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Greening Your Commute

Dare to Cycle.

March 1, 2016

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.



Commuting by bike is a great way to save money, reduce your carbon emissions, and sneak a workout into your daily routine. Depending on the traffic in your city, you may even save time by avoiding traffic jams and searching for parking. Furthermore, your employer or insurance company may have special offers if you bike to work. For example, employees of my university (including doctoral students) are entitled to a staff bike if they give up their right to a parking space! Other places will pay you per kilometer for taking your bike to work. So why isn’t everyone out there on a bike? There are a number of fears and misconceptions that hold many people back from cycling to work. I used to be an extremely nervous cyclist, but as I slowly worked through these worries, I’ve become a cautiously confident and car-free commuter.


Worry #1: I’ll get to work sweaty and with helmet hair


Cycling for 30 minutes at a moderate pace burns around 250 calories, or the equivalent of 3 large eggs or 2.5 medium bananas. Since you are sneaking a good workout into your daily routine, you’ll likely get a bit sweaty. Dealing with the sweat will depend on how far your ride, how professional you need to look at work, and how much you sweat. For a leisurely ride to work, keeping some baby wipes, deodorant, and hairspray in your desk can be all that is required to manage the sweat. Baby wipes are fantastic for scrubbing off and getting rid of unwanted odours—look for eco-friendly wipes that are biodegradable. A spritz of hairspray followed by combing can tame mild helmet hair. For worse cases, dry shampoo and ponytails may be in order. On hotter days or if your commute is longer, having a change of shirt, or complete change of clothing may be necessary. Some lab/office buildings even have showers, though often their presence isn’t well advertised. It pays to ask around!


Worry #2: How will I carry all my stuff?


Panniers! For less than $100, you can outfit your bike with a rack over the back wheel to which you can attach one or two bags. The choice of pannier bags is extensive. You can get ones that clip on and off your bike, or a pair that attach more permanently. Some bags have a frame inside to give them a sturdy shape, while others are softer sided. You can get them made out of waterproof material or light and flexible fabrics like canvas. They come in loads of fun designs to customise your look. I opted for a pair of large, waterproof, bright red saddlebags. I can fit a stuffed backpack in one bag, or a week’s worth of groceries in the pair. Plus I have an elastic cord over the rack of my bike that I can strap awkwardly shaped things to. Even when the bags are super full, I don’t notice an effect on my balance while cycling. The only downside to my panniers compared to the trunk of a car is that they’re not lockable, so I have to carry any valuables with me anytime I’m leaving my bike.


Worry #3: My bike will get stolen/damaged


Depending on where you live, bike theft may be more or less of a concern. In the city where I live, people joke that bike theft is practically a sport. While nothing can fully prevent bike theft, a few simple actions can reduce your risk.


Having a good quality lock and locking the frame of the bike to a solid object are very important. StichtingART ranks a number of locks from various brands and these rankings are used by insurance companies to determine which locks they approve. The website is in Dutch (who better than the Dutch to advise on bike commuting!), but all you really need to see is the make and model, and the number of stars it achieves. Heavy chain locks or U-locks tend to be favoured over cable locks, which can be easily snipped. Frame locks, which attach to the frame and lock the back wheel, can offer additional security, making it much harder for a would-be thief to ride the bike. Make sure to lock the frame (not just the wheels) of the bike to a solid object. Otherwise, it’s simple enough for the thief to remove the wheel or just carry the bike away. Make sure when leaving your bike to remove anything not securely fastened to the bike, such as lights, clip-on pannier bags, or hand pumps. Additionally, switching your seatpost and wheels from quick-release to bolts can reduce your risk of having these components stolen. If you have purchased an expensive saddle, you may want to chain the saddle to the frame. Passing an additional cable lock through your wheels can likewise deter a thief. Check out these videos (here and here) for more tips on locking your bike up well.


Finally, if theft is a serious issue in your area, and you’ve invested a fair bit of money in a bike, it may be worthwhile to take out bike insurance. Ask around at reputable bike shops in your area to find out how much of a problem bike theft is, and which companies have the most competitive insurance options.


