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Cycling 301: more commuting advice | Wired Cola

Cycling 301: more commuting advice

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I just wrote something for Douglas College [teaser here] about riding your bicycle to work. The article offers an introduction to cycling I'm fairly proud of, but there were a few odds and ends that didn't deserve mention in an introductory guide, but which make for a nice appendix, which you get here.

Electric-assist Bikes

I don't always keep track of electric bicycle news, because I don't need one. But good-quality electric bikes are a great solution to long commutes, hilly commutes, or cyclists who aren't unusually strong, or cyclists who just can't arrive sweaty. The only bad news is the cheap electric-bike setups are dismal junk, and the good electric-bike setups start around $1500. Those prices have come down a lot in the last few years, and the makers are rapidly moving to lithium batteries (I'd avoid NiMH and lead-acid systems at this point). Typical e-bikes are either normal bicycles with an electric motor and battery added, or electric scooters with pedals and speed limiters to allow them to qualify as electric-assist bicycles. With most of the scooter-type designs, you're not even supposed to pedal, the pedals are there as a legal fig-leaf.

Folding Bikes

I love folding bikes (and currently own three), even though they're mostly useless, and they're inferior bicycles. The best of them are not bad to ride, but unless you need a folder's special abilities, a full-sized bike is preferable.

Most cars can fit a full-sized bicycle one way or another as long as you take the front wheel off. For those cars that won't fit a bike inside, racks are easy: the cheapest ones are garage-sale fodder, and the most expensive racks are about the price of a decent folding bike.

However, there are some edge-case mixed-mode commutes that can benefit from a folder: if you have a Skytrain leg to your commute that is part of the peak-direction no-bicycles rule, a folding bike will pass muster as a not-bicycle. If your bus routinely has both rack spots filled, the folder might help there too. If you carpool part-way, and can get space for a folding bike in the trunk, that's another useful case.

Folding bikes range from cheap junk to expensive overkill. The most beloved folder is surely Brompton with Bike Friday another well-established name, but Dahon is apparently producing some pretty good stuff at bottom of the nice-folder market. For an MSRP of $489, their Speed D7 is about as cheap as good folders get.

I'm not a fan of novelties like the Strida, because they're not good bicycles, but they do fold into a very convenient package. Large-wheel folding bikes have the opposite problem: they don't fold small enough to be advantageous while commuting. The large-wheel "folding" bikes are mainly meant as baggage-fee avoiders for frequent flyers, and the best of them are pretty much no-compromise bikes, but they are not really folders: they can be broken down into a suitcase-sized package given 10-15 minutes and a few tools.

Clipless Pedal Rain Options

If you're using flat pedals, you have your pick of boots that will fend off a bit of rain or cold. If you use clipless pedals, it's a trickier choice.

Lots of cyclists happily use some form of overboot (neoprene, rubber-coated, or other materials) that zips over a regular cycling shoe. The ones I tried all managed to cut off my circulation at the ankle and left me cold, both literally and metaphorically. I have switched to dedicated winter cycling boots. The Exustar model I got from MEC is adequate for my needs, though the sole is a hard plastic that is slippery on hard surfaces. Buy them big enough to fit a thick sock.

Gear Disclosure

Here's what I normally use and pack on my 12 km commute, which is about 35 minutes of riding:
Early-80s Miyata 210 touring bicycle with 27" wheels, canti brakes, fenders, and rack: I upgraded the rear wheel on this bike to a freehub after breaking the original rear axle. The rear wheel doesn't stay true for long, and I think it's a combo of my abusive riding habits and the inherently spindly nature of 27" wheels. This bike cost me $20 and works well, but I dream of setting up an old rigid MTB as my ideal commuter bike: 26" wheels (so I stop kicking the fender due to toe overlap, and because they're naturally stronger), fat slick tires, decent drivetrain, and a nice tough rack. I'd go with flat bars for my short commutes. This would let me retire the Miyata to a more natural role as a dedicated winter training bike: leave the fenders, remove the rack, stop riding it off curbs with 15 kg of luggage on the rack.

Various clothing: after a decade, I have a huge array of cycling clothing (not to mention four pairs of cycling shoes in regular use, and several other pairs in reserve). On any given day I pick from that mess of clothing to suit the conditions, but my core items are a cycling jersey, cycling shorts (I like bibs, but use both bib shorts and regular shorts), cycling jacket, helmet (I leave blinky lights attached to it over the winter), some sort of thermal skullcap, knee warmers, arm warmers, winter gloves, half-finger gloves, thermal socks, athletic socks, cycling shoes. I use cycling pants/tights a lot, but long knee warmers are more versatile.

Saddlebag: the bag (I usually need just one) is a Garneau, replacing a well-worn Serratus. Everything I describe from here on goes inside that bag. On potentially rainy days, vulnerable items are put in a plastic bag; some bags are rainproof enough to not bother. The Garneau bag comes with a separate rain cover which reduces water intrusion. I pack it in the bag and use it when necessary.

