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.
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.