Monday, July 20, 2015

Life as a bike commuter

The commute to my new office is ten minutes shorter, but so much more effort!  There was definitely an adjustment period when I started commuting on a bicycle, but I think I've got most of the kinks worked out now.  I admit that I was terrified to start biking, even though I'd had previous experience as a bike commuter during my stint as an acute care nurse.  The last few weekends before our office move, I did practice rides to the new office, so I could be sure of the time it would take (twenty minutes) the traffic, and my ability to get up the hills.

Round trip view

There are three "big" hills on the route.  They don't look very impressive on the elevation map (from mapmyrun) but trust me, it's no joke to cycle up them when it's 95 degrees, at the end of a long day. I was in decent shape when I started biking, but my cardiovascular fitness did have room for improvement.  Now, when I get to the top of the hills, my heart is beating fast but it no longer feels like it's going to explode out of my chest.

It doesn't help that my bike is like Tubby the Tugboat: sturdy and heavy and has only seven gears.  Honestly, bike shops have no business selling seven-speed bikes in a town like Charlottesville. When I bought it, I had only ever cycled in Buffalo, which is relatively flat.  I thought that as long as I had a really low gear to get me up the hills, I'd be fine.  The problem is that when I'm going downhill, seventh gear is too low and I can't start to pedal until I'm well into the ascent of the next hill, so I lose the opportunity to make use of my momentum and it makes getting up the hills more difficult and slows me down.

The downhill bits are fun, but scary because it a car were to pull out in front of me when I'm going that fast it would be bad.  (YES, I wear a helmet.) As an ex-trauma nurse, what scares me the most is the thought of the road rash I'd get if I were to ever fall off my bike. I am very conscious of the vulnerability of my skin. I always wear long pants and real shoes (not flip flops or sandals), but my arms are exposed. Sometimes, on the longest, steepest downhills, cars will ride alongside me and I think they might be clocking my speed.  Jon once clocked me at about twenty miles an hour.

The hot weather started soon after our move and I gave up cycling in office clothes. I ride in relaxed fit trouser-styled pants made of lightweight athletic material and a tee shirt.  I keep tea tree oil shower wipes in my office and pack my office wear in my bag.

I looked at bike panniers, but decided not to buy them.  For one thing, they're expensive, and for another, I didn't want to be tempted to pack tons of stuff and have to lug all that extra weight.  I can fit my food for the day, office clothes, and library book in the bag I used when I walked to work. (I leave my purse at home.)  I strap it to the back of my bike with an elastic net.  I can't go to the gym before work any more because I don't have room for the extra baggage.

On your bike, you're way more vulnerable to the weather than you are when you're walking.  The heat is hotter, the cold is colder (because of your self-generated wind chill) and the rain is wetter.  In hot weather, the breeze keeps you from sweating excessively while you're riding, but as soon as you stop, you're drenched with sweat. The helmet makes me even hotter and destroys my hair every day.

Three times, I've been struck by torrential rainstorms on the way home from work.  The first time was the worst because it was when I was still biking in office clothes.  Cotton chinos weigh about eighty-five pounds when wet.  By the time I got home, I was as wet as if I'd jumped into a swimming pool in all my clothes.  The second time, a thunderstorm was approaching just as I was about to leave work for the day.  I decided I would rather risk being struck by lightening than stay at work late.  I got halfway home before the storm struck.  The third time, I was kept late at a meeting at the medical center and then had to ride back toward work because I was meeting coworkers for margaritas at a bar near our office. I was so wet, I was afraid they wouldn't let me inside.  There's nothing like a margarita (or two) to cheer you up after getting soaked on your bike.

It's one thing to ride home in the rain, but I can't show up for work looking like I crawled out of Davy Jones' locker.  Part of the adjustment was figuring out how to get to work if I can't ride my bike. I have walked the whole way a few times and it takes fifty-five minutes.  I have zero interest in walking all the way home, but there's a trolley stop about ten-minute's walk from my office.  I take it downtown and then it's another fifteen minute walk home. The easy way is to drive part way to a street with free unlimited parking. This is what I do if I feel like I need a treat, but I don't drive often because I want the benefit of the daily exercise.

