The Review's Bike to Work Commuter Guide
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:37 PM
Healthy, wealthy and wise - just three of the many reasons to bike to work each day
The island's rush-hour swarm of yellow-jacketed cyclists grows larger every year - but there's always room for more, says veteran pedal-powered commuter Kirk Robinson.
He's got a long list of personal reasons he rides to work everyday - it keeps him fit, its cheaper, faster and poses no parking hassles - but he also bikes with the greater good in mind.
"Another big reason is that I'm not emitting any greenhouse gasses through a tail-pipe," he says. "If I'm riding my bike, there's no smog, no polluting, nothing bad is going into the air - unless I have bad breath that day."
Robinson sets out each morning from his home on North Madison Avenue for the 3.5 mile ride to the Winslow ferry terminal. From there, a cross-sound cruise whisks him to Seattle where he again presses rubber to concrete and pedals up to his 6th Avenue office.
"Riding gives me exercise so I don't have to make time to go to a gym or pay the membership for it," he says. "It's also cheaper. I'm not paying for parking, or to bring a car across the ferry or for gas. And it's quicker than the bus or driving because I'm not stuck in (traffic) or looking for parking."
Like a lot of bike commuters, Robinson had all but retired from cycling after he reached adulthood. But a cross-country bike trip by his younger siblings sparked a renewed interest during his graduate school days.
"If they can ride their bikes across the continent, I decided I could ride a bike to work," he says.
He has since commuted by bike in Washington D.C., San Francisco and for almost 17 years on the island, which he says is an "ideal place to bike" with relatively little traffic and plenty of tree-lined roads.
Maybe that's why bikes are such a common site on the island. Besides a large number of recreational riders, about 4 percent of the island's workers hold bike commuter passes from state ferry system. That puts Bainbridge bike-to-work rate well above than the national average of 1.6 percent, which trails far behind a number of other nations where bikes are as ubiquitous as station wagons and SUVs are in the U.S. In Japan, 15 percent of commuters bicycle to work. In the Netherlands, over half of all commuters use pedal power. China boasts a whopping 77 percent bicycle-to-work rate.
Dana Berg, president of the island cycling advocacy group Squeaky Wheels, hopes the sharp rise in bike commuters streaming long the State Route 305 and Winslow Way will continue.
"There's been a lot of consciousness-raising over the last few years," she says. "With gas prices rising, people know it's cheaper from a cost basis. They know it's healthy, it saves money on the ferry tickets and they know it's one thing that's going to save the world."
CHOOSING YOUR STEED
I've got a bike / You can ride it if you like / It's got a basket, a bell that rings, and things to make it look good / I'd give it to you if I could... - From the song "Bike" by Pink Floyd.
A good commuter bike doesn't require a second mortgage, nor does it need a lot of bells and whistles to do its primary job: get you from point A to point B safely.
"People should not be threatened by the prices on some of the racing bikes we have," said Jeff Groman, owner of Classic Cycle on Winslow Way. "For a good commuter bike, you shouldn't pay more than you paid for your house."
At Classic Cycle and other area bike shops, about $300 will buy a sturdy bike with basic components. A commuter bike should also allow a rider to attach some helpful upgrades, such as fenders, a rear rack and a light system, Groman said.
Commuters ride on a range of bike styles, from sleek road bikes with drop-down handlebars and skinny wheels to lug-tired mountain bikes, according to Groman. Hybrid cycles, combining elements of road and mountain designs, are becoming popular with many urban commuters and bike messengers. Hybrids typically feature a road bike's slick, speedier tires attached to the smaller, sturdier wheels of a mountain bike. The t-shaped handlebars position the rider upright, allowing for a larger field of vision and quicker turning - both are especially helpful when riding in close quarters with automobiles and pedestrians.
Robinson rides to work on a touring bike he purchased in case he one day follows in his brother and sister's tracks. While he bides his time for a cross-country trip, Robinson says the touring bike design - which combines durability, easy maintenance and comfort - has also made for an reliable and efficient commuter bike.
"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live." - Mark Twain, novelist and American icon.
Most cyclists who follow a few basic safety precautions have lived long and have few regrets.
According to a study conducted by John Hopkins University, cyclists who ride sober, wear a helmet, go with the flow of traffic and use a light at night are nearly 100 percent likely to survive their rides.
"Besides a helmet, the one thing that will save your life is a light," says Classic Cycle mechanic Paul Johnson.
While many cyclists attach a red blinking light on the rear of their bikes, Johnson says that's not enough.
"It's one of my pet peeves - people just putting the blinky on the rear," he says. "But you need one up front too (because) the majority (of accidents) I hear about are from cars taking left or right turns straight on" to cyclists.
Tom Clune, who commutes to his B.I.Cycle Shop on Bjune Drive, said his customers report that a front-mounted flashing white light greatly increases a cyclist's visibility to motorists.
"They're having less close calls," he says. "They tell me that (drivers) sometimes stop and wave and say thanks because that light is making it easy for them to see them, because nobody wants to crash into a cyclist."
An inexpensive, no-battery option is a medium-powered front light available at Eagle Hardware on High School Road. The light, manufactured by Bell, links to the bike's wheel and uses each rotation to charge a small bulb. The wheel-powered light is a bit more complicated to install, but never needs replacement batteries.
Clune also strongly recommends that cyclists wear bright clothing, preferably with reflective elements.
