Two Wheels - Six Strings

Random news and thoughts about various two-wheeled projects and music, especially my band, Skull Full Of Blues.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Not Really "Tips" on Commuting, So Much As Just "How I do It, and Why"

Bonus cute picture of Oswald, at no extra charge.
(Click the pictures for the big versions.)

I don't really consider myself an expert on the subject of bike commuting, in general, , or winter commuting, specifically. Still, I have commuted by bike every day since May 1, 2007 ( 526 workdays in a row, if you are keeping count), and I have pretty much dialed in what works for me. So, since a couple of people expressed interest in my perspective on the matter, I thought I'd just throw this out there.

Keep in mind that this is just what works for me, on my particular commute. Still, enough of it is applicable to others that you might pick up something useful.

First, I would like to point out that I feel very fortunate to be able to have a dedicated commuter bike, set up exclusively to go back and forth to work. If I was using the same bike to commute, and to ride everywhere else, I might use slightly different equipment. The general set-up would remain the same, though.

My commuter is a 29er fixed-gear mountain bike, with 2" wide slicks for the warm weather. I like the fixed gear simply because it requires the least amount of maintenance and is the most likely to be ready to ride, day after day, without a lot of attention. I basically just have to add some air to the tires every month (or so) and keep some lube on the chain. That's good for a bike which gets used 5 to 6 days a week.

I ride a mountain bike, rather than a road bike, just because I want the high-volume tires. I commuted on 35c tires for a year and a half, and had problems with spoke breakage and just general rim abuse due to the (relatively) low-volume, high-pressure tires.

I think that a bell is required...

I have fenders on it, because I don't give myself the option of not riding due to rain or snow. Fenders may look a bit dorky to some people, but I consider them indispensable for year-round commuting, even in a town which gets 300+ days of sun, per year.

You will notice that I have two headlights on the bar. Not only does this work out in that NASA-inspired redundant systems sense (I have a backup if the batteries die on one of the lights), but it also allows me to run a "be seen" light and a "see by" light. I have the dual bulb unit on steady beam, in order to see where I am going, where the pot holes are, etc. And, I run the smaller unit on the side on flash mode, to catch the eye of car drivers.

My neighbor was pulling out, in his car, the other day as I was coming down the street. My flashing headlight made me visible in his mirror, even with a car's headlights on behind me. He told me that the saw the flash, and stopped to figure out what it was, thus not pulling out in front of me. So, I guess it's effective.

I follow the redundancy rule with my flashing tail lights, as well. I usually have both of them flashing, at once, in low-light situations, or when there is precipitation falling. The out-of-sync flashes are pretty eye-catching. I also have the batteries staggered in age (I put the new batteries in the top light two weeks before doing the same in the bottom light). That way, I never end up with no tail light due to lack of charge.

As you can see, I believe in carrying the weight on the bike, rather than on my back. Thus, I have a rack and panniers on the bike. In them, I have: a pump, a spare tube, a patch kit, a folding allen-wrench set, an adjustable wrench, a sewing kit (yeah, I know, I'm a Boy Scout, but it has come in handy more than once), an extra set of glove liners and a cable lock.

In addition, I carry a fresh shirt, socks and underwear in a ziplock bag, and my lunch, on a daily basis. This leaves room for incidentals like a sketch book, or a lighter jacket for the ride home. (I carry a few pairs of work pants in, after laundry day, and carry them home as they get dirty.)

In the winter time, I run studded tires when the roads are icy. Having disc brakes allows me to run a set of 26" wheels with the 2.0" studded tires I bought in 2007, even though the frame is built for 29er wheels.

In the past I had a separate snow bike set up with these tires, but I am trying to cut down on the number of bikes I own, so I went this route, this year. (Plus, it was kind of a pain in the butt to have to transfer everything from bike to bike when it snowed. Now, I just swap out wheels and go.)

I ride these bmx platforms with the pins in them, year-round. They work with any shoe, and keep my foot in place really securely, even when furiously spinning downhill. I suppose that if you were into skidding and skip-stopping they wouldn't be as good as clips and straps (or clipless pedals). That's not of concern to me, though.

Being one of the proletariate, I am always on the lookout for inexpensive replacements for expensive equipment. The dual-beam light on the bike is pretty expensive, and I only have it because I got in on club-order and paid about half price for it. Still, it's the most expensive light I've ever owned.

This light on my helmet cost $15.00 at Target, batteries included. It's a camping headlamp, from Energizer, with 6 LED emitters. It will run for some stupid-long amount of time on the low-beam (which is plenty bright for riding on the road) and for a pretty long time (17 hours, I think) on high beam. It also flashes red, in one setting, so it could be used as a tail light, if you wanted.

I've not used it as a commuter light, but I used it during the night laps of the 24-hour race I did back in June, and I was really pleased with it.

I put a piece of self-stick Velcro on the front of the helmet, and the back of the light pod, to hold it in place.

I did the same to the strap. It never moved during the race, even when I crashed on the first night lap. I think that this would be a really good "see by" light for a commuter who likes helmet lights. You could rig up a mount for the handlebar, otherwise, and use it as a bike-mounted light for 5% of the cost of the headlight I am using now. The only disadvantage is that it is not rechargeable, and you'd have to buy batteries for it, periodically (I have no idea how well it would run with aftermarket AAA batteries).

Clothing, for commuting, can be a challenge. I know that many of the "cycle-chic" crowd maintain that you should always ride in your everyday clothing, and ride to work in your work clothes. I am not comfortable doing so, myself. My route to work is pretty rolling, with one good steep climb about a third of the way to work, and I tend to work up a bit of a sweat.