Tools: Crank Brothers Mult17, a compact and elegant tool that has given me years of service. It is the smallest tool I have seen that contains a chain tool, not to mention four(!) sizes of spoke wrench. One of my favorite tools. I recommend you designate your road-repair tool for road use only, so the tool faces don't get worn down by routine use. A non-portable set of tools will be cheaper for at-home use and will work a bit better. Topeak Mini-Morph pump, compact and easy to use. A pair of plastic tire levers: Park is the current one, but Pedro's and others in the past: they wear out after a few uses, and I make sure to keep my newest set in the road repair kit. One spare tube. A patch kit (glue, patches, small piece of sandpaper). A master chain link and a few spare links, I could probably get rid of both. One latex glove, one very small rag, one small adjustable wrench, really only needed for bikes with nutted axles. Of these tools, the pump is left loose, the spare tube is packed in a very small nylon bag, and everything else is in a second small nylon bag (with the smallest bits like the glue, patches, and spare chain links tucked into a patch-kit box). When I ride another bike, I need only grab the two bags and the pump, and I have my complete repair kit. My current saddlebag has a side pocket that conveniently fits all of this stuff.

I carry a very light cable lock, solely for the purpose of locking the bike momentarily if I have to do a quick errand somewhere. I don't consider my commuter bike a theft magnet, and I attach little sentimental value to it, but a light lock stops opportunistic theft.

Personal effects and work stuff: lunch, in a lunch bag. Wallet/phone/keys/cards/screwdriver/money, all in an odd Nike man-purse I have. iPad/papers/Leatherman/headphones/iPad cables, all in a very slim padded laptop bag meant for a 13" laptop. Change of clothes: shirt/underwear/dress socks/pants/belt; no shoes because I leave a pair at work. Bottle of body wash. No towel, because we have towel service at the work showers.

You may notice an obsessive modularity in my packing, with bags inside bags, and sometimes boxes inside bags inside bags. This is an organically-derived coping mechanism for my on bad mental habits: I chronically forget things, so I force myself to be quite rigid about setting out my stuff, charging electronics, and packing my bags. This method also means that if I need to take a car or the bus to work, I only have to grab my three essential bags (lunch, iPad, and man-purse) and all my work necessities are with me. the man-purse survived the recent arrival of the iPad bag because the iPad bag has only one side-pouch, while the man-purse separates out my keys, phone, and everything else in separate sections, making it easy to take stuff out and put stuff back.

Bike Routes, Bike Lanes, Vehicular Cycling, and Suicidal Tendencies

After studying the vehement arguments of enthusiastic advocates for vehicular cycling, I don't think it's the best option for most bicycle commuters. In particular, the hostility of most vehicular cycling advocates to most bike lanes (whether separated routes or painted road shoulders) is probably a mistake, if we want to see more cyclists and fewer car-bike crashes.

The best research on bike usage demonstrates that most cyclists are happier with some sort of dedicated cycling accomodation. In Metro Vancouver, this mostly means designated bike routes, which are mostly shared roads optimized for bicycles. There are a few dedicated bike paths or lanes, and some of those are quite good. If I was asked by a new cyclist to help with route planning, I would steer them towards those routes as much as possible, with some discretion.

Having said that, I happily ignore much of this advice on my own commute. At various points on my usual ride, I avoid parallel bike routes, ride on main roads with the cars, and even routinely ride on the sidewalk for a block. You are owed an explanation.

I can ride at 30 km/h on flat roads for hours. I can sprint to 40 km/h on my loaded commuter without much trouble, and peak out near 50 km/h in a racing sprint. These aren't great numbers by bike-racer standards, but they're far above typical-commuter numbers. 30 km/h on congested city roads is like a magic number: at that point I'm traveling at roughly the same average speed as cars over much of my route, and my interactions with them take on a different character. I don't appear as a barely-moving pylon to cars, and I get a bit more space and attention as a result. This lets me blithely choose some very busy routes that I would not recommend to anyone.

Meanwhile, various parts of the region's bike network are profound rubbish. I take a major road in Port Moody instead of the parallel bike route because the parallel bike route goes over a hump that gains and then loses about 50' of elevation in a single block. That's a ridiculous slope. Similarly, there's a hill I climb in the slow lane, because the bike-designated parallel route manages to be both steeper and longer, as well as having problematic access back to the main route at the top and bottom of the hill.

And the sidewalk-riding? When New Westminster put in a very nice separated bike path alongside Columbia Street a few years ago, there was one block where there was no space between the sidewalk and a retaining wall to put in a bike path. The "solution" was to detour the bike route up a block, across, and down a block, an effective 3-block detour to avoid the rarely-used sidewalk. NOT. My excuse is that I conscientiously yield to pedestrians there, normally by riding onto the grass verge while passing them.

That said, I do use bike paths and bike lanes for much of my route, and there are places where I use parallel roads rather than the busy, shoulder-free main road. My basic calculation is whether or not the parallel route is substantially slower, and whether it is reasonable to ride on the main route (shoulder or no, I'll ride almost anything that's signed at 50 km/h or less, but I'm not wont to take the lane if the maximum speed is 70). Again, I don't think my calculations are necessarily reasonable, and almost certainly not reasonable for most cyclists. But you should ride within your abilities and your confidence.