Thursday, May 10, 2012

Commute by Bike - Getting Started

Interested in becoming a fully-fledged bicycle commuter? You're in luck! In honor of today's bike to work day in San Francisco, I thought I would put together a short list of my advice for a bike commuter newbie.

Using a bike as your primary means of transportation to work can be an overwhelming experience. Most people are not even sure where to start. My suggestions?

Step 1 - Reflect. Why do you want to ride your bike to work (or school, or downtown)? Is it finding the time for exercise during your busy schedule? Are you trying to lower your carbon footprint? Do you enjoy being outside in the fresh air instead of inside a traffic-lodged car? Are you trying to save money on gas and parking? Are you planning on transitioning to a car-free lifestyle? There are plenty of fantastic reasons to spin those pedals. If you understand your conviction for two-wheelin' it, you will be more likely to push through during the "learning curve."

Also understand there will be sacrifices, like leaving earlier in the morning, or showing up a bit sweaty to work. Can you live with that?

Step 2 - Research. Imagine you just moved to a new city and have no idea how to maneuver the new freeways and main roads. This is exactly what it is like when you start riding a bike in your city for the first time. You need to discover the main "biking" roads. Start with your city's local bicycle coalition. They will often be a great resource for local routes and will often offer a downloadable map. Also use the bike tool on  Google Maps to look for local bike routes and give you estimated trip duration. It is surprisingly accurate. At the beginning, my ride to the office took exactly the 35 minutes predicted.

Step 3 - Buy. For me, the biggest obstacle to a bike purchase was sticker shock. No, you cannot get a good new bike for $200. Don't even try. For a new bike, you should expect to spend $500 minimum, and a high quality commuter bike will be from $1000 to $1500. No department store bikes from Walmart or Target! My bike was $1000 dollars, but in the last year I have ridden it over 1,000 miles. Let's say my bike lasts only 5 years (I expect it to last at least 10) and I ride it only 5000 miles. Average cost per mile? 20 cents. Average cost per mile to drive a car? 59.6 cents. So realistically, that $1000 price tag is a fraction of what you are paying to drive.

I suggest visiting at least 3 bike shops. Bike shops have agreements with different manufacturers, or brands, of bikes, so you will find new options at each shop. There are lots of different types of bikes depending on what you are looking for (touring bikes, cyclo-cross, road bikes, mountain bikes, folding bikes, single-speed). Do you have a lot of hills? Do you prefer speed or comfort? My suggestion is to look for a steel frame. Although a bit heavier, steel will be most comfortable for longer rides and sturdier when carrying heavier loads. If you can afford it, an internally geared rear hub is amazing for city riding. Be specific on what your needs are, and most bike shops should be able to offer a couple options that will be a great fit for you!

Step 4 - Accessorize. Fenders are a must to keep you dry and clean. I highly recommend a rear rack and pannier set (I have this one) for storing a change of clothes. Although some prefer a messenger bag, I like the panniers because it keeps the weight (and sweat) off my back. Get some rechargeable bike lights for night riding, a sturdy U-lock, and a nice helmet.

You should invest in some warm bike gloves, and a windproof jacket does wonders for me in San Francisco. Once you become more comfortable, I would highly recommend a pair of hybrid shoes for clip-in pedals. I have these.

And if you are especially trendy, shops like PushBike offer fashionable, bike-friendly attire.

Step 5 - Ride. Expect it to be an adjustment at first. Be patient. Don't give up. And eventually the warm sunshine, the cool breeze, and the joy of life on a bike will win you over!

I'll see you on the streets...