Monday, August 4, 2008

Bicycle Commuting

Tight shoes suck and so does an ill-fitting bike. Something kind of magical happens when you ride a bike that is a perfect fit. You ride easily and efficiently and a Zen-like peacefulness washes over you as you spin your pedals harmoniously up the road.

Bike Commuting
There was a light snow falling as I looked out the living room window at my car. It was early January and I was thinking about New Year's resolutions, something I hardly ever do. Lose weight, be a bit less humble, try and not to be so perfect around the rest of humanity, because it makes them uneasy to be in the shining light of perfection. Just kidding. I was feeling guilty for still driving my car and messing up the relatively clean air. It seemed that every time I turned the key to the ignition, all that came to mind was, Oops, more CO2 into the air. Maybe just a little won't hurt. After all, I have a small car and don't drive it much. I was rationalizing the act of polluting our clean air and didn't feel all that hot about it. All right. That does it. Tomorrow I'm going to figure out how to fix this, I thought to myself. Well, to tell the truth, I went to a movie with my family and goofed off the next few days, reading, doing research on the Net, watching movies at home, and so on. About a week later as I was turning the key to the ignition the same thing went through my head as before.

My old bike was more than 15 years old and had seen better days. It didn't look too promising, and besides, I wanted to reward myself for turning over a new leaf with bike commuting. I started some purposeful research on bicycles, and this entry is the result of everything I learned. Oh man, I think it may have quite the geek factor, but what the heck. On the other hand, like Miles Davis said, Everything matters. Everything (this cool quote was lifted from Joy Harjo's site). Something as simple as riding a bike instead of driving a car certainly matters I think.

A lot of us think that we can turn the global climate change momentum around; I feel positive about our ability to win this thing. We don't have to feel doomed and can be proactive in our everyday lives with how we pull it off. A simple way of reducing your carbon dioxide output is to simply not drive your car. Easier said than done, right? Of course it is much harder to do things like power your house by wind or solar energy in these tough economic times. Who can afford the extra $ to do that when lots of people can't even afford to fill up their gas tanks now?

It seems that bike commuting could be a logical partial answer to both the problem of global warming and the high price of gas. It doesn't really solve either of them globally by itself, but on a personal level it goes a long way towards at least minimizing both of them. You can go to the sites in the previous posts to learn how to go green on a lot more levels than just bike commuting, but I really like this choice for minimizing your carbon footprint because you don't have to spend a lot of money to make it work. As a matter of fact, it will save you money right away. It has the added benefit of being good for your health too. It feels great to avoid gas stations! Wow. It feels really great. I've lost weight and my heart is likely better than it was when I started.

I made this video for my mom on her 79th birthday this spring to show her how I go to work every morning after bike commuting for a couple of months. It was April 9 and we just got some spring snow. Our dogs obviously wanted to go too. Our bike trail runs parallel to the mountains and I named it the Tee Harbor Jackson Bikeway.

Which Bike to Choose?
I did a bit of research as to which bike to get for commuting before I got one. You can categorize bikes into a few different varieties. They're kind of like cars in the sense that they're optimized to do different things and have a wide price range.
  • The top of the line Road, or Racing bikes are mostly speed demons and are by far the most expensive choice, the Ferrari's of the bike world. Very sleek and expensive with high tech components.
  • Mountain bikes are likely the most common bikes in America. They're everywhere.
  • Commuter, or Hybrid bikes are fairly new on the scene here. On the other hand, they're kind of similar to the touring bikes of old that companies in Europe used to build for the masses in the mid-to early 20th century (see this ANT link for an example).
  • Retro Cruiser bikes resembling the classic 1940's and '50's bikes.
  • Specialty bikes; Ones with motors, Cargo bikes, & bikes designed for the majority world (not 3rd world, as my photographer friend Shahidul Alam likes to say).
Neighborhood Bike Shop; Buy Local! / The Perfect fit
I would strongly suggest you go to your local bike shop and simply test driving a lot of them. Like wine, shoes and dogs, you can't learn about them by reading them up, you've got to experience them yourself firsthand. There is a highly subjective part to selecting a bike along with the physical fit. Tight shoes suck and so does an ill-fitting bike. Something kind of magical happens when you ride a bike that is a perfect fit. You ride easily and efficiently and a Zen-like peacefulness washes over you as you spin your pedals harmoniously up the road. This can only happen if you try on a lot of bikes. Your largest selection is definitely going to be at a bike shop. You can do research prior to going in, but arrive with an open mind. The bike I initially researched turned out to be an ill-fitting ride and if I bought it online, it would have been a depressing disappointment.

