B. i. k. e ... C . o . m . m . u . t . i . n . g .
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hi Text content is copyright 2001 by Scott R. Chilcote. All Rights reserved.
An orange flag on a whip may look dorky, but bike commuting is cool enough to balance it out. What matters is that the local construction truck drivers will see this fluttering in their field of view, when the rest of you may not be.
I like to put my cargo on the bike rather than on my back. There are also rack-top bags if you want to haul less stuff.
The BikeE "RoadE" recumbent outfitted for Commuting. Here the bags mount low and close for stability. The windshield is optional, but it cuts the wind nicely.
There are two red blinky lights on the bike (one per side), a reflector is on the back of the seat, and yes, that's another blinky on the helmet. The reflective triangle is an attention getter, but on an upright bike a reflective vest does just as well.

Bicycle Commuting in RTP
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


Introduction

Disclaimer

Q0. Why would I want to commute by bicycle?

Q1. Aren't you risking your life riding on local highways?

Q2. I live six (or ten) (or fifteen) miles from where I work. Isn't that too far to ride?

Q3. There's no shower where I work. How can I ride a bike without showering?

Q4. I never have enough time as it is. How can I bicycle to work?

Q5. What kind of bicycle do I need to commute to work?

Q6. What should I take with when I bicycle to work?

Q7. How do I choose the best route to bike to work?

Q8. What do I do if a dog chases me when I'm riding?

Q9. I often have sales meetings where I have to look professional. Is this possible when I bicycle to work?

Q10. What do I do when it rains?

Q11. What do I do if I have a flat tire?

Q12. Can I avoid getting flat tires?

Q13. It's way too hot around here to bike in the Summer, isn't it?

Q14. It's way too cold around here to bike in the Winter, isn't it?

Q15. What sort of preventive maintenance is a good idea for my bike?

Q16. Bicycling stuff is so expensive! How can I get things more economically?

Q17. The rural highways around here are too narrow for bike riding, aren't they?

Q18. How do I prepare for my morning commute?

Q19. Where can I keep my bike at work?

Q20. What do I do after I arrive to be ready for work quickly?

Q21. What do I do before leaving work in the evening?

Q22. What's the big deal about "riding responsibly"?

Q23. I have tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. How do I take it easier on my arms while bicycling?

Q24. A guy I work with complained that bikes should not be on roads because a driver can come around a blind curve and be unable to stop in time to avoid one. What should I tell him?

Q25. Even though I don't have the right of way, a driver has stopped and is waving me across. What do I do now?

Resources

Introduction

I don't claim expertise at bicycle commuting. I commuted to work between Cary and RTP for six years, but mostly in good weather conditions. I rarely rode to work five days in a row. Bad weather, cold weather, having to run errands, and just plain not being prepared are often enough to make me drive my car. To keep in shape, I ride on an indoor trainer on evenings when not commuting. I've also taken up riding a mountain bike on singletrack and local trails.

On the other hand, I have made the trip by bicycle more than a few hundred times, and I feel this gives me useful experience to share. I strongly advocate bike riding as an alternate form of transportation, and I feel that every mile traveled by bike helps us in many ways: the environment, health, recreation, and a sense of community are all improved by cycling.

I have yet to see the kind of information in this FAQ made available for local bicycle commuters; in fact, I've found very little of this kind of info. I'm not out to prove anything here; I just want to encourage more bicycle commuting, and to help those who are already trying it.

Regarding the questions I will attempt to answer in this document, I have heard all of them at one point or another. Usually I got them from coworkers who have been surprised by the sight of a bike in my cubicle, and occasionally even disbelieving.

Disclaimer

Operating any type of vehicle on public or private roads can be dangerous. This applies to bicycle commuting as well. The information I provide here is based on my own experience and the advice I have received from sources I respect. I encourage anyone who decides to ride a bicycle to do so very carefully and to use your best judgement. I will accept no responsibility for any damages resulting from or relating to the information contained in this document. I apologize for belaboring the point to those who understand why this disclaimer must be present.

Q0. Why would I want to commute by bicycle?

Other than the great advantages it provides in terms of health, environment, reducing traffic congestion, improving one's spirits, saving money, and making life more interesting, I can't think of any reason <grin>.

Cycling can provide the full dose of aerobic exercise required each day to greatly reduce the risks of arteriosclerosis and heart disease. Biking to work means that you arrive fully aware, and usually with a positive outlook, as opposed to needing three cups of coffee and the first hour of work to feel human. Cycling saves gas, reduces greenhouse emissions, and means "one less car" in congested traffic situations.

I have found that bicycling makes me feel more aware, interested, and motivated from the moment I arrive at work, compared to driving. When I ride, I sleep better too. Cycling is much more economical than driving, and each mile saved on your car increases its useful lifespan.

I've also found that cycling is an interesting social phenomenon. People at work recognize the bike and stop by to ask questions and share experiences. I've met some very respectable people who bicycle, some of whom are interested in taking longer outings with groups of riders.

Q1. Aren't you risking your life riding on local highways?

People are very quick to assume, based on the relative mass of a car or truck as compared to a bicycle, that cycling on roads is too dangerous.

In fact cycling is fairly safe compared to many other activities. I've been riding on roads for over twenty years and have logged thousands of miles. In that time I've never had an accident that involved a motorized vehicle.

Much of bicycling safety comes from preparation, alertness, being properly equipped, and knowing the correct way to respond to changing traffic conditions. It is not entirely different from driving a car. People who don't bicycle seem to believe that the bike rider is haphazardly balanced on his two wheels, and is likely to flop into the roadway at any moment. This is far from realistic. The physics of the bicycle make it very difficult to topple when it's moving along. A bike commuter who pays attention will see obstacles and avoid them long before they're likely to cause a problem.

