Bike commuting 101

By Kyle Wagenschutz

As spring approaches many people are considering taking to two wheels for the first time in many years. Dusting off bikes long forgotten in the deep recesses of garages, sheds, and basements, many are pumping air into flat tires and reintroducing the simple pleasures of bicycle riding into their lives. For good reason too – riding bicycles improves cardiovascular fitness by making exercise a part of daily transportation, it improves air quality by reducing the amount of automobile exhaust pumped into our air, and it assists in weight loss and muscle building fitness routines.

While riding a bicycle is considered a lifelong skill never to be forgotten, many have common questions about the intricacies of organizing their lives around a commute to work that doesn’t take place in a car. With so many retail options available today, it is often difficult to know what products are necessary to make a commute more convenient versus those that are sold as novelty items. For many the cityscape has changed dramatically since their last ride, causing concern over safety and convenience.

Below are some basic tips for making your commute more successful and enjoyable. While these will get you started, be sure to find some local bike commuters and find out what they recommend. Often times these “experts” know the best routes, equipment, and techniques for making your commute more enjoyable and convenient.

Choosing a bike
You don’t have to spend a fortune to ride a bicycle. Unless you are planning to ride in the Tour de France this year, spending a couple thousand dollars on a bike is not necessary. Any bike that you feel comfortable on will work after making sure it is in good working order. Be sure to consider weather protection such as fenders and a rack for carrying items to and from the office. Owners of Cooper-Young’s Victory Bicycle Studio (victorybicyclestudio.com) at 2294 Young Ave are experts in finding the right bike to fit the type of riding you want to accomplish. For a more hands on approach, you can visit Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop (revolutionsmemphis.com) in the basement of First Congregational Church at 1000 S. Cooper St. to learn how to build a bicycle from the ground up.

Keeping it maintained
Regardless if you purchase a bicycle from the local department store, pawn shop, or retail bike shop, have your bike checked over by a mechanic at your local bike shop. Find out if local bike shops offer basic mechanic training so you can learn how to repair a flat, fix a chain, and inspect your brake pads for wear. Routine maintenance is the key to maximizing the lifespan of your bicycle. Ask your mechanic how often you should be changing your tires, chain, and brake pads.  Be sure to inquire at Revolutions about classes that specialize in teaching bicycle repairs.

What to wear
You don’t need special bicycle clothing to commute to work. If the weather is nice, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt is more than adequate. You may find that you can ride in your work clothes at a relaxed pace if your commute is short enough. For longer more strenuous rides, cycling specific clothing may be a good option as it is design to wick away moisture from your skin and dry faster than cotton clothing. In cold weather be sure to layer clothing, and in wet weather be sure to have a waterproof jacket and/or pants to cover your riding clothes. Be sure to wear shoes that are comfortable and are resistant to slipping. Be sure to tuck the laces in the side of your shoes and roll up your pant legs before riding to avoid having them caught in the drive train.

Choosing a route
One of the most important aspects of your commute will be the route you choose. Be sure to consider distance, traffic volume, road width, road condition, and terrain when choosing a route. The shortest route is not always the safest route for bicyclists. Some routes may be a bit longer but much more pleasant and safe because of lower traffic volumes and speeds. Stick to streets with on-streets facilities such as bike lanes or signed shared roadways. Often times these routes have already been identified as ideal routes for bicycles and have added infrastructure to alert motor vehicles of your presence.

Getting there safely
According to state and local laws bicycles are vehicles and should act and be treated as such on the roadways. Remember to ride on the right with the flow of traffic, obey all stop signs, traffic lights, and lane markings, and look and signal before changing lanes or making a turn. Be aware of your surroundings, and take special note of hazards such as glass or debris in the roadway that may interrupt your travel path. Be sure to be visible by wearing bright clothing. At night you should always have a front and rear light on your bicycle to alert oncoming motorists of your presence. Do not swerve and ride in a haphazard manner. Riding predictably in a straight path and using clear hand signals for turning will keep you safe in the roadway. Ask your local bike shops about bike safety and riding technique classes that may be offered in the community or if printed copies of the local laws are available.

Parking your bicycle
Finding a place to put your bicycle and riding gear can often be a challenge. Try to find an indoor parking area in your office or building in which to keep your bike safe and dry. If you have to park outside and there is no bike rack available, lock your bike to an immovable object in a highly visible area out of the elements. Many buildings have bike racks tucked away in a hidden corner. Be sure to ask your employer or building owner if parking already exists for bicycles.

Showering
Often times cleanliness and hygiene are the biggest obstacles to commuting by bicycle. In some instance, showering may not be necessary in the morning when it is cool outside. For some simply cleaning up in the bathroom sink will be appropriate. For others a full shower is the only way to go. As with the availability of bike racks, many workplaces have showers located in the building; be sure to inquire about access and location. Nearby health clubs may offer shower-only memberships for a few dollars a month.
To ease the burden of carrying toiletries back and forth on your bicycle, keep a set on hand at the office tucked away in a drawer. You may also consider driving a week’s worth of work clothes to your office on your off-days so that during your normal working schedule, your work clothes are readily available without the burden of carrying them back and forth from home.

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1 Comment

  1. This was a pretty good article with one glaring omission. As a 2+year commuter I can tell you that the #1 thing you do not want to leave home without is a helmet. Even if the trip is short you can still get injured. You never know when something will happen. I watched a friend of mine go down hard on Evelyn when a dog ran out in front of him. The back of his head hit the pavement so hard his helmet split. But he was fine. Without the helmet he could possibly be dead. One of Memphis’ more experienced riders spent a couple weeks in intensive care from a meeting with the asphalt. Don’t play with your brain, folks. It’s the only one you have.

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