered deep in large gravel, look for smooth tires. Many people ride on fairly skinny tires to reduce rolling resistance, and that’s a good idea for long-distance or race rides. However, for everyday commuting, slightly wider tires — 32 to 38 for a 700C wheel, or 1.5 to 1.75 on a 26″ wheel — can cushion your ride and make it feel a lot less bumpy. Be sure to pump your tires up every week, and I recommend getting puncture-resistant tires like the Specialized Armadillo or the Continental Gatorskin. These cost more but save you the hassle of dealing with frequent flats*.
- Disc brakes have pros and cons. Lots of commuter bikes are coming equipped with disc brakes, which have incredible stopping power under any conditions. If you’re planning on riding through a snowy, icy winter, or if you plan on regularly carrying 50+ lbs down big hills, by all means consider disc brakes. However, be aware that disc brakes tend to be finnicky and require frequent readjustment, and replacing the brake pads on disc brakes is twice as expensive as and significantly more complicated than replacing pads for rim brake pads. Normal rim brakes work very well for most normal commuting applications and they’re much less finicky and expensive than disc brakes.
- Internal hubs. You can get up to an 8-speed internal rear hub. This is pretty cool. I’d definitely recommend considering a bike with internal gearing, as having the rear gears sealed away will save you all that time you’d spend cleaning off the cassette (you would clean the cassette regularly, right?). Also, my understanding is that these tend to last a very long time. However, be warned that the shifting is different from on a standard bike, and unless you’re already a bike mechanic, you wouldn’t be able to adjust much — internal hubs are extremely complicated.
- Ten and 11-speed cassettes. These days, many bikes have 10 or even 11 cogs in the cassette. This does give you lots of options, but be forewarned that you’ll have to replace your chain very frequently — every 1,000 miles or so — if you decide to go with a 10- or 11-speed bike. Also, when you account for gears you shouldn’t use to avoid cross-chaining and duplicated gear ratios, you don’t tend to boot very much from extremely high numbers of gears. I recommend going for an 8- or 9-speed cassette, which will give you a good range of gears for climbing hills while also lasting a long time (unless you live in a very flat place, in which case you could always go the single-speed route).
- Single-speed or fixed-gears. First, let’s define our terms. A single-speed bike has a freewheel that allows you to coast and back-pedal, but you only have a fixed gear ratio — just one cog in the front and one cog in the back. A fixed-gear bike requires you to pedal all the time; there is no coasting or back-pedaling on a fixed-gear bike, which makes going up and down big hills painful and hard on the knees. It, too, has a fixed gear ratio. I’m not into fixed gears, frankly, but I can see the appeal of a single-speed if you lived in a fairly flat area (or wanted to get really buff): It’s a simple setup with a lot fewer parts to keep adjusted and clean, a big boon in the winter when bike components can get very gunky very fast in rainy/snowy parts of the country.
Test ride bikes.
Next, go to your local bike shop — or used bike shop, if you have any in your area; a commuter bike doesn’t have to be new, just in good condition — and test ride some bikes. I don’t just mean ride around the parking lot a little bit, either. Once you have your list of bikes narrowed down, ask the shop if you can take it for a longer test ride. If you can, ride it the length of your commute. Bring along everything you’d want to carry to simulate the commute conditions as closely as possible. Test ride the level of bike you can afford. Many bike shops have good commuter bikes starting at $500 to $700. The higher the price, the nicer the components get, and that usually that means increasingly good shifting and fancier brakes. Extremely high-end components often aren’t so great for commuting because they’re built to be lightweight rather than durable, and commuting is all about finding a durable bike to keep you rolling.
Now that you have thought about features you need, explored different options, talked to your local bike shop, and test ridden at least 3 totally different types of bikes, you’re ready to buy your bike and start commuting. Remember, all you really need for commuting is a bike — any bike — in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry stuff. Now get out on the road and get rolling. I hope you find commuting by bike as enjoyable as I do!