There are several ways to minimize the risks when bicycle commuting:

  • choosing a good route that avoids potential hazards
  • wearing the right equipment for protection
  • knowing how to react when threatening situations arise
  • keeping the bike in good condition to avoid mechanical problems
  • paying attention to what you hear as well as what you see

These items are discussed in greater length in the answers to other questions in this document.

Q2. I live six (or ten) (or fifteen) miles from where I work. Isn't that too far to ride?

The answer to this question is very subjective. Most people are capable of bicycling far in excess of ten miles on a regular basis, once they've made the commitment and worked their way up to it. Some bicycle commuters, both men and women, pedal over thirty miles each way to work. Distance comparisons are made regularly in the various rec.bicycles newsgroups on Usenet.

Most people are able to average fifteen miles per hour on a decent bike, even carrying a load, after a few weeks of riding regularly. This is particularly true on the fairly flat terrain we have here in the Piedmont. This puts a ten mile ride at about forty minutes.

Q3. There's no shower where I work. How can I ride a bike without showering?

There are other options to showering. If you need to appear fresh at work, a sponge bath at a sink is the next best option. Keep in mind that unlike other physical activity, you can control your level of exertion on a bicycle. This need only be done on the morning ride, since your own shower is available after the ride home. Take it easy on the morning commute, and remember, even warm Summer days usually start out in the low seventies. Cycling creates a breeze and will help you feel cooler than most other forms of exercise. After arriving at work, pedal around the parking lot for a few minutes and let the breeze cool you off.

Keep a towel, some deodorant, hair spritz, whatever you need at your desk. A very useful item is a small fan! As soon as you get to work, sit down and let the fan blow for a few minutes, and arrange things so that no one wants to start business during these valuable moments. Reading email or checking voicemail can make this time productive. Once you've cooled down a bit, it's much easier to clean up and look professional.

Q4. I never have enough time as it is. How can I bicycle to work?

Some regular bike commuters claim that cycling takes them less time than driving a car. The amount of time you will need by comparison depends on several factors. Do you spend a lot of time waiting on traffic? If so, a well selected bicycle route can keep you moving, and save time. Do you spend time getting aerobic exercise every week? You bike commute will provide this for you, so that's more time you can save.

Regular exercise imparts other benefits that improve the quality of life, which can reduce the hectic, anxious feelings that professionals often have. Even if commuting by bicycle uses a bit more time, the advantages make it worth the inconvenience.

Being organized will also help your commute go faster. Cycle commuters learn to have most of what they need ready before going to bed the night before they ride. They check the weather, make lunch, and select their clothing so that everything will be ready when they head out in the AM.

Q5. What kind of bicycle do I need to commute to work?

The answer to this one is fairly general. Any bicycle that is well maintained, and that you enjoy riding will do the job. If you have a decent mountain bike, road bike, or touring bike, what matters most is that you feel comfortable while riding it. Coming close behind that is your ability to outfit the bike for riding safely in traffic.

Take the following into consideration:

  • the bike should fit you. This not only means that the frame size is correct, but the seat height and handlebar height must be correctly adjusted to avoid fatigue and muscle problems.
  • Good tires and tubes. Taking an old, unused bike out of a shed or garage is likely to result in flat tires. Getting used to bike commuting is enough to do without the extra hassle.
  • If you have to go up several hills, a lighter bike with a wide range of gearing will serve you better. This does not automatically mean that you need a mountain bike - cheap mountain bikes can be very heavy! Even turning a very low gear can be a lot of work if the bike weighs too much.
  • If you plan to ride in the dark, or even at dawn or dusk, you need good headlights. Bike shops offer seriously powerful lights nowadays, and they last longer and shine brighter than older types.
  • A rack and a pair of light panniers are very worthwhile if you intend to commute regularly. You can bring a change of clothes, a snack, a few tools, flat tire repair kit, a rain or wind suit if needed, and stow your keys, wallet, etc. in a convenient pocket. A backpack will serve for a while but it can be uncomfortable, especially on warm days.

The cheapest department store bikes are unsatisfactory for several reasons. Foremost is that some of them have bolted-on wheels rather than quick release hubs. Fixing a tire on these is strenuous and wasteful of time. These bikes also have steel rims instead of aluminum alloy, making them heavier and harder to stop (especially in the rain). If you're going to give bike commuting a serious try, get your hands on a serious bicycle.

One Solution:

Click picture for a larger image.

I assembled this commuting road bike when I had a 16 mile commute into RTP for a year or so. I started out with an older but reasonably lightweight frame, and added:

  • Plastic fenders
  • Alloy Cargo Rack
  • "Day" Pannier Bags
  • Blinky Light and Separate Reflector on Back
  • Small repair kit with tube, patches, and tools in seat bag strapped to rack
  • Two water bottle cages with 16 oz. bottles
  • Orange whip-mounted flag in "holster" made from a wooden dowel with a hole drilled in one end

This bike was reasonably light, perhaps 26 lb. with full kit. It has a steel frame and fairly light alloy wheels. I outfitted it with kevlar tires, and rode it for more than a year this way without getting a flat.

Q6. What should I take with when I bicycle to work?

This is an important question. The temptation to take as much as possible is there, perhaps because most people who drive to work have not had to be concerned about how much they're carrying. After you've cranked your machine up a few hills of any length, you'll be looking for ways to lighten your load.

I recommend:

  • a water bottle - 16 oz., two bottles if you go more than ten miles
  • a patch kit - the glueless variety are very small & light; take two (the kind that use glue dry out after a year or two, and are more of a hassle to use)
  • tire levers (plastic is lighter and less likely to cause a pinch flat)
  • a frame pump - a standard frame pump works much better than a mini-pump
  • work clothes - but leave whatever you can at work, such as shoes & belt
  • detachable bike light - in case you get delayed coming home

Q7. How do I choose the best route to bike to work?

There are several good reasons to choose your route carefully. I recommend selecting a longer route if it minimizes traffic and unsafe intersections. Avoid two lane left turns if possible, especially if there's no traffic light.

