Summer of biking – 2016 edition

It’s been a busy summer on and off the bike, but I’ve spent enough time riding around to get a biker’s tan.  I’ve recorded over 1000 miles this year with the miles mainly from commuting.   Here’s some highlights of this past summer.

2016 Active Transporation Alliance’s Bike Commuter Challenge

I was the sole captain this year as the co-captain from last year opted out of organizing.  Overall, it was a very fun and successful event – this time my company had 17 participants (new record), and we finished within the top 25 of companies Chicagoland in terms of mileage.  I think since word got out much earlier this year,  people were interested.  I made some flyers and had emails sent out to the company starting a month before the event.  As captain, the event website made it difficult to find stats or manage the team.  Active Transportation did admit they they were rolling out a new backend system so some user-friendly features from last year were not available – such as sending out daily messages to my entire team through the website. Me and other team members also encountered were some minor technical difficulties with their bike app in terms of uploading miles, but that was resolved by just restarting the program.

I was able to bike every single day of the challenge, and the first day I had an interoffice commute which I’ve never done before.  I even tried a new route from another coworker who lives nearby.  I’ve since used that route on my commutes to mix things up a bit.  Some days were hot, but luckily, kids still run lemonade stands and I was able to take a short break on my rides home.

Lemonade Stand
Hot weather means one of many lemonade stands on my commute home.

I definitely met a lot of new people and have new biking friends.  It’s always nice to have camaraderie around non-work related stuff.  I’ve ridden to work with two ladies in a different department who take one of the early morning Metra trains.  As someone who’s commuted for many years, it’s great to see new commuters giving biking a try, using whatever bikes they have.  A few weeks after the event, we took a group photo and it was included in our company newsletter. People said they had lots of fun and it motivated them to be healthier and consider alternatives to driving.

 

Upgraded some bike items:

I treated myself to some new bike lights, bags and other bike supplies to replace what I’ve been using.  My equipment will be discussed in later posts.

 

Biked to work in a downpour:

One morning the radar showed red and I thought I would get to work before the worst of it hit.  I was wrong and ended up in a really awful downpour about 15 minutes in my commute.  There was no lightning in the sky, but the thunder was really serious.  Thankfully, I always have all of my lights with me and I kept to the quieter streets.  At times, the rain actually hurt as it hit my skin.  When my husband texted me if I was OK, I said that I was putting my phone in a plastic bag and I turned on the Beacon feature so that he could track my route.  I remember pedaling so hard through some standing water and telling myself not to stop since I didn’t want my bike to fall over.  The water came up to my bottom chain but it required a lot of force to pedal through.   It was such a weird sensation to be pedaling through water, but not as crazy as underwater cycling. It was terrifying at times, but luckily I made it to work safe and was actually the first one to arrive.  I was reminded by my boss that one day I will show up looking like an electrified kitty on a bike.

 

 

On Labor Day, rode 75 miles in preparation for the North Shore Century.

I signed up to do my first century ride since I’ve always wanted to do this event and my other coworkers are doing it too.  My only training for a century is biking two times a week commuting to work (50 miles).  On my Monday off, I got up at the usual time for my bike commutes, but I wanted to see how I felt after riding a long distance.  I decided to enjoy the lakefront path which kept my speed slow at about 12 mph.  I tried eating something about every hour- some energy goo or food I had packed.  I think I did not eat enough for breakfast – I only had oatmeal and some fruit and a cup of coffee.  My feet felt fatigued but that was expected since I use platform pedals and have regular gym shoes.  I may consider swapping in harder insoles, or purchasing bike specific insoles to put in my gym shoes.  Otherwise, I feel I am ready to bike 100 + miles.  Even a day after riding, I am not really in pain, but seem a bit dehydrated –  I blame that on the two beers I had the night before and two beers the night after my ride.  More on my first century ride in a future post.

Bike on the Lakefront Trail next to the Shedd Aquarium.
Bike on the Lakefront Trail next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Planning an unfamiliar route

I recently had a coworker ask me how to find the best route from her house to work.  Previously, I wrote about how to find a route to work, but it can be challenging when you are not familiar with the area and don’t have anyone to ask. When planning a route for you or someone else in an unfamiliar area, the internet can be of great help.

With the bike commuter challenge about to start, she wanted to commute using bike paths.  For someone new to bike commuting, finding a safe route is probably the most important consideration when commuting to work.  I was totally unfamiliar with the area near where she lived, but luckily I knew that Google Maps and Strava are useful in figuring out the best bike route. Using the informational overlays on both of these websites, I was able to find a suitable route for her, making the most of trails and quiet streets.  These online tools are great for someone new to commuting, or for someone wanting to bike in a city they’ve never been in before.  For experienced riders who already have their favorite route(s), it’s also interesting to see where other cyclists go.   The following is how I go about figuring out a new route in an unfamiliar location.

