Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Became A Bicycle Commuter

Nowadays my eyes are wide open and my ears finely attuned to news of the daily progress of the ongoing collapse of our present economic and social systems. I am thinking particularly of a report I read today titled, “Burning Violins,” from the Barclays Capital Oil Sketches, November 2008 edition. That report analyzed the present decline in non-OPEC daily world oil production and the likely effects of the present global financial crisis in shrinking global oil supplies, including OPEC supplies, even further in the near future. For anyone interested in reading the report, here's the link: It is not good news.

Yet I was not always so aware of the signs of our impending economic, energy and environmental troubles. There was a time when I was a registered Republican. In fact, I had voted for President Bush in 2000 and in 2004. By 2005, the Iraq war had begun to miscarry and there were a few disturbing signs of the true nature of the Bush administration's policies, yet these things provoked little more than a flicker of unease in me.

Then June 2005 came. I had been assigned by my company to a consulting assignment working in downtown Los Angeles, and thus I was able to ride the Metrolink to work every day with my company picking up the tab. The office in Los Angeles had an engineer who had been given a long-term assignment to do construction inspections at a water treatment plant that was being built in the San Fernando Valley. This engineer had relatives overseas and wanted to visit them, so he asked for a three-week vacation during part of June and July. I was “volunteered” to fill in for him while he was away.

From my old house to the water treatment plant, the distance is around 42 miles. Unfortunately there was no convenient way to get there by mass transit, so every workday during those three weeks I endured a commute of an hour and a half or more each way, stuck behind the wheel of my vehicle along with thousands of other land-locked commuters while listening to KFWB or KNX for any traffic-related news. Just before I started the inspection tours, regular unleaded gasoline was selling for around $2.29 a gallon. While I was assigned to the daily inspections, I had to pay for the gas myself.

Something strange started happening as the three weeks progressed – regular gasoline rapidly became ever-more expensive, until during the last week of my inspection tours, it was selling for over $3.00 a gallon. The Los Angeles Times carried a front page picture of a disgruntled motorist filling up an SUV at a station whose sign read $3.22 a gallon. And this was weeks before Hurricane Katrina.

Different people awaken from sleep at different levels of sensory arousal. $3.00 a gallon was enough to begin an awakening in me. It got me thinking of how most Americans were forced to rely on automotive transportation in order to get anywhere, and how vulnerable our lives were when there were disruptions to any part of our automobile-based transit system. $3.00 a gallon was a significant disruption. How much of my money – money that I had counted on using for other things – was now being literally burned up? How much of my livelihood was being taken from me, never to be seen again? How much further would the price rise? These questions were in my mind, along with the realization that I had no control over the supply or price of a “necessity” I considered to be as basic as gasoline.

I don't like being dependent on large, faceless systems for my basic needs, especially when the owners of those systems do not have my best interests at heart. Moreover, for a long time I had placed a high value on physical exercise and staying in shape. So even before my co-worker got back from his vacation, I started thinking about turning to bicycling for basic transportation. I remember the Saturday when I walked into a local bike shop and started checking out potential prospects. I entered that shop knowing very little about bicycles except that they had two wheels, spokes and handlebars, combined with memories of riding a bike to go places when I was in high school.

One of the bike shop employees noticed me, and we struck up a conversation. I said something like, “I'm looking for a new bike, and I was wondering...what sort of bike would be good for basic transportation? I'm trying to escape high gas prices.” When I told the bike salesman that I was not thinking of spending more than around $300, he proceeded to very enthusiastically sell me a Giant Sedona and a helmet.

I was very proud of my new purchases, and of my determination to escape the “system” in some small way. But I was a bit nervous about riding to many places, since the farthest distance I had ever ridden on a bicycle was six miles one way, and since those who drive the streets of Southern California are not known for their charity. Therefore I started off slow, riding from my house to a nearby YMCA on the weekends, and riding from my house to the local supermarket. The YMCA was about 4 miles from my house, and I discovered that I could ride that far without dying. Therefore I became bolder and rode one weekend from my house to the Metrolink station and back again, a round-trip distance of around fourteen miles. Once I realized that I could do even this much distance, I was liberated.