Worry #4: I’ll get hit by a car or otherwise injured


Being the tiny guy or gal on the road with cars around you can be intimidating. The key is to be visible, be predictable, and stay alert. Reflectors, lights, and a bell are usually required by law, and are essential equipment for being seen. Additionally, a brightly coloured jacket or safety vest can make you obvious to drivers. Make sure when you are riding to “hold your line”—don’t swerve around. Signal your intentions to drivers by pointing in the direction you intend to turn. I would strongly advise not wearing headphones while cycling, since it will impair your ability to hear the traffic around you and could distract your attention. And it should go without saying that you should obey the rules of the road, the same as cars. Be wary of bike lanes that go next to a line of parked cars; you are at high risk of getting “doored.” As much as possible, try to avoid busy roads. Usually riding one or two streets parallel of the main route can get you out of the worst of the traffic. If you have a Strava account, you can see a heat map of routes most commonly used by cyclists in your area, which may give you some hints as to good roads to try. If cycling with traffic is new to you, try riding with a friend who is used to it and learn their technique. Riding in traffic takes some practise, but you will quickly become adept at spotting hazards and assertively communicating to car drivers.


Oh, and for goodness sake WEAR A PROPERLY FITTED HELMET! If you’re in grad school, your brain is likely rather valuable to you.


Worry #5: Bikes are expensive


A good bike is an investment. If you look after it well and keep it clean, it can serve you for many years. For your initial experience with bike commuting, use what you have on hand, or try renting a bike for one or two months or using a bike sharing program, if that’s available in your city. When you are certain you are committed, take the plunge and buy a good bike. I don’t recommend buying a bike at a big box store. You are much better off going to your local bike shop: the sort of place that still puts value on building a relationship with the customer. A good local bike shop will help you find a bike that meets your needs and budget and make sure that it is properly fitted. A proper bike fit is the key to riding efficiently and comfortably. Often your local bike shop will have excellent quality second hand bikes, which they will re-sell with some sort of a warranty. You may also be able to save money by buying the previous year’s model of a bike, or one with a minor scratch or imperfection. If you feel you are being up-sold or pressured to buy, look elsewhere.


Alternately, you can look for a second hand bike online, or at police sales (where unclaimed bikes end up). With enough patience you will be able to find a great deal. This is a bit of a riskier tactic, especially if you are not sure what to look for to determine the quality of the bike. Recruiting a bike-nerd friend is a must.


Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is the key to giving it a long life. Take your bike to your trusted bike shop once a year for maintenance, or if it starts making funny noises. Keep the gears, chain, and brakes clean and make sure to lubricate your chain. There are lots of videos online showing the proper way to clean a bike. For the most part, some rags, an old toothbrush, and soapy water can do a good job. Ask at your trusted bike shop how they would recommend you maintain your bike.


Worry #6: What about bad weather?


According to the (possibly) Nordic proverb, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Extending that, with the right preparation, you should be able to ride your bike in almost all weather conditions (heavy snow and ice excepted). Fenders and a good rain suit and helmet cover will get you to work dry and free of "skunk stripes" on even the nastiest days. Alternately, a change of clothing in a waterproof bag may be a more comfortable solution. Waterproof bags are also essential for protecting your computer and other belongings. In cold weather, layering is key. Sunglasses can help prevent your eyes from tearing up in the wind. Just like for cars, you can get tires for your bike that are better equipped for rainier conditions or even small amounts of snow. Some tires even have carbon studs to allow you to ride on ice, if you are brave (and maybe a bit crazy). Realistically, where you live will determine whether cycling year round is an option, but seven or eight months per year should be possible nearly anywhere.


You don’t have to be a muscle-bound, lycra-clad, cycling fanatic to commute to work on your bike. Here in Belgium, it’s not uncommon to see people in business suits, skirts, or high heels cycling to work with their briefcases strapped jauntily to the backs of their bikes. For me, cycling is the fastest way to get to lab; by bus it would take close to an hour. I can cycle right past all the cars sitting in traffic jams, thanks to some well placed bike lanes. And, as the Flemish slogan goes, I am “weer an auto minder,” (again, one less car), on the road!


Do you use your bike to commute in the city? Why? What tips or fears do you have?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Shirley De Jong and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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