The fewer cars and trucks you have to deal with, the better off you are. One of the most common discussions I get into at work is where a coworker who drove in had to deal with an "annoying" cyclist. When you commute by bike, people bring their complaints your way. Staying off major roads wherever possible will help keep the peace.

Get a good map that shows the roads from where you live to where you work. Look for rural roads that parallel the major roads that go from your home to your workplace. Determine several possible routes if you can, within mileage constraints.

Next, drive each of these routes (if you have a car) when traveling to work. Take a cyclist's perspective. Are there any shoulders on the road worth considering? Is there a bunch of traffic? Do large trucks pass frequently? Is there a lot of loose dirt or gravel? Is the traffic speeding a lot? Are there sharp curves that would hide you from view? Are there any "Share the Road" bicycle signs? Are any dogs walking around? Do children play in the street? Is there road construction going on? Do other cyclists use this road? Do they look healthy or scared? <grin>

If a road has only one or two small problem areas, don't rule it out. Safe riding and the proper equipment will help you get through a difficult spot or two. If you're not certain, the next step I describe will help. This is to pick some low traffic times, such as after work or on a weekend, and ride your bike on the routes that look the most promising. If significant stretches of the road seem unsafe or extremely busy, it's time to look at alternatives.

As an example, I've used an odd assortment of roads to get from Cary to RTP. Logically Route 54 (Chapel Hill Road) would be ideal. It goes almost directly between the two locations, and in fact I see cyclists on it rather often. On the downside, it has nearly constant traffic all the way, and is very busy in Morrisville. From Airport Boulevard to RTP there are large trucks every morning, going in both directions. It has almost no shoulders for most of its length, and there are often trees right up to the side of the road.

I find it much easier to take Maynard Road to Evans in north Cary, and follow it all the way to Aviation Parkway. I then take Aviation south to Church road in Morrisville, which parallels 54 most of the way to RTP and is not a truck route. It's a short trip on 54 from there to RTP, or I can follow McCrimmon to Davis Drive.

This isn't an ideal route because there are still almost no shoulders (except on Davis), and a fair amount of traffic has developed even on these tertiary roads. Careful, confident riding and good safety equipment makes up for these problems.

Q8. What do I do if a dog chases me when I'm riding?

In spite of how rarely this occurs, I get asked this question fairly often. It's a very popular topic in rec.bicycles.misc. I've been chased by a dog only once since I started riding here. It lost interest and stopped chasing soon after it got over the surprise of seeing me. This was in Morrisville, where I have seen a couple of dogs walking around loose from time to time.

Some of the suggestions I have seen:

  • bring a small can of pepper spray
  • bring a can of halt ("mace" is not as effective on dogs)
  • dismount your bike, and keep the bike between you and the dog until it loses interest (back away and call for help if it doesn't)
  • don't look the dog in the eye (this is supposed to challenge the animal)
  • squirt the dog with your bottle (questionable!)
  • if you're reasonably fast and not riding uphill, outrun the animal
  • do not attempt to run over the dog - even a small dog will cause you to crash
  • never provoke a dog; the owner may be watching
  • if the dog chases you on a busy road, worry about cars first, dog second (besides, a car may take care of the dog for you)
  • brandish your tire pump threateningly; one good whack will ruin the pump, so make it worthwhile
  • If there are cars approaching, time your pace if possible so that the cars pass between you and the dog (difficult, but helped once)

Frightening though this problem may seem, it does not need to be a major concern. A curious or surprised dog may follow you briefly, then turn away. Dogs protecting their territory are the most dangerous, so plan your route to avoid them. A polite notification to the owner may eliminate the nuisance.

Remember that a dog bite cannot be ignored. If it happens, do your best to find out where the dog lives and contact the police. The animal may need to be tested for Rabies and quarantined. If it isn't infected, you may be able to ensure that steps are taken to keep the dog from being a hazard for other cyclists and pedestrians.

Q9. I often have sales meetings where I have to look professional. Is this possible when I bicycle to work?

Looking formal is not usually a problem. If you have a shower at work you're very lucky. There's more about looking neat after riding in the answer to Q3 above.

You can bring formal clothes to work each day without any problem. I lay my workpants flat and roll them up loosely, starting with the cuffs. This keeps them from wrinkling. Wrinkle free cotton slacks are a great invention. As previously mentioned, you can keep shoes, belts, and even a selection of ties in a desk or file drawer so they don't have to travel on your bike.

If you have to look fresh for a meeting that starts very early, it's a close call. Diehard cycle commuters would ridicule the notion, but I'd probably drive in this case. Being ready for a presentation can be enough of a challenge without dealing with the logistics of riding.

It's a judgement call. If gas ever becomes expensive or scarce enough, perhaps our bosses will be less likely to impose such demands.

Q10. What do I do when it rains?

Willingness to put up with showers when riding is a matter of personal taste and dedication. Whether you mind riding in the rain or not, it's a good idea to listen to the weather forecast the evening before. In this area you can hear the weather if you call 515-8225. If there's more than a small chance of rain, you need to make a decision.

"Real" bicycle commuters scoff at letting rain come between them and their bicycles. Bike shops sell custom bicycle rain suits made of Goretex that do a good job of keeping the water out. There are plastic covers that can be put on helmets and bike shoes to keep your head and feet dry. I tried a plastic hairnet on my helmet once, but it didn't work very well. It was a windy day, and it would only stay attached for a few minutes at a time.

Riding in the rain requires more preparation. Roads can be very slippery, especially right after the rain begins. This raises a thin layer of oil and can make turning hazardous.

Perhaps the biggest difference for a cyclist is that rain dramatically raises braking distance. If you allow no more than the usual amount of stopping distance, you may find yourself well into an intersection before the bike will stop. Heavy rain, coats the braking surface between the rim and the rubber brake shoes. It takes a full rotation of the wheel after you apply the brakes to sweep the water from the rim before significant stopping occurs. This means you have to start braking at least seven feet sooner than usual - and even then, the water makes your brakes less efficient.

