Aug 12, 2012

How to Get on a Bike and Ride to Work!

Everything to know to ride a bike to work!

When I moved up to Oregon for grad school a few years ago, I decided to leave my car behind with my parents. I can't remember the justification for it - maybe to save money on gas? - but I do remember that I was excited to try public transportation and get my own bike to ride around town. This was a big time in my life; I was trying all kinds of new things like grad school, living in Oregon, not having anyone I knew within 400 miles of me... that sort of thing. So I added "bike hippie" onto that list in case it didn't seem overwhelming enough. And it was ultimately a good choice - I avoided the usual weight gain that comes with big life transitions, I got to know my new adopted town on a street level, and I gained a wonderful sense of freedom. When things did get to feel like too much pressure or too crazy, I would go for a quick little ride around town, maybe explore places I hadn't been before and just relax.
Biking has the great capacity to be both a heavy-duty cardio workout and a relaxing past time. I have my car up here now, but sometimes I still prefer to ride my bike rather than driving. I made a deal with myself this summer that whenever I need to go somewhere in town, I would bike as much as I can to keep me motivated (I make exceptions for things like doing my laundry at the mat or big item shopping). I've been biking to work a lot lately, and I've come up with a few tips that are helpful to have when you first start off. And my disclaimer: This post is not intended to advise a life-style change or exercise routine for weight loss. Remember to talk to your doctor about any big changes you want to make in your activity and diet choices.

In this post:

Reasons to Start Biking

If you're not sure why anyone would want to ride a bike to work, when we are now in the 21st century and flying cars are sure to be just around the corner, here are some reasons to ride a bike:
  • It's easy to get into: If you're looking for a good way to make a positive change in your life, it's better to work that change into your current schedule and routines. Biking to work can be a simple change to something typical that can have bigger impacts.
  • It's good for your body: Biking at least 1 hour a day (around 10 miles, perhaps) can give your body the cardio workout it needs to burn fat (if that's important to you). But like the disclaimer says, talk to your doctor before starting any major changes in your activities.
  • It's good for your wallet: There are lots of reasons why bikes are less expensive than cars. The fact that bikes don't need gas is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Bikes also cost less to maintain - my last trip to the bike shop got me a new wheel, a tune up, and tighter breaks all for about $45. Bikes themselves also cost less. Sure, you can go for the fancy-pancy road bikes that can get up to over $3,000, but that's not all that's out there. My bike originally cost me $112. I got it used at a little shop that I felt was reliable and trustworthy. They even gave me a voucher for discounted maintenance at the shop!
  • It's good for the environment: Bikes don't put hazardous chemicals in the environment. Wherever you are on the debate of global warming, everyone can pretty much agree what we can all see and smell for ourselves: cars are stanky and kind of gross. They do emit carbon compounds into the environment. Bikes, on the other hand, run solely on the power of the rider's body. My bike is fueled by pickles, veggie chicken nuggets, and last night's awesome salmon dinner. The only thing I'm putting into the environment is my kinetic energy.
  • No traffic! Sure, a bike is slower and a bike route will probably take longer than the freeway, but I have yet to get caught in traffic while on my bike. I don't know how true this is for some of the more congested urban areas people may commute through, but I'd think that a nimble little bike has more terrain options than most cars anywhere.
  • You don't have to park! Along with traffic, cars are cumbersome to park a lot of the time. Even in a small town like mine there are lots of strict parking laws, lots of meters and paid parking. Living in a college town and trying to get to campus? What a pain in the butt! Biking helped me escape a lot of that, and I didn't even realize it until I did get my car and suddenly I was burdened with this technology.
  • It's pretty outside: It really is, go check it out. Some areas are probably less suitable for biking a commute than others, but the vantage point of a bike can change a person's whole perspective. When I ride my bike, I pay more attention to the things around me, and I feel like I enjoy what is out there. If you're lucky enough to live in a place with lots of natural beauty (and I am certainly that lucky), it's all the more reason to head out with a bike on a leisurely weekend.
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Basic Things You Need

Ok, you're obviously convinced of the benefits of biking now, especially if you've read to this point. Ready to get started? Well hold your horses, buddy, there are a few things you'll need:
My handy dandy back pack! REI Tarn 18 pack for youth (I'm a wee one)
  • A bike - I recommend finding one in a shop rather than online or buying from a private seller (like on craigslist). Shops will likely be honest with you about the condition of the bike, and they can also offer good maintenance over the life of the bike. Bike shop people are also just nice people to know :)
  • A helmet - Yes, you need to wear a helmet, I don't care if you're an adult and in your area, it's not legally required. What is that you say? Helmets look dorky? Well, getting really badly injured on your bike is not exactly trending right now. I don't care if it looks dorky, your helmet protects your head, where your brain lives. Without your brain, all those wonderful abilities like speech and bodily functions and memories and living won't be as easy. Ask your friendly neighborhood bike shop person to recommend a good, safe and cool-looking one.
  • Lights - These are handy at night not only for seeing where you're going, but more importantly for other people to see where you're going. In many states, it is legally required for bikes to have a certain brightness of front and rear lights to be ridden at night or in compromised weather conditions.
  • Tool kit and the knowledge to use it - these come in handy for those times you feel your seat is loose, or your chain comes off the gear mid-ride. Ask that nice person at the bike shop for some recommendations for compact tool kits and how to use the tools.
  • First aid - For all those ouchies and bruisies that you might get riding on a bike. You might have a little spill along your way, and hopefully if it's not too bad, an alcohol pad will clean you up good enough to get patched up later. In a future post, I'll have directions for making the most compactable first aid kit.
  • Carrying object (like a satchel or a bike rack) - Super handy, especially if you do plan on riding to work and you need things like a change of clothes or a laptop to bring with you (see below). I like to use my hiking backpack for all my stuff, it's an REI Tarn 18 pack for youth(because I'm kinda small) and it's a really good pack. Every now and then, though, I see how much people can pack into those rear wheel racks, and I think how nifty that would be.
    This is everything I carry in my backpack to work on a regular day.
  • A lock - Some work places are so cool they have their own bike locker nearby. Still, if you plan to bike a lot of different places, having a lock with a cable is a very good idea.
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Useful Things to Have Around

