How can I give up driving to become a bike commuter?
April 23, 2006 12:16 AM   Subscribe

Help me get in shape & learn what I need to know so I can start biking the seven miles to work (and seven miles back)!

Right now, I'm getting cardio exercise at the gym for 30 or 35 minutes five days a week -- mostly on elliptical machines, but sometimes on recumbent bikes. I walk a lot on weekends. It will take me about a month to save up the cash to get my bike in the condition it needs to be in where I can start riding it to work. I'm looking for things I can do now to get in biking shape, and after I get my bike to prepare for a full fledged commute.

My goal is to be bike commuting 14 miles round trip five days a week by the end of the summer. What should I be doing in the next month to get in shape before I am able to start riding? What should I do once I have a good bike to gradually build up to full commuting?

I'd also love advice on practical stuff I should know before becoming a bike commuter. (Example: a friend tells me that a comfortable seat and padded bike pants should be a high priority.)

Some background: my office is extremely alternative-transportation friendly, with safe bike storage, a locker I can use, and a shower. For a while in high school I was biking 10 miles a day to stay in shape, but that was more than 12 years ago. Since then, I haven't ridden much. Until about six weeks ago, I hadn't even worked out regularly for close to a year. I don't know much about bikes, but I live near a non-profit community cycling center in Portland.
posted by croutonsupafreak to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
bike there on google earth (portland bike map)
bicycle traffic safety
urban bike tips

7 miles is not too far, portland is a great town for biking so I think you'll have fun/ probably won't be too hilly.
I also have a boost mobile phone with mologogo which is a cheap GPS system/good for safety. You might want to get a tuffie (kevlar strip) for your rear tire as there is a lot of grass. Check out it's awesome and there is a forum and some more information about riding in this town. I like the river city bikes up on 20th and ankeny, they aren't pushy and they are very helpful and you can use their tools for free. Also: avoid the problem streets (mlk, hollywood district, lombard, SE Hawthorn, n columbia street, NW everett) and learn the bike routes. Usually its just go a block over from the busy streets. The eastbank esplenade out to the springwater trail is great. The bike trails up forest park are offroad but also astounding. I like the 40 mile look out on the columbia slough and the trail on marine drive. Also its good to learn your rights on the road. In portland metro people are pretty friendly towards cyclists but you never know. In portland the law is that you have the same rights to the road as a car but if you get hit unless you are seriously injured there's nothing you can do. So if you do get hit call an ambulance and know your rights. usually cars will be pretty friendly. Personally I am an incredibly safe rider and wouldn't put myself in a position to get hit, I mostly ride on the bike trails and try to be aware of all directions of traffic. I've seen people blow red lights going the wrong way on a one way street so you have to be safe, but those websites, a mirror and caution should be enough because it's already a very bike friendly town. Never leave your bike outside and if you lock it try using more than one lock (a chain and a u-lock). Certain areas (the pearl district, lloyd center) have high crime so you should be safe about. Check the stolen bike listings on craigslist and to get a feel for where the worst areas are. Personally I ride a crappy ugly bike covered in dirt and tape so I dont worry, most of the bike theft are expensive bikes.
posted by psychobum at 1:41 AM on April 23, 2006

when I said grass I mean glass. :( i think all the broken glass is a conspiracy.
posted by psychobum at 1:42 AM on April 23, 2006

The best way to get in biking shape is to just start biking. Stationary bikes are ok, but not the same as the real thing. If you aren't comfortable starting off biking to work try just doing a trial run there and back on a weekend or something. And good on you for not wanting to drive.
posted by kechi at 2:56 AM on April 23, 2006

I disagree with Jenga. A couple of years ago I did a commute of about 18 miles round trip and I found a padded seat and shorts to be mandatory. Still my ass hurt for weeks. Eventually you get used to it, though.

If you're seriously out of shape you can always build up to the five day commute gradually.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 4:12 AM on April 23, 2006

I'm seconding kechi's advice to start biking in the weekends (and maybe also every other day in your spare time, if you can, even if it's only for half an hour). Even better if you have parks or bike trails nearby.