Take into account that some surfaces become extra slippery when they get wet. In particular, painted pavement such as crosswalks, metal surfaces like manhole covers and grates, and the shiny tar that's sometimes used in road repair. I once had my wheels slide out when I turned slightly while riding across a recently painted crosswalk in the rain. Fortunately I was not moving very fast and was able to land on my feet.

In addition, a wet bike requires more maintenance. After riding in rain the bike should be dried off, and its chain should be cleaned and lubricated. There are tools sold at bike shops that make chain cleaning more convenient. The brake and derailleur cables should be oiled too, because this is another place where rust can form.

Water and grit can eventually penetrate the bearings of the pedals, bottom bracket, wheel hubs, and headset. This is less true for factory sealed bearings, but I still recommend regular maintenance. Those who ride frequently will want to clean and re-grease their bearings two to four times a year to protect them.

Q11. What do I do if I have a flat tire?

Repair it! This really isn't very difficult. It's a chore, it takes a bit of time, but at its worst it is an inconvenience. The tools to fix a flat are inexpensive and lightweight. You need the following:

  • a patch kit - check out the glueless variety (Park makes them)
  • a spare inner tube - in case it's a big tear, or your valve breaks
  • a decent frame pump - as mentioned, avoid the mini pumps
  • a plastic or aluminum "tire iron", or two if you have weak wrists
  • for rare occasions, a plastic patch made to fix major tire damage (or even a couple of squares cut from a 2 liter soda bottle)

One thing that will help is to get a good idea of what your tire feels like when it's full of air. If you use pump with a pressure gauge to inflate your tire at home, grab the tire and pinch it across the sidewall. When you're on the road, having a good sense of when the tire is full makes it easier to get along without a tire gauge.

Most decent books have sections devoted to repairing a flat tire, replete with photographs and handy tips. Reading one of these, or actually watching an experienced rider fix a flat will give the best results. Here's how I do the job. This assumes a clincher tire; I've never been brave enough to commute on tubulars!

  1. Make sure the tire is completely empty of air. This will allow it to get through the brakes more easily when you remove the wheel. If you have a presta valve, unscrew the end of the valve so that air can escape during handling. If you have a schrader valve (like a car tire), depress the center pin using the end of an allen wrench or screwdriver, and press the tire flat against the rim with your other hand in order to get all of the air out.

  2. Remove the wheel. Quick release hubs really help; otherwise you'll need a wrench.

  3. Pry the bead on one side of the tire away from the rim. This works best at the point furthest from the valve. This is best done by hand, since a tool may pinch the inner tube against the metal rim and cause more holes.

  4. If the tire is stuck to the rim, pinch it together with your fingers a few inches along its whole length through one rotation of the wheel. Grasp the tire with both hands if necessary, and twist it forward over the edge of the rim. Be ready to grab the wheel in case it pops completely free.

  5. Now it's time to determine the severity of the flat. If you're in a major hurry and aren't worried about more flats, use a spare tube. Otherwise, it takes a little longer to patch the tube (unless the hole is large). If there is more than one small hole, or there's a long tear, a replacement tube is mandated.

  6. If the flat happened after riding over railroad tracks or a rock in the road, there will probably be two holes, one on each side of the tube where the rim was mashed against it. If you're lucky, you'll be able to cover both holes with one patch. If it isn't obvious where the flat occurred, it helps to pump some air into the tube and rotate it past your ear and face slowly. You can feel the cool air escaping against your cheek or arm when the hole is nearby. If the tube deflates instantly as you pump, the hole is large and will probably be visible.

  7. If you're not sure if a patch will cover the hole, take the largest patch and hold it over the hole on the tube. If it doesn't extend past the hole at least a quarter of an inch, it isn't likely to hold. If the hole is at the base of the valve, a patch won't work. Time to use the spare. Another consideration is how patched the tube is already. If there are a couple of patches on the tube already, it won't be reliable. Use it only if you don't have a spare tube. Follow the instructions for your patch kit and cover the hole.

  8. Before installing, look at the inside of the tire. If there's a significant hole or a tear, put an additional patch on the inside of the tire to cover it. If the tire is structurally damaged, use a heavier plastic patch as described earlier, or a piece of old inner tube. Be careful not to get any patch material near the bead of the tire (where it attaches to the rim), as this will cause an instant blowout. If you have rubber cement from an old style patch kit, this can be used to keep a temporary patch in place.

  9. Put one side of the tire's bead back on the rim. Press the valve of the inner tube into its hole in the rim, then slide the inner tube loosely into the tire all the way around. Putting a small amount of air in the tube at this point will make it easier to hold in place, but not so much that it won't fit easily. Starting near the valve, begin pushing the other bead of the tire into the rim.

  10. It is usually possible to work the entire tire back onto the rim without resorting to tools, if it done using persistence and care. This is the best way, since even a plastic tool stands a chance of pinching the inner tube against the metal rim hard enough to cause a hole. Holding the wheel with the part remaining to install on the far side, grip the bead of the tire with your fingertips and pry at the edges up and towards yourself. If all goes well, the tube will stay inside the tire, and the bead will pop completely onto the rim. If your tire is stubborn and won't budge, place your (plastic) tool very carefully. Make sure the tube is not in the way before prying. If possible, use the tool to lock the bead in the rim at one end while using your bare hand to pry the tire with the other hand.

  11. When the tire is fully installed, grasp the valve and press it down so that it slips past the bead of the tire within the rim. You should feel a bit of resistance before it gets past. Catching the base of the valve between the tire bead and the rim is a sure way to have a blowout (where the inner tube slips out of the tire and explodes).

  12. Inflate the tube a little bit to make it slightly firm inside the tire. Now, pinch the tire every couple of inches to allow any bit of trapped inner tube to pop back inside the tire.

