Some Notes on Bike Commuting

October 22nd, 2014  |  Published in this mortal coil  |  1 Comment

Last year I sat out the bike commute challenge at work. I was feeling resistant to bike commuting because I’d given it a try in late fall/early winter and had a really hard time of it. This year, I thought about it ahead of time and decided to set a goal of biking to work every day in September.

I started out July with a three-day-a-week goal and it was pretty easy to get up to five days a week within a month or so. The last Friday of August, I went on a 51-mile ride around east Portland (warning, PDF) as a sort of “if I can do this in a morning, I can surely do 24 miles a day” validation run.

Here are a few observations:

Handlebars matter

My last bike was a hybrid with mountain bike bars. It was very hard to ride for more than five or six miles without feeling some discomfort. There just aren’t many ways you can vary your grip, which makes it pretty fatiguing over time. My new bike has drop bars and “chicken levers” in addition to the normal brake levers. There are plenty of ways to shift around on the bars now, which helps beyond just resting wrists, hands and shoulders: It’s much easier to shift weight around in general.

A good bike fit matters

Puppet Labs paid for most of a bike fitting during the bike commute challenge, so I was able to have a specialist set me up and coach me on posture and positioning. My seat was riding a little high, and my posture wasn’t great. 30 minutes later, everything was adjusted correctly and I had learned how to position my feet on the pedals and hold my back. My ride has been more comfortable since.

Cleats are nice, but they take work

After a lot of back and forth, I bought clipless pedals. I had toe clips on my last bike, and they were fine but a little bit of a pain now and then. For September, I just used the pedals that came with my bike. They were fine except on wet days: I’d hit a few hills where I didn’t downshift enough and my feet would slip off.

I celebrated my 100 percent commute rate for September by buying clipless pedals and shoes. I was initially going to go with the standard Shimano SPD setup and possibly dual-use pedals (cleat hardware on one side, standard cage on the other), but noticed Shimano’s selling a line of clipless pedals and shoes branded as “Click’R.” They’re supposed to be easier to get in and out of, which was a concern for me because everybody said “if you go clipless, you’ll fall over some time in your first week.” So rather than going with the half-measure, I just bought Click’R stuff.

The Click’R line involves a slightly different pedal construction and standard SPD cleats, along with shoes that I think are a little more built for street wear. The pedals are also multi-use, so it’s possible to use them for short rides without cleats. The guy at Bike Gallery installed the pedals for me and set the tension very low. I went out in the side parking lot and practiced clicking in and out 20 or 30 times, then took off for work.

I haven’t fallen over yet, but clipless pedals weren’t completely trouble free to begin with. You have to set up your cleats with a little care to make sure the pedal is properly aligned with your foot. I set mine up kind-of-sort-of correctly and began to notice two things: My left foot was turned in a little (bad alignment of the cleat along the length of my foot), which caused me a little knee discomfort; and both feet were sore from my toes trying to grip something when I pedaled.

I paid very close attention to this video on proper cleat setup, made a few adjustments, and I’ve had a week of much smoother riding. No more inward turn, the knee pain is gone, and it’s easier to adopt the sort of shuffling pedaling motion you’re supposed to have when you’re clipped in. I don’t think about my feet, either. I just click in and start going and there’s no more foot stress.

The big difference I’ve noticed in my rides has come from better pedaling technique: When I’m doing it right, I’m exerting less force in a way that used to cause my upper body to move more when I pedaled. Now, with that shuffling stroke, my upper body has an easier time staying still and that makes for a ride that feels smoother and more anchored.

Lower gears are better

When I first got my new bike, I was pretty excited about how fast I could go on it. I lived up on the third ring and sort of mashed along at high speed. After a few weeks, I read that the middle cog is traditionally the cruising cog, so I dropped down to that, but still stayed up on the high gears. In the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with lower and lower gears, and I’ve found that spinning along around the middle of the middle cog is just about right for me. I’m moving about as fast as I was when I was mashing in the upper gears, but it feels better (and it contributes to the smoother ride I’ve been getting by improving my pedaling technique). It also makes hills less traumatic: one long pull on the STI shifters gets me down to a climbing gear, and three clicks at the top gets me back to a cruising gear that doesn’t take a ton of effort to get moving with again. There are a few hills I don’t even think about anymore because there’s less wandering around the gears.

