Bike Commuting for Beginners

Summer is an easy time to test out bike commuting. The barrier for entry is low: Have bike, will travel to most places in and around Minneapolis. We live in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation. According to the “Official Website of the City of Minneapolis,” we have 92 miles of on-street bike ways and 85 miles of off-street bike ways. Which means, rarely if ever, are bikes forced to ride in traffic unprotected.

My transformation into a full-time bike commuter began about six years ago. We moved from Minnetonka to South Minneapolis, cutting my daily commute down to four miles. On a whim, I decided to borrow Luke’s mountain bike and ride to work. The experience was far easier and more enjoyable than I anticipated. I started running errands on my bike because it limited the amount I could buy at one time, so I became more thoughtful about what I purchased. I found it easier to ride to bars and restaurants on the weekends, rather than to hunt and pay for parking.

The tipping point came when I decided it was easier to ride to work the day after a massive snowstorm, rather than brave the elements in a Mini Cooper. Now, I’m voluntarily car-less and have no plans to change my beloved routine.

The transition from casual cyclist to full-time rider occurred through a series of lessons learned, trial and error, and the gradual shifting a long-held mindset regarding how to get myself around. Here are a few tips on how to successfully bike commute.

Revise your morning routine.
Before my commute, I shower, put on most of my makeup and twist my damp hair into a low bun. I prefer to ride in comfortable clothing rather than my work clothes. My workplace has a small locker room where I finish getting ready; I change my clothing, touch-up my makeup and round brush my nearly dry hair. By the time I’m finished, I look polished and workplace ready.

Avoid disaster by properly packing your bag.
I installed a back rack on my bike and purchased a roomy side pannier. I get way too sweaty carrying a bag and I can fit more into the pannier, which is helpful when I’m running errands. I have a specific method for packing to insure my makeup and lunch bags don’t spill onto my clothes or get crushed by heavy objects like shoes, which go in first. Then, I set my lunch bag on my shoes. Next in goes my makeup bag. My round brush, deodorant and jewelry roll get tucked around the makeup and lunch bags. My clothes go in last, rolled inside out to prevent wrinkling and staining. I tuck my cell phone, wallet and keys into a side pocket.

It is majorly beneficial to double-check your bag for vital assets before hitting the road. You will only forget your shoes/bra/pants one time before learning how important this lesson is.

Find a comfortable riding pace.
I aim to keep my pace between the effort levels of “Sunday joy ride” and “Outrun the rain storm.” On cooler days, I can fly without arriving at work a sweaty mess. On warmer days, I prefer to take it easy and avoid the onset of dreaded boob sweat. The point is to arrive mostly intact so I don’t have to shower again.

Be in charge of your own safety.
Bike lanes are not equipped with a force field impenetrable by car traffic, so be alert at all times. Car traffic enters bike lanes frequently to make turns and not everyone is careful about yielding to bikes. One time I rear-ended a car that swooped in front of me to make a right-hand turn and then abruptly stopped. School buses, cabs, delivery trucks and All Residents of South Minneapolis are equal opportunity bastards when it comes to using bike lanes as additional parking. Always beware of traffic and always operate under the assumption that nobody sees you and everyone wants to kill you. It’s extreme, but it’s in your best interest to watch out for yourself.

Also, don’t be a hazard to other cyclists in the bike lane. Verbally alert others when passing by calling out, “on your left.” Use hand signals when turning. Line up behind riders at stoplights instead of crowding together. Watch out for debris in the lane. Broken glass, potholes, gravel, sticks and suicidal squirrels are a few of the hazards threatening to eject you from your saddle.

Breaking news: you are invisible to cars and other cyclists in the dark. Don’t rely on streetlights or headlights to illuminate you. Get the brightest taillight you can find – one with multiple settings and an irregular flashing pattern to catch drivers’ attention. Your headlight should also have multiple settings so you can use it as a bright headlight at night and a dim flasher during the day. Reflective vests are a great bonus piece of protection to own for late night rides.

Wear protective gear.
I dare you to ride to work without wearing a helmet. Your coworkers will verbally batter you into submission (Erik). Wear shoes that stay on your feet and protect your toes. Leather-palmed gloves are nice if you’re especially putzy or plan to do some drinking. A few summers ago, I pitched myself over the handlebars and skinned a huge hole into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t use my dominant hand for two weeks while the wound healed. It was a month before I could comfortably wash my hair. Respect your hands and they will reward you with carefree riding all summer long.

Embrace the unpredictable nature of nature.
The only situation I haven’t really mastered is riding in rain. I have a cat-like aversion to getting wet so I try to avoid it whenever possible, but sometimes storms just pop-up out of nowhere. The best way to deal with precipitation is to wear a helmet or hat with a brim and sunglasses to shield a majority of your face from the rain. Fenders shield you from tire spray. A windproof jacket (aka: a windbreaker) will keep you warm and dry.

Just Do It®
My best piece of advice is to simply give bike commuting a whirl. The sweet, sweet freedom of the open road is within your reach. It’s incredible how quickly the benefits outweigh any perceived hassles. I mean, what’s not to love about getting extra sunshine and exercise before and after work? Before you know it, you’ll find yourself taking pity on the poor souls trapped helplessly inside their hot vehicles during the gridlock of rush hour. Meanwhile, you will consider yourself lucky to be enjoying the summer breeze blowing through your helmet vents as you lose that spare tire and track of gas prices.

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  1. great advice, I’ll think about commuting. love ya…dad

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