Not only that, but local bike shops do things like service them with tune ups and minor adjustments free for the first year. Find a good one that warrants everything and is not fussy about putting stuff on free, like fenders, seats, bike computers and such. The one I found was excellent and the sales person was highly informed about all of their bikes and even ones they didn't stock. They special ordered some things like the Brooks seat, and the cost was the same as finding it online somewhere. If anything goes wrong with your bike, you definitely don't want to ship it across the country for warranty work or even simple tune-ups. When I needed a minor tune-up, I just rode it into the bike shop and their team of bike mechanics had it done in 20 minutes. You don't want to have to drop your bike off in a car, that is kind of silly for a bike commuter. I noticed that bike shops have way more mechanics on duty than places like outdoor sports stores that sell everything from boats to skis and such, and they were more informed about bikes in general, so I chose a bike shop instead of an outdoor recreational store. Hey, lets name names here. REI typically takes about a week to do a tune-up (which means you have to drop it off in a car, No Thanks), their tune-ups are only free for six months, and the bike shop's are free for a year. The bike shop realizes that you have a thing about not using a car and responds accordingly. is very trendy to ride a cruiser bike and you see them everywhere, especially in front of pubs. Yeah, man. Roll that baby out and let's go. It goes especially well with beer, so who can complain? They're the tanks of the bike world.

High Performance Bikes = $$$$
I used to ride semi-seriously back in my 30's and had a hand-built bike with Italian Campagnolo components. Ooo, Sweet stuff. My average speed was 20 mph for 40 mile stretches. Slow by competitive standards, but plenty speedy for me. It was just fun stuff and kept my weight down. My brother Brad was a bike freak and he built the bike as a wedding present. It was way cool. The above high performance lightweight bike was designed for one thing. SPEED. It looks bare bones, because that is the philosophy for high performance bikes; they have no fenders, racks, bags or much of anything to weigh it down. The frame is designed for a bent-over posture that makes the rider streamlined to wind resistance. The component geometry is designed to do things like enhance energy transfer, strengthen key parts, and of course be very lightweight. State of the art digital designs and materials are used, like carbon fiber and lightweight yet durable metal alloys. Here is one of Lance Armstrong's bikes from the Tour de France; it is named the Trek Madone 5.9.

The high performance bike is not really suited for bike commuting, because you don't need the high performance components or bike geometry that enhances speed. For commuting, you have to load your bike down with necessities like fenders, racks, bags and such. Not only that, but if you were to buy one of these high performance bikes, get ready to shell out thousands of dollars. On the other hand, I have friends who commute with these things and go tear-assing all over creation. Go, man, go.

Mountain Bike
The mountain bike is obviously designed for off road biking with big, knobby tires, a frame geometry optimized for strenuous climbs and things like shock absorbers here and there. It is not suited for commuting because the energy transfer for on-road commutes is inefficient, slow and cumbersome for the pavement. On the other hand, why not? Just hop on and pump to work, man. Who cares? Nobody is going to be critical if you do this, go, man, go. In these economic times, who can afford two bikes? But on the other hand, if you're giving up your car to bike commute, don't get a mountain bike for the road. Don't listen to salespeople who try to sell you their oversupply of bikes that don't fit your need; be smart and critical.

Retro Cruiser Bike
A really popular choice is the retro cruiser type of bike. They only have one gear, balloon tires and generally look like the 1950's bikes. Here is a Belgium Cruiser bike. Some are the bicycle equivalent of the 1959 Cadillac, replete with fins, whitewall tires and a 1940's rocket feel. Other cruisers just have a big honking frame with big tires and one gear. Many are painted to match the personality of the driver; flat black, pastel, whatever.

I think a cruiser bike would wear me out on my 15 mile round trip with lots of hills and flat areas. Life wears me out enough as it is, so I need something much more efficient than that. Same with the 3-speed bikes. I notice that in downtown Boise, its very trendy to ride a cruiser bike and you see them everywhere, especially in front of pubs. Yeah, man. Roll that baby out and let's go. It goes especially well with beer, so who can complain? They're the tanks of the bike world (Just remember that you can get a DUI on a bike too).