His store offers reflective taping by the foot, which he advises riders to use liberally on bikes, helmets, clothes, bags and gear.
"The most important thing is to be seen and see," he says.
A strong headlight will help in both departments. More powerful than the smaller lights geared more for warning motorists, headlights are powerful enough to light up the dark roads outside Winslow.
"Even if your ride is only a couple miles, if you're outside Winslow, you need a main headlight," says Johnson.
These battery-powered headlights aren't cheap, ranging from $80 to $500. But on an island with few street lamps, strong headlights "are essential," according to Johnson.
THROUGH RAIN, HAIL, SLEET OR SNOW
"We're faced with so many elements, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright..."- Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner.
The ride to work won't be nearly as grueling as Armstrong's annual winding treks up the Alps, but any year-round bike commuter will elements will be a factor for any year-round commuter. Chief among them, of course, is rain.
"Rain wear is a must," says Clune, who suggests water-resistant pants, jacket, textured-grip gloves, booties that cover shoes and a helmet cover as basic items. Local shops offer ventilated clothes that stop rain but won't trap in sweat as well as water-resistant pants to keep khakis crud-free.
Local stores also stock biking gloves that dry quick and offer grip-traction on the palms. Feet get especially wet during rainy rides, which can make for an especially squishy day at the office. To avoid this problem, many cyclists wear water-proof booties that are designed to fit over narrow cycling shoes.
Carry a clean pair of work clothes and a sack lunch in waterproof saddle bags, which can range $120 to $200, and fit snug on rear racks. For a less expensive option, Johnson of Classic Cycle converts and sells recycled oyster buckets with rear rack attachments.
Many cyclists say fenders are vital for keeping road grit and water away from both the rider and the bike's moving parts.
Commuters should steer clear of clip-on fenders popular with the mountain biking crowd, Johnson says. Instead, he suggests commuters buy the longer, curved variety which offer more protection for a chains and gears.
Many rainy-day cyclists are choosing bikes with disc breaks over the standard rim breaks. According to Clune, disc breaks stop better in wet weather, require fewer repairs and don't wear down wheel rims.
For a bike geared specifically for the Northwest's urban commuter, Classic Cycle offers the Trek Portland, which comes equipped with puncture-resistant tires, fenders and disc breaks.
RIDE SMART, RIDE EASY
"I'm gonna show you a hill that would choke a mule." - President George W. Bush, moments before losing his front-wheel traction and tumbling over his handlebars.
No piece of bike gear is more important than the glob of gray matter tucked under the helmet.
Riders must keep sharp, especially when sharing the road with motorists.
"Don't assume anything when you're with cars," says Clune. "Just because you may have the right-of-way, don't assume you're going to get it."
Clune also advises cyclists to avoid the adhere to the rules of the road that they'd typically follow when driving. This, he says, makes cyclists more predictable to motorists.
"It's easy for cyclists to bend the rules," he says. "But it's absolutely mandatory that they do what cars do: signaling, coming to a full stop at stop signs. Otherwise, drivers don't know what a cyclist is going to do."
Cyclists should also pay attention to the conditions outside to avoid mishaps. Each day is different, Clune says, so take a take a gander out the window and make adjustments accordingly.
Regardless of weather conditions, Clune says allowing enough time for your commute is one of the smartest strategies for a safe ride.
"Try not to be in a rush," he says. "Slow down, give yourself time on the ride. You'll see a lot more and be safer."
Robinson advises beginning or rusty riders to ease the brain and nerves into a regular commute by rolling through a test run on the weekend or when traffic is sparse.
When boarding the ferry for the first time as a cyclist, Robinson suggests "going with the flow." Observe and follow the lead of other cyclists. As a rule, don't mix with on or off-loading automobiles or motorcycles.
HEALTHY, WEALTHY AND WISE
"Bicycling is a big part of the future. It has to be. There's something wrong with a society that drives a car to workout in a gym."- Bill Nye, the Science Guy
Bike commuters don't have to wait until the distant future to avoid the triple-loss scenario Nye observed in our modern car-centric society. By biking to work, a cyclist saves money on gym memberships, the gas it takes to get to the gym and the less-quantifiable cost of giving island air another dose of tailpipe toxins. Yet, at the same time, a bike commuter is earning much of the gut-busting payoffs as the gym-goer.
According to "Bicycle Magazine," bike commuters can expect to lose about 13 pounds during their first year of riding to work.
Breaking it down by the hour, a 130 lb. rider can burn over 400 calories, while a 180-pounder can melt off 540 calories.
Burning calories on his bike has meant Robinson has burned fewer tanks of gas, especially when he also uses his bike to run errands or attend community meetings.
It's a cost-savings that grows each year as fuel prices continue to rise. meetings.
"I'm not paying anything for transportation.
With the cost of driving and maintaining an automobile at around 32 cents per mile, Robinson saves approximately $11.20 each week by leaving his car at home - and that doesn't include parking costs or bus fare on the Seattle side. A year's worth of biking his daily 7 mile round trip can potentially save Robinson almost $600 a year in fuel and car maintenance costs alone.
"Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride." - President John F. Kennedy
There's one more reason to bike to work.
"It's extremely enjoyable," says Squeaky Wheels' Dana Berg. "I love that it's outside, it's in the natural light and I love the motion of pedaling along - it's smooth and rhythmic.
It's an easy way to get a daily dose of exercise and it's a mode of transportation. People try cycling for a lot of reasons, but, because it's also fun, people really get hooked."