Staying in Shape for the Slopes: Bike Commuting 7
Author thumbnail By John Sherwood, DCSki Columnist

Author John Sherwood geared up and ready for the commute to work.
It’s a sunny fall afternoon and I am nearly home. All of a sudden, two bucks with full racks of antlers come cascading down an embankment within inches of my bike. Wow! I’ve just seen two bucks only a couple of miles from the White House in broad daylight.

This is just one of the many sights I have seen in the past three years that I have biked to work. Biking allows one to see the first cherry blossoms in spring, the first foliage in fall, and yes skiers, even the first snowfall of winter! For skiers, biking is great exercise. Both Ski and Skiing magazines recommend the sport as an off-season activity because it works some of the same muscle groups as skiing. Biking also focuses the mind in a similar manner. There are some interesting similarities in terms of balance, stance, and eye movement between skiing down a hill and riding a steep descent on a bike.

However, I don’t bike to work to prepare for skiing, I do it as an end unto itself. I commute several days a week from Northwest DC to the Washington Navy Yard. Much of my 8.5-mile route follows bike trails, but some of it is on heavily trafficked roads. The trip takes about 40 minutes each way, and I am fortunate to be able to shower and change at my place of work -; a factor that allows me to ride harder and faster to work. The highlight of my ride in the morning is seeing a sunrise or surprising a blue heron feeding along the Potomac. In the afternoon, the ride allows me to unwind and forget about work. Biking, especially in heavy traffic, requires so much concentration that one can’t afford to think much about work. Like skiing or snowboarding, it has a tendency to take one’s mind away from the daily stresses of life and focus them instead on a physical activity.

For those contemplating bike commuting, allow me to share a few lessons learned over the three years I have commuted on two wheels.

With regard to equipment, any bike will get you to work and back, but some will do it with a lot less hassle than others. A commuter needs a bike that can carry heavy loads in rack-mounted panniers and also handle the rough, potholed roads of the metropolitan region. Road bikes, with their narrow tires and nimble frames, do not accomplish either of these goals very well. Better vehicles for commuting are hybrid, mountain, and cyclocross bikes.

Hybrids have sturdy frames and tires wide enough to even handle an unpaved bike path. Their only drawback is that they are not extremely fast, and tend to be heavy. Equipment snobs, myself included, also find them unappealing from an aesthetic point of view. But you can’t beat the hybrid for price and practicality. My wife has taken her Giant Cyprus on some rough mountain bike trails in West Virginia without complaining. Hybrids now come with a variety of options, including front-end and seat-post suspension systems.

Mountain bikes (MTBs) with smooth tires work great for commuting. They also can take a lot of abuse and are especially handy for jumping curbs and other urban obstacles. Suspension systems on these bikes can make your ride nearly as comfortable as a car. The only drawback of MTBs is that their gearing, wide tires, and smaller diameter wheels, slow them down on roads. Full-suspension systems, especially on low-end bikes, can also add a lot of weight.

Cyclocross bikes are designed for on and off road racing in all types of weather conditions. Since Cyclocross are racing machines, they go very fast and look like road bikes! Unfortunately, because they are designed for racing, they require the rider to sit in a forward, hunched position that can sometimes get uncomfortable on long rides. My back starts to hurt after about 40 miles on my Cannondale XR 800. For my relatively short 17 mile round trip commute, however, the bike is ideal.

In addition to a bike, commuters also might need a lighting system for fall and winter riding. I use a cheap flashing red light in the back, and a more expensive NiteRider halogen light in the front. A halogen system is overkill for a brightly lit urban setting like DC, but for unlit trails, the intense light helps one to see puddles, branches, and other obstacles. I also carry a set of allen wrenches, a spare tube, and a Topeak Mountain Morph pump: changing flat tubes is de rigeur for the commuter, and I can now do it in about ten minutes flat. [Editor’s note: That’s a really bad pun, John!]

Finally, I carry a small first aid kit and wear an orange vest. The vest looks truly ridiculous but it, along with my lighting system, has saved me from more potential accidents than I can count. Most regular commuters are starting to break down and wear them. Enough said.

As for pedals, I ride on Time clipless pedals. Clipless pedals function in a very similar manner as a ski binding. They attach your shoe to the crank of the bike, thereby giving you power on both the up and down pedal strokes. Many commuters forego clipless pedals because they find that they are inconvenient and occasionally dangerous in heavy, stop and go, traffic. Admittedly, a couple of my worst falls were the direct result of not clipping out in time. Call me crazy, but I just love the feeling of being physically attached to my bike -; must be my inner skier talking to me. The extra power derived from the pedals also makes my commute faster.

For clothing, I like to experiment with the latest materials, but a cotton T-shirt usually works fine for commutes under an hour in mild weather. Two essential clothing items are a decent pair of padded bike shorts and a Gore-Tex shell for rain. Everything else is optional.

So now you have your gear and are ready to go. The only thing left to do is to pick a route. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association offers free route advice to commuters, and will even assign a volunteer mentor to ride with you for a day to get you comfortable with your route. Bike paths are almost always preferable to roads, and the DC area is blessed with a very extensive trail system. Far and away the best trail for commuters is the Custis/W&OD Trail, a system that runs from Arlington to Purceville. I’ve met many commuters who regularly ride from Reston to DC (about 18 miles each way) via this trail. Other good commuter runs include the Mount Vernon Trail, the Capital Crescent, and the Rock Creek Trail.