Just start by taking it easy, without checking how long you take to cover x distance; if you like bring a walkman or mp3 player to listen to music (keep the volume low, goes without saying!). Your legs and lungs will just get used to it naturally and rather quickly, especially because you say you already exercise a lot so I don't think you'll have a problem in that respect.

Be sure to acquire familiarity and confidence with your bike, especially the brakes.

You don't need padded pants or seats. As a woman, I find the harder thinner ones, road bike style, a lot better than the cushier padded ones I remember from my first bikes as a kid (and which I haven't seen around much recently anyway). The padded ones are bigger and tend to be wider too so they get in the way, they rub against your thighs. You'll be bent forwards anyway, not sitting up straight except when stopping, so your weight is already distributed on the bike and you don't really need to have so much of your butt on the seat. The seat doesn't have to be comfortable to sit on, it has to be comfortable for riding.

Also set it as high as you can without feeling like you're losing balance (google "bicycle seat adjustment" and you'll find lots of tips there). A higher seat makes it a lot less tiring to cycle. You probably know all this already but if you haven't been on a bike for a while it's very easy to fall back into the habit of keeping the saddle too low.
posted by funambulist at 4:50 AM on April 23, 2006

To echo some things that have been said, based on the amount of exercise you are currently doing, I think you are in pretty good shape to tackle this commute. Keep in mind that you're really only doing a 7 mile trip at a time, with an 8 hour rest in between.

I have an 18 mile round trip commute and it takes me 35 minutes each way. Of course, depending on your terrain, elevation change, and speed your time may vary.

I would recommend a couple things before taking the plunge:
- scope out the route you are going to be taking ahead of time. Some routes are great for driving, but once you get on a bike, they are not ideal. It may be worth adding a mile to your commute to go through some more bike friendly sections of town. As I understand it, biking is popular in Portland, so you may not have a problem here.
- do a test ride. Once you get your bike in shape, do a test ride on the weekend.
- practice vehicular cycling

Equipment Recommendations:
- padded shorts
- clipless pedals
- an extra tube
- mini-pump
- tire levers

Bicycle commuting has seriously changed my life. I absolutely love it. I hope it brings you the same joy.
posted by bwilms at 4:55 AM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with many things said here, but I think there's also some advice that's just plain wrong.

First, contrary to funambulist's advice, you should not, under any circumstances, at any volume, wear headphones of any kind while riding (unless it's indoors on the trainer). I can't speak specifically to Oregon law, but it's almost certainly illegal, and it's incredibly dangerous. The sounds that warn you of impeding danger are usually subtle -- the whoosh of car tires coming up behind you -- and even at low volume, you might miss them.

Second, for many people, especially those not accustomed to using one, riding with a mirror can be more dangerous than riding without one. If you plan to use one, learn to use it somewhere safe. If you're staring at your mirror when someone opens their car door in front of you, it's not going to do you any good.

Adding to what bwilms said, you should definitely have tire levers, spare tube, and a mini-pump -- or better, a CO2 inflator -- and you should make sure you know how to use them before you ride. Once you learn how, fixing a flat will be a two minute operation; without these tools, however, a flat could mean a long, unpleasant walk.

Consider getting a cyclocross bike or touring bike, as opposed to a racing bike or a hybrid. Cross bikes and touring bikes are meant to take the abuse of extra weight, rough conditions, etc., but ultralight racers are not. Hybrids, meanwhile, are not especially speedy or comfortable for longer rides, and if you decide you like cycling and want to start doing long weekend rides or something, you'll be glad to have a bike with drop bars. Whatever you get, have it fit and set up by an experienced shop. Having an ill fitting bike is just asking for a repetitive stress injury, and having an improperly built bike is asking for an accident. Also, since commuting happens regardless of the weather, you might consider investing in a rainshell and fenders, neither of which is very expensive and both of which will make riding in the rain considerably more pleasant.

