WE’VE JUST SUFFERED through the hottest summer on record in Savannah and one in which the most oppressive month, July, started sometime around the end of April.
The onset of cooler weather presents an excellent opportunity to try bicycle commuting. If your situation permits it, you can take advantage of the significant economic, health and other benefits of going to work by bike.
First thing you’ll need for a successful bicycle commute? A bicycle. What kind of bicycle?
Let’s start with the one you probably already have. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s hanging from a hook in the garage or maybe pushed into a corner of the shed.
If you’ve ridden this bike recently, it may require very little maintenance beyond topping off the tires. If it’s been a while and you notice stalactites growing from the handlebars, it’s best to have your bike serviced by one of our fine local bicycle shops.
Most shops offer a tuneup special, and attention from a pro will greatly reduce the chance of mechanical failure spoiling your commute.
If you live, say, five miles or less from home to workplace, almost any bicycle will get you there and back. With Savannah’s flat terrain, a relatively healthy person can commute on a single speed beach cruiser — plenty of people do every day.
So, ready to go? Not so fast.
Before commuting by bike for the first time, ride a reconnaissance mission of your planned route. Note traffic patterns, road conditions and other environmental issues, and adjust your route accordingly.
You’ll also want to time your dry run so you can allow enough time for your commute. Keep in mind that traffic volumes and speed on a Sunday afternoon will likely differ from Monday morning.
Finally, before commuting, ask yourself this question: Would you be comfortable driving to work in a car with no doors, no seatbelts and a dashboard made of asphalt?
No? Then get yourself a helmet and wear it. Now, get to work. Bicycle commuting can be as simple as that.
Still, there are some modifications that will make a bicycle even better suited for commuting. Let’s start by imagining a type of bicycle frequently seen in the wild: A steel–framed mountain bike from the 1990s.
Millions of these were sold in the United States, and a properly maintained model from a reputable manufacturer can provide decades and decades of service.
A handful of simple modifications can turn these ubiquitous bikes into highly utilitarian (but fun) commuting vehicles.
First, figure out how you are going to carry your purse, briefcase, lunchbox or whatever you usually take with you to work. Hanging these items off handlebars isn’t safe.
All sorts of products, from rear racks with expandable bags to humble front baskets are designed for this purpose. Some folks get by with solutions that are attached to them, not the bike.
A roomy backpack or messenger bag may be all you need. Be aware that even in cooler weather, backpacks are a less desirable solution as they can make you prone to overheating.
Next, exchange the knobby tires, which create extra rolling resistance, for tires designed for pavement riding. One accessory that didn’t come with our imaginary mountain bike is a set of fenders, which can play an important role in delivering you to work in presentable condition.
Also, you’ll need lights. Even if you normally leave work long before sunset, there’s always a chance that a big pile of reports will hit your desk at the end of the workday. Don’t get caught after dark without lights.
Your last task may be properly configuring your employer for bicycle commuting. Forward–thinking companies – especially those that espouse institutional values related to environmental stewardship or employee health – may actually encourage you to ride your bike by offering showers and lockers, indoor bicycle parking and even reimbursement for bicycle commuting expenses.
Other employers may need to be convinced that riding to work is a responsible, reasonable and professional thing to do. With bicycle commuting on the rise locally and nationally, this will become an easier case to make.
And your employer become supportive of cycling for another reason: A recent study from Holland showed that bicycling employees (with one–way commutes of 20 minutes or less) have fewer sick days and have fewer chronic health problems than the general employee population.
John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign (bicyclecampaign.org)