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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.