Get out and RIDE
How does burning an extra 200-500 calories a day, increasing your vitamin D uptake, saving money on fuel, and helping the environment sound to you? Consider ditching your car or bus pass for your bike. The idea may sound like a lot of hassle or hard to do—and sure it is a little extra work—but with the right preparations and strategies, it will be something you look forward to each spring to fall season.
Having many a commuting season under my belt, let me share some tips that has made my day-to-day experience much more sustainable and enjoyable. If it’s not a pleasant experience for you, you will be less likely to stick to it.
1) The bike
a. Fit and function
Your bike does not have to be fancy, in fact for theft deterrence it is better that it is not. It needs to WORK and it needs to FIT. Get your bike cleaned, lubricated and tuned-up by a professional before you start commuting. Clunky gears and a mucky chain make the job much harder than it should be. If you are not sure your bike fits you or not, see out a professional. Most local bike shops offer this service. If you are just after a few quick rules of thumb, a quick internet search can help. For instance, I just pulled up this article: http://bikedynamics.co.uk/guidelines.htm. There are many articles and experts on the subject, but the bottom line is, if you are comfortable and your knees, neck, wrists and back feel good after a long ride, then it’s probably fine for your commute.
There are so many bike types and geometries to choose from. From road bikes to cruisers and everything in between. Have a look at your commute distance and route. Is it mostly paths? Is the pavement smooth or rough? Are there off road sections? Do you like to go fast or steady? Are you likely to be riding in inclement weather? I personally ride a sport hybrid for commuting as I like a little speed (thinner tires) but also like to go off-road from time to time; hop the odd curb and use it to haul heavier loads of groceries to and fro. Sport hybrids have sturdier mountain bike type frames and handlebars, disc brakes (more on that later) and tires that are wider and knobbier than road bike tires, but much thinner than a typical mountain bike or cruiser tire (less rolling resistance for speed). For simplicity’s sake, just use the bike you have. If you get through a full season of commuting and want to reward yourself with some improvements, then get a new, or new to you, bike at the end of the season
c. Gears and Brakes
Gears? Fixed gear bikes? Pads? Disc brakes? These are really just personal preferences and not something to get hung up on. Test ride a few models to get a good feel. The one upgrade I truly recommend are disc brakes. They don’t wear out like pads do, and they will stop you in ANY condition. Ever tried to use wet, gritty brake pads on a hill? Forget it. The only thing to be aware of with disc brakes is to never slam them on. You will bail for sure! Make note of which brake controls the front and which one is for the back. It’s generally good advice to feather (lightly tap) both the front and back brakes with soft, equal pressure for safe braking in most conditions.
Clipless systems, flat pedals or cages? Meh. While clipless systems and shoes will help with pedalling efficiency and power transfer to the pedals, it’s really up to you and the nature of your commute. If you have long sections where you can hammer out your ride fairly uninterrupted, by all means, go for the clipless. I personally commute through the downtown core where it seems I have to come to a halt every 25m or so. I find it frustrating to constantly clip in and out. I clip in on my road bike, just not when commuting. If you do choose to clip in, I recommend SPD/Mountain bike type systems where the cleat is recessed in the shoe so you can walk a little if you have to (or pop into the grocery store on the way home without clicking around or pulling a Bambi on the tiled floors!)
Learn how to change a flat, adjust your brakes and put your chain back on. I’m dead serious on this one. There are all sorts of bike maintenance clinics out there. Most municipalities offer workshops, otherwise your bike shop can show you some basics, as can YouTube! I’ve learned so much from watching videos and playing around with tools myself. Note – Make sure you have spare parts (like inner tubes and a pump) and tools ON YOU when you ride. They are no good in your garage or closet! Check your tire pressure each and every time before you take out your bike. Fill tires to specifications (it will be written on your tire). Don’t put your bike away wet and muddy. Wipe it down first. Keep your chain clean and lubed.
2) The gear
a. Double up
Have 2 of everything (within reason). The less you have to cart back and forth with you from work to home, home to work is best. Two pairs of cycling shorts, warm layers, light water resistant jacket. Having a second toiletries and makeup bag to stash at work helps a lot, and saves having to carry it. Make sure it is stocked with deodorant, brush, toothbrush, face wipes, hair product, contact solution and any makeup you normally wear. Keep a dry, spare layer of clothing that’s comfortable to cycle in, just in case you get wet and gross on the way in. If you have ever put on wet, cold clothes before, you will appreciate this small effort immensely. Handy also when the temps go for a dive – you can just double up your layers to stay warm.