I began riding from my house to the Metrolink station every weekday as part of my morning commute. I also did almost all of my shopping by bike. At first I knew very little about the tricks of the trade. For instance, I would ride to the train station in my work clothes. This meant that, depending on the weather and how much I perspired, by mid-afternoon I would start smelling a bit like a dead carp. I also carried everything I needed (lunch, books, groceries, etc.,) in a backpack which was quickly beaten up by overuse and cramming oversized cargo into its pouches.

Then one day a female epiphany on two wheels rolled by me as I was coming home from work. She had a rear rack on her bike, on which two black mesh cloth “baskets” were attached. (Later I learned that the proper name for these is “panniers.”) That weekend I rode down to the shop from which I had bought my bike and demanded a rear rack and “baskets,” which they happily sold me for $150. Now I was really riding in style!

As summer waned and fall approached, the days grew shorter and the nights came ever earlier. I knew it was time to think about lights for my bike. So off I went back to the same bike shop whose employees were happy to sell me a Cat Eye front “safety” headlight and rear taillight. I was sure that now I was fully equipped to ride in all conditions. There was only one problem with these lights, however. They were powered by AAA batteries (three for the headlight, two for the taillight), and their packaging promised run times of up to 60 hours. What the packaging did not tell a rider was how much dimmer the lights were at the end of the 60 hour run time of their batteries. There were many nights when I found myself cut off or nearly hit by cars while believing that those puny lights were actually protecting me. Of course, it didn't help that I was frequently wearing dark clothing. It would take several months before I “saw the light” about rechargeable lighting systems and reflective vests.

I remember riding to work during my first Southern California winter rainstorm. My Giant Sedona had been sold to me without fenders, as was common practice among bike sellers. This resulted in a muddy stripe up the front of my jacket and muddy splashes on my pants when I rode to the train station. I was able to purchase a front fender after a bit of searching, but the fender was rather less than adequate, and showed the state of bicycle culture at the time – the perception that bikes were toys for kids and sometimes for adults, and that no one would ever ride a bike in the rain or use a bike for serious transportation.

I started hanging out at the bike shop, asking questions about bikes in general and commuting in particular. The staff was not very helpful, as they had not met too many people who used bikes as basic transportation. But they did have some interesting magazines and these aroused my curiosity. I read about clubs which got together for long rides of over 20 miles. Some even did hundred-mile rides, called “centuries,” and this astonished me. I wanted to try riding my Giant Sedona to a faraway place. By that time I had transferred back to our company's office near Santa Ana, and it was 17 miles from my house to the office. One weekend when I needed to go in to the office, I decided to ride all the way. That experience – undertaken at the height of a heat wave – taught me the limits of the Giant Sedona as a commuting vehicle. It was the only time I ever tried a ride of that distance on that particular bike.

As I recovered from that ride, I found friends and acquaintances at work who had done long-distance rides or who had tried bike commuting, and I asked them why a ride such as I had undertaken should have been so hard. I was also doing a fair amount of Web research into the general subject of bike commuting and what was the best bike for commuting. I discovered that many people did not recommend mountain or “hybrid” bikes for regular long-distance travel, because the upright sitting position, shock-absorbers and knobby tires made a rider have to work too hard to maintain a high speed for any length of time. The sources I was consulting almost all agreed that the best bike for commuting is the classic “touring” bicycle – a bike made for long-distance cross-country travel while carrying basic camping necessities such as food, tent and sleeping bag.

