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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  Ride Harder
Cover Story

Ride Harder

Green Issue: The thrills and spills of riding your bike to work—every day.

By Jason Bultman
Posted // May 6,2009 - recycle_Bike.jpgI still mentally hesitate when I wake up and see a thick torrential downpour. Then I focus and resume plans for a commute to work. Time to disregard human weakness and any and all hesitation at the prospect of slicing through rain or snow … on a bicycle. This will be fun! The thought process starts: What is happening before and after work? Any errands to run or community meetings? Family plans or recreational pursuits to fulfill? What needs to be carried for clothing and gear? The bags or the trailer? Which of my vehicles to take to work? Back to work, the plan is devised, time to execute. The clothing-donning process starts. In cool or inclement weather: neoprene socks, leg warmers, shoes, booties over shoes, waterproof pants, top shell, insert clear lens into eyewear.

The final touch is securing the hood of my raincoat into a lid and face cover using my helmet. Solid. Good to go. Tires fully inflated, check. Front and rear lights on and working, check. Spare tube, tire lever, patch kit, pump, water, check. Time for the take off. Initiate downhill cruise, clip—clip … enjoy silence and soulful contemplative moment … control systems calibration: feeling in fingers, wiggle toes, blood flow turned on and synapse relays firing. Oh, shit—are the cables attached? Thank God. Wet brakes functional? Front rear … Check. Shift into high gear. Ah, yes, the feeling of a cog engaging the chain perfectly without a skip or a clank is a thing of beauty.

This is going to be a good day. A steady downhill morning cruise is the perfect start to a day. Add to that a nice smooth surface, and it’s like riding on a magic carpet.

On winter mornings with recent snow, a downhill stretch can be icy and slick, so I have to pay attention. But even on the craziest snow days, the main roads are usually quite manageable. Traction depends more on bike handling and balance than tire surface, although sometimes I do take advantage of studded snow tires.

With snow on the road, I’ll take the lane, staking my safe and legal position on the road. Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is less danger bike-commuting in winter-storm conditions; motorists generally go slower and give you more space.

I can travel faster and safer than a car commuter in some winter conditions. Folks’ funny looks and comments when I arrive someplace dripping wet are always fun to respond to. “Gee, I left my windows down again.”

So much for people thinking I’m normal. With the waterproof shell layers, the only things that can get wet are my feet, hands and face. I have to remember to check my face in the morning, to wash off dirt blobs that landed during the ride. I keep a full wardrobe in my office, waiting dry and warm. We also have a shower for when I take longer mountain rides before work. After changing clothes, I’m ready for coffee or yerba mate. Finally, that gratifying feeling of accomplishment. Nothin’ to it. Riding in nice weather is not as exciting, but just as much fun.

Of Cogs and Chains
Traveling by bicycle is by far the best way to get around town. As a mechanical engineer, my work is to find the most efficient and inexpensive way to make things work. I’m not into idling or filling up at gas stations.

My commute is not affected by accidents or traffic congestion. I just ride right by. In the afternoon, when I see gridlock on Interstate 15 and pass all the cars idling at traffic lights, I’m glad I’m moving and not contributing to that problem.

As an outdoorsman, I prefer to not be confined in a small temperature-controlled box. With the right knowledge, experience and gear, bike commuting has become a major source of inspiration and energy.

Depending on my mood and purpose for the trip, I grab either the mountain bike, commuter/touring bike, trailer bike, racing bike or the cruiser. If I’m in a really good mood, I’ll take the longboard.

While my wife owns a car that we use on family trips when bikes are not an option, I personally have never given up bicycling and skateboarding since I was a kid. Buses and TRAX fill in the gaps nicely when needed.

Bike parking is easy and almost always available, and if not, I bring the bike inside. Open panniers on the bike double as my shopping cart. The other thing convenient about bike commuting is human interaction. I can say “hi” to neighbors and stop and talk to people. I have met many friends while out bike commuting, going the same way for long enough to get to know them. Try that in a car. Unless you really enjoy eating, don’t pursue the bikecommuter lifestyle. I eat as much as I can but still cannot gain weight. My wife thinks I have worms. But the bike commute actually serves a unique and vital purpose for my physical well-being.

In 1992, I suffered a severe lower-back injury requiring disk surgery. Managing chronic lower back pain is a constant challenge, one that I almost have mastered.

Sitting at a computer and standing at a test bench all day would kill me. But sandwich the day with some time in the bike saddle, and I’m fine.

Start Seeing Cyclists
Most active bike riders including avid bicyclists wouldn’t consider using a bike for commuting purposes.