This commute doesn't sound so long that you'll need to do much to build up to it. Just jump in, but realize that the first couple of weeks might not be that much fun: you'll be adjusting to the bike and to working out more. Even if you wear all the right clothes, have your bike set up properly, and have a good saddle, your ass will hurt. That's just the way it is, stick it out and you'll be happy you did.
posted by dseaton at 6:21 AM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you're already doing 30-35 minutes of cardio a week, I don't think you're going to have too much trouble with two 7-mile bike rides a day. When you're on an eliptical or stationery bike you're fighting resistance all the time. When you're riding on the street, unless you're in a hurry, you can coast a fair bit of the time.

Since you have a storage place at work, you can start out by riding to work one morning, bussing home, bussing in the next morning, and riding home, if it seems too much.
posted by teg at 6:22 AM on April 23, 2006

Hi, my bike commute is also 14 miles. I am certainly no athlete, and it's very doable. You may want to drive your car with bike attached, ride home, and ride back in the next am. This will be a gentler introduction to your route for a couple weeks until you feel won't be very long till you're used to it.
posted by toastchee at 7:04 AM on April 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all this great advice. I've been planning to start biking for a while, but ironically and unfortunately recent expensive car repairs are slowing me down. I will have paid off those repairs and saved enough to buy the needed biking equipment by the end of May.

Are there things I could be doing at the gym or elsewhere to prepare while I don't have an available bike? Once I can start riding, I think I will do a few practice runs over the weekends and then gradually ease into day commuting.

I hate the gym upright bikes, because they leave my rear end sore for days afterwards. I'm hoping to avoid that when I start riding to work, though with my boney butt it may be impossible to be completely comfortable. Just sitting still in a chair often leaves me sore.

For those of you from the Portland area, I'll be riding from Northeast part of town (off Alberta) across the I-5 bridge to downtown Vancouver. I'm thinking I'll drive/bus to the base of the bridge and practice walking across the Columbia River just to check it out.

I sometimes need my car at a moment's notice at work, so I think I'll probably start driving in on Mondays, commuting back and forth by bike the rest of the week, then driving home on Fridays. That will force my significant other & I to be completely carless during the week -- he just gave up his car altogether a few months ago. It's an exciting prospect.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:52 AM on April 23, 2006

I used to bike to work when I lived in a more bike-friendly city. I'd say just start doing the ride to work and back on weekends to start. This will give you a chance to scope out the best route, see how much work it is and make yourself aware of any tricky bits in weekend traffic (rather than rush-hour traffic), and you won't be in a hurry.
posted by biscotti at 7:53 AM on April 23, 2006

As others have said, you shouldn't have any particular problem with your ride physically. It will take somewhere around 30 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic.

Your distance is short enough that the kind of bike you ride won't matter much. Do get yourself smooth (not knobby, not mildly treaded, not "semi-slick") tires. It will be much easier to pedal and your hands will not get a sore.

If you have any recurring soreness or tingling sensations, (knees, feet, hands, in particular) go to a bike store and get them to look at your bike fit. Tingling indicates nerve problems---take it seriously.

Do scope out your route in advance. The weekend ride idea is the best one. Your best bike route will almost certainly be not the best car route.

Leave a lock at work, if you need one there. It saves you having to carry one every day.

For 7 miles, ether a backpack or panniers will work. Backpacks can get uncomfortably sweaty and can block vision. I prefer panniers, but they are more expensive.

Get fenders. They look dorky, but make the ride much more pleasant.

If you work in a formal or semi-formal setting, work clothes can be a bit of a pain. Rolled shirts always seem to wrinkle. Use you car on off days to bring in fresh clothes. Food too, if you bring a packed lunch.