...We don't want a stinkin' hybrid, we want a bike designed specifically for commuting from the ground up. I could get snarky again, but am holding back in the interests of projecting a positive vibe, man.

We want a Commuter Bike; NOT a Hybrid
Here in America we've essentially been given three choices for bikes in the past 2o years or so; the high performance road bike, a mountain bike and a generic 'Wal-Mart' type of bike. We need a fourth choice that is optimized for commuting, which is different than the above three. What if Wal-Mart put its might behind a high quality and inexpensive commuter bike? That would be quite cool indeed. On the other hand, there is a tangible value to using a bike shop where the price may be a bit higher in exchange for excellent expertise, parts and service.

Manufacturers have yet to really fill the void that was created by bike commuters. We commuters don't want the high performance expensive racing bike or a mountain bike. Neither one fits our need and both are second rate choices for the type of riding we do. Some manufacturers have just stripped a mountain bike and put on different tires, or changed the handlebars from a bottom of the line road bike and called it a hybrid. This won't do, they need to make a bike designed specifically for commuting. I am willing to bet that a decently designed commuter bike that is fairly inexpensive can really take off with sales in the future. We don't want a stinkin' hybrid, we want a bike designed specifically for commuting from the ground up. I could get really snarky again, but am holding back in the interests of projecting a positive vibe, man. What the heck. Most of the hybrids simply suck and I get the distinct impression that manufacturers are simply changing tires and calling it a commuter bike and try to sell us the crap that doesn't move off the display floor. Don't fall for it.

The big challenge was finding a sturdy lightweight bike that rode fairly efficiently and fast with a minimum of effort that would take the requisite fenders, racks, bags and so on (More on these items later) and do it without being too geeky. Hey, coolness counts when you're saving the world right? There are various configurations with the number of gears and frame geometry that places you in various postures.

My Own Commuter Bike
After test driving lots of different bikes over a couple of hours, I settled on the Specialized Globe model. It rode exceptionally easy and reminded me a bit of my high performance bike, except the frame geometry was quite different. You purists are going to snicker under your breath here, because this architecture has the rider sitting upright. I couldn't believe it, but I was riding pretty fast in this position, and most critically, it was comfortable. Wow. This was a new concept in riding.

There is an implied notion that suffering a bit for your ride is part of what serious riding is all about. The teeny bike seats on racing bikes are a perfect example. They are definitely not designed for comfort, and as a matter of fact, they're clearly masochistic and riders were known to brag about the pain and the fact that they couldn't feel their testicles after a ride. That was a bit too much up front and personal. Hmm. No thanks. I like normal body parts. That is one part of riding that we can toss out the window, thank you. There is such a thing as riding in comfort and I don't care if the bike snots point their noses in the air when I ride by. One of the basic things to remember is that when you arrive at work in the morning, you need to arrive refreshed and not sore, which is why comfort is important.
All I really know is that the bike was relatively affordable, the right size and rode efficiently and fast. I opted for one of the cheaper versions because it worked really well for my needs, and after over 600 miles it still feels great. It is fairly lightweight for a commuter bike with an aluminum frame (ok, so its not carbon fiber, but so what). I had them replace the weird pedals and added a kickstand for starters. When you buy locally, they put the stuff you buy on for free, which is really cool, because some of it can be tricky and time consuming to install. After all this stuff about shopping around, I would reiterate the part about not even having to buy a new bike to do your bicycle commute. You shouldn't have to go into debt to do a bike commute and using whichever bike you have now could be just fine, I'm sure. Sometimes the consumer thing is a bit much and you shouldn't have to feel obligated to buy something to make a bike commute work.

...Man, riding your bike with American automobile drivers really sucks because they're such bad drivers. We're talking morons here. For some reason, their IQ goes down about 50 points when they get behind the wheel of a car. A perfectly intelligent man or woman is reduced to the intelligence of a lizard with only the most ancient part of the brain being used.