For most commuters, though, some travel on busy roads is unavoidable. Do not despair! You will get accustomed to riding in traffic. Like skiing on a busy day, you learn to anticipate the actions of others and adjust your riding accordingly. Also, DC motorists are more tolerant of bikers than you might expect. Many understand that bikers are removing cars from our over-burdened road system and improving the environment. It is these motorists who slow down for bikers, allow them to make lane changes, and cross busy intersections. As for the crazy drivers, just remember that you will probably be home before them. On average, my trip home is shorter by bike than car.

About John Sherwood

John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.

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Reader Comments

October 19, 2002
Nice article, John.

I also own a NiteRider lighting system -- I'm on my second one now. I have mixed feelings about NiteRider. On the one hand, I believe they are the best lighting systems you can buy for your bike, bar none. On the downside, they are also the most expensive, undoubtedly with a very large profit margin.

What drove that point home is when the battery died on the first NiteRider system I bought (purchased around 1997 for $300). I don't use the systems aggressively; maybe once a week for a quick night ride through the neighborhood in the spring and fall. The battery simply died one day; the charger wouldn't even recognize it.

I tried to purchase a replacement battery but couldn't find one. I sent e-mail to NiteRider and received an automated reply indicating that they were too busy to respond to e-mail. (Huh?!) The battery my system used was no longer made; I could find a retailer selling an old one (for about $150!) but I didn't feel comfortable buying one that was probably manufactured not long after the original.

So I ended up grudgingly buying a brand new system (this time $350) even though the only thing wrong with the old one was the battery. Replacement batteries are exorbitantly priced, and my old rear NiteRider LED taillight wasn't compatible with the new system (they changed voltages and connectors), so I had to buy another one of those as well for another $50.

The systems work great, until the battery dies, but I can't say that I've been a completely satisfied customer. Systems that are significantly cheaper (say, $30) are not that much worse than the expensive NiteRider systems. And even though the prices are astronomical, customer support at NiteRider seems to be non-existent. (Search the web for examples of their customer treatment!) But for regular dusk or night riding, NiteRider is probably the best thing going.
John Sherwood
October 20, 2002
My wife nearly fainted when I told her what I spent on my NiteRider system. However, I have not had any battery problems thus far. I occasionally allow the battery to burn all the way down, and that seems to help. Nicad batteries occasionally suffer from something called battery memory loss if they are charged too often and not allowed to burn down. This has happened to me with mobile phones.

BTW, I just checked for cycle lighting prices. The top-of-the-line NiteRider Blowtorch (40 Watts) now goes for $409. Thats insane! One can buy a decent hybrid bike for less money. The light I use, the Digital Evolution, runs for $229. A more affordable halogen solution might be the Cygol Night Explorer for $110. I dont know anything about it but the specs say it actually produces more light than the NiteRider Digital Evolution (25 vs. 15 watts).

Also, Cateye sells micro halogen lights for under $30. These little lights throw off enough light to warn oncoming traffic of your approach. They also work on 4 AA batteries and are extremely light.

One complaint I have about NiteRider lights is that they are so bright that they can kill your peripheral night vision. Hence, I often run my light at the very lowest setting anyway. Therefore, the simple $22 Cateye might be the ideal solution for a commuter on a budget.

October 20, 2002
Great article John! Down here in flatland Florida, the only thing I have to worry about is sugar sand and the occasional older folk in my way! I ride on a Trek 4900, this year's model. Really nice ride and does great in all conditions, not sure about snow, but that just means I need to test it out! ) As far as riding in traffic, after a while you do get used to it. I don't ride w/ a light though. When I did, I used a Cateye and it worked well. THINK SNOW!!!
October 20, 2002

Flat land makes for good bike commuting! Also, the Trek 4900 is a good example of the type of MTB that would work well for commuting. It is extremely light due to its aluminum frame and hard tail, yet it cushions the worst bumps with decent front end suspension. Do you use it often for commuting?
October 20, 2002
Not as much now that I have a Driver's Liscense. We have a lake in our town, 11 mile ride around it. I normally do that 5-10 times a week. Though it's swim season now, so I havent ridden much since august. Got on it last week, I only did four miles before I came home. The front suspension is excellent! Not to mention the spiffy paint job, I feel like a sleek, profesional biker! Think Snow!
John P
November 17, 2002
Interesting article. I also commute by bike to DC but from Mt. Vernon VA. I also use a Nite Rider halogen system, Digital Head Trip. My battery died after about a year of use. I called them and after waiting on hold for a long time, they sold me a new battery. My system is incompatible with the new Digital Head Trip II so I expect to be forced to replace the whole works soon.
You left out two bike types which happen to be the ones I use. I have an 11-year old touring bike (Specialized Sequoia) and a brand new recumbent (Tour Easy Expedition). Both work great for my commute which is quite similar to yours.
John Sherwood
March 12, 2003
My Nite Rider battery died yesterday.

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