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Bike Commuting

Safety Corner logo


by Bob Zogg


Many CRW members find that bike commuting is a great way to combine exercise and environmental stewardship. With Bike-to-Work Week May 16 to 20, 2011(and Bike-to-Work Day on Friday, May 20, 2011), there's no better time to join the commuting club. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Pick your Route
While the start and finish points of your commute are fixed, your route generally isn't. Explore your options using maps, your bike, or your car-commute days. Look for:

For your safety and comfort, explore routes in advance, rather than in commuting traffic and when you're concerned about getting to work on time. Ride your route in advance so you know where the tricky spots are and how much time to allow.

You may be able to shorten your commute and/or avoid nasty stretches by combining your bike commute with bike friendly mass-transit options. See the MBTA guidelines at:

Prepare your Bike
Bike Selection: Choose a touring or road bike for suburban commutes. Touring bikes can accommodate fenders, racks, and panniers (see discussion below), while racing-style road bikes generally can't. You may want the comfort and stability of a hybrid or mountain bike for urban or winter commuting. Some commuters prefer folding bikes. You can bring a folding bike on any MBTA vehicle at any time, and you can throw it in a car trunk if you decide to snag a lift home with a co-worker. Can't afford (or don't want to buy) a commuting bike? Don't despair. As long as it's in good mechanical condition, your current bike will probably do just fine. In any case, you may not want to invest a lot in a commuter—it will take a beating.

Lights and Reflectors: Even if you don't plan to commute at night, lights and reflectors are essential commuting equipment. You never know when you'll be unexpectedly detained at the office. Today's lighting choices are excellent, and span a wide price range. Most modern bike lights use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for higher efficiency (meaning more light output for longer periods) compared to yesterday's halogen technology. If your lights are for emergency use only, you can get away with a lower-cost headlight that uses disposable batteries. For regular use, a headlight having rechargeable lithium-ion batteries may be worth the extra bucks. Some manufacturers report total light output in lumens, others report projected light output in candlepower. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to compare the two, and there is much controversy over how much light output is enough. In general, if your commute is on darker suburban or rural roads, you'll need more light output than on well lit urban streets. No need to go crazy, though. There are high-end lighting systems available that only night-time racers and serious mountain bikers need.

Some commuters like to add a helmet-mounted headlamp—not only to throw light where you are looking, but to facilitate fixing flats or handling other repairs after dark.

Taillights require much less juice than headlights and, therefore, most use disposable batteries. Find a nice, bright one.

Use a rear reflector in addition to your taillight. The rear reflector that came with your bike is probably not adequate. Look for something larger, preferably amber, such as an automotive-type reflector. Mount your rear reflector low on your bike, where a motorist's low beams will pick if up from the greatest distance. Use the spoke-mounted reflectors that came with your bike. If your pedals don't have built-in reflectors, use reflective straps on your ankles—it's the law.

Fenders: It's unavoidable that you will commute in the rain from time to time. Full fenders are wonderful when its wet—shorter options aren't nearly as helpful.

Racks and Panniers: If you need to haul clothing and work stuff, you'll need a rack, panniers, a backpack, or a messenger bag. If you're carrying significant weight, you'll be more comfortable and more stable with the weight on your bike rather than your body. Select water-proof materials or put items that you care about in plastic bags.

Tires: For greater stability and comfort, consider something wider than the ultra-skinny tires on most road bikes. Select puncture-resistant tires. Flat tires are no fun under the best of circumstances, and they are the last thing you want when you're trying to get to work or get home for dinner.

Noisemaker: Consider a horn or a bell if your route has lots of pedestrian traffic. Bells are more pedestrian friendly than horns.

Before you leave Home
Set the Alarm: Give yourself adequate time, especially the first few commutes, so that you aren't stressing out about being late if you miss a turn or misjudge the duration of your ride. You may also need time at work to secure your bike, shower and/or change clothing.

Pack your Gear: Bring tools, including pump, spare tube and tire irons to fix a flat. (Puncture-resistant tires are not puncture proof.). Pack work clothes, unless you've pre-positioned them at work. Pack rain gear and warm clothing depending on the season/forecast. Remember, the evening weather may be very different from the morning weather.

Dress for Safety: Wear a high-visibility jersey. Car commuters are focused on getting to work or getting home, and they are not generally watching for cyclists. You'll want to stand out. If your commute is short enough that you can commute in your work clothes, throw on a reflective vest for visibility.

Helmet: Don't forego your helmet just to avoid helmet head. Your co-workers will understand.

Water and Food: Unless your commute is short, bring water or sports drink. You may also want to pack a snack to have at work prior to your return, as a hedge against bonking.

Commutes generally involve much heavier traffic and poorer road conditions than you may be accustomed to, so you may need to adjust your riding style accordingly. Be assertive and occupy the travel lane when it is unsafe for motorists to pass, or when you are traveling at the speed of motor traffic. Get in the proper lane (or lane position) well in advance of a turn—you'll need more time to negotiate position changes when traffic is heavy.

Keep your eyes moving, make eye contact, and think about emergency maneuvers that you may need to execute if someone doesn't see you.

You'll need your ears for safety and your attention on the road. Don't use headphones, and don't answer your cell phone unless you pull off the roadway first.

At Work
If your employer permits it, stash your bike in your cube or office, in an unoccupied cube or office, or a secure storage area. If you need to leave it outside, lock your bike securely to a bike rack or other suitable object (if a bike rack is not available). Don't block sidewalks or exits. If it might rain, secure a plastic bag over your saddle (with a strap or rubber band), or use a shower cap. Leave your lock at work unless you'll need it for stops en route.

Pre-position at work some or all of your work clothes (especially shoes) and showering stuff (if you have access to a shower). If you can't shower, keep a towel at work to wipe off your sweat, and give yourself a few minutes to cool down before changing clothes.

Other Tips
Keep it Fun: If you can, vary your route from time to time to keep in interesting. When the days are long and the weather is nice, consider a longer route home.

Know when to Wimp Out: If the weather is not to your liking or you're otherwise not feeling up to it, take mass transit or fire up the big, iron machine. If you're at work, consider mooching a ride home or calling a cab. Overdoing it could compromise your safety, or lead to commuting burn out.


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