 

Planning using Strava

Strava’s heatmap is a great tool for initially planning a route around roads that other cyclists actually take.

Strava’s heatmap compiles all the data cyclists have logged on their smartphones and is a good indicator of which roads are bike friendly and well traveled by other bicyclists.  I use this as a guide when searching for or optimizing a route.  I wish this type of thing was available back in 2011 when I started bike commuting.  Recently, I didn’t realize I had other options on my route until I looked at Strava and found that a lot of people take a shortcut on one side street on my regular commute.  Even with all of these years being familiar with the area, I had never explored or seen anyone take that street before, but the heatmap showed me that it was an option.  Now I try to track my rides on my commutes as much as possible since I know my data will be used to help others when planning their route.

ChicagoHeatmap
Chicago roads frequently traveled by bicyclists.  You can determine your best route by looking at heatmaps.   Screenshot from Strava.

 

Google Maps for route planning

Google Maps‘ Bicycling function does a fair job of indicating roads which may be good for cycling.  Just type in your start and end points and see the routes it suggests.  Be careful though, since Google suggests the shortest routes that  do not always make sense and may put you on busy roads when a longer route is safer.  You can change and drag the route around, but I find combining Google Maps’ suggestions and Strava’s real world use is best.

I also switch to street view to visually gauge how the streets are laid out.  Then you can virtually test your route. Rotate the map at intersections to see where trouble spots might be.

DamenFullerton
Going southbound on Damen at the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection.  My least favorite intersection to ride through.  Screenshot from Google Maps.

 

Final considerations

Once you’ve found a good route, then I suggest you try it out on your bike, ideally at approximately the same time of day you’ll be commuting.  On a bike you are much more aware of traffic patterns and the actual road conditions (potholes, hills).  If the road seems too narrow or dangerous, find another alternative.   Bring your directions on your bike if you need it by using your smartphone or writing it on a piece of paper or a piece of tape.   If you want to drive the route, the advantage is that is that you will see how much space you have when you share the road and also what drivers see from their perspective.

Above all, just relax and ride and trust your good judgement.   Pedal out of your comfort zone and just enjoy the commute.  With all of the knowledge you’ve acquired you’ll be much more confident while on your new route.

First bike commute to the new job

I’ve already biked to work twice to my new job, squeezing it in before Bike the Drive.  I used to commute 20 miles each way, but now it’s only 12 miles each way, meaning that I no longer have to rely on public transportation.  I can bike the entire distance to and from work.   It only takes me an hour each way, and it is sometimes faster during the evening commute depending on traffic.  Right now I have to strike a balance between my desire to bicycle commute and my responsibilities at work and at home.  I do it when I can and don’t stress out about it.  An ideal day for me is to bike commute, have a great day at work, and then a relaxing time at home.  Unfortunately, I can’t have it all, so if I do have the chance to bike in, then I’ll do it.

What I really hate about driving is being stuck on the Edens and going the same pace as if I were biking.  Below is a familiar scene as I cross the highway going home.

Edenstrafficweb

For my first bike commute of the year, I was ready as I had planned out my route, packed my backpack and was mentally prepared.

I got a good night’s sleep and had my usual coffee/oatmeal/banana combo for breakfast.   I didn’t have to shower before heading out because I would shower at work.  I would not have known that my workplace had a shower if I hadn’t talked to one of my coworkers about my plan to commute in.

The weather was cold and windy even though it was the 12th of May.   I had to wear long pants, my windbreaker and gloves to keep warm.  I chose to use my hybrid bike since it allows me to be more upright and then I can also have my rear rack to strap things to.   It was also dark and cloudy so I had to turn on my front and rear lights.

RaleighBikeBelmontweb

I had planned well and already stashed what I needed in my office so there wasn’t much for me to bring to work.   I use an old backpack to carry my stuff and bungee cord it to the rear rack.  I don’t have panniers since my backpack does a good job and I have no problems handling my bike even with a large load on the back.

I can already say that my route to my new workplace is easier and more enjoyable.   The roads I take are wider, have less traffic and I am in less of a rush because I don’t have to catch the train.  The only difficult thing is dealing with the traffic near the two high schools I have to pass.  People drive faster than normal and do not give you as much space on the road.

