Seven secrets of a happy bike commute

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Today’s blog by my friend Gypsybug is a primer on bike commuting.  I have been commuting by bike now for over a decade so I thought I’d add to her thoughts and share some tricks of the trade to those of you who would like to get started or are having troubles.
The Shortest Distance Is Rarely the Best Route
We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but when you’re bike commuting that’s almost beside the point.  After all, when you drive somewhere you don’t always take a straight route. The straight line from my house to Silver Spring is right through the heart of DC, but, when I drive it, I take the Beltway. It’s faster, safer and less stressful.
Think of your bike commute the same way.  I can ride a straight line to work, but this could take me on streets with lots of cars, traffic lights, clueless pedestrians and such.  For example, when I first started commuting to L’Enfant Plaza in DC, I would ride from the 14th Street Bridge around the Tidal Basin to 15th Street then take a right on Independence Avenue another right on 12th Street then a left on D Street.  That route included six traffic lights, all kinds of crazy car and bus traffic, pedestrians going every which way near the Smithsonian Metro station and the Agriculture Department.  And one pretty unpleasant left turn.
After a while I decided that instead of going around the Tidal Basin, I would double back toward the Potomac River and go under the 14th Street Bridge, taking Ohio Drive along the river (where I would often see Gypsybug and her husband Felkerino) to Buckeye Drive to a protected path on the Case Bridge across the Washington Channel (with sailboats afloat below) and return to the streets at L’Enfant Promenade, about 100 yards from my office.  This route was probably 1/2 mile longer, but it was much less stress, safer, and prettier.  
You should experiment with your commute to determine what route combines a reasonable commute time with safety and a pleasant riding experience.
The Transitions Will Kill You
Triathletes know that the transitions from one stage of the race to another will eat up valuable time.  They go to great pains to minimize time in the staging areas.  Bike commuting works the same way.  When I get home from a bike commute, the first thing I do is unpack and re-pack for the next day. (Unlike Gypsybug, I take my clothes in every day.  Like her, I use Ortlieb panniers.) I get my on-bike clothes laid out.  The idea is that you want to grab and go in the morning not fritter away your time looking for your bike shorts, your keys, your work id, etc..   Make sure that your tires are pumped up and that any mechanical issues are dealt with the night before your commute.  If you don’t do this stuff in advance, you’ll spend a half-hour of your morning wandering around your bedroom and garage looking for things.
Bad Weather Sucks No Matter How You Get to Work
If you wake up in the morning and it’s raining out, don’t give up. Do you really want to stand in your work clothes in the rain waiting for a bus, or drive in incredibly congested car traffic slowed by reduced visibility?   Rain gear these days is more affordable than ever and it can keep you comfortable all the way to and from work.  And if you get wet, so what? It’s water!  Now, it’s true you’ll need to take steps to be more visible and to allow for greater braking distances, but at least you won’t be sitting dripping in a bus or trying to de-fog your windows in vain.

In the summer, I usually skip the rain gear entirely, because getting wet on a hot day is pretty refreshing. Getting wet on a cold day is pretty miserable. My on-bike rain gear is not made for cycling. I wear a Marmot Precip jacket and, in really nasty weather, pants.  It works just fine.

Much of my commute is on multi-use trails. This designation gives the local authoritiwa the excuse to leave them unpaved after snow falls.. I usually don’t ride to work until the trails are clear. It simply takes too long to commute 15 miles on snow and ice. Also, I really don’t much like falling.  If you are intrepid, you can put studded tires on your steed and make a go of it. I’d rather use the gym or put my bike on a wind trainer for a few weeks. If I lived in a snowier city, I’d probably go for the studded tires (my friend Charmaine does this), but for a couple of weeks per year it doesn’t seem worth it to me.
My biggest problem with cold weather is the fact that my transition times go way up. Adding a layer or two doesn’t sound like much but it can add five minutes to each end of the commute – that’s 20 minutes per day.  Fortunately, in DC, subfreezing weather lasts only a month or so.  I grew up in Albany.  For a week or two every year, it gets below zero. This is why God invented ice skates.
Keeping yourself comfortable in the cold is a conversation for another blog post entirely.  Suffice it to say, wool is your friend.