You can never have too many base and outer layers on hand. Make sure you have enough to get you through the week without having to launder them. This includes the spare set you have at the office! Think wool, dry-fit and other breathable fabrics as base and a wind/water resistant outer when it’s cooler or a shell in case of torrential downpours.
c. Glasses, Buffs
I went out once cycling without my sunglasses. I will never do that again. Rocks, dust, bugs…are a hazard when you are moving quickly on your bike. I got hit in the eye with a Junebug once and totally lost control and my eye swelled shut. I had to cycle home with one eye. You can get fairly cheap glasses that you can swap the lenses out for different lighting conditions. It’s not worth skipping out on this one item. Head buffs soak up sweat, keep hair frizzies at bay and can act as ear warmers if the wind is cold. SO versatile! They are inexpensive and handy in the spring and fall.
d. Shorts and accessories (helmet, lights, gloves)
It goes without saying to wear a helmet. If yours is more than a few years old, please replace it. Photo damage to the foam and plastic, and regular dropping of your helmet all decrease the protective properties of your helmet. Make sure it FITS. Lights are always handy. You never know when you will be out late. I turn mine on in the rain for extra visibility. Gloves – you may not think too much about it, but what instinctually is the first thing to go out when you fall? Your hands, right? That’s technically not a good strategy for falling (stay loose, tuck your head and roll onto your shoulder is a better one) but we all do it. Callouses can form quickly. The bottoms of the gloves provide good grip in slippery situations and provide a little warmth when it’s cool.
Bike shorts make the journey much more pleasant. Do NOT wear your undies underneath them either. There are no seamlines to chaffe your tender bits for a reason. Have a few pairs to alternate. Always wear clean cycling shorts. Dried sweat becomes like sandpaper (salt) and a whole lot of nasty bacteria can start to take up residence in your abraided skin and you will develop nasty sores. There are many options for stylish shorts. You can get padded under layers to wear under your regular attire or baggier mountain bike options if spandex isn’t your thing. I prefer spandex as there is no risk of getting caught up in it. Some people can cycle in a skirt. I just can’t.
e. Pannier vs Packs vs Basket
Commuting means you will likely have to carry crap to and fro. If you install a rear rack on your bike, Panniers are a good option. Baskets are ok for small things like a purse or small bag of groceries, but things jostle around, bounce out and otherwise are just a nuisance. My preference is just a plain old backpack. Backpacks can add extra strain on your neck and shoulders. Be sure to use on that has a chest and hip harness if you go that route. Rain proof your pack with expandable rain covers or garbage bags when needed.
f. Bike Locks
U- locks all the way. Learn how to lock your bike up properly. If your wheels are quick release, they need to come with you or be secured as well. I suggest the u-lock and chain combo. Here is a good vid – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgHubY5Vw3Y
3) The strategy
a. Stock your workplace
Once a week replenish your extras at work (clothing, underwear, toiletries) and well as snacks and food if you are able to do so. Not having to transport meals and snacks every day saves a lot of hassle. I keep a box of greens, some cut veggies, nuts, cooked and chopped meats and some miscellaneous fruits and dips on hand in the office fridge. Anything extra I will just throw in my pack. Stay away from wet foods (weight and potential for mess) and use well sealed containers. Keep some Visine around too – wind can make your eyes red. Keep a pair of office shoes and a couple of clean outfits to change in so you don’t have to cart all that business in every day!
b. Decide days in advance – Plan your week
NEVER ever leave your decision to cycle to work until the morning. It just won’t happen. Lay out your clothes, prep your ride and food the day (or days) before. You know what your week looks like. Pick 2-3 days to cycle and then work around it. Disregard the weather forecast, especially in the spring. There will rarely be a perfect day. Take daily decision making out of the equation. It’s just how you get to work.
c. Hair and Make-up
You CAN cycle to work and throw on a suit for a meeting and look like a million bucks. I shower and do my hair before cycling, wrapping it up in a head buff under my helmet. It usually shakes out ok once I arrive at work. If you can keep a small blow dryer or flat iron around that can be handy too. Makeup gets put on at work. I just wash my face and put moisturizer/sunscreen on in the morning. Careful putting product on your eyelids. It will run into your eyes as soon as you start sweating. It burns and your eyes will be red for hours.
d. Hygiene – to shower or not?