Stuff to Make Your Commuter Bike Better:
Fenders, Rack, Panniers, Bag, Horn, Lights, etc.
For bike commuting, you need stuff like fenders, and racks to hold things like bags and panniers, tool kits, water and other misc. items. In other words, you need some way to carry all of your usual stuff, plus things to make your commute easier. You can even pimp it out if you want. You know, with stuff like mega-speakers on the bike rack or LED lights on the spokes. Ah, no thanks. I guess I'm just a plain old basics kind of guy, which is what the following stuff is all about.

Panniers & Rear Rack
If you're like me, you have a laptop computer that you lug back and forth, paperwork, a lunch and sometimes extra clothes for work. This means that you need bike bags. Backpacks really suck when you ride because they're awkward and add weight to make you top heavy and makes you have a sweaty back. A more elegant solution is to use bike panniers (bags that connect to your rear bike rack) which adds a low center of gravity to them, which in turn makes your bike dramatically easier to ride. There are literally dozens of choices for panniers in various sizes, materials and prices. I found a cool set made of waxed canvas that are both lightweight, durable and the right size for my commuter loads. They're made by a company called Frost River in Minnesota that makes mostly bags and backpacks for camping and such.

One of your most common utilitarian needs is simply a rear bike rack. They're handy for quickly attaching a lot of things, from just your jacket to your panniers or other bags. You can get the aluminum racks cheap and they're fairly universal. I had the bike shop install it and again, they did it for free when I bought both of them there.

Misc. Bike Bags
When it comes to bike bags I just want them to be functional and fast. This one is sweet in its simplicity and plain old ease of use. Its kind of retro looking because some things are timeless and don't need a high tech intervention. An under the seat bike bag is great for things that need to be easily accessible, like a frosty beer (uh, just kidding, but it would fit), tools, inner tubes, sunglasses, lunch, outer shell jacket, compact camera, etc. I found that the vast majority of the 'under the seat' bags were way too small to be useful. The English have a reputation for designing great canvas bike bags, and it was no accident that they make the best ones out there. I settled on one made by Carradice, their Barley model. Peter White Cycles in New Hampshire is their American distributor.

Bike Seat
The Specialized Globe existing seat was ok, but nothing to be excited about. Hey man, let's speak plainly here. Your ass is going to be taking the brunt of your ride, so you'd better have something better than just ok. If you know your bike seats you know that Brooks in the UK makes the best ones. There is nothing like a leather seat that is broken in to conform to your contours; it will feel like it was custom molded for you. It will fit better than a proverbial glove and you'll definitely appreciate the nuances of a great ride with an excellent seat. Their Aged B67 has heavy dual springs for a comfortable upright ride and the aged leather allows you to break in the seat faster than usual, and it just plain looks cool. This was one of my smartest buys on the bike. My local shop special ordered it for me and installed it when it arrived a couple of weeks later. They got the same price as everyone else. You pay a bit extra for a Brooks seat, but you get the best too. They're designed for years of hard use. My advice is to avoid being cheap with your seat; get a good one, especially if you're going to be racking up the miles.

Riding without fenders in the rain for miles on end is miserable and it shoots a steady stream of dirty water up your back that usually leaves a dark stain on your jacket or shirt afterwards. Fenders make riding in the rain easy and is another item that the bike shop will install free when you buy them with your bike. There is no way in hell that I'd ride a commuter bike without fenders, because you need to be able to ride rain or shine, cold or hot.

Man, you'd better get tools to carry or you'll be sorry. All it takes is ten miles of walking your bike to convince you that a few tools should live in your bike bag. All bikes break little things here and there from normal wear. The most common problem is just a flat tire. I ran over a big staple and it sure as heck flattened my tire, even with the self-healing tubes. You need to carry the tools to change your inner tube, an extra tube, allen wrenches, a small crescent wrench and screw drivers. Some bike tools have these in an all-in one small tool, which is brilliant.

I also carry a small bottle of chain cleaning solution, a folded flat number of paper towels and hand cleaner. The black gunk from your chain will leave permanent stains on your clothes. The chain cleaner is important when you ride in the rain because the gears and chain will get gunked up and reduce your performance in addition to shortening their life span. It only takes a few minutes to clean with the solution and you have a sparkling clean chain and gears again. Not only that, but your chain is likely to rust before anything else on your bike. Don't forget a bike pump that attaches to your frame. I like the ones that are compact yet has a small pressure gauge and hose for ease of use. Too much air pressure makes tires easy to pop and too little pressure increases the tire resistance to the pavement, which makes it harder to pedal, so it is important to have the correct air pressure.