During my first bike commute of the year, here are some things that caught my attention:

I was more cautious around traffic-  Even though I’ve biked many miles, I found myself being hyperaware of cars, especially during the evening rush hour.  More than usual, I found myself looking over my shoulder to gauge when cars would pass me and really signaled my intent when trying to take the lane.

Potholes – this forces me out into traffic since they seem to form on the right side of the road, directly where I need to be.  Even the North Shore suburbs can’t be pothole free.

Feeling lonely – Maybe it was the bad weather, but I only saw one other bike commuter during my whole route.  I usually pass a few people going into the city when I am headed out of it.  Also, I used to take the Metra and would chat with some people before boarding.

Having to coast more than usual–  I didn’t feel bad “cheating” and I coasted as much as I could to conserve energy.

My lack of upper body strength – When I was bring my bike out and up a short flight of stairs, I was amazed at how heavy my bike felt.  I previously had found no problem lifting my bike up and down the stairs of the Metra train.   My arms did feel more toned after my rides because they basically act as shock absorbers.

A sore butt – I don’t wear padded shorts but  I do have a sport saddle and it is good enough for me.  This type of discomfort usually subsides within a week or two and I just deal with it.

Feeling weighed down – I didn’t bring my purse but instead stuffed my wallet and keys into one of my backpack’s compartments.  My lunch, change of clothes, shoes and towel took up enough space.  This is typically a “light” load, but it felt like I was carrying quite a bit behind me, especially going uphill.

A dry mouth: I think I was breathing through my mouth and exerting myself too much, but this was easily solved by drinking some water throughout my commute.

 

Eventually I made it to work and locked my bike up to a parking sign post, out of the way.  There wasn’t anyone in my building yet.  I felt a bit sore, but was able to recover in my office, rehydrate and then checked some email.  I then managed to make it to the shower, changed and went about the rest of my day.  I am glad I have the ability to shower now as it makes things much easier.  At my previous job, I relied on baby wipes and washed my hair in the sink.

I had arrived early enough that nobody noticed, but with my helmet at my desk, people were curious about my ride in.  I told my coworkers that it only took me an hour,  but that it felt much longer due to the wind.  Otherwise, it was a lot of fun and it was nice knowing that I didn’t need a car.   Biking in helps me to be more alert, and also causes me to be more efficient with my time and helps me deal with stress.  The day also seems to go by quicker.

Suddenly it was time for me to pedal back home.  I left a little bit earlier to avoid the worst of the evening rush hour.  The ride home is always something I look forward to, even if I am tired from the morning ride and a full day of work. When the work day is good, I can ride home without much worry. If there is a problem at work, I can take the time on my bike to think about it, and if the day has been really bad, then I can just ride as fast as I can and deal with my frustration.

Even with some minor discomfort, it is the sense of accomplishment that I arrived at work under my own power, which motivates me to do it again.  I like the challenge and learning process of each ride.  With the weather becoming warmer, I hope I see more bicycle commuters share the road with me.

 

Planning to commute to a new job

Starting a new job is exciting and there is a lot of learning that goes on in the first few weeks, including how to commute by bike.  The distance to my new job is significantly shorter (still 20 + miles if I bike to and from work).  At my previous job, I didn’t start biking until 6 months in.   That was because I didn’t consider bike commuting to be an option and didn’t have a bike.  These are no longer barriers and it will be fun to plan my first bike commute.  Right now, things are extremely busy so I am not able to bike commute until I am comfortable in my role.  However,  I have been observant and taken steps to plan for my new commute so that it will be less stressful.  The following are a few things I’ve considered before I start biking to work.

 

Finding other bike commuters
Since I’m new and my organization is larger, it will take some time for me to find the other bicycle commuters that I have heard about.  Therefore, I need to go with my gut feeling.   If a conversation ever flows to the topic of biking, then I will bring it up.   I already know my boss is OK with me biking, and it seems that people have a favorable attitude towards it.   This has lessened my worries about how I would be perceived biking to work.

 

Planning the route
While driving to work, I take notice of the traffic patterns in the early morning.  When bicycle commuting, I will probably be on the road an hour before the morning rush really hits.  I had some time before my job started and actually test biked one of the routes I would typically take.  Thankfully, I can avoid the busy roads and take a more scenic route.  Previously, I had to bike commute on a stretch of road that was 35 mph where car drivers would speed and didn’t know how to share the road.  One advantage I have is that I am already familiar with the area.

 

Finding a place for bike parking
I still need to find a discreet location to park my bike.  An out of the way pole or fence may be an option.  As long as it doesn’t get in anyone’s way, or violate company policy, then it’s fine.

