A Year of Bike Commuting: 5 Lessons

Doug "Shark" Balvenz arrives to work with a smile after bike commutingby Doug "Shark" Balvanz

About a year ago I retired from my Adult Job and started working part time at Kyle’s Bikes in Ankeny, Iowa. I had never really used my bicycle to commute to work, but I decided since I was working at a bike shop, I’d give it a try. I thought I had it all figured out. But I found out that the experiences I’ve had in the past year changed some of my thinking. Here is what I’ve learned.

Commitment

The first thing is committing to riding to work. Sounds simple enough, right? But when you’re running late, or it’s raining, or it’s a little chilly, it’s very easy to just jump in your four wheeled cage and say, “Tomorrow, I’ll start tomorrow.”

You don’t have to commit to a year of riding. Try just committing to one day. Pick a day, say a casual Friday, watch the weather and make that one day happen. Maybe every Friday becomes bike to work day, or go for a week, then a month. As you do it more times, you’ll know where you need to adjust for your type of work and the length of your commute.

Personally, I just started riding to Kyle’s Bikes, kinda one day at a time. I learned and adjusted along the way. Next thing I knew, it was a year later and I was still riding to work. Sure, I would take my truck or motorcycle occasionally, but it became the exception. Riding my bicycle to work became the norm.

Route

MLocal bike trails make good routes for bike commutingy planned route was pretty easy. Neighborhood roads to a bike trail that eventually dropped me right off at Kyle’s Bikes front door. It would keep me out of traffic and allowed for a more relaxed ride there and back.

However, what I learned was that when the bike trails crossed major roadways, not all drivers pay attention to bikes or pedestrians. More than once, a car has stopped on the crosswalk, or rolled through at stoplight making a right had turn and not even noticed I was around. As a result, I pay much closer attention to traffic at intersections and can almost predict what the cars will do. And even if I have the right of way, I still smile and wave and let them finish their move. 20 pounds versus 4,000 pounds will loose all day long, even if in the right.

Also, I never thought about construction on the bike trail. But multiple times, I’ve had to adjust my route due to construction near the bike trail, or even on the trail itself. So I now have two routes, one is primarily bike trail, and the other is on side streets with low traffic.

In winter it became even more interesting, as some bike trails may not be plowed in time for my commute. I could still use them, it just meant planning more time in my commute.

Being flexible, having alternate routes, and giving yourself a little extra time can make the stress of route changes be nothing but a chance at a different view.

Bike

For bike commuting, choose a comfortable bike like the Specialized Roll.I’d seen the movie Quicksilver with Kevin Bacon years ago. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had that as my vision. So even before starting at Kyle’s Bikes, I made sure my trusty steel single speed 1982 Schwinn Peloton was set for the task with fresh bar tape, tubes and tires, pedals, cages, and a messenger bag to carry my stuff. And it worked fine, but I had an urge to have a different riding experience, so out came my road bike, or my gravel bike, and finally my beach cruisers. I realized my cruisers were the ones that I enjoyed riding the most for the short, eight-mile round trip commute.

Eventually, I bought a brand new Specialized Roll (a modern take on the cruiser platform) and it became my go-to commuter bike. I outfitted it with a rack & trunk bag, fenders, lights, Bluetooth speaker, drink cup holder, and a bell. I even would add Pogie Lites when it would get chilly.

Winter posed another challenge. By the time winter came, I had decided I’d just see how far into the winter I could still ride. My Roll wouldn't do once the snow and ice started to build up. I have a Surly fat bike and all the gear for riding in the winter. So I continued to commute, right through to spring.

Bottom line is find a bike that fits your route, your speed, and your environment, and gives you the best commuting experience. It may not be the bike you think. It might even provide a good excuse to purchase a new bike!!

Gear

Shark dresses for the weather in the winterThere are two categories here. What you wear and what to put on your bike. Regarding clothing, I started out riding in regular street clothes, and only changing from cleated cycling shoes to running shoes once I got to Kyle’s Bikes. I used a messenger bag to carry anything I needed for the day (like my PB&J for lunch). As I said, I eventually went with a beach cruiser style, so I could just ride in and jump off the bike and be ready for work, not needing to change anything.

I added fenders for wet days and a rear rack/bag to carry things on the bike, rather than on me. I also purchased rain pants and jacket, along with Gortex running shoes, to keep me dry. As winter came, it became more challenging. I had winter cycling gear (lots of 45NRTH) that kept me warm, but that meant I had to carry all my work clothes with me and change once I arrived. I used a waterproof duffle bag on the rear rack of my fat bike to carry my "street clothes." And I needed to add that time into my commute, as well as time due to the wind and how much snow cover.

Much of this I learned along the way, but the old saying holds true: "There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear!"

Benefits

One of the benefits of bike commuting is discovering hidden treasuresWe all hear the benefits. Saving money on gas and vehicle maintenance being one. We also hear about losing weight, or getting in shape. And the less stressful lifestyle. Although sometimes we spend that money savings on new bikes or gear. And if you’re not a regular rider, maybe weight loss or firming up will happen. And it may be just as stressful with all the extra you need to do to commute, rather than just jump in the car.

But I discovered interesting benefits that I wasn’t expecting. I seem to always arrive at work, and back at home, with a smile on my face! How can I not, I just got to ride a bicycle! I obviously look forward to my daily commute when it’s sunny and warm, but also in the middle of winter. The challenge of riding instead of driving adds to the fun. It feels odd for me to drive to work now.

Also, I never thought that adding a few days a week of riding to and from work (sometime I extend the route a little) would have a big impact on my fitness. But honestly, I think it helped me stay in shape through the winter.

I get to experience things on my commute that I would never experience in a car. The fall nip in the air, the warm sunshine on my face, the smell of rain in the distance, the chill coming off a frozen pond. I "discovered" a wooden carved bear holding a fish on my commute that many people don’t know exists. And lately, being "attacked" by a gander when he thought I was riding a little too close to his goslings.

Bike Commuting Conclusions

I know that there are others who have been commuting by bicycle for years. They have their routes, bikes, and gear all dialed in. When it comes to this type of bicycling, I’m relatively new, and I still have plenty to learn. But I can tell you, it’s been worth the effort.

There is a saying in the motorcycle world: "Traveling by car is like watching a movie, your windshield the screen. Traveling by motorcycle (or bicycle) is like being in the movie." Make a commitment to be in that movie. It all starts with that first day.

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Katherine is our Content Champion. She has done triathlons in the past, and now focuses on mountain biking and long-distance gravel riding. She still has a soft spot in her heart for weird multi-sport events like indoor triathlon and aquabike. She also teaches indoor cycling.