At the time I made this discovery, I switched employers and found myself commuting to an office twelve miles away from my house and not located near a train station. During the first week at my new job I went to REI and checked out their selection of “touring” bikes. I was greatly intrigued by the Novara Safari, because of its putty color, disc brakes and otherworldly handlebars (I had never seen handlebars like that before). I wound up buying a Safari and selling my Giant Sedona to a neighbor across the street from my house. I also bought a CygoLite rechargeable headlight and a pair of Novara panniers. And I had fenders installed on my new Safari.

That Safari was a joy to ride. When the wind was right I could easily do 22 miles per hour for extended stretches. It was a good thing, because there were a few narrow parts of my commute where I had to “take a lane” in order to avoid having traffic squeeze me off the road. It wasn't wise to ride slowly through those places, especially down Western Avenue near Lincoln Avenue in Buena Park. I also went on a Saturday 33 mile bike ride with a cycling club in mid-Orange County, and lived to talk about it. The difference between the Safari and the Sedona was very apparent. As 2006 passed and the seasons cycled through summer and back to fall again, I picked up a DiNotte rear taillight, because I didn't want to trust my life to the wimpy Cat Eye light I had, and I had been looking for a good bright rechargeable taillight. The DiNotte is powerful enough to light street signs a block away. I knew that if I got hit, at least the lawyers would not be able to argue that motorists could not see me.

The Safari was a good bike, but it had its limitations. Its rear rack was proprietary and was rated to carry only 25 kilograms. Its disc brakes squeaked almost constantly at times, and removing and replacing the wheels was tricky because of the discs. Also, it was very difficult to find a front rack that did not interfere with the front disc brake. Therefore at the end of 2006 I started looking around for another bike. I was originally just thinking of getting a cheap backup bike to ride during any times when I might have to put the Safari in the shop for repairs. But then I discovered the Surly Long Haul Trucker. The rest, as they say, is history.

I now own a Surly LHT, one of the few that Surly painted in maroon. I ordered it during the time that Surly was just selling the LHT frames, before they began selling complete bikes. Unfortunately I'm not much of a gearhead or do-it-yourselfer, so I had to have a bike shop build up the frame into a complete bike. The shop that built the bike was recommended to me by two sources who spoke highly of its owner; yet I have to say that even he did not completely grasp the idea of a bicycle as basic transportation as opposed to a bike as a recreational toy. He tended to make suggestions about component choices to make the bike light so that I wouldn't be “slowed down.” (Imagine that – concerning a bike that's designed to carry up to 300 pounds!) One thing he did that I later regretted was to install a carbon fiber seatpost that failed after a year. (Fortunately the failure was not catastrophic.) Another thing was his choice of narrow 1.5 inch Schwalbe Marathon tires instead of the more generous 1.75 inch Schwalbes. He almost neglected to install front and rear reflectors (even though these are required by California law) and installed them only after I insisted that he do so.

My Surly now has SKS fenders, 1.75 inch Schwalbes (yes, I replaced the narrower tires), Surly Nice front and rear racks, rechargeable front and rear lights, Salmon Kool-Stop brake pads and Ortlieb panniers. I've put over 6700 miles on it over a period of nearly two years. It is my main steed, and I ride it to work every weekday unless I have an assignment that takes me out of town or unless there is ice on the roads where I now live. I have replaced the carbon fiber seatpost with a genuine honest-to-goodness steel seatpost, and I now have a Brooks B-17 saddle.

Oh, and I still have a Novara Safari. I may convert it into an Xtracycle one of these days.

My bicycle commuting journey had a number of twists and turns, and I spent a fair amount of money along the way – money that I could have saved if I had known what I was doing at the start. But there are many people who are now being squeezed or who are about to be squeezed by rising prices and economic distress, and who are in need of low-cost transportation options. My goal is to try to save you from some of the mistakes I made, and to save you money in the process. You can go much more cheaply than I did. Therefore in my next post on bicycle commuting, I'll give some general recommendations and opinions regarding inexpensive bike commuting, what sort of bicycle to use, and general bike commuting resources.

1 comment:

Xavier said...

Great stuff sir!