  13. Rotate the wheel slowly and examine the relationship between the sidewall and the rim. Look for gaps, bulges, or unevenness. Anywhere (on either side) that the bead may not be seated within the rim must be corrected. To do this, release the air in the tube, and squeeze the tire away from the rim where the suspected problem was located. Look to see if the inner tube is visible between the tire and the rim. If it is, reach down and push the tube inside the tire. Twist the tire if necessary to get the tube inside. When finished, put a bit of air back in the tire and inspect it again.

  14. When the tube and tire have been installed correctly, begin inflating. It will take a lot of effort with the frame pump to get the tire up to pressure. Examine the tire a couple of times to make sure the bead remains seated. When it feels fully inflated, disconnect the pump and check the bead again. If it looks like it isn't seated properly at any location, immediately deflate the tire and fix the problem. Otherwise, it's worth a moments trouble to rotate the wheel slowly past your ear and listen for leaks.

  15. Install the wheel, put your tools away, pack up any waste material and move on. If you plan to ride the next day, it will help to check the tire before the next morning and make sure it's keeping its pressure. Even if this is the case, it's also a good idea to use a pump with a gauge to verify that it has the right amount of air.

This may seem like a lot to do, but once you've been through it a few times, it can be done fairly quickly. It takes me between ten and fifteen minutes.

Q12. Can I avoid getting flat tires?

I'm glad you asked! Most flat tires can be prevented by good planning, and by keeping your eyes on the road ahead.

The number one flat preventer is keeping your tires properly inflated. Riding in insufficiently inflated tires only works until you encounter a pothole, rock, railroad track, or tree branch. What happens then is frequently called a "snakebite" flat, because it puts matching holes on either side of your inner tube where it is squashed between the tire and the rim. If you have butyl rubber tubes (black in color) check their pressure every two to three days. If you have latex tubes - the white rubber of surgical glove fame - check the pressure before every trip. These lose air fast.

If you still get a lot of flats, which for me is more than one a season, consider upgrading your tires. Kevlar tires can be had for less than $30 apiece. Check with your local bike shop, or an online retailer such as Performance Bicycle Shop, Bike Nashbar, or Supergo. I've been using the same kevlar tires for a year now, and have not had a single flat.

The second best thing you can do to avoid flats is to learn how to rise up out of the saddle briefly, and absorb the road shock with your legs when you can't avoid an obstacle such as a pothole or a patch. This is called "unweighting the bike". Small bumps will be much less likely to cause flats if you take the pressure off your tires.

Learn to cross railroad tracks properly. This not only avoids flats, but will also prevent a nasty crash. If you encounter tracks you haven't been over before, make sure it's possible to cross them safely first. Some rail beds are so eroded or poorly designed that it's risky to make the attempt. Most can be crossed safely. The essential point is to cross as close to perpendicular to the tracks as possible.

If the tracks cross the road at an angle, make sure the road is clear enough to let you move towards the center before the tracks. Aim your bike at 90 degrees to the tracks, develop enough momentum to roll across, and rise out of the saddle before going over them. Once across, move back to the right and watch for gravel or other debris.

Crossing potholes and road patches requires judgement too. So does riding across a patch of gravel. Avoid turning on hazardous pavement whenever possible. Do your best to avoid using your brakes too, as you're more likely to skid. It's no shame to dismount and carry your bike over a dangerous looking stretch. It's not chickening out if it saves you or your bike from damage - it's just smart.

 

Q13. It's way too hot around here to bike in the Summer, isn't it?

People where I've worked have been quite surprised when I bicycled in on some of the hottest Summer days. People who commute by bike learn the secrets that make this easier than it looks. One of them is that at eight in the morning, it's usually no warmer than the low seventies even in August. It may be hotter than this when you ride home in the evening, but you don't have to look your best when you arrive at home. It's only on the trip to work that staying cool is really important.

There's also the fact that you are creating your own breeze most of the time. This is a considerable advantage to cycling; you may slow down when climbing a hill, and feel the heat, but then you get to ride down the other side.

Moving along at 15 miles per hour or better moves a lot of air past your body, and on all but the most humid days there's a natural cooling affect. You need to bring plenty of water, and you can regulate your speed so you don't have to work harder than you need to. If there's an extended uphill stretch, prepare accordingly. Fortunately there aren't very many of these in the NC Peidmont!

It's important to have enough water. An age old saying in bicycling lore is "Drink before you get thirsty, and eat before you get hungry". Cycling experience will help you determine how much water you need. I have two 18 oz. water bottles on my bike, and come close to finishing both of them on a fifteen mile ride in the Summer. It may be more weight to haul, but having enough water comes first as a concern when it's hot outside.

There's no need to overtax yourself, either. Some find it tempting to go "full out" all the time, but when it's hot and you're headed for work, it pays to take it easier than you would on a training ride.

It's important to wear light clothing, of course. You don't have to buy a jersey with fishnet webbing under the arms, but it does make those downhill stretches feel cooler. I'm nearly as comfortable in a cotton tee shirt. Having real bicycling shorts, made from some sort of moisture wicking material is more important.

During downhills, you can lift out of the saddle and take advantage of the cooling breeze. Trust me, you don't want to get sweaty underneath and ride that way for very long. Staying cool is not that hard to do, and will keep you riding comfortably much longer.

I've seen male riders go bare chested in the Summer, perhaps to tan their hides. You'll stay cooler in a light colored jersey of the right material. The reason is that sweat will be wicked away faster than it will evaporate, especially in humid weather. The same goes for those tank top shirts that leave most of your back and arms exposed. Getting too much sun is no longer a good idea. Why ride a bike for good health and then risk skin cancer?

Q14. It's way too cold around here to bike in the Winter, isn't it?

Another judgement call. There are bicyclists in Alaska and Canada that brag about how they ride to work at any time of year. There's people who make studded tires for riding on ice and snow, and some who have powerful headlights for riding when it gets dark earlier in the day. If you browse bicycling catalogs, you'll find plenty of gear designed to assist in making cold weather riding possible. There are thermal tights for keeping warm, insulated helmet covers, "booties" for keeping rain and snow out of your cycling shoes, clip-on fenders to keep the slush off your back, and dozens of other innovations.