Mikael, over at Copenhagen Cycle Chic, preaches the message of "Style before speed". Of course, Copenhagen is a dead-flat port city, and you can cruise along at 8 to 10 mph (the average bike speed there, apparently). So, casual riding will allow you to get where you are going, relatively fresh. Dottie, up in Chicago, is able to do the same thing. If you are able to get away with riding in your work clothes, I actually envy you, since it's so much more convenient than changing clothes twice a day like I do.

But, I am just not comfortable wearing slightly damp, sweaty clothes all day. Plus, I like to wear padded bike shorts under my pants when I commute, even though I often ride much farther without them on the weekends. I'm not sure why, except that, in the winter time, they are warmer than my normal underwear, and help keep the tops of the legwarmers in place.

When I ride with long underwear, regular underwear works just fine, but I still would want to change out of it due to the sweat factor. So, if I'm going to change anyway, I might as well enjoy the benefits of the padded chamois.

Still, I don't wear the whole "I'm a cyclist" uniform of spandex tights and team jerseys. My outer clothing on the bike is pretty much the same stuff I wear around at home. In the picture above, I am wearing what I had on when I left the house on my way to the coffee shop, this morning, with the temperature hovering around 40F.

Bike shorts,, leg warmers and knee socks under knickers, with casual "athletic" shoes cover the lower half. Up top, I have on a Craft long-sleeved base layer, a short-sleeved cotton t-shirt, arm warmers, a fleece vest, kerchief around my kneck and leather gloves with separate liners.

For the commute, I would also be wearing a helmet. I don't always wear a helmet, but I always do for the trip back and forth to work, mostly because of the fact that I commute during heavy traffic time, in the evening, and drivers are in a hurry and/or distracted on the way home. I don't know that bike helmets are that effective in many cases, but I figure it probably won't hurt.

Had the temps been in the mid-30s or lower, I would have added my breathable water-proof jacket and neoprene shoe covers (I wear a size 14 over my 10-1/2 shoes so that they fit loosely and retain the heat better). The t-shirt and arm warmers would have been replaced with a wool sweater, too.

I would have also worn my snowboard gloves, rather than the lighter-weight leather gloves. I also wear a wool skull cap, which covers my ears, and clear-lens sunglasses (not pictured) to keep the wind from making my eyes tear up.

I wear a lot of easily-removeable layers, and I start off warm. I'm one of those people who would rather start off comfortable, then remove excess clothing, as opposed to starting off uncomfortably cool and warming up to comfortable. I usually end up with my jacket open, halfway down, with the the cuffs pushed up onto my forearms even when it's in the low 20s or high 30s. Any cooler than that, and I stay comfortable for the whole 8.3 miles to work, even with everything zipped up.

Still, as I pointed out, I put enough effort into getting up the hills that I still end up a little sweaty by the time I get to work. So, changing into fresh, dry clothes feels good.

That pretty much covers everything I've learned, concerning equipment for commuting, over the past two and a half years. I know that it was a long post (and I hope someone has read all the way down to here), but I hope that you might be able to glean even one little tip which will help you out on your commute.

I do want to add a few non-equipment-related thoughts, though, if you will bear with me.

Every time it rains, snows or gets either very warm or very cold, at least one person will say something along the lines of, "I can't believe you rode today!" Alternatively, they will ask, "How do you leave the house when it's so cold/hot/rainy/snowy/windy?"

I find it to be pretty easy to ride in extreme conditions, simply because I committed to riding every day until (insert short-term goal here - currently until I hit 10,000 consecutive commuting miles). Riding to work is a given, so I don't have to talk myself into riding, I just have to figure out what clothing and equipment will make it safest and most comfortable.

And, you don't have to commit to every-day commuting to do that. You just have to commit. If you have decided to commute by bike on Mondays and Thursdays, just do it. Have your stuff ready to go, the night before, and just get up and go on those days. Once it becomes a part of your routine, the extra effort that a challenging weather day brings will not seem so daunting, at all.

And, if you find it as fun and relaxing (mentally, if not physically) as I do, committing is not too hard.



At 6:51 PM , Blogger katina said...

Ha, I win. I read the whole thing. AND I'm the first commentor.

At 9:04 PM , Blogger Jon said...

Hell, you may be the "only" commenter if no one else can make it through!

At 5:46 AM , Blogger frankenbiker said...

Wow!I thought my Fiancee's disertation took a long time to read,LOL!Seriously long, but very informative post Jon,If I learned a little about commuting in adverse weather I am sure others will be inundated with useful information.KUDOS!

At 11:03 AM , Blogger Matt said...

good stuff! thanks for the post - much good food for thought. Hope to be sending a bike frame your way soon, btw.

Thanks again for such an informative post.

At 11:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

At 11:33 AM , Blogger Apertome said...

Lots of great information there, gleaned the hard way. I read the whole thing, the other day, but forgot to comment.

I bet you'd have great success with rechargeable AAA batteries for your headlamp. I have a number of AA and AAA rechargeable batteries, and I think they last at least as long as normal batteries, if not longer. (Note: I was skeptical at first, but newer rechargeable batteries are a whole lot better than the NiCads of the past). I have one charger that can charge 4 AAs or AAAs in about 10-15 minutes, and I use these in my GPS, flashlight, cameras, headlamp, blinkies, etc.

At 12:14 PM , Blogger m e l i g r o s a said...

here in SF we are uber spoiled with the comfy weather, but since the blogesphere and bikes, I enjoy and love seeing how people get around their bikes in the snow. and sketchbooks and coffee and bikes. we just have too much in common, is fabulous :D

cheers /xo.meli


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