At first I assumed that biking would provide more exercise but then I started to worry that biking for forty minutes a day burns fewer calories than walking for an hour a day, which is what I was doing before the move.  (According to Myfitnesspal it's a draw.)  That's kind of a bummer.  I was hoping the bike commute would help me lose weight, but it hasn't.

The things that worried me when I did my practice rides turned out not to be problems. Used to the endless stream of cars entering the medical center at 6:45 am, I thought it would be the same at the research park.  In reality, the traffic is still light when I'm arriving, so the left turn at the entrance is not a problem.  I thought that the blind left turn from Shamrock Rd onto Cherry would be difficult and for weeks I rode home by a different, slightly longer route. The day of the thunderstorm I chose to take the most direct route and learned that the left turn isn't so bad. There just isn't a lot of traffic on Cherry Ave, west of the medical center. In my previous life as a cyclist, I mostly rode on W. Main St. and the busier end of Cherry Ave, so I assumed it was that hectic everywhere.

An unexpected danger is all the dumbasses pulling out of the BP Fastmart on Fontaine.  There's also the scary bit where Fontaine narrows and there is no bike lane.  Some cars buzz around me angrily as if they think I have no business being on the road.  Sorry, but I have just as much right to ride my bike in the road as you do to drive your car.  One driver passed so close to me, I thought I felt his car touch me, but that might have been my imagination.  I saw him check his rear view mirror to see if he'd knocked me down or not.  Asshole.

Biking seems easier than it did when I was working as a nurse. I'm not sure if it's because I've become more confident, or that drivers have become more aware of bikes or both.  The city has made some improvements to the bicycle infrastructure, such as painting large bicycle icons in the car lanes where there isn't room for a bike lane, and the awesome bright green bike lanes where JPA and Emmet St. meet.  They have a comprehensive bike and pedestrian plan and it would be awesome if it's ever fully implemented, but they have a long way to go.  I'm traveling to Madison, Wisconsin for work soon and I'm hoping to have the opportunity to rent a bike while I'm there.  It seems like a more enlightened and bike-friendly city than Charlottesville.


  1. Listen to me. LISTEN. Get a decent road bike. Get it used, or whatever. Get a junked-up one and spend $250 fixing it up. You will not BELIEVE the difference it makes. I have a 21-speed Fuji road bike that probably retails at $600 or so (I bought it back in 2001 for $450, so I am guessing) that makes all the difference. It LIFTS me up those hills. You will love it so much that you will ride it more, so put it down as a fitness expense.

    I would never have the guts to bike on those roads, though. Thank goodness we have the bike trail!

    1. Maybe I can sell my current bike to finance a new one. Thanks for the recommendation (and the facebook link.)

  2. Glad to hear biking to work is working out! I would think biking for 40 minutes daily is a good workout. I know back when I used to walk to work, I definitely kept slimmer and didn't worry with adding exercise on top of that. Then again, that was almost 20 years ago, when staying slimmer wasn't as much work.

    The hills in this town are definitely what keep me from biking - having to go up Rose Hill to get anywhere definitely frightens me quite a bit (it's a regular site to see a biker pushing their bike up that hill in front of Burley).

    1. Ha, I can't even handle Rose Hill Dr with my stick shift. I always avoid it.

  3. I cannot believe you haven't lost any weight biking to work! But are you stronger? That's a payoff, too...
    There are so many risks. Pity we can't slice off a bigger chunk of funding to pedestrians and cyclists.

    1. I think the problem is that for every minute I spend pedaling uphill, I spend an equal amount of time coasting downhill, so that cancels out any calorie-burning advantage. When I walked to work, I was making an effort, minimal thought it was, the entire time.

  4. I am in awe of your biking. As Becky said, the hills in this town are not insignificant and are definitely what keep me off my bike. And I agree with SC: Start looking for a better bike.

    1. Yes, the hills here are killer. From my kitchen window, I always see people struggling up the Avon St. hill.