My personal experience is that I have to be much more careful to ride in cold weather, to stay warm, deal with slippery surfaces, and stay safe in near darkness. The preparation required takes longer, and the extra clothing and equipment makes more to haul.

During the Winter I drive a car more often and bicycle recreationally, but there are many who'd say I'm wussing out (and deservedly so). I suggest keeping an open mind, and giving it a try if it seems worthwhile. One advantage is that you're less likely to be sweaty when you arrive. Another is that the traffic in the Triangle area seems worse in the Fall and Winter during the school year. You can avoid sitting in more traffic.

I have less Winter commuting experience to share, but here's a little of what I've learned. One saying that applies is "Ride into the Winter, ride through the Winter." If you keep riding during November and December, you'll be fit and fast when warmer weather arrives. Adapting your body gradually to cold weather is much more effective than confronting it suddenly.

Another suggestion is to wear layers of lighter clothing rather than heavy garments. The reason for this is as you ride, your body will generate more heat of its own. It's much easier to remove a light outer garment than a heavy coat if you start feeling too warm.

If you aren't used to it, a day that starts off feeling cold and blustery can quickly change to feeling a lot warmer when you've cycled a few miles.

I've found sunglasses, warm gloves, and warm socks to be essential. Sunglasses not only help block out glare, but they keep cold wind from stinging the eyes. My hands don't sweat a lot in the Winter, and they're the first things to feel cold on a long, windy downhill stretch. That's where Winter cycling gloves really help. Resist the urge to use gloves that haven't been made for cycling. Bicycling gloves are built to allow your fingers to curve around the handlebar without bunching up at the joints, which reduces blood flow to the fingers.

A scarf can be valuable in seriously cold weather. I've had to ride in temperatures below freezing, and it's useful to wrap the scarf around my lower face and breathe through it until I've warmed up. Really cold air can make my throat feel burned when I'm breathing hard.

Bicycling Magazine usually runs an article or two in the fall on how to prepare for riding in cold weather. Visit their web site, or a library to find a convenient stack of back issues.

 

Q15. What sort of preventive maintenance is a good idea for my bike?

This is an area where experts have written oodles of information. Every book and magazine on bikes has a checklist somewhere, so I'll keep this brief.

    Frequently (at least every other ride):

  • check tire pressure
  • look for tire problems, such as a slipped bead or abraded sidewall
  • Weekly:

  • Check brake adjustment/alignment
  • Check for binding or looseness in headset bearings
  • Check derailleur operation, and fine-tune adjustment if necessary
  • Monthly:

  • Clean and lubricate the chain
  • Lubricate exposed brake & derailleur cables
  • Lubricate moving parts on derailleurs and brake mechanisms
  • (be careful not to get oil on your tires)
  • Check tire wear and replace tire(s) if necessary
  • Every Riding Season:

  • Check cassette gear teeth and chainrings for excessive wear
  • Check chain wear (for this, get an inexpensive chain gauge at a local shop)
  • Annually:

  • Overhaul bike, including cleaning and lubricating all non-sealed bearings
  • Replace chain, worn out cassettes, and worn out chainrings
  • Remove and examine cables and housings, replace worn or rusted parts
  • Replace worn brake shoes (less than ΒΌ" exposed rubber left)
  • Check tires for excessive wear or cracks, replace as needed
  • Examine frame for rust or dents, sand, prime and paint if required
  • Remove handlebars and seatpost, spray lubricant into tubes

Remember to put a bit of grease on the seatpost so it won't get stuck (unless it's made of carbon).

Q16. Bicycling stuff is so expensive! How can I get things more economically?

Don't get me started. I've been looking at high end road bicycling equipment since the late seventies, and the stuff still seems sky high. To make matters worse, the marketeers have gotten their hands on everything, and you can't tell the hype from what's useful without sifting through the buzzwords.

On the other hand, there are some very good bicycle shops in the Triangle, and a nationally recognized mail order supplier. These people have to make a living just like the rest of us. It's likely that more people have complained about the costs associated with my own profession (software development) than with theirs. Even so, the component lines that used to be slightly painful to pay for now seem stratospheric. I used to imagine ordering a custom road frame made to my specifications, and hand picking every component. At current prices, this would run upwards of five thousand dollars. And that's just for competition hardware, not top end. And you know, a lot of it doesn't have the jewelery-like finish it had twenty years ago.

Getting decent bicycle clothing without paying through the nose is my biggest challenge. There seems to be no such thing as a basic, practical line of bike clothing that isn't chasing some dubiously ramped up notion of style and technology. I don't need technicolor amphibians or freeriding skeletons on my jersey; I just want it to be visible to construction truck drivers. My shorts don't have to cling like semi-gloss latex, either. They just need to have a decent chamois, be breathable, and I'd love it if they had pockets for keys and a wallet.

I've never taken the bicycle clothing market seriously; the technologies, designs, and styles change every year. If you can afford to chase the curve, you have my blessing. I usually don't order this stuff from catalogs because I have to try it on. Sizes are never consistent in my experience, even with the same manufacturer. Performance in Chapel Hill runs a sale on clothing a few times a year. Many bike shops have discount racks and tables, and I'm never ashamed to look them over. Spending close to $100 for an article of clothing that stands a chance of being grease stained or torn within a couple of years bugs me.

Q17. The rural highways around here are too narrow for bike riding, aren't they?

Not really. They are too narrow for the preferred method of riding, where you can confidently take up the right side of the lane and still have enough room for vehicles to easily pass you. On the other hand, you can't usually ride on the shoulder of a road that has enough room anyway. This is where gravel, dust, and debris collects. It is not even legal, since NC law says you must ride in the lane, but as far to the right as conditions allow.