It is important to keep your bike tuned for optimum performance, and this is where the free local tune-ups are nice with the purchase of your bike. You want everything spinning easily and quietly, like the day you bought your bike.

Man, riding your bike with American automobile drivers really sucks because they're such bad drivers. We're talking morons here. For some reason, their IQ goes down about 50 points when they get behind the wheel of a car. A perfectly intelligent man or woman is reduced to the intelligence of a lizard with only the most ancient part of the brain being used. This is why you need a helmet. It is the bare minimum thing you can do to protect yourself. A white one is best because it is the most visible.

Ask any bike commuter and they'll all tell you that if they had their choice, they'd be riding a tank with those bozos instead of a bike. Run me off the road? Try this 70mm howitzer for size, lizard brain! Just kidding. Road rage is obviously bad and I'm usually left with a loud 'Hey!' yelled at them for the really bad infractions. Most of the time I just give them a glare that they don't even see because they're still looking the other way, completely oblivious to the fact that they just ran you off the bike trail (ours goes parallel to the road on my commute) or almost hit you. Mostly they just shrug and give an expression that says, 'Oops, sorry' and drive on. If one of these lizards tries to start yelling at you, my advice is don't engage them and just ride on. Wear a helmet.

Bike Horn

You need to do everything you can to ensure that those crazy-assed car drivers (this is the kindest term I could manage for now) can see you. On my commute, we have drivers that only look one way (not both ways) prior to pulling out from a side street, and of course, half of the time you're coming from the direction they don't look. As a result, they pull out right in front of you, especially when you have the right of way. The worst offenders are the people who are jabbering away on their cell phones. Studies have shown that people who drive and talk on their cell phones are the equivalent of driving drunk when it comes to their level of driving attentiveness. This is bad news for bicyclists, because even if you are complying with all of the traffic laws, you are still at the risk of being hit by these idiots. I found the loudest air horn I could for bicycles. It is made by Airzound and is the loudest one out there at 115db. I'm not shy about using it and have gotten the attention of a few drivers who have illegally pulled in front of me when I had the right of way. All I care about is that they see me, or hear me in this case.

It is really hard for car drivers to see you in the dark if you don't have lights on your bike. Lights are an absolute necessity; both a bright headlight and a blinking red taillight. They're really cheap these days and you can even get the dynamo kind that generates electricity from your wheels instead of using batteries. I'm adding a lightweight vest that has an LED made by Nite Ize. You obviously don't want to put yourself at risk because drivers can't see you in the dark or low light.

Bike Clothing for Rain & Winter

Riding in the snow and rain seems extreme and maybe even a bit nutty, doesn't it? I sure thought it was. That is, until I saw lots of other riders still riding in the drizzle of rain and sleet while I drove my car. I asked the people at REI (the best store for outdoor gear ever- they warrant everything and give a dividend on purchases. My dividend averages between $100-$200 annually) how to dress for riding in the rain and their staff had some excellent suggestions. They have a lot of bike enthusiasts who ride year-round, including the Idaho snow. We don't get much snow here, but it definitely gets bitter cold with a wind chill factor in the dead of winter.

The best strategy is to layer with an outer shell, have an inner fleece or other jacket with various weights depending on how cold it is, and an inner wool long-sleeved undershirt for next to your skin. They pointed me to the Novara Stratos Bike Jacket, which has the highest user rating of all their bike jackets. It sure lived up to its rating, having worn it in the rain and snow quite comfortably. It is windproof and has stuff like underarm zippers to vent sweat, has an athletic streamlined fit, and so on. I always arrived at work dry and warm, no matter how cold and wet it was on the way. I found it easier to keep a few changes of clothes in my office than to lug extra clothes all the time. Of course gloves and some kind of headband for your ears area a must too.

Now that we're in the middle of the summer, its just the opposite; we need to keep cool in the heat. This means wearing a top that wicks away sweat and keeps you cooler.

Hydration in the heat

The most critical part of riding in the heat is avoiding heat exhaustion and staying hydrated. Take two bottles of water instead of one, or get an extra large water bottle. I found a very cool bike double walled stainless steel vacuum thermal bottle that fits in the bottle cage and it keeps water frosty cold on those blistering hot days, which is kind of decadent. I forgot it on my bike overnight, and the next day it still had ice cubes. I really like it because it doesn't have that plastic-taste from regular water bottles. It is made by Elevengear, a company that specializes in bike jerseys, but also sells this unique stainless steel bike bottle.