There are also some accessories that are handy to have, but not always necessary. Still, I pretty much always have this stuff in my bike bag anytime I ride anywhere.
Fashionable biking apparel
  • GPS or smart phone with a GPS - Especially for when you're new to riding a bike as a commuter. Bike routes can take you surprising places, and it might be easy to get lost in a place you've known for a while.
  • Comfy biking clothes- I really don't like to bike in the clothes I'm going to wear to work, mainly because they are cumbersome and they can keep me too warm on the bike. I keep to my standard tank top and running shorts on my bike so I can be comfortable and not overheat.
  • Food: cereal bars/ protein bars - Like most living creatures, I tend to get hungry throughout the day, and it's the worst when I'm hungry and I have to bike 5 or 10 miles to get home (to my dinner). I keep a cereal bar in my bike bag all the time, just in case I get so hungry I start getting headachey or shaky, not something you want to deal with on a bike.
  • Water- I always have water with me anyway, and just like food, I need to keep my body feeling good if I'm depending on it to get me home. You can get dehydrated really fast when you're exerting yourself, especially when it's also hot outside.
    Good things to have: food and water
  • Glasses (preferably polarized lenses) - I haven't heard or read too much discussion about this issue for bike riders, so maybe it's just me, but bugs seem to be everywhere when I want to ride my bike. I get bugs hitting my face all the time, which is really gross, and it's also really uncomfortable if you get one in the eye. So bugs and the sun are my two reasons for never biking without some glasses. At night, I wear clear lenses for the protection especially.
  • Body/ hand wipes - One time, I was already late to work and my chain came off my gear right in the middle of the ride. I had to pull off and fix it up, getting covered in bike grease, which is not particularly attractive to parents when they hand their children over to me. So I cleaned up quick with some bodywipes I always have in my pack. These are also useful for sweaty stinky days when you just need to freshen up a little.
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Stuff for Biking to Work

As for biking to work particularly, there are some prioritized items that will definitely be useful.
  • Deodorant & Body spray - it's not like sweating is a crime or anything, but if you're really keen on not grossing out your co-workers with your funk, a little travel size deodorant and body spray can do the trick. Just remember that some sprays and perfumes can also irritate others in the office, so be considerate.
  • Hair brush - since you'll be wearing that amazing helmet to protect yo head, might as well bring a little comb or hair brush along with you to tidy up your tresses.
  • Change of clothes - like I said, it's not the most comfortable thing to bike in your office slacks and button shirt. But just the same, most places aren't so big into bike shorts and tanks in the office. Bring a work-ready outfit and be prepared for anything.
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Tips for Biking to Work

Some useful tips for your starting your first ride to work:
  • Plan before you ride - Before you head out for your first ride to work, make sure you know where you need to go and how long it will take you. It's probably a good idea to practice riding to work a couple of times on days when you don't need to be there right away - on the weekend or sometime like that. Make sure to time yourself so you know how long it will take you and you won't end up at work way too early or way late. It's also good to pay attention to how you feel during your ride, so you'll know how much cool down time you'll need when you get to work.
  • Know your limits - Be honest with yourself and assess whether riding to work is something you're physically ready for. Maybe your work is particularly far, there may be lots of hills and obstacles along the way, or you might live in really hot or cold area. If you're not quite ready, don't push yourself, that won't be good at all. Instead, try working up to it: make plans to ride around a nearby park or to make quick trips to the grocery store on your bike to get used to riding on streets and building yourself up. As always, consult your doctor if you are planning to start a new workout routine or make big changes to your diet and activities.
  • Eat well - When you become active, it's important to make sure your body has enough fuel to keep it up. This doesn't necessarily mean eating more, so much as it means to eat more meaningfully. Stock up on lean carbs and protein, eat lots of fiber in fruits and veggies. Nuts are my favorite fuel up food. Eating good healthy foods will help you get more physical benefit from your new biking routine.
  • Bring water - Just a good rule in general, water is good for you and good to have around.
  • Stretch - Especially if you're not used to riding a bike much, be sure to stretch all those muscles you're using, particularly your back hamstrings, rest your back, and message your neck (which might be particularly sore if your carry bag is heavy). The Mayo Clinic has some handy images and guidelines for stretching properly.
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General Biking Rules to Follow

Now that you're all geared up and ready to go, hit the paths! These are some general biking guidelines you should know and follow on the paths so that you and everyone else can be safe and comfortable:
  • Share the road - this means being very aware of anyone else on the path or street with you: other bikes, pedestrians, and cars. Use hand signals to indicate where you plan to turn. Be courteous and pull to the side of the street  out of the way of cars as much as possible. Courtesy goes a long way. 
  • Follow street laws - In many states, bikes are required to stick to streets in town areas (never on the freeway) and keep off the sidewalks. If there are bike lanes on the street, use them. This means also following street laws. Bikes should stop for red lights and go on green just like cars. This helps people driving cars know what to expect from bikers. Bikes, like cars, also need to halt for pedestrians when they are in your way.
  • "On your left" - The courtesy warning that you are coming up fast on someone(s) who are slower. If you are on a path and there are pedestrians or slower bikers ahead of you, yell out (nicely) "On your left" to let them know you will pass them on their left side. This lets people have some time to get out of the way. Also remember to say thank you when you pass them - manners matter.
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