The real problem with having no shoulders on our two lane rural highways is that there's no way to conveniently make room for vehicles that absolutely must pass you immediately, which is most of them. I don't recommend causing such drivers to wait, either; particularly the large number of industrial trucks we have on Triangle roads.

I use my helmet mirror to spot when such vehicles are approaching from behind, and make sure they have enough room to pass by checking the oncoming traffic. If it looks like there's going to be a squeeze I can't avoid, I'll slow down and look for somewhere to pull over. Depending on the amount of time and the conditions, this may even mean riding into a gravel driveway or a grassy, flat area. Why take risks? I value my life, and if it means bouncing over a bit of rough ground I'll make room.

We really have no alternative to these narrow roads. Yes, you can ride in the center of the lane, and make drivers wait behind you, fuming and gesturing. A lot of riders do it, and have impressive justifications. Each of us have to decide what we're willing to put up with. I'm willing to suffer the inconvenience in order to reduce the disruption I cause to drivers. These are some of the same people I work with, and I get to hear their comments - not just on myself, but on all other riders. I've learned that keeping the peace is the most successful approach. I still hear the gabble at work, but I can at least reply along the lines of "Sorry you had to put up with that. I'd never think of riding that way!"

 

Q18. How do I prepare for my morning commute?

Start the previous evening. Check the weather report, and plan what you will wear. If you're taking work clothes, lay them out. I don't recommend packing them until just before you leave, in order to keep them as wrinkle free as possible. If you noticed any problems with your bike on the last outing, now's the time to take care of it. Did you bounce through a big pothole? Give those tires a squeeze.

As for packing, I keep a card on my dresser that has a list of all of the things I need. After arriving to work once without my access card for the building, and another time without the keys to my desk, I always go through my checklist. If you commute every day it's easier to remember what you need, but if you switch back and forth between bike and car it's more of a challenge.

I use a pair of panniers on my bike instead of a backpack, because it's more comfortable, cooler, and the price difference isn't that much. I pack my clothes by rolling them up and putting them in a plastic bag, secured by a twist tie. This keeps them from getting wet if I happen to get caught in the rain.

Just before leaving, I:

  • Rinse and fill the water bottles
  • Check the air pressure in the tires
  • Put helmet and gloves on
  • Put a reflective vest on
  • Turn on blinking taillight

Be sure to pay attention to how your bike is working in the first several pedal strokes. If you notice any problems, take care of them before getting too far from home.

Q19. Where can I keep my bike at work?

This depends on several things. How valuable is your bike? How safe would it be outdoors? Is there anywhere convenient it could be kept indoors? Is there a location where you can keep an eye on it?

There are actually places in the US that have secure bicycle racks, or even (gasp) fully enclosed bicycle lockers to keep your machine safe. If there is such a place in the NC Triangle, I haven't heard of it.

People who don't have to ride far and can ride a basic, unadorned bike may feel comfortable leaving it secured with a lock outdoors. I know a couple of occasional riders where I work who feel this is fine. I have needed better equipment in order to make a twenty seven mile round trip, so I didn't want to trust leaving my bike outdoors. I've seen too many good bikes locked outside that had wheels, seats, and other components stolen to put up with the risk. Even if nothing is taken, it doesn't take a vandal very long to empty a tire or cause other damage.

My last office environment had cubicles of the standard eight by six variety. I carried my bicycle inside and stashed it in my cube while I worked. I didn't request specific permission to do this, but no one complained. It helps if the bike is reasonably clean, so you can't be accused of getting grease on the furniture.

Another option is to find a location that has enough room and is reasonably secure, and ask if you can put your bike there. When I attended a local college, I befriended a technician who was a fan of bicycling. He offered me a spot for my bike in his office area, and I was able to keep my bike there when I biked to school. It may take some creativity, but there's usually a place to keep your bike secure at work if you look hard enough.

Lastly, if you don't mind a bit of activism, petition your company to put in a secure bike rack or allow a storeroom to be used for indoor parking. I tried this at one employer with mixed results; they placed an unsecured bike rack in an empty parking space. I never used it because the whole thing could have been lifted and placed in the bed of a pickup truck.

Q20. What do I do after I arrive to be ready for work quickly?

The best way, of course, is to take a quick shower, change, and there you are. Unfortunately few businesses provide showers. My approach is to:

  1. Cool down. I sit at my desk with a small fan running for five to ten minutes before I change.
  2. Have the right toiletries available. Antiperspirant, hairspray, a brush, comb, and a small towel are very useful.
  3. Have a place to change. An unused conference room without windows works, if you don't have an office to hide in.

After you cool, grab your stuff, change, clean up as well as possible, and if you still feel hot, keep the fan running for a while. With a little practice, people will start asking you where you found a place to shower.

Q21. What do I do before leaving work in the evening?

Nothing unusual. Refill your water bottles for the return trip. Change clothes for riding again, and check your bike tires. Put away any items you leave at work (shoes, belt, etc.) and pack the rest. If the weather forecast is uncertain or it's late enough to get dark, prepare accordingly. Be sure to pack essential items such as keys, wallet, and your ID badge.

Q22. What's the big deal about "riding responsibly"?

I harp on this point, I'll admit. It's a matter of personal taste, but riding carefully and limiting disturbing traffic will help make bicycle commuting seem safe and attract new riders. Blocking drivers unnecessarily and riding recklessly not only turns people away from considering bicycle commuting, it can come back to haunt you later. One of those offended drivers might just be someone you work with - or for. What it ultimately comes to is the Golden Rule. I find that the more I ride, the more relaxed and tolerant I become.

Q23. I have tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. How do I take it easier on my arms while bicycling?

