It’s May and there’s no better time to throw some air in your bike tires and give your car a rest and your legs a workout! May 13-19 marks the annual National Bike to Work Week, culminating with Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 17. This has turned into a national movement, so you’ll probably be able to find local initiatives to connect with.
I’ve been commuting by bike for more than a decade. I love how the morning ride to work gets me energized for the day and how the return trip home in the evening affords me some space to decompress. A special community exists among cyclists and I recently connected with a few commuters of varying experience levels who shared some practical tips and words of encouragement for anyone considering spending more time on a bike and less time in a car.
How and why to start commuting by bike
Addison initially got into biking as a recreational sport, but it didn’t take him long to do the math and realize that he could bankroll a new bike by riding to work instead of paying for daily Metro passes in DC. Three new bikes later, Addison savors the daily commute along the National Mall with views of the Smithsonian museums until he arrives at his work just past the White House.
Your route doesn’t have to be as epic as Addison’s to enjoy the ride, but you might also discover hidden gems of your city if you invest a little research about bike routes near you. Jen, along with her bike “Lolo” (nicknamed after the patron saint of cyclists, Madonna del Ghisallo), got her start commuting as a university student and picked it back up several years ago after moving to South Bend, Indiana, which was recently awarded the League of American Bicyclists’ silver designation as a biker-friendly community. South Bend proves that even if your city didn’t crack the top 50 of best places to bike in America, bike lanes and trails are on the rise across the country.
Traig dove headfirst into year-round commuting after giving his mom use of his car in a time of need, and he discovered that going carless also trimmed his own monthly budget. Never one for half-measures, Traig immediately fell in love with biking, especially in the winter.
John, on the other hand, started small, commuting for his first job after college (to be fair, John readily admits his first job was technically in the garage of the house where he was living). Before long, though, he started biking the two miles to the post office in the morning to pick up the mail, which turned into running other errands on the bike. John has only picked up steam since then, building up to a 25-mile daily commute and he recently pulled off a 57-month streak of consecutive days on the bike.
Raquel, whose route to work, school, and home makes up a two-mile equilateral triangle, finds biking a welcome change of pace compared to the sedentary lifestyle of a grad student. Living in a small town, she values the opportunities to say hi to people on her bike compared to the isolation of being in a car.
Jen is a committed environmentalist who is articulate about biking as a form of reducing our carbon footprint — it’s good for the health of the planet as well as her own health. But biking isn’t just something Jen realizes she should do — for her, biking is about really knowing and enjoying where she lives. “I know so much more about this small patch of earth I call home,” she said. “I know where the land contours. I know the little patch of wetlands where the spring peepers will be singing. I hear the sandhill cranes as they arrive in spring. Biking keeps me rooted to this place.”
As the longest-tenured commuter of the bunch, John offers a succinct summation of everything biking has going for it: “Biking is good for my soul — it gives me a chance to pray and to observe the outside world in all its variety. It is good for my body, keeping me healthy. It is good for my finances, because I don’t need a second car. It’s good for the environment. It’s good socially because I can stop and converse with pedestrians or folks on porches. What’s not to like?”
But taking on the world by bike isn’t all roses. For all the benefits, it’s important to have your eyes wide open — both literally and figuratively — when you’re on two wheels in a world full of four-wheeled traveling companions. For Addison, the rubber meets the road during muggy D.C summers. For Raquel, in late fall and early spring, it can be freezing in the morning and warm in the afternoon. Her solution? A good waterproof bag to store multiple layers to use throughout the day.
Traig’s biggest concern is drivers who, as he puts it, “are more concerned with their cell phone than they are about missing the guy on the bike.” After two low-speed collisions with cars who ran stop signs, Traig gives cars a wide berth and suggests opting for longer routes through neighborhoods instead of more direct, traffic-heavy roads.
Jen gives voice to the experience of many female cyclists who face sexual harassment from passing motorists. She notes that being safe on the bike includes — but goes far beyond — simply wearing a bike helmet and avoiding potholes: women often navigate additional risks on the road. Addison encourages new riders to tap into the social network of more experienced commuters. Search online for bike groups in your area, suggests Addison, since “bikers are always looking for excuses to ride with others.”
Tips for getting started
John advises new riders to take the same route he did by starting small and riding on good weather days. Slowly build up the equipment, stamina, and know-how that you need, from proper bike lights to waterproof panniers. Raquel has shown up to class late and greasy enough times to know that bikes, like any vehicle, can break down — sometimes the best tool is simply a sturdy rag. Jen has good advice for what your second piece of equipment should be: “Rain pants cannot be underestimated.”
Traig puts in a plug for getting to know the good people at your local bike shop. The internet may sell every bike part under the sun, but there’s no replacement for the knowledge and support that you can find from seasoned pros in your area. If you have a choice between which bike shop to frequent, Traig offers a simple tip: go to the one where people are wearing less bike spandex.
The reasons and ways to commute are as varied as there are commuters on the road. Draft off the momentum of Bike to Work Week for a boost to help you get started.
Traig says it best: “PLEASE EVERYONE — RIDE YOUR BIKE!”