It's possible to carry a portable computer on the bike, but it's really hard on the computer. Try to avoid it if possible.
posted by bonehead at 8:05 AM on April 23, 2006

Er, sorry about the walkman suggestion, was just thinking it might make the first 'training' rides more pleasurable, had no idea it was illegal in the US. I use the standard earbuds of the ipod, not any fancier isolating kind, and the volume my ipod is already capped at a lower limit due to EU regulations, so keeping it low really means I still hear everything, even my own bike noise, but I find some music background just makes the traffic noise less of a sonic assault for me, and also makes me feel less fatigue.
posted by funambulist at 8:34 AM on April 23, 2006

Don't get carried away with bike gear. Other than staying dry, none of it really matters. Don't be intimidated. Just take it easy and start going. Why not ride only a few times a week until you get more used to it?

If you are small or if you lack arm strength you need to consider a lighter bike (as I said over here). On the other hand, small people can get away with parts which are not particularly durable, so the price doesn't have to be that high. I'm 250lbs and I ride with intensity - everything breaks!

I hate fat knobby tires, but they are more forgiving if you have to go up and down a lot of curbs, or ride over train/streetcar tracks. This can save falls for a beginner - as a beginner you will fall once in a while..

I sometimes need my car at a moment's notice at work,

When I worked at a downtown engineering firm, it was routine for the partners to loan out their cars to whoever needed to do a site visit on that day.. Not something you can control, but I guess it is part of being bike friendly.

Once your car is not an assumed necessity, it will start to look like very poor economy to keep it around..
posted by Chuckles at 9:06 AM on April 23, 2006

funambulist: so keeping it low really means I still hear everything, even my own bike noise,

I don't want to dwell on this earbud thing, I'm no safety nut, but.. Your own bike noise is pretty loud compared to the things dseaton appears to be thinking of. I ride downtown streets, and hearing is critical! Anything that impedes sound, even the hood of my sweatshirt, makes a huge difference.
posted by Chuckles at 9:13 AM on April 23, 2006

Yes, of course hearing is critical, I know that, just know that when I said "low volume" I really meant low, that's all I wanted to clarify. (And no my bike isn't that loud!)

But of course devices, volumes, and hearing vary a lot individually, what works for me might not work for others, I should have thought about that before posting.

So, forget I even mentioned it :)

posted by funambulist at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

The cure, for me, for bicycle tush is more bicycling. The first time I ride after a long layoff I'll be very sore at the bottom of my pelvic bone the next day. The last thing I want to do is get back on a bike seat but if I force myself to I find that after riding for a while I'm no longer sore and I'm thereafter immune to seat soreness (at least until the next long layoff).
posted by TimeFactor at 10:53 AM on April 23, 2006

A rack and panniers, a vehicular cycling course.

Regarding your boney butt: on upright bicycles, you should sit on the bony parts of your butt, and firm seats are better (cushy seats can compress nerves and block circulation). All I can say is that it will hurt less after a while. Insert plug for recumbents here :-)
posted by blue grama at 12:05 PM on April 23, 2006

Get a trip meter / speedometer thingy. This way you can track things like how far you have to go, how fast you're travelling. You could even keep a log of trip times and see if you're getting faster (if doing the ride quickly is important to you).

It's also nice to see the total distance you've travelled slowly adding up.
posted by tomble at 6:59 PM on April 23, 2006

Many people have asked similar questions on the commuting forum.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:34 PM on April 23, 2006

I don't think it was mentioned, but know how to fix a flat.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:46 AM on April 24, 2006

the trickiest part of your ride is going to be getting across columbia blvd, however most of it (alberta area to the couv) is bike lane if you plan ahead. You might want to walk up marine drive/bike lane (its nice!) to get comfortable with the area. The bike lanes going over to vancouver around mlk are convoluted to say the least, but it beats biking on the road. It gets kind of windy biking on the columbia river tho, and I would get some rain pants/coat. You can get an ergonomic seat/cheap bike spedometers on amazon. And have some spare clothes stashed in case you get soaked. A cel phone is handy. You'll be suprised, if you are going during rush hour your trip might even be less time than if you drove. check out the resources on its a great local forum.
posted by psychobum at 9:31 PM on April 24, 2006

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