Everything You Wanted to Know About Biking, Part II
by Alex Baca and Rebecca Rindler
Bec: Alex, hello! In the first part of this series, we talked about what we spent to get started biking. Then we asked people what else they wanted to talk about, and those questions and comments centered around comfort and safety. So let’s talk about those today.
Alex: I shouldn’t have been so surprised that so many people brought up safety. It’s funny. We conceived this series as a way to talk about biking and money. Safety is related to the money you spend on biking for transportation, but it wasn’t the direct link I (we?) was (were?) trying to make. But I know it’s a real issue for a lot of people, and while I’d prefer to stay pretty straight on the biking-money path because it’s much more interesting to me, I don’t want to ignore our commenters. (I love you, commenters!)
Bec: Comfort relates to safety because attending to it helps people ride their bikes more, which means you’re amortizing the cost of your bike over more rides (see what I did there?). So let’s talk about comfort, both on and off your bike. What kind of changes or purchases will make your bike more comfortable for you to ride in transportation?
Alex: I am hardcore about bike fit — as hardcore as I can get without getting my bikes fitted all of the time, anyway. I haven’t done much to make my bikes more pleasant to ride because I try to buy bikes that are as close to perfect as they can be up-front. I’m five feet tall, and place a premium on riding bikes that are right for my height; my single-speed that I ride for everything under 50 miles, every day, is a 42-centimeter Wabi Classic with 650C wheels. It fits me. It is worth the $1,200 I spent on it (I also had it powder-coated, which cost more) and the extra effort I have to go through to find wheelsets and tires that I like (650C is a weird, smaller wheel size). I am a minimalist, so it doesn’t have anything on it — not even a water bottle cage. I have a set of four-LED USB-rechargeable Knog Blinder lights ($45 per light), which are stupid-easy to take on and off (leave ’em on and they might get stolen), and I put on really solid tires, Continental Gatorskins, to avoid frequent flats ($50 per tire). My road bike ($900 on sale — by the way, how cute is it that Bec and I have matching road bikes?) has water bottle cages ($6) and Gatorskins; I also have a mid-’90s Serotta with 650C wheels that was built as a tri bike that I ride as a road bike, the purchase of which is quite a story (I’ll tell it if and when we get around to talking about buying bikes on eBay, Craigslist, and on super-sale).
I truly believe that the number-one way to be safe on a bike is to ride a bike that fits you and that you’re comfortable on; that means having a properly adjusted seat, seatpost, and handlebars, but I can also talk about the importance of and variation in frame geometry and wheel size for days. (You can always put down for a professional bike fit, but those don’t come cheap.) Otherwise, you’ll be fidgeting and thinking about how your back hurts or about how you’re reaching too far with your legs or arms — and you’ll be less inclined to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Like traffic. And pedestrians. And other cyclists. And traffic lights, and signs, and whatnot.
Bec: One, your senses are your best safety mechanism. I recommend buying things that heighten your ability to use them (lights!) and stay away from things that don’t (wearing two in-ear earbuds!). I bought a neon safety vest ($4 new at stoop sale), which makes me feel more confident riding at night.
Two, if your bike hurts, you won’t ride it. I think the best purchases or changes you can make are ones that make you want to ride your bike. Ask yourself, “What is preventing me from riding? Is it taking my bike up and down the stairs, the chain falling off, the seat being uncomfortable?” And then, “What changes can I make to solve this issue?” There’s anything from a $30 trip to the bike shop, getting a lighter bike, leaving your bike in the living room instead of carrying it up the stairs? Small tweaks can mean big changes for comfort and accessibility.
With that in mind, I have spent money on things for my bike that make bike riding more pleasant for me. I swapped out my handlebars ($45?) and bought a water bottle holder ($15). I asked for a Bern helmet ($65) for my birthday — it’s cute and I like wearing it, which makes me ride more. When I lived in D.C., I got a Capital Bikeshare membership ($75), which was great for days when I knew I might not want or be able to bike in both directions. We’ll talk more about bikesharing and multi-modal transportation in another post. Back to comfort: There are post-ride needs like minimizing sweat and still looking fly when you get to your destination, especially if your destination is work.
Alex: This is probably a good place to note that my job doesn’t have a dress code, so “looking fly” for me is, like, shorts and a T-shirt. At best. And everyone in my office comes in sweaty (we’re a bike advocacy organization, but we don’t have a shower!). Sometimes I have to look semi-nice. In that case, I have a handful of semi-nice-looking outfits that I know will work on my bike. I just hope for the best, really. But you are a profesh lady!
Bec: I am — I’m a businesslady and my solution to looking fly at the office is joining a gym nearby. When you bike for transportation, and if you shower, your options are showering before you bike or after you arrive. I’m pro-showering at your destination, if possible. A workplace with a shower is absolutely ace. A gym is the next best thing. I’ve been told some gyms offer “runner’s memberships” which are basically shower-only gym memberships. If showering when you arrive is not an option, try one of my favorite products of all time, baby wipes. Those things are amazing! It’s a shower in 6 square inches. And bring a change of clothes. Changing clothes makes a huge difference in humid summers.
Alex: My organization ran a panel for women interested in bike-commuting to and from professional obligations and one of the most widely circulated tips was to arrive at your destination early, find a bathroom and take your time to clean up, and sit in an air-conditioned lobby. Also, noticeable sweat is a big deal right now, because it’s so damn hot (and in D.C., humid). But remember that that’s not the case year-round. We could probably devote an entire post to tips for riding in the rain.
