Six Months of Bike Commuting

I’ve been commuting by bike semi-regularly for about six months now. “Semi-regularly” in this case means once a week, sometimes twice, with a few extended breaks during especially risk-averse periods like right before Vineman and a few spots of riding more often because of transit issues. I’m not completely converted to the wonders of bike commuting, and I still find it too psychologically taxing and logistically challenging to do it every day. But over the past six months, I’ve found it to be a nice change of pace and something I can even look forward to, with the right preparation.

I read a bunch of “beginner bike commuter” posts before I started riding, and they were helpful. But they were also generally written with the rosy haze of having conquered something: “I was scared to bike to work, but now it’s amazing!” I don’t necessarily feel that way. I’m happy to be riding to work, to have it as an option, but it’s also still a big deal and something I have to psych myself up to do. I feel like I’m still in the thick of learning and figuring out my process and dealing with my fears. Here’s where I stand six months in:

I do not find it relaxing. I do not feel about biking to work the same way I do about other exercise — e.g. that it’s a way to clear my mind, spend time with myself, or relieve stress. I do enjoy that I get to be outside more, and I do like not having to deal with the whims and frustrations of public transit, but I do not find the required constant awareness of cars/pedestrians/other cyclists/traffic signals/construction/the wind to be particularly lovely. It’s a way to get to work. Like all ways to get to work, it has its positives and its negatives.

It doesn’t take much more time than my transit commute. Door-to-door, my bike commute takes about 35 minutes in, 45 minutes home (home is both a longer ride and a hillier one). My train commute is closer to 30 minutes each way, but that doesn’t account for time spent waiting for trains, adjusting for missed trains, or simply coordinating my schedule with NextMuni’s.

It’s hardly a race-pace workout, but it is time in the saddle. My commute to work is almost entirely downhill, and I don’t do a ton of work going that direction. I do have to ride back up those hills on the way home, though, via a slow and steady gain over about three miles. It’s more of an interval workout (stoplight to stoplight) than a normal ride, but I know it’s made me stronger. I’m also more confident in my bike-handling skills. And I can’t really shrug off a 12-mile, 1:20 round-trip as nothing.

I am not trying to “win” my commute. I’m slow. I’m fine with letting other people jump the lights and lead out from the intersections. I prefer being toward the back of the pack. I take the long way around so I don’t have to mix with buses and streetcars. Sometimes I’ll hop off my bike and walk on the sidewalk for a little bit if things get shady. I can only do so much to make myself safer, and I know that behaving predictably is part of riding safely, so I’m always trying to find the line between “cautious” and “actually making it worse for myself.” It’s not easy. But I’d generally rather slow down and let the car make its move first than … not do that, I guess.

I have given up completely on commuting in work clothes. I’m a sweaty lady. I sweat because of exercise, and I sweat when I’m nervous, so the combination of exertion-sweat and fear-sweat makes me a particularly attractive specimen by the time I roll up to my office. My office is casual, so I tried commuting in jeans for a while, and I even bought some cheap spandex shorts at Target so skirts and dresses could be options. But the top half of me still required a full costume change for sweat reasons, and eventually I just decided I’d be happier biking in comfy clothes from head to toe. I don’t go full-biker for the commute — usually yoga pants and a tank — and I’ve acquired expert-level knowledge on which coffee shops near my office have bathrooms and which of those are best for a quick change while I wait for my drink. My gym has a branch about two blocks from the office, so showering and changing there could work, but I’d need to either not care about wet hair or carry my hairdryer with me, and neither of those options is great, so I haven’t gone that route yet. A quick freshening-up in a nearby Starbucks is usually sufficient, and these Purell wipes are amazing at removing the bike grease I inevitably get on myself.

my backpack. it is blue and pretty and holds EVERYTHING.

my backpack. it is blue and pretty and holds EVERYTHING.

How I carry stuff matters. I’m a one-bike woman (my commuter is my road bike is my racing bike), so I didn’t want to add pannier racks. That meant finding the right bag. For smaller loads, I love my Rickshaw Small Zero, into which I can easily fit a change of clothes, a pair of flats, and my wallet, phone, and U-lock. But I often have to commute with my work computer, a 15″ behemoth. I have a larger Rickshaw (Medium Zero) that fits my computer, but after a few test commutes, I realized that messenger-style bags don’t work for me with a heavier load. I’m short-waisted, and no matter how tight I made the strap, my computer would still smack the back of the seat when I got on and off the bike. So, I turned to backpacks. I loved the look of the Osprey FlapJill, but it felt bulky, and accessing my stuff by unbuckling the flap was a pain. Eventually, I settled on the InCase Compact, which I found for a steal on Amazon. I cannot say enough good things about this bag. It’s comfortable, it doesn’t create a “backpack blind spot” when I need to look over my shoulder when changing lanes, and it fits so much stuff. On Monday, I packed into it my laptop, my U-lock and cable, and full changes of clothes for work, a post-work swim in the bay, and an anticipated colder commute home — including my wetsuit and a camp towel. It’s unreal.

