Regulars and Shorts

The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: Start Bike Commuting

By Steve Chambers

Answers to your questions.
by Steve Chambers


The last two columns have discussed how to buy a bike and how to check an old bike to make it road-ready. Now that you have a bicycle, how do you go about actually using it as transportation to and from work? Most first-time bike commuters have a lot of practical questions. Here are several of the most commonly asked:

Won’t I be all sweaty when I get to work? This is probably the number one objection to commuting. The answer is, yes, you will. But, you won’t stay that way. And, you won’t stink (which is what people really mean when they ask this question). There are lots of suggestions for dealing with this, from “find a place to shower” (impractical); to “strip down in the men’s/women’s room and wash off in the sink” (embarrassing); to “use moist towelettes” (really, have you ever tried this?). The best solution is the simplest. Body odor is caused by bacteria that grow normally on skin throughout the day. Bathing destroys them. So begin your commute with a good shower. Apply deodorant. A little unscented baby powder on the torso, shoulders and upper legs helps keep you fresh. Wear clean cycling clothes and carry clean clothes. When you arrive, cool down for 15 minutes before changing into work clothes. Within an hour, you’ll be fresh and cool.

I don’t look good in Spandex. In other words, I feel foolish in Spandex, and with good reason. When you’re wearing bike shorts and a jersey and are more than 10 feet from your bike, you look silly. Bike clothes are functional. But you don’t have to wear what you don’t like. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t wear Spandex. According to Bicycling Magazine, “Only dorks wear Spandex when cruising around town.” Get a pair of knickers, wear your favorite (clean) tee shirt, whatever you want.

How do I carry my clothes? There are only two options here, assuming you can’t work in your cycling clothes: Take clothes to and from work on the days you don’t ride, or carry them on your ride. With the no-wrinkle materials available, most business clothes will survive an hour in a backpack or bike messenger bag. Consider leaving an extra pair or two of shoes at work so you don’t have to carry them.

What do I do with my bike at work? The best solution is to take your bike to your office. Otherwise, get the biggest lock you can reasonably carry and lock your bike, through the frame and front wheel, to a sturdy object on the busiest street you can find. A determined bike thief can break virtually any lock in 30 seconds or less. Locking your bike on a busy sidewalk deters him from trying. Ride a bike a thief doesn’t want. That means, don’t commute on your $5,000 carbon fiber road bike.

The route I drive is too busy to bike. That’s probably true, so don’t use it. Find scenic side roads. Seventh East/Van Winkle has a nice bike lane, and some people use it, but cars zipping by at 55 mph make me nervous, so I don’t. Drive a few alternate routes, then make a dry run on the weekend. Add time for morning traffic.

What if I get a flat tire? Learn to change a tire and carry a spare tube, tools and frame pump. If you can, pick routes near bus routes as a backup plan. Use tire liners or puncture-resistant tubes. Hybrid and mountain bikes have thicker tire walls and lower tire pressure so flatting isn’t as much of a problem as with road bikes that have skinny tires at 100+ psi.

I wouldn’t mind commuting in the morning, but riding home in 5:00 traffic and 95 degrees isn’t my idea of fun. Take the bus or Trax home. Remember, you have a bike, so if a bus route is a couple of miles from your house, that’s not as big a deal as if you walk.

I don’t want to/can’t use toe clips. Then don’t. Stiff cycling shoes and clips or cages are designed to allow you to pull the pedal up and push down harder, giving power through all phases of the stroke, not just the down stroke. For commuters, the old style flat pedals work just fine.

My helmet messes up my hair. That’s like complaining that seat belts wrinkle your shirt or dress. Deal with it. Your brain is more important than your ’do. At least it should be.  u

Steve Chambers is a Salt Lake City lawyer and freelance writer. He has been commuting by bicycle part time for over 10 years.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2012.