The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter

By Steve Chambers

Addressing all your major objections about riding to work.
by Steve Chambers
6:30 a.m. on a late July weekday. I adjust my daypack containing shirt, pants, tie and other accoutrements of corporate America, step into my bicycle clips and pedal into the twilight. The air is so still I can hear the psst, psst, psst of the neighbors’ sprinklers three houses away.

My journey begins around 7200 South and 2100 East. Less than 15 minutes later, I pass what’s left of Cottonwood Mall. At 4500 South, the road slopes upward and I have to pedal to keep up my speed. At 33rd South I hit a red light and take a welcome break. The sun has crept above the mountains and the shadows stretch long across the road.

I pedal through Sugar House, turning left at 2100 South. As I pass the gym on my right, I smile at the sweat-bathed exercisers pounding treadmills and stair climbers, panting in the stale air while I zip through the morning. I lean into the right turn onto 600 East, checking my watch. Just under 43 minutes. Right on time.

Sixth East is a joy, with eclectic houses and wonderful, alternative landscaping. The elderly Japanese couple is out for their morning walk, and we smile and nod at each other. I ride through Liberty Park with moms jogging behind baby strollers, dog-walkers, runners, and in-line skaters, and then I’m back onto 600 East. Now the road climbs to 100 South, where I make a left turn and coast six blocks to downtown. Another bike commute is over, and, as with every bike commute, today I’m invigorated, ready to begin work.

I’ve biked to work for eight years. Not every day, and not all year, but in spring, summer and fall I ride frequently. With gas in the mid-four dollar range, bicycling is an appealing alternative to driving. Anyone considering bike commuting has practical questions. Here are answers to a few FAQs.

Won’t I be all sweaty? This is probably the number 1 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. If you cycle in the same shirt you mowed the lawn in last night, you’re guaranteed to wrinkle a few noses. 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 lycra. In other words, I feel foolish in lycra, and with good reason. When you’re more than 10 feet from your bike wearing bike shorts and a jersey, you look silly. Bike clothes are functional. The tight shorts don’t chafe your legs, the high waist and long jersey in back keep your lower back (and other areas) covered. The pockets on the back of the jersey are handy for carrying cell phones. But you don’t have to wear what you don’t like. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t wear lycra. According to Bicycling Magazine, "Only dorks wear spandex . . . when cruising around town." Get a pair of knickers, wear your favorite (clean) tee shirt-wear 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. I leave two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, at the office so I don’t have to carry shoes.

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. Before you commute, do some reconnaissance. 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. When I commute, I’m never more than a couple of blocks from a bus route, so I can walk to a stop and hop a bus if necessary. Use tire liners or puncture-resistant tubes. Hybrid and mountain bikes have thicker tire walls and lower tire pressure so flatting from gravel 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. Nor mine, so most days I ride to work and take the bus 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. My bus stop is a half-mile from home, so I don’t bother to change back into my bike clothes. I change shoes, tuck my pants’ cuffs into my socks to keep them out of the chain, ride two blocks to the bus stop, and at the end pedal home, tie flying in the wind.

I 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, generating 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. Deal with it or don’t ride. Your brain is more important than your ‘do. At least it should be.

Give bicycle commuting a try. Fall is coming; it’s the perfect time to experiment. u

Steve Chambers is an attorney and outdoor enthusiast who has lived in the Salt Lake area for 35 years. He commutes in lycra because it makes him feel fast, though he says he is not, has never been and probably never will be fast.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2008.