You need a good bike lock, for obvious reasons. With all the stuff on my bike, I hardly ever leave it locked up anywhere outside and usually bring it inside with me. I park it in my office, which has turned into a bike garage.

Bike Maintenance, Mechanics & Riding Skills

After riding hundreds of miles, you'll find it is easier to just fix your bike yourself rather than taking your bike into a shop. Leonard Zinn wrote a number of good books on bike mechanics and teaching you better bike skills. He writes really great books for taking the mystery out of bike maintenance and repair. There are lots of other good books out there too. I look for ones that have lots of easy to understand pictures and simple descriptions with a minimum of jargon. I want an easy to understand book that doesn't need to be translated.

The other thing you'll start to notice after riding hundreds of miles is that there is definitely a skill associated with riding efficiently. One of the basic terms is cadence, which is how fast you spin the pedals. You just hop on and pump the pedals right? Well, much to my surprise, you don't pump up and down, you spin, and there is a high art associated with just spinning. Sometimes I just feel like the guys with their cruiser bikes riding home from the pub, and yet other times I need to get to work really fast with no nonsense, so the riding skills are really great to know even if you never race. Just do an internet search and you'll find lots of hits on just about every aspect of bicycling. Here are some great links from the Alternative Needs Transportation (ANT) site.

Just ride, man

All of the above kind of gives the impression that you need to be an ultra-consumer in order to be a bike commuter. That isn't the case at all; I just like to be comfortable, adept and fast. You can do the bike commuter thing without getting any of this stuff and just get on your existing bike and ride with no fuss, no hassles; just ride. If riding becomes persnickety, it kind of defeats the purpose of having fun along the way.

I was relieved to hear other bike commuters say that sometimes they just feel like driving their car to work, especially during a winter blizzard. Why be a fanatic? I drove my car a few times simply because I was late (oops), and sometimes because I had a big load of stuff. The bottom line however, is that I ride my bike the vast majority of the time, and the cool part is that it feels fun instead of an obligation. I'm really, really lucky in the sense that I have a bike trail most of the way.

If you drive your car to work all the time, you really do need to buy the Bonehead Human lithograph; you know, for the carbon footprint thing. I'll tell Frank to look out for your call.
When asked about his Theory of Relativity, Einstein said, I thought of it while riding my bicycle.

Quirky Bicycle Links:
Fat Guy Cycling
Vintage Bike Ads
Weird Bike Stuff

Part 3 of a Three Part Series
Part 1: Global Cimate Change & Bonehead Humans
Part 2: Price of Gas
Part 3: Bicycle Commuting


Mike said...

This is a great post on bike commuting. I have recently posted a bike commuting related story on my blog that might be of interest to you. The story got picked up the local NBC televsion station and was featured on the 6 PM news.

The story involves a commuter's bike that was confiscated while it was locked up in front of a train station because it was considered unsightly. Many commuters ride ugly bikes to discourage theft. The complete story is at


Larry McNeil said...

Hello Mike,

Thanks for the feedback. It is more meaningful coming from another bike commuter.

I'm lucky in the sense that I just park my bike in my little office instead of relying on the bike racks outside. Some of the old bikes are pretty cool. I wish I still had my Schwinn Varsity 10-speed from the 1960's (it was stolen years ago). Now that was a cool old bike. It spelled freedom for a young teenager.

thanks again,

jonathan said...

Whew. That is one exhaustive post. If you left anything out I can't figure out what it is. It makes me want to finish converting my old mountain bike into a commuter. As you know, I commute on a road bike. Well, one of two road bikes and occasionally a cross bike. They are all fun to ride but I have been wanting a bike with racks.

Larry McNeil said...

Hey Jonathan,

It's kind of funny how the essay came about. I was working on a show in late summer, churning out the prints. It took about 9 days of intense editing and printing, all at the computer. While waiting for prints to chug out of my printer over 9 days, I'd write a paragraph here and a paragraph there.

All of a sudden it turned from a few paragraphs into a full-blow essay about bike commuting. Oops. What the heck. So there it is. I guess I should have written about photography or something.

Have a great break--