Radar Isn’t Just a Character on M*A*S*H

Around DC you can often avoid the worst of the weather simply by checking the radar on TV or the Internet. Bike commuters are weather junkies.  They check the radar constantly.  It’s really a game of Can I Outsmart the Storm. If the storm outsmarts you, venture out into the maelstrom.  Riding in the rain is actually fun. I mean, once you’re wet you’re wet, right? I’ve ridden with 50 mile per hour winds (including cross winds on the 14th Street Bridge).  A 50 mile per hour tailwind is one mighty fun way to get home. A 50 mile per hour headwind, not so much. (Didn’t I hear you say you wanted to get in shape?)

Comedian Ron White tells a story about a friend who decides to tie himself to a pole during a hurricane. Ron points out that his friend learned: “It’s not that the wind is blowing, it’s what the wind is blowing.”  Long story short, look out for tree limbs and other debris from above.

Too Far? Get Creative
My kids were at school on the southern side of an epic highway construction project on the Washington Beltway. I worked ten miles on the northern side. My wife would drive them to school.  I would pick them up, but driving to get them was incredibly stressful.  Sometimes it would take 90 minutes to go 10 miles. And I wasn’t getting any exercise.  My solution was to drive 5 miles and park my car just south of the construction project.  I’d ride my bike the remaining 10 miles to work.  At the end of the day, I’d ride to my car, and then drive to school to get my kids. No traffic. No late fees at after school care, and I got my exercise.
Nowadays you can put you bike on a rack on the front of a bus. This can substantially increase your range.  If you work off-peak hours, you can take your bike on Metrorail.  If you have a folding bike like a Brompton, you can take your bike on and off Metro at any time of the day.  

But What If I Get a Flat?

Oh, stop making excuses, whiner. Flats are easy to fix. Just bring the fixins, find a place to perform the operation and have at it. To learn, go to You Tube and search for a video.  Then, on a rainy Saturday, ask a bike commuting friend to come to your house, give him or her a beer and have them walk you through it.  Just don’t use tire levers to put your tire back on the wheel. Nine times out of ten you’ll puncture your spare tube. Changing flats when it is bitterly cold outside does suck.  The best solution is to by tires that are puncture resistant. They are more expensive but tubes aren’t cheap. Avoiding two or three flats will cover the extra cost of the tires.

This year my chain broke on the way to work. A bike commuter stopped and spent 20 minutes working on my bike.  He got me going again. I thanked him but that seemed pretty lame. So now I always carry two spare tubes. The chances that I’ll use both are incredibly small, but the chances that I will encounter a cyclist who needs a spare tube are pretty good. Give them one of your spares. The bike commuting gods will smile down upon you.

Dude, Slow Down

I see people riding hell for leather on their way to work. Son, let’s keep this in perspective. You’re riding to work!  It will be there whether it takes you 40 minutes or 45.  Nobody’s going to care if you take an extra five minutes. After all, Metro and car commuters are always late for work. They get sympathy! 

Mount Vernon Trail Maple

Take your time. Check out the monuments, the trees, the sunrise.  Watch a couple of planes land at the airport. Listen to the birds chirp and twitter. 

2 thoughts on “Seven secrets of a happy bike commute

  1. I wish I knew you guys when I had started commuting! Great advice– I agree with all of your points. I especially agree with the racing commuters– people take their commuting very seriously! relax, people!

  2. So much truth! My short route commute made the biggest different when I went from Huntington to Tysons a few years ago. After a few months of almost daily Telegraph Rd to Rt 7, I finally conceded that the few extra minutes to ride to the W&OD trail were well worth it. My ride in the storm? Last Friday weather forecast said 30% chance of rain… I rode my 10 miles in work clothes… got soaked. Weather report was useless!! Oh, and the Cat 6 commuter scene? I'm in the lead so far… besides enjoying the speed, I usually try to squeeze in a bike commute to the commuter bus, and it spurs me to ever greater speeds. Thank God for upcoming cold weather/empty trails! And snow? I usually take to the road until it's clear. If that inconveniences some drivers, hopefully they'll make more effort to clean the trails.I hope that wasn't too long of a comment! Pax.

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