Friday, February 13, 2009

Commuting by Bike

For the past 9-plus years, I've worked a long way from where I've lived. It's 43 miles each way, today. Until this month (when my company crossed the border from NH to MA), I spent over five years driving more than 115 miles per day commuting. I bought my car three years ago, next Tuesday, and it'll hit 88,000 miles sometime tomorrow. Before my current company, my commute was something like 28 miles -- not bad, but still pretty far, and not on the friendliest roads for a bicycle.

Back when I worked at Lotus, I was living in Waltham, MA. The car ride from Waltham to Cambridge was something like 15 miles, and it took about 45 minutes to fight my way there or back with all the lights and traffic, notably along the Charles River. Even getting out of the garages of the two main buildings could be an ordeal.

So one summer day, I decided to try riding in. I left my laptop in my office the night before, packed some clothes and shower stuff in one of my college backpacks, and set off the next morning for the office, riding my Shogun Katana, which by then was sitting largely idle.

I learned a bunch of things that day:

  1. Riding in rush hour traffic is different from riding either on a weekend or early in the morning before the traffic really hits.
  2. A racing bike can be a little high-strung for commute-time riding.
  3. A backpack isn't really ideal for riding -- your shirt sticks to your back, and carrying the extra weight gets hard on your shoulders and upper back after a while.
But all that aside, it was a pretty cool experience. I got in nearly 30 miles that day, for starters. And that was achieved without setting aside a couple of hours extra to get them in. Riding to work added only 10-15 minutes to my normal one-way commute time, which is pretty amazing. I used no gas (but did shower one extra time that day). And as you may have guessed, I managed not to get killed by a car. I also walked around all day, smugly telling anyone who'd listen how I'd gotten to work that morning. There were a handful of bike commuters at Lotus, but not nearly as many as you'd expect, given the company's progressive culture and Cambridge headquarters.

Having enjoyed the experience, I set out almost immediately to make my Paramount into a commuter bike (as you may have suspected, if you know me at all). And this was no small feat. I had to outfit the Paramount with new tires (Continental Goliaths, initially), a rack (just a cheap Performance Trans-it MTB), a pair of panniers (stiff red and black Blackburns) and a handlebar bag with QR mount, a used road bar (Nitto 115), a new stem (just a no-name steel hybrid stem to locate the bars closer to me and up a bit), new shifters (Shimano Ultegra 8-speed bar end shifters, and I've never really liked them), a blinky light for the rear and headlight for the front, a new rear wheel (Shimano Deore LX 8-speed hub and a Sun rim), an 8-speed cassette, road brake levers (105 SC), a cable lock, and finally, a set of shoes and pedals better suited to commuting than (SPD-style pedals paired with rubber-soled MTB shoes).

In truth, for just commuting I could have gotten the job done with a rack, the bags, the lights and a set of road tires. But while I was building a bike to schlep stuff around on, I wanted it to be able to serve in a light touring role as well. That, plus, well... you understand.

It took a few weeks to pull all this together and swap it all onto the Paramount. It wasn't perfect for the commuter role, but it wasn't bad. It steered well, was plenty rugged, rolled over pretty much anything, never got a flat, and never broke a spoke or anything like that. The not-perfect part was that the short chainstays led to some heel strike with the panniers, and the rig felt decidedly inefficient, relative to my road bikes. I don't know how to quantify that, really. The Paramount has a little flex in the bottom bracket, so that didn't help. The tires were fatter and smaller, so were probably making more friction. There was weight, of course. And the riding position was pretty hard to get right -- had to have the post waaaay up to get the right leg extension for road riding, which meant the saddle had to also be all the way forward on its rails to put me far enough forward. In any case, I always got the sense I was losing 10% more of what I put into it, relative to my other bikes.

I probably didn't commute on it more than a dozen times that summer. They weren't the kind of fast-paced/low-stress miles I normally rode, and I've since wondered if riding like that more often would have killed the joy of riding for me. But the conclusion I drew is that it wouldn't, any more than commuting has killed the joy of driving. I wasn't able to find out, though -- I moved out of Waltham to Metrowest the following June, which pretty much put paid to my commuting to Cambridge by bike, and my commutes have only gotten longer, since.

But the desire to commute by bike has stayed with me (as has the desire to be in a situation where that's a practical possibility), and has gained some social urgency for me in the past couple of years. I bought the car I am driving now (a Mazda3 with the bigger engine), specifically to burn up in my commute to NH. I love the car -- it's quick enough to keep me entertained, handles well, has all the toys I care about (and a few I don't), and returns 30 MPG most tanks, running the cheap stuff. But think about how terrible it is to buy a new car for something like $17,000, drive it into the ground in 5-6 years, and have to start over again. It's expensive, but it's also wasteful in terms of the energy and resources that went into both the car and the commute. I'd really like my next job, whenever the time comes, to be much closer to home, so I can both cut way back on that consumption and also shift some of my commuting to a bicycle. That seems to be hard to achieve, though. We're a country of car commuters, it seems, and at least in New England, weather makes choosing another mode of transport difficult half the time.

My Schwinn Sports Tourer would be perfect for commuting. I'd just need to put lights on it, which I plan to do anyway. I've discovered that Axiom panniers would fit on my rear rack, so I'm going to pick up a set of those at some point in the spring (and will bring the bike to the LBS before I buy, to make sure). And my rear rack has a fitting for bolting on a rear blinky. A headlight will be more difficult -- I'm out of space on the bars, don't have any light fittings on the fork, and I'm not sure my little Mafac rack is strong enough for a light of any heft. But if I find a light that's not too heavy, I can cobble together some sort of clamp for the front rack easily enough.

And I'm trying to encourage my wife to try commuting by bike as well. She spoke of signing up for a gym the other day, and IMO that's just a big old waste of money. Neither of us has ever been a zealot about going to the gym, even when we were doing spinning classes together. She has a bike (the Bianchi with 650B rims you see, here), and she works maybe 7 miles from the house right now, and that's a perfect combo for commuting by bike.

Before this weekend, her Bianchi didn't have an appropriate rack, but in talking with her about it a week ago, I proposed swapping out the Viva bag support, adding a carrier rack, and putting her V-O Baguette bag on the front instead of the rear. I could even add fenders (a set of V-O 650B Zeppelins, for example), but I don't think that's really necessary, since she's never going to ride in the rain anyway. For recreational riding, a bigger rack wouldn't add much weight, so the bike would still be fine for that use. I also offered up my Blackburn panniers, since they're not doing me any good with the rack I have on the Schwinn, and a headlight is a cheap add (she has a bar-end blinky light already).

I tend to try to enable people to do stuff I'm interested in, whether they are or not. So true to form, and as you can see in the pics, I've set all this up. The other day I ordered a Nitto R-15 and today I installed it on her Bianchi. Her handlebars are quite narrow, so contrary to the original suggestion, I left the V-O bag on the rear where it was, and plopped my old commuting panniers on it (they're in great shape for their age -- never ridden in the rain). The R-15 doesn't have loops for the lower pannier hooks down at the bottom of the struts, so I'm going to try to find or make some, and that'll be that. It'll be interesting to see if she actually uses it to commute or not. We're going to be changing up how we split time with the kids, so she'll have alternate weeks to put it to work, if she wishes.

And in the mean time, I'll keep telling myself that someday I'll work no more than 15 miles from home, again...

All for now,


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