I ride my bike to work several times a week, even in the rain and darkness of winter. It’s about 12 miles round trip and takes me about 35 minutes in the morning (lots of downhill) and 45 to 50 minutes in the evening (lots of uphill). For nearly 10 years I have worked in an office filled with avid bike commuters. I have countless co-workers that ride their bikes to work every single day – even when the roads are icy and the temperatures freezing.
I never felt like I could be “one of them” – these active people that used a bike as their primary mode of getting around town.
Every September there is an event in Portland called the “Bike Commute Challenge.” Offices compete with other offices of similar size and function (private sector, government, etc.). Employees log their commute trips on a daily basis and at the end of the month the office that has the highest participation rate wins. I decided I wanted to try riding to work and I set a goal of participating in that year’s “Bike Commute Challenge.”
In order to do so, I had to overcome several barriers.
First – I needed a bike! At this time I weighed over 300 pounds. Carrying that much weight on a skinny little bike seat was a recipe for disaster – or at least a very unpleasant experience! I looked at several options and ultimately decided to get a recumbent bicycle. Recumbent bikes are great because they feel like you are riding a Lazy Boy recliner around. They have nice big cushy seats and back support. They come in all shapes and sizes. I opted for one that is fairly tall and upright, as I wanted to be more visible.
Second – I needed to figure out how to navigate by bike. Doing so in a good-sized city like Portland is intimidating to say the least. Although I knew how to get from home to work in a car, I had no idea how to get there by bike. There was a very sweet woman in our office that had been a bike commuter for decades. One day I asked her for advice on planning my route. She was very excited to help me and pulled out various bike route maps. She worked with me to chart a course that would keep me on quieter residential streets.
Third – I needed to feel comfortable riding on the road with cars whizzing past. I started by riding around my neighborhood on streets I was familiar with. Eventually I ventured further out. After a few weeks I felt like I was ready to ride into downtown Portland where my office was located. One nice weekend Glenn and I did a practice ride from my house to my office on a quiet Sunday morning. This helped me feel comfortable that I knew the route and how to navigate the more challenging intersections without a lot of car traffic to contend with. It also helped ease my concerns about if I was going to make it up some of the hills on the way home (I did conquer the hills, but needed to stop and take a breather at the top of a couple. No biggie!).
The following Monday I rode my bike to work. I had become a bike commuter!
I still remember the excitement of locking my bike up next to the bikes of my coworkers. That year I logged several commutes during the “Bike Commute Challenge” – and have done so every year since. I now ride what’s called a ‘commuter bike.’ It is more of a standard bike with fenders and racks to hang the bag that I carry my work clothes and lunch in. I changed to this bike from the recumbent after I had lost enough weight that I felt I could be reasonably comfortable on a more traditional bike. I’ve made a few modifications, including curved handlebars that help me sit upright so that my head and neck aren’t at a sharp angle. I also have this amazingly comfortable seat that focuses my weight on the bottom of my pelvic bones, rather than on my tailbone.
There are a few other things that have helped me transition into a successful bike commuter.
The first is good gear, especially during the winter months. There is nothing worse than being cold or wet while on a bike. Today I use waterproof jacket and pants specially designed for biking. They don’t really make biking gear for someone that weighs 300 pounds (so frustrating!), so in the beginning I just had to make something work. I ended up buying rain gear designed for large men from a hunting catalog. Random, I know, but ya gotta do what’cha gotta do. I rolled the sleeves and legs up, and used straps with Velcro to fasten everything in place. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.
I’m also a firm believer in that saying, “see and be seen.”
In fact, I have a bit of a fixation with anything brightly colored and blinking. I always wear safety orange or yellow, and at night I have reflective striping (everywhere) and multiple front and rear lights. I even have blinking lights on my wheels. Glenn often teases me that I am so bright they can see me from the Space Station. I admit, I take it a bit too far – but I figure if a car hits me it isn’t going to be because they didn’t see me.
Lastly, I don’t care what others think.
So what if:
- I ride a funny looking bike?
- My rain gear looked ridiculous in the beginning?
- I am decked out from head to toe in bright colors and blinking lights?
- I am slow and everyone passes me?
- I have helmet hair?
- I show up to my work meeting across town a little sweaty from riding there?
In the end, I am having a blast and am able to get activity into my day…twice!
If you’ve ever considered becoming a bike commuter, I encourage you to give it a try. Talk to others that do it. They’ll be glad to give you advice and I’d bet most of them would even love to ride with you on your first bike commute adventure.