The pedaling lifestyle does require more motivation, more drive and more physical energy. Pedaling obviously has more constraints than the car culture and puts riders at higher risk for injuries and accidents.

Even if you ride properly and follow the rules, there is still the occasional distracted motorist to watch out for, such as the cell-phone distracted driver who hit me in the summer of 2004. This was the classic “left cross,” where a motorist turns left in front on a cyclist who is riding in the opposite direction—a horrific, traumatic experience. After two full years of physical, emotional and financial hardship for my family and me, including multiple surgeries, a staph infection, and being on crutches when both of my children were born, I finally walked away with a fused ankle, courtesy of a titanium rod through leg and heel bones.

Safety
The trick to being safe on the road is to be visible. If you ever wonder why cyclists are close to or even inside the white line, it is for two main reasons: The road surface is better, and they are more visible.
  • Don’t hug the curb. Ride prominently, let ’em know you’re there. Wear bright and reflective clothing.
  • Don’t ride in the bike lane coming down that hill on 800 South or in the door zone next to a line of cars.
  • Don’t ride against traffic!
  • Unless you are traveling at walking speed, riding on the sidewalk in urban areas is much more dangerous than the road. When the lane is too narrow to share with a car, your safest (and legal) position is in the middle of the lane, forcing cars to pass you using the left lane. While this may feel uncomfortable, it is better than most alternative scenarios.
  • Always look at least 50 feet in front of you while riding.
  • Go big on the lights. I use a high wattage beam lamp up front for when I need to see and multiple front and rear blinkers for others to see me. Motorists have a problem seeing a nonblinking front light for some reason, so use a prominent blinker in addition to your beam. I carry extra front and rear lights in case I lose a lamp or run out of battery. Give motorists every opportunity to see you.
So in light of these risks, the challenge remains—how do we make our streets more bike-friendly? The answer is that more people need to start bike commuting.

That’s all. More bikes = more bike-friendly. Community planners, transportation engineers, law enforcement and mentally fidgety motorists will all take notice.

Because most people will only consider riding where there are bike lanes, I advocate for the accommodation of wide right lanes or striped bike lanes on all narrow roads. This can be done by the “road diet” method, where center and left lanes are narrowed to create a wider right-hand lane. The narrower left lanes help control speed as a bonus. This would be the fundamental principle of a complete streets policy for bicyclists.

Many grumble about bicyclists running red lights and breaking other laws. Yes, this is a problem. Local bike-advocacy groups have been urging improved law enforcement against bicyclists to improve the situation.

I always stop them and have words with red-light running bicyclists: “I don’t want motorists to hate me because of things you are doing.” However, I must add, motorists speeding and running red lights are a far greater threat to public safety and human life. When I first arrived in Salt Lake City nine years ago, I was alarmed at the unfriendly traffic environment and how few bicyclists there were on the roads. I became selfpropelled into bike activism, thanks to Brian Price and the Critical Mass movement. I donated my van and went “car-free.” We went right to work, converting motorists into bicyclists to create a safer community environment, improving quality of life, cleaning up the air, helping solve the obesity epidemic, and bringing peace and happiness to the planet.

What a hopeless romantic I am. Not sure if perception or reality has changed, but my bike-commuting experience has actually much improved. I live and work south of Sugar House—outside the city limits—where there are very few bicyclists (They come out for a few weeks in the springtime). I’ve now learned that most Utah motorists are normal, rational, enlightened individuals—not all redneck meth-heads, as I originally had thought. I’ve got a good relationship and understanding with motorists now. They know I’m mentally unstable, and they keep their distance.

Since the distracted driver hit me in 2004, I can’t run or jump very well, but I can bike and board and ski and surf. I can’t dance now like I used to, so now at least I have a good excuse. Interestingly, I ride much more now after the accident than I did before. And with the property settlement, I was able to purchase my first really nice road bike, a titanium James Frames.

The Utah Legislature is finally putting some teeth into driving under the influence, taking licenses or cars away from offenders.

But more teeth are needed for laws against distracted driving. There is no type of communication important enough to endanger your neighbors’ life.

Going Dutch
I recently shared a long flight with a couple from the Netherlands who, along with 30 to 40 percent of their countrymen, choose to bike for town travel. Wouter and Karin Lengkeek live in Arnhem, a town made famous in the World War II film A Bridge Too Far. Cities there are designed for bike travel.

Gear
After years of commuting on a mountain bike, eventually converting to slick tires, discovering clipless pedals, and finally getting a road bike, I now have the ultimate two-wheel vehicle.