I’m a fair-weather bike commuter. For the same reason I don’t want to put racks on my bike, I also don’t have fenders. And even when I’m changing clothes later, the “water-shooting-up-my-ass” look is not really my favorite. If it suddenly starts raining while I’m out, I can get myself home, but I won’t choose to ride in anything more than a drizzle.

Everyone behaves badly. I get equally annoyed with drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists — and I’m sure others are constantly annoyed with me. Nobody is necessarily “more in the right” or “more in the wrong”; people using all modes of transit break the law (usually minorly, sometimes majorly) or just do dumb things all the time. That said, I am constantly stunned at the number of cars that don’t use turn signals — or that flip them on only after starting to make a turn. Using a turn signal is not a burden, people.

I’m braver about riding around the city generally. I’m much more confident looking at a bike map and figuring out how to ride to new places now. I can (often) get my bike on a rack without dropping things and looking like an idiot. I have a better frame of reference for what kind of hills I’m comfortable riding, and the idea of “Oh, I’ll just run to the store on my bike!” is no longer absurd to me. That’s nice.

I still get scared. Sometimes it’s for understandable reasons — cars turn without signaling, or I don’t know how to handle a particular traffic situation developing in front of me, or I remember partway through an intersection that oh crap, this is the one with the huge pothole, or a cyclist is hit and killed where I commute. And sometimes it’s totally random. About a month ago, I suddenly developed a mad case of the yips at a particular intersection that I’d been navigating cleanly since I first started biking in the city. All of a sudden, I could no longer start from a dead stop when the light turned green. I’ve come up with ways to navigate it (try to time the previous light differently so I have a green when I get to that particular intersection; let other cyclists go ahead of me; stop further to the right of the lane, where the pavement is more even), but it’s still iffy. On the other hand, embracing the fact that I might get scared makes me feel more OK when I do.

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11 thoughts on “Six Months of Bike Commuting

  1. Clair says:

    You fit your wetsuit in that backpack? Impressive. Bike commuting through downtown is harrowing, but it’s made me braver about city riding too. And, among my friends anyway, it’s great for bragging rights.

  2. Jen says:

    I really like your bike commuting posts because I can totally relate, and also because I appreciate your honesty. My commute is a flat 3 miles each way — it’s easy peasy on the way there (all right turns) but there is a super sketchy area on the way back, where I have to make a left turn through all sorts of traffic. It’s what keeps me from bike commuting more often.

    I also have an Incase backpack and I love it, though when I fill it up, it makes me look like a turtle. 🙂

    • kimretta says:

      Thank you! Man, that switch from all right turns to all left turns is the WORST! I hate that. It’s another thing I will go out of my way to avoid if possible.

      And, LOL at the turtle backpack!

  3. Kristina says:

    I was averaging about once a week in the spring and now that I’m back to work (teaching), it’s been blazing hot so I have yet to get on the bike as a commuter. Total fair weather commuter here.
    I may have to check out the Incase pack – I have several backpacks, yet none is ‘ideal’ for commuting.

    • kimretta says:

      Ooooh, I rarely have reason to think about “heat” as a weather reason not to ride — but I would hate bike commuting if it’s hot. I hope you get some semblance of fall weather before the rain starts!

  4. I agree that how you carry things matters a lot. I have one of those seatpost-mounted racks (doesn’t connect to the frame at all, so a good option for racing bikes) but I never use it — I think it’s just way easier to keep whatever I need on my bike, so I can get out the door fast and then lock up fast when I get wherever I’m going. That backpack does sound magical — I’ll check it out!

    My commute in Chicago was way intense (12 miles along the lake — seriously windy). My commuting outfit then was whatever work pants I was wearing + a different shirt + layers, which I’d peel off over the course of the ride. I brought a new shirt for work, and stuffed the layers in my bag as I went. I’m looking forward to a more “chill-length” commute here that hopefully won’t necessitate as much prep!

    • kimretta says:

      Ooh! I hadn’t considered a seatpost rack. That seems like it could be a good option if I ever want to do a longer trip or need carry more stuff.

      Total respect for riding along the water in Chicago — I complain about the wind here and I know it’s nothing compared to that!

  5. biking2work says:

    That seems like a pretty fair assessment and some points well and truly resonate with me, namely motivation & the fair weather thing. I can only bike to work twice a week max but often its once due to motivation and/or weather. Its ~12 miles each way and undulating which I suspect the pro’s call “flat” but like you I’m in no rush to nail a PB. I am lucky though as work has a cyclist shower block with racks so can dowse myself done before work. You ride in SF with all those hills? Respect…

    • kimretta says:

      Well, I’ll admit I try to find the flattest route possible, especially when I’m commuting! But I definitely don’t have to go far if I want to get some hill work in. Thanks for the comment and jealous of your work shower situation!

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