You won’t please everybody

A short list of things I have gotten yelled at for on the Springwater:

  • Using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them (“Whatever!”)
  • Not using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them
  • Saying “on your left” before passing (“GOOD FOR YOU!”)
  • Not saying “on your left” before passing (that guy chased me for a block, yelling at me that he was going to kick my ass) (we were on opposite sides of the widest part of the trail with nobody else around)
  • Blinking lights (“disco, motherfucker!”)
  • Steady lights (“FUCK YOUR LIGHTS!”)
  • Yielding the right of way to a driver who had the right of way
  • Failing to cross against a signal

I had one close shave with someone who just turned across a bike crossing without looking, and I had one close shave from someone who yielded the right of way at an intersection, then rescinded the offer as I passed in front of them. I think someone thought the whole “lunge at the bicyclist with your car” thing was a playful joke I might enjoy. Good one!

But, you know, over 800 or so miles that averages out to someone being unhappy with me about once every 80 miles. I’ve since settled into just using my bell (people who are walking or riding along and talking or listening to music don’t hear spoken warnings without me shouting, which just makes them angry) and I’m firmly in the “your attempt at rules-of-the-road-negating ‘courtesy’ will get someone killed, so I’m not budging until your arm falls off from gesticulating at me” camp.

Lights are a conundrum. Too bright or angled too high, and they’re obnoxious. Angled too low and they make the Springwater at night a pretty iffy proposition, considering how many people there are on foot wearing nothing reflective, or salmoning up the trail with no lights. My takeaway so far: I’ve adapted to bright lights on other bikes by looking down at the side of the path until they’re past, and I just keep my light at the lowest of the three brightness settings.

What I got over three months

So, from a dead stop of having not ridden to work in 18 months in July, to biking into work every day in September (and so far in October, with the exception of a single work-from-home day), this is what I got:

I was pretty saddle sore the first week or two, even at three days a week. My back wasn’t always happy, and my shoulders were sore, even though my new bike let me shift around a lot more than my old one. After a month, I wasn’t thinking about saddle soreness at all. I even did a 10-mile ride from a coworker’s house in my jeans without getting too sore. By mid-September, I wasn’t thinking about my shoulders or arms at all.

My overall sense of wind has been steadily improving. Now that I’m spinning more than I’m mashing, I’ve been experiencing a much more profound sense of stillness on my rides. That extends from the steady motion of my body to the ease of my breathing. Clipped in, properly seated, and resting on the brake hoods, I feel anchored and connected to my bike.

There’s been some work stress, but that hour on the bike at night gives me a ton of space to process it and come through the door in a better place for my family. The hour on the bike going in gives me valuable time to think about what’s coming for the day and gear up for it.

Without paying much attention to my diet — meaning I just sort of went with it when all that increased activity meant I wanted to eat like a horse, and I haven’t been denying myself much since my appetite settled down — I’m also down a bit over 17 pounds.

I guess the big downside is that winter is coming and I don’t think there’s any alternative but to keep the routine I’ve established. It’s been too good for me to stop, even if it means I’m going to be getting wet a lot.


  1. Dad says:

    October 23rd, 2014 at 1:46 pm (#)

    Bravo! I’ve been commuting for 4 weeks or so now and my experience has been similar (but thanks for bike-fitting tip; need to do that). Good rain-gear is a must and makes a big difference. Helmet cover, showers pass biking jacket, good rain pants, shoe covers/booties, and insulated/waterproof gauntlets/gloves. balaclava for when it gets colder (I’m told, haven’t done winter commute yet).

    Pretty sure my flashing head-light saved my life yesterday because the handlebar front light was below the window line of the car that turned into me and noticed me just in time. Highly recommend a helmet mounted light set even more now. Useful because it can be pointed at cars to the side to get their attention if necessary.

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