There's a totally different way to bicycle for people who don't mind a different looking, attention getting human powered vehicle. It's called the Recumbent Bicycle, and their popularity as an alternative to conventional bicycles has steadily grown for the last fifteen years or so. A recumbent offers several advantages as a choice for bicycle commuting:

  • Upright, "lawn chair" riding position with an easy view of surroundings
  • Considerably improved comfort with a much wider seat and back support
  • Depending on the design, can be faster than a conventional bicycle, especially on level ground or downhill
  • A much wider variety of designs are available, including short wheelbase (SWB), long wheelbase (LWB), and compact long wheelbase (CLWB), with handlebars below the seat on either side (US) or above the seat (AS)
  • Still more design variations include recumbent tricycles with the center wheel in the front or in the back (tadpole), recumbent "trucks" with built-in cargo containers, very fast "low rider" designs with fully reclined seating positions, and front drive models where the pedals turn the front wheel
  • Takes the weight of supporting your upper body off your arms, making bicycling possible for those with overuse injuries in their arms
  • Did I mention comfort? Imagine riding for hours without discomfort in the neck, lower back, and seat; recumbent riders regularly discuss getting off the bike after a century ride (100 miles) with no aches beyond feeling a bit winded
  • Recumbents are highly customizable with clear plastic fairings, fittings for bags and other accessories, full-surround fairings, and tailboxes
  • Drivers tend to notice recumbent bikes more because they're unusual, which may improve safety

To be fair, there are also some potential disadvantages:

  • Recumbent bikes are typically heavier than conventional bikes, which can make them slower on uphill stretches
  • Since the market for recumbents is smaller, they tend to cost more than conventional bikes of similar quality (this difference has grown smaller recently and has almost disappeared at the lower levels)
  • Riding a recumbent differs significantly from conventional bikes and requires re-learning some riding skills
  • Riding a recumbent also uses a slightly different muscles, so even an experienced bicyclist will have to build strength to achieve full proficiency
  • Most recumbents put you closer to the ground than upright bicycles, which means you may have less time to react during loss of control
  • A small percentage of recumbent cyclists have discomfort in their feet or their behinds; this can be eliminated in nearly all cases by either adjusting the bike or changing to a different recumbent design
  • Recumbents are still slightly behind in the quality of their mechanisms and finishes, but have narrowed the gap recently (and are even being made by major brands)

I have a recumbent bicycle that I've used for commuting to work in RTP; in the Winter, I put it on a mag trainer in order to get exercise in comfort while watching television. I've been very pleased with its performance for both purposes.

Because I work at computer keyboards all day, my arms had begun to ache, and it was becoming noticeable when I rode with my hands on the drops on my road bike. Riding my CLWB recumbent eliminated the discomfort.

Another problem that bothers me occasionally on a road bike is neck strain. The forward riding position puts my neck through a sharp angle in order for me to look forward. Over a long ride, and with the additional weight of a helmet on my head, my neck starts to ache. This is eliminated in recumbent riding as well. Some recumbents (or their riders) have such a reclined riding position that you have to bend your head in the opposite direction - forward - in order to watch the road. I prefer a more neutral position, and my recumbent makes this easy to arrange.

The unusualness of a recumbent can lead to unusual situations. I've had a couple of drivers stop nearby and try to get me to stop and discuss the bike with them. I had a group of school children run into the street calling requests for me to stop and let them ride it. I've heard it called "Cool!", and, conversely, I've been asked if I "built that thing myself".

Riding it took some adaptation. The steering on my recumbent is "twitchier" than on an upright bicycle, and I have to pay a bit more attention to hold a straight line. My feet are slightly farther apart on the pedals, and I typically wind up going a mile per hour or two slower, on average, than I can on a road bike. Some recumbent bikes do rather well on hills, but my inexpensive, heavier model is just fair. On a road bike, you can stand up on the pedals and use your body weight to push the bike uphill. On nearly all recumbents, you're always in the saddle so this is not an option. Once you acclimate, however, you'll find that you can use the seat back as a brace to increase pedaling force. Use this technique judiciously because if overused, it will put more strain on your knee joints.

Q24. A guy I work with complained that bikes should not be on roads because a driver can come around a blind curve and be unable to stop in time to avoid one. What should I tell him?

I had someone say this to me at a previous employer's, and other people in the discussion seemed to think it was a reasonable objection. It took a bit of thought, but I ultimately decided this argument is hogwash. The problem in this situation is not the bicyclist, it's that the car driver is driving too fast for the road conditions. Any "blind curve" situation can hide a variety of things from view of a driver - not just a cyclist. There could be a slow moving vehicle such as a tractor or an overloaded truck around the next bend. There could be a stalled vehicle or a fallen tree. If a car driver can't stop in time, it's reckless, dangerous driving.

A bicycle commuter on a curving road has a number of options. He or she needs to listen for approaching traffic and monitor a mirror to see what's coming from behind. Be prepared to head for the shoulder or even off the road if necessary. Dressing visibly and having at least one blinking light will help; so will an orange flag. If you hear this question, don't back down. Make the point that a driver must drive at a speed appropriate for the road conditions.

Q25. Even though I don't have the right of way, a driver has stopped and is waving me across. What do I do?

I added this question because this has happened to me a few times. Most of the time it's a benign situation. The person who has stopped his or her car is probably another bicycling fan, and is trying to be a nice guy by letting you cross. Unfortunately this situation has led to some terrible accidents, because the driver who has stopped has no way to control what the drivers behind him (or her) might do. If it's a four lane road with any significant traffic, don't budge. Wave the driver past. If the driver persists (I've had this happen) dismount your bike and continue waving the driver across. Even on a two lane road, if there's any other traffic the situation is chancy. The driver behind the one who stopped may pull onto the shoulder or even into the other lane, impatiently trying to pass without observing why the driver in front has stopped. It's better to offend a good samaritan than to become another tragic accident caused by the ubiquitous impatient driver.

 

Resources

[This section is under construction]

alt.rec.bicycles FAQs: rtfm.mit.edu:/pub/usenet/rec.bicycles.*

www.sheldonbrown.com

League of American Bicyclists (Defensive Bicycling Classes)

Local Bike Shops: All-Star, Spin Cycle, Franklin Street, Spoken Here

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