The following article was first published in the Southwest Cycling News, February 2010, and has been reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Fred Meredith.
Ride Safe, Ride Smart
Gutting it up and getting it out the door the first time
by Fred Meredith
Remember summer and the record-breaking string of triple-digit temperatures left so far behind us? Your daydreams may have returned to the contemplation of a bicycle as your commute vehicle instead of an air-conditioned motor vehicle.
Sure, it’s a big step, but it is also easier to contemplate with gas prices still above two dollars a gallon – with the likelihood of going higher when the economy improves – and congestion still increasing on major arterials adding time to your daily round trip.
[Have you noticed how the morning gridlock lasts nearly until the lunch hour congestion, which is slowly closing the gap with the evening rush home?]
It’s high time somebody pulled his or her car out of that mess. Why not you?
A popular cycling-centric bumper sticker reads, “If I had ridden my bike today, YOU could have parked here.” While it doesn’t have quite the impact it would in Manhattan or Washington, DC, where parking-fees are astronomical, it still gives you pause for thought.
Where should you start?
Ideally, you want a route to your work or school and back that is safe, efficient and enjoyable, so before you invest in special equipment, clothing or especially a new bike, there are some other questions to answer.
A primary consideration is what to do with the bike and its accessories at your work destination. Is secure parking available or an option to bring your bike inside and stow it where you can keep track of it? If you have to park your bike outside somewhere in a rack, that will probably impact what bike you ride and what accessories you carry. Depending on distance, terrain and job description/costume, you may also need to inquire about showers and lockers for bike commuters.
With that behind you, you will next want to find a reasonable path for you and your round-trip commute and check it out. While you are at it, look for features that will help you prove to yourself that you are willing to bike-commute often enough to make your investment of time and money worthwhile and improve your quality of life.
How should you choose the route?
There are at least a couple of parts to planning a bike-commute route and a close look at a good map should be the first step. A bike-route map – Austin has a pretty decent one – will highlight major thoroughfares and connectors for bicyclists and give some clues as to the anticipated stress level or degree of difficulty of those major options.
What a bicycle map may not give you will be all the necessary street names. A regular city map or an online map may help with the details.
The idea is to come up with a low-stress route that is reasonably direct and sufficiently rewarding, given your own expectations – training, exercise, economy of time/money, “no sweat” transportation or just enjoyment of the endorphins kicking in. To borrow a mnemonic I’ve come up with for my someday-to-be-written book for bike ride organizers, use the 4 “S”s to craft your ride route. Keep it Safe, Simple, Smooth and Scenic. That way you will enjoy it much longer and it will be a ride to look forward to.
Once you have a route tentatively mapped out, there are a couple of ways to go about testing it – use either or both.
On a quiet Sunday morning, ride your bike over your proposed route, asking yourself the following questions. Are the streets reasonably free of potholes, broken glass and other debris? Can I avoid the door zone on any narrow streets with parallel parking? How long does it take me each way? Is that acceptable? How hard is the ride and did I sweat a lot? If there are unanticipated difficult sections, explore alternatives (It is Sunday) or venture farther afield in the second testing mode.
At your usual morning and evening weekday commute times, drive your car along the proposed bike-commute route. Ask yourself these questions. How heavy is the motorist traffic on that route? How comfortable would I feel on my bike in this traffic density? Are there sufficient traffic controls to allow me opportunities to cross busy streets? Are there any intersections that are beyond my comfort zone?
Based on your answers to these questions and those you may have from cycling the proposed route, fine-tune your route with decisions that will change any “undesirable” answers and if you are still not comfortable or think your cycling skills are not up to the task, sign up for a Traffic Skills 101 class if one is offered in your area. Austin area classes and contacts can be found elsewhere in this issue or on the ACA website at <www.austincycling.org>.
Now, put that bumper sticker on your car for the days you don’t bike-commute.
Let’s go over it in practical terms. The next time you drive to work, think like a cyclist. Pay attention to the entire route. Make mental notes of the roads that have shoulders wide enough to accommodate a bike as well as of narrow stretches that might make you uncomfortable. Use this as a starting point when mapping out your bike route.
You may need to go back to the map. With either a detailed road map of the area your route will traverse or a big-screen look at an online mapping program, tackle the logistics of it. Focus on the parts of your driving route that you feel comfortable on. Find alternate routes that run parallel to the sections you want to avoid – choose side streets, parks and neighborhoods rather than high-traffic roads. Also be sure to plan your route through well-lit streets – remember, you’ll most likely be riding alone and, often, in the dark depending on the latitudes and time of year.
Troubleshoot the actualities. A section of road that initially looked rideable may turn out to be more difficult than you thought. Find a way around it and mark it on your map. Do this until you have reached your destination. Test-drive it on the way back.
Test-ride the route and see how long it will take you. You may find this time that your trip has too many small turns and not enough long stretches (remember, Safe, SIMPLE, Smooth and Scenic). Maybe you can save time by taking short cuts on paths, or through parks or alleys cars can’t go. Experiment until you get it right.
Head off burn-out and boredom. Once you’ve designed your ideal route and are comfortable with the time it takes to complete, you’ll be riding to and from work without even a second thought. There’s the problem, no thoughts equals no fun. Turn towards a different street on your way home, check out a new neighborhood or incorporate a park trail. Keep the ride exciting and the scenery entertaining, and soon you’ll be discovering places you would never find driving your car.
Good luck. Next time – before the cold season is totally out of the picture – we’ll talk about gutting it up when the thermometer says, “No way, Jose!”
copyright © Fred Meredith, 2010