Getting Started in Biking

Maybe gas prices have finally hit you. Perhaps you want to lose a few pounds. Maybe you are looking for a way to protect the environment. Or you are just sick and tired of sitting in a car for what seems like hours fighting traffic. Whatever your reason, you are ready to begin biking to work, school, or run errands.

The good news is that riding your bike is fun. Once you begin making biking as transportation part of your everyday life, you will feel and look great, release stress, and get in touch with your inner youth. While cycling does help you slow down your mind, most of the trips you make will not take longer than if you were in a car. Despite this, riding your bike will save you money (not just from gas costs). You’ll be healthier and happier which will cut down on health expenses, and you just might see a way to live car-free or as a one car family which is where the enormous savings come in.

If you’ve never cycled for transportation before, getting started can be a bit daunting. I’ve put together this collection of collective wisdom and my own experience to help make the transition easier.

If you want more reasons why you should dump your car and strategies to help you do so, I highly recommend reading the book “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car” by Chris Balish. It will change your whole outlook on the tremendous money pit we call the automobile. 

Where to start
First you need a bike. Most people have an old mountain or road bike laying around somewhere, which is a great place to start. If you haven’t ridden your bike in a while, or if it’s been left outside in the elements, your chain and shifter/brake cables are likely in bad shape as well as possibly your seat, tires, and handlebar grips. Unless you are mechanically inclined, go ahead and head down to your local bike shop (LBS) for a tune up. This won’t cost a lot and any replacement parts you’ll need will be worth it in terms of confidences that your bike won’t fall apart on you.

You may also want to pick up some accessories for your bike. Look for our upcoming post on bicycle accessories to see what you really need, what you don’t, and what’s just a matter of personal preference.
If you don’t have a bike or wonder if your bike is a good one to use to transportation, I prefer this bike picker article to help you wade through all the incarnations of the bicycle and find the one that is right for you.

Getting to work
Commuting by bicycle is probably the best way to ensure biking for transportation becomes a lasting commitment, not just the latest thing you plan to do that eventually falls to the wayside. Biking to work let’s you develop a habit within a schedule that is controlled and regular for most people. If you can bike to work, the need for a car goes down greatly as most other errands and trips can be accomplished fairly easily without a car or with a little planning.

My recommendation is to commit to biking to work for two weeks. This gives you a finite time to determine if this is really for you and to establish a habit that you will continue to do. If at the end of two weeks, you hate biking (unlikely) or it just doesn’t work for your life at least you gave it a good try. More likely, you’ll find it a refreshing change from sitting in a car, you’ll miss it on days when you don’t bike, and you’ll find way more money in your wallet.  

Picking a route
In order to ensure success from the start, avoid stressing out about getting to work, and be safe. To do this, you are going to need to determine the best route by bike. This is not the same as the best route by car. For example, you could not pay me enough money to bicycle in the road on several of the roads in the Orlando area.

You can still bike safely to most places in town if you plan ahead. Metroplan Orlando has produced a Bicycle Route Map that color codes the different types of routes in the city. In addition to the online version, you can pick these up from the City, Metroplan, or at your LBS (while your getting a tune up or picking out a new bike.) There is also a great application on Google Maps that show many routes that cyclists can take. Finally, look around your neighborhood and see if any of your neighbors bike to work. Chances are they will be going the same direction at least part of the way and can give you pointers. Use all of these resources to come up with your route.

Once you’ve picked a route, it’s best to do a dry run on a day off. This will allow you to get comfortable with the route, see how long it will take, and see what changes you might need to make. For example, there may be construction or a part of the route you feel you need to ride on the sidewalk for safety. You should also check out where you are going to lock your bike (you remembered a lock, didn’t you!) as most offices won’t allow bikes to be brought inside. Finally if you are doing your test run on the weekends, think about what the traffic is going to be like during the week. By doing this ahead of time, you can make adjustments at your own pace.  

Staying cool and clean
One of the most common excuses I hear from people why they don’t bike to work is that there aren’t any showers at their office. They are worried about showing up sweaty and unpresentable.

I have two thoughts on this: first slow down, second realize we live in the South. If you are biking to work in the morning, the temperature, even in the summer, is going to be low enough that if you are not biking hard, you should get to work with minimal sweat. In the evening, it will be hot, but you are going home so who cares at that point.

Now, I didn’t say no sweat. You will likely perspire a little, but we do live in Florida so I think we all need to come to terms with a little sweat now and then. If that is still too much for you, there are options. I’ve found undershirts made of CoolMax, Under Armor, etc do wonders to ensure you don’t get sweat through your shirt. Also, pack a kit with a small towel, a travel pack of wet wipes,a comb, and a travel size of your favorite deodorant so can handle excess sweat.

For those who perspire heavily in all instances or want to ride real fast, I’d suggest dressing in more athletic cloths or at least shorts and a t-shirt and packing your work cloths in your bag. I find zippered vinyl pouches to be a good solution to keeping your work cloths dry and clean. If you have clothes you need to keep wrinkle free, there are also travel clothes organizers you can get. Once you get to work, you can change in the bathroom. I find the size of the handicap stalls helpful for this providing there is no one their who is handicapped needing it. If you really need a shower at the office, ask your boss or the building owner to have one installed. This has actually worked with some people I know (my office has a shower and locker).  

Locking your bike
Once you get to work you are going to need to lock your bike. Most places will have at least one bike rack (though sometimes they are in really crappy places.) If there is not a rack, look for tall (over 7 foot) street signs, parking meter (for U-locks only), or railing to lock up. I’ve used a tree in a pinch.

If you continue to lock your bike somewhere high visibility that is not a rack, chances are the building owner or manager is going to ask you to move it. Ask them to have racks installed or add racks if the current number is insufficient. Better yet, ask before he or she complains. Basic racks shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars to purchase and install. Parking is limited at most facilities and everyone seems to be trying to help the environment, so they’ll probably do it.  

Backup plans for getting to work
In his book “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car”, Chris Balish recommends having at least two back up plans for getting to work (not counting a cab) so if you have a flat, broken chain, or other problem, you can still get to work reliably. Backup options include walking, taking the bus, renting a car or carshare, or carpooling with someone. I take the bus or get a ride from my business partner if biking is out of the question. By having these options, you will have the confidence to ride everyday without worry.

Dealing with the fear of being stranded
The other common excuse I hear from people is they are afraid of being stranded at work. Think about how many times in the last year you actually had to go somewhere once you got to work without notice. Unless your job entails going meet clients a lot, chances are there were very few if any unscheduled trips you had to make. I find this a hypothetical that rarely happens to people.

Doctors appointments and meeting can be planned for. I try to make meeting with clients at restaurants and coffee shops within walking distance. If I’m having lunch with a friend or co-worker, I ask them to drive; it’s more social that way. If I really need a car, or in the case of a true last minute emergency, I’ve got several cab company phone numbers programmed into my cell phone. 

The big day: Putting your plan into action
The evening before your first ride to work, get your bag/rack set up with everything you need so you won’t be rushed in the morning. Set your alarm to you leave a little earlier than you think it will take you. Make sure you’ve planned for time to change cloths if that’s necessary.

If you get to work really early, bike to a local coffee shop and grab some coffee and a snack. You’ll feel so bike culture. Once you get to work, be sure to lock up your bike (you remembered you lock, didn’t you!) and cruise on into the office. Chances are you’ll be feeling great.

At the end of the day, enjoy your ride home stopping somewhere to get a treat if you are so inclined.
Repeat for two weeks.

Keep repeating after two weeks until you don’t want to do it any more. This will likely be a very long time.