* Learn how to change a flat tire and always carry everything you need to do so. Every commuter will eventually get a flat, and it’s just smart to be prepared for the inevitable.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
One thing about commuting by bike: You can have conversations with your fellow commuters. In a car, communication consists of turn signals, honking, and maybe gesturing. I, on the other hand, rarely have a week go by without having cordial conversations with other bicyclists. Every week or two, I’ll encounter somebody and we really hit it off, and end up riding for anywhere from 3 to 10 miles together. It’s fun and community-building, and it’s something that keeps me coming back to bicycling day after day.
I mention this because this morning a guy rode up next to me as I rode on the I-90 trail. Here’s our conversation in its entirety.
Me: Oh, sorry. [Moving to my right, thinking he wanted to pass me]
Him: I’ve seen you commuting, and I just wanted to say…I like your style.
Him: Happy riding! [Turns off trail]
Me: You too!
I smiled for the entire rest of the ride, until I saw the car with a license-plate liner that said “You people make my a** twitch,” after which I probably looked puzzled.
Actually, I was a bit puzzled anyway. What did that bicyclist mean by “style”? Did he mean clothing*? Or behavior? Or bicycling technique? Or my bicycle’s look? Clearly he meant something good, and at first I assumed my bike, which is pretty stylish. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if he meant that my good manners on the trail — always giving an audible signal before passing, signaling turns, slowing (ahem) at stops — or something else entirely. I’m still not sure, but nobody’s ever accused me of having style before, and I kind of liked it. Not enough to become actually stylish, mind you, but enough to wallow in the compliment for a bit.
* Given that I was wearing black Spandex pants with neon yellow reflective ankle bands, a neon yellow vest, a teal short-sleeved jersey, white-and-pink Fat Cyclist arm warmers, and my reflective helmet, it’s hard to imagine he meant clothing-wise.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Cor. 4:16-18
I’m going to make a goal of posting a vignette or thought here every day for the next week. Hold me to it, people.
Today: Riding across the I-90 bridge, I reveled in the mountain views. What a beautiful place I have the honor and pleasure of calling home! Yet the view saddened me, too: After a day or two without rain, the smog buildup begins obscuring the mountains. This morning, after a dry week, I could barely make out Mt. Rainier. It looked like a mirage, faint white and blue brush strokes painted onto the blue-brown horizon. The Cascades hid in the hazy distance, and the Olympics shyly showed their faint outline to the west.
This saddened me because I remember how stunning, even breathtaking, I found the same vistas in January. When the clouds and rain gave us surcease, the mountains came out looking close enough to touch. The Cascades and Olympics stood out vividly, their snow-capped peaks cutting boldly across the wintry blue sky, their foothills stood definitively black and navy and purple. Sunrise light (which coincided with my morning commute) gilded Mt. Rainier and its shawl of wispy clouds, later turning the snow the colors of a Dream Come True.
Comparing my memory of the crisp winter mountain views with the summer’s smoggy blur reinforced my top reason for bicycling: reducing my environmental impact. Cutting carbon footprint isn’t on the forefront of most bicyclists’ minds. People usually ride to save money — that’s the number one reason. Other reasons include:
- Building exercise into your day (don’t pay for a gym membership, don’t have to exercise the willpower after work to exercise, don’t have to fit it in time-wise);
- Not needing to buy gas (which goes back to money, not supporting foreign nations, and contributing less to horrific environmental disasters);
- Easier parking (park in your cubicle, against any fence or post, in pretty much any secure place, or, in Pioneer Square, BIKE PORT); and
- Faster commuting (in the city it’s often faster than taking a bus or driving)
The added bonus of reducing CO2 emissions is a maraschino cherry atop the sundae of reasons for bicycling. But for me, living in Seattle and loving the place itself, bicycling is about doing my bit to keep Washington beautiful. This place is my home. I’m responsible for caring for it, so I ride my bike.