Fret not if you do not have a shower option at work. Start out clean and wear fresh cycling clothes– you won’t get that much dirtier. Have a dry clean towel and some moisturizing facial wipes for a “shower” if there are no facilities where you work. Another strategy is to use a homemade or store bought body spray/spritz to wet the skin and towel off. Distilled water, a little vodka (don’t worry you won’t set off any alarm bells with your employer with this one) and some essential oils sprayed on skin and wiped off will keep you smelling and feeling fresh. A little goes a long way.
a. Bus tickets
Always keep a few bus tickets on hand in an emergency. Forgot your spare inner tube? Tire levers? Rain gear? OC Transpo allows you to rack your bikes on many of their routes. It’s better than waiting around for someone to come save you!
b. Charged cell phone
Make sure your phone is charged before you leave for the day. You never know. Keep a zip lock bag for it in case of rain.
c. Bike skills
Make sure you are comfortable riding in traffic, using all your gears, stopping quickly, adept at shoulder checking (looking over your shoulder to the rear before making any directional changes) and avoiding obstacles by either steering tightly to avoid swerving into traffic or hopping over or bracing to take a pothole or crack. It’s pretty safe to ride your bike but you always have to be aware and ready for anything, even on bike paths. If you are looking to brush up, there are clubs in Ottawa that offer clinics.
d. Fitness/Cross training
If you are already training for a sport, are a runner, or do other fitness activities like bootcamps or crossfit, cycling is excellent active recovery. How about cycling TO your next training event! Extra cred! It’s an incredibly effective warm up and cool down. Pay very close attention to your nutrition and hydration if you are doing this. A girl needs some serious calories to do this effectively. Consult with an expert if you are unsure about how much (and what) you should be consuming. This kind of thing falls outside of the normal recommendations for nutrition.
e. Start with once a week and progress from there
Just like meatless Monday, plan for a cycle commute day once a week when it makes sense to do so, and stick to that day, no matter what. Build your resolve, stamina hone your trouble shooting skills. You will find it does not take much more time, for the most part to cycle or bus to work during rush hours. Enjoy the new routine. Add in a second and third day every week as you get fitter, faster and more efficient. If you have some control over your schedule, enjoy a few flex days when the weather is nice and you can take the long way in.
f. Obey the rules – salmoning, sidewalks and the highway traffic act
Please do not cycle on the sidewalk, ride the wrong way on one-way streets (that’s called salmoning) or do anything that may irk pedestrians and drivers. You are both of those groups too. Ride how you would want a cyclist to ride alongside you. Set a good example. We all have to work hard to share the road and get over any negativity between cyclists and drivers. Mutual respect all the way!
g. Google maps – planning your route (bike option, traffic density)
I like to vary my route for interest sake, but there are tools available that will help you find the most efficient and safe way to get to your destinations. Google maps has bicycle routing options and can give you fairly decent commute times based on existing traffic reports. It’s rare that you would cycle the same route that you drive. Test your route on a Sunday if you are not sure how long it will take. Add in 10% travel time to allow for morning traffic and a slow bed to bike transition
5) Enjoy yourself. Take selfies and pictures of wildlife and other sights your city has to offer. Explore new shops, restaurants and places that you normally would not have a chance to notice in your car. Be present! It’s a gift that you get to enjoy every single day. Relish your alone time. Hone your snot rocket skills if you so choose – just make sure nobody is behind you! Oh, and chick as many dudes on your bike as you can!
6) Track it! Log your miles and performance with apps like Strava. See others who are taking your route and challenge your legs against theirs. It’s wildly addictive and makes you feel hardcore with all the Km’s you accumulate over the weeks
Safety – above all else stay safe. Visible clothing, pepper spray (especially if riding in closed off wooded pathways). Better safe than sorry. Make sure it’s easy to reach. Please do not listen to music on your bike. If you insist, place only one ear bud on the side furthest away from traffic so you can hear what is going on around you. Learn when to “Take the Lane” (i.e. drive where a car would to avoid being squeezed in narrow areas or side swiped)