Bec: Maybe we will! In the meantime, people had a lot of concerns about sweat and hair.
Alex: I cut all my hair off two years ago and haven’t looked back.
Bec: Uh-huh. Some of us are still rocking the long-hair-under-a-helmet look. Veronica from the incredible Black Women Bike DC recommends silk scarves. Eleanor’s loves braids (some of those braids are mine!) for beating helmet hair. Personally, I’m a big fan of dry shampoo, which is fancy talcum powder you can put in your hair before and after you ride. And get a well-ventilated helmet. More air equals less sweat.
Alex: In the interest of actually saying something helpful, I should note that when I had long hair and thick bangs, I rather liked wearing a helmet on short trips because it flattened down the weird puffy spot I always seemed to have on the back of my head. At that aforementioned panel, the director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, who rides her Brompton all over the city, told us to embrace bad hair. She’s not wrong — I think my hair looks stupid even when I don’t ride my bike, but it’s doubtful anyone else notices or cares.
Bec: Let’s finish up with some FREE TIPS about safety! We’ve mentioned things like lights and wearing neon (or at least light colors) that can help with night biking. I think knowing your route goes a long way towards keeping you safe. Practice, practice, practice and get a buddy. I had a friend show me his commute when I first moved to New York, and I biked with NYC Biketrain — these were my training wheels for biking by myself in the city. The other bikers recommended routes and told me about pitfalls (dangerous patches, ticketing cops), which helped me get more comfortable and feel safer. If you are thinking about bike commuting to work, I advise trying out your route on a weekend or non-rush hour time as a trial run. Start small. Bike to a friend’s house. Then bike one way to work and take the bus home. The next day, do the reverse. Don’t give up if you can only do it one or two days a week. That’s a great start!
Alex: My coworker has been writing some smart blog posts about simple tips to make biking easier and more fun as part of WABA’s Women & Bicycles program, which she’s running. I recommend checking those out and keeping in mind that it’s paramount to ride something that’s safe and comfortable for you. Better tires, a nice bike seat, and bright lights might cost you more money than their lower-end counterparts, but they’re worth it if you’re riding longer distances or in the dark. (Talk to me about my $120 headlight sometime.)
Once you’re ready to ride, keep in mind the League of American Bicyclists’ “ABC Quick Check”: air, brakes, cranks and chain. I have a personal checklist of things I think about before I get on my bike: Do my tires have air? Do I have a light (on my bike or on my person to put on my bike)? If I’m riding a significant distance, do I have what I need (15mm wrench, travel pump, tire lever, spare tube, multitool) to fix a flat or fix my bike if something goes wrong? Do I know where I’m going and do I have a cue sheet if I need one (Google Maps recently enabled biking directions for its iPhone app, which is wonderful; I’ve been using Google Maps on my desktop to plan my routes for as long as I can remember)?
Once I get on my bike, I make sure that my brakes are working, that my seat is properly adjusted, and — because I ride a single-speed — my chain is tight. If anything feels weird, I fix it! I’m not interested in discussing the intricacies and fallacies of helmets right now (though I think everyone should read his fantastic piece from Bicycling magazine about the state of the helmet industry), but I will say that a helmet is the absolute last thing on my personal safety checklist because I want to ensure that I’ve done literally everything possible to prevent an accident. Strapping on a foam bucket, however powerful it may be in the event of one, will not prevent an accident. I suspect many riders think they’re totally fine because they’ve got a helmet on and overlook other really important things that could keep them safe — and alive. Make sure your accident-prevention game is on lock — with a comfortable bike, lights, properly inflated tires, and a solid sense of direction — before you put on a helmet. And make sure that helmet fits properly. Use the two-finger test.
Bec: One aside: Someone asked about biking home from the bar and, in general, alcohol consumption when you’re biking. While a low-alcohol cocktail like a white wine spritzer might seem appropriate, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the alcohol laws — and all laws — in your area.
Alex: Your local bike-advocacy group likely has a comprehensive list of laws for your jurisdiction. (You can find WABA’s guide to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia laws here; Transalt’s New York City laws are here.) If you’ve got specific questions about safety as it relates to local laws or procedures, contact them! Bike advocates are friendly people and are trained to answer your questions (though we typically can’t dispense legal advice)! Most local organizations, especially in denser, urban-er areas, are focusing heavily on biking for transportation rather than, like, getting roads closed on the weekends for Cat 2 racers. This is, I think, a good thing.
Don’t want to ride in traffic? Take the lane. Take the goddamn lane! It’s scary at first, because cars will probably honk at you, but if you’re worried about a car not seeing you, intentionally buzzing or grazing you, or forcing you to the right on a street with no shoulder, the absolute best thing you can do is get in the middle of the travel lane and ride at a steady speed. It’s legal, and likely the worst that can happen is that you’ll piss off someone who was probably looking for an excuse to honk their horn anyway.
Bec: And we could write a whole piece about people we’ve pissed off in traffic, but let’s just close with: You can do it! You can be comfortable and safe, and look good, and do it all on a bike for not too much money.
Rebecca (Bec) Rindler fell off her bike and got right back on it.
Alex Baca recently rode a century on a mountain, as well as a century in New York City.