The larger, skinnier wheels and higher gearing of a road bike provide much higher efficiency—very important if you desire to commute exclusively by bike. Use center-pull brakes to have room for knobby tires and add fenders for winter and wet riding.

I have a Tubus rear rack and Ortlieb drybag panniers, which can handle plenty of volume without ever burdening my shoulders with a backpack. I can fit my computer bag in one pannier and all clothing and accessories in the other. To my proud discovery, a 12-pack of PBR fits perfectly in a rear bag. For larger loads, such as bags of cement or a garment bag for business trips, I use a single-wheel BOB trailer, equipped with suspension and a large drybag for inclement weather.

For my two kids, I offer either the option of rear rack seat or the trailer.
Biking is faster and more convenient in the towns of the Netherlands simply because of heavy bike traffic. (Conversely, road design and community planning in the United States caters to motorists at the expense of other modes. Why is that?) The government actively supports bike riders with tax incentives. Auto-commuting employees are compensated for gas expenses; cycling commuter who don’t pay for gas also receive benefits. Another employee benefit in Holland is a tax-free purchase of bicycle or cycling gear if you bike commute at least three days a week. Most companies now provide showers.

Bicyclists in Holland have the right of way on colored lanes along the road. Motorists respect bicyclists there and vice versa. I also learned that when a cyclist collides with a motorist there, it is always considered the motorist’s fault. After I commented that this law is unfair because some of these collisions are the fault of the cyclist, Wouter made a good point that it is fair because the bicyclist is disproportionately punished—with broken bones instead of broken rear-view mirrors.

Maybe, but you should see the passenger side of that cell-phone driver’s SUV that I speared: severe body damage.

Europeans also are convinced that the health benefits of riding outweigh the risks. A recent study from The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research demonstrated that employees who cycle regularly to work are less frequently ill, with, on average, more than one day per year less absenteeism than colleagues who do not cycle to work, which could save employers annually 27 million euro. But the main reason Wouter travels by bike, he says, is the simple enjoyment of being outside. Yes, that’s it. He stole my line! Riding a bicycle is being outside, unconfined, exposed to nature’s elements and the sounds of spring. That is why I ride. All other reasons—the financial, health and fitness, convenience, environmental, the hipster fashion, higher IQ, Olympian-level sexual performance, the novelty—if all those reasons did not exist, I would still choose to commute by bike. I will always be a little kid inside, staving off all effects of getting old, physically and mentally, thanks to the love of life and, yes, bicycles. Amen.

Jason Bultman is a longtime bike-safety activist and a driving force behind the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective. He’s been using a bike for his primary means of transportation for most of his life.

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 6,2009 at 17:32

That's a great article, Jason. Clearly, you have a love and commitment of gettting out "into it."

As a motorist, I have to take slight issue with the idea that "drivers who run red lights are far more dangerous than cyclists who run red lights" thinking.

While the pure physics involved bears out your statement in general, I think you're missing part of the story.

It's not that my Jeep wouldn't do more damage to anything I hit than you and your bike would do. Of course it would. But I'm more careful with my Jeep around cyclists than many cyclists I see on the road are carfeul around cars.

Utah cyclists, or at least a well-organized hub of them in Salt Lake County, have worked so hard to get special consideration and laws passed to "Share The Road" and stand on new law to make motorists more careful around bikes on the road, etc.

It's especially irksome, then, to have the vast majority of cyclists I see on the road scoffing at those laws and riding any way they deem to be in their best interest while shaking their fists at motorists who don't toe the line. It's not just the usual red light runners.

The past two days, I've been in traffic, heavy, rush hour traffic, and had two and three cyclists riding abreast and nearly choking the flow of cars who want to give them wide bearth.They were happily pedaling away, yakking with each other and totally oblivious to the line of vehicles behind them. In my darkest moments, I imagine the conversation is something like this:"Yeah, I pulled a hamstring and couldn't make the qualifier, but my trainer says that I'll be back on the circuit soon!"

Or,even darker:"Yeah, I know they're behind us. They can just kiss my well-toned butt! I mean, just look at how fit I am and how flabby they look. Is there any question about who's really, really super cool and who's just a vehicle slave? Ohhhh! Let's stop and get a latte!""

There's a clown on Van Winkle and 4800 South every morning at 7:55 am who enters the turn lane to exit Van Winkle, stands up on his pedals and runs the red light with a great deal of vigor and apparent joy. This morning, I tooted my horn as he made his signature move and he flipped me off. He'll be there again tomorrow morning.

I wish it all worked in unison and rythym and one with the universe, but it doesn't.

 

 
 
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