 

Bringing items to work
Everyday I bring items from home that I can stash in my drawers at my office. I used to have a cubicle and had to make good use of the space I had. Now I am spoiled since my storage space has doubled.  Things that I’ll bring before my first commute include:

1) Extra clothes.  My dress code is now business formal, so I’ll probably bring an outfit before my first commute.  I will also test folding and rolling up my clothes to see how wrinkled they get.
2) Food, snacks = salt and sweets
3) Bicycle pump and new inner tubes. Yes, I have these in case my tire goes flat and I need to repair it.   I have had instances where I’ve rode to work but didn’t know I got a flat on the morning commute and then couldn’t ride home.
4) Hygiene prep products- baby wipes, shampoo, hairdryer, towel, cosmetics etc.

 

Being physically ready
My physical stamina has  decreased significantly after this harsh Chicago winter.   I have only been biking on the weekends and this contributes to my stamina, even though it’s only short trips or a fun ride.   I will have to deal with the increased fatigue (sore butt + legs) until my body becomes used to the process of bike commuting again.  If things become unmanageable, I can always hop on the train or bus to give myself a break.

 

With these things in mind, I know that I will be setting myself up for a successful first commute.  It also helps to see that more people are bike commuting and it isn’t as strange as when I started a few years ago.  I do look forward to the day when I turn into the parking lot on my bike instead of my car.

 

 

Logistics of bike commuting 20 miles

Bike commuting is a part time job and planning is key.

I found that it was more difficult figuring out the logistics of bike commuting than dealing with the physical stamina to bike 20+ miles each day.  There is definitely a period of adjustment, but I eventually figured out what worked for me.  Some women have concerns about their safety and appearance, but if guys didn’t seem to worry about it, then I never thought that I should too.  I’ve talked to many male and female bike commuters, and we share similar issues and experiences.

I prefer arriving to work as early as possible, because traffic on the road is much lighter and also because then I have time to change and recover before starting my work day.

 

Here is breakdown of a typical bike commute day:

4:15-5am Wake up, coffee already brewing

5:40-5:45am Leave to catch the train out of the city

6:20 am Bike 8 miles to work from train stop

7:00 am Arrive at work

7:30am: Ready to work

4pm-5pm catch train into city or bike all the way home

5:30-6:30pm Arrive back at home

This may seem like a long day, but I have time to read on the train, get in my exercise and contribute to my well-being.  I am also saving a lot of money by not driving and reducing car maintenance costs.

 

To significantly cut down on items I need to bring to work, and to make things easier,

I keep a few things in my desk drawer:

Hairdryer

Shampoo/Conditioner

Comb

Brushes

Cosmetics

Hair products

Deodorant

Baby wipes

Work shoes so I can avoid carrying their heavy weight.

 

The night before

Preparation the night before makes the morning less stressful.  My bag is packed with clothes I have prepared for the next day.  I make sure I have my lunch prepped and ready to go in the refrigerator so I can grab it in the morning before I leave.  Coffee is preground and programmed to brew before I wake up.

 

What I wear while commuting

I commute in athletic clothing because I feel it is more comfortable and it is available in bright colors so that I am more visible to drivers on the road.   I prefer to do a full clothing change when I get to work.

Because I bike a long distance, I don’t bother putting on any makeup before going to work.  What’s the use when I’m going to be sweating for awhile and who am I really going to be seeing before the workday?  Everyone is half awake on the train and people aren’t really interested in talking to you that early in the morning anyway.

 

Transporting supplies

I have a bike (hybrid) with a rear rack so that I can bungee cord my backpack to it.  I also have a road bike which has no rack, so I must carry the items I’m bringing to work in my messenger bag.   My backpack and messenger bag are sufficient to fit my clothes, purse, and lunches.  I’ve never used panniers and don’t feel the need for them since I board the train or bus and need to carry my belongings on me.

Morning loads are always heavier due to the weight of the lunch and snacks I have packed for the day.  I use a thermal bag to keep my food cool because my commutes to work can be as long as 2 hours.

Clothes- I like to roll up my clothes so that they do not come out wrinkled.  I keep a couple of spare clothing items at work in case I forget.  In the summer I usually like to pack a set of clothes and bring them to work a day before I need them, otherwise they feel hot from the morning commute in.  That way, when I change into my clothes they are refreshingly cool.

 

Appearance and hygiene

I feel that other women are really concerned about their appearance and fuss over this area the most.   It really doesn’t have to be an ordeal if you allow yourself enough time to get ready.

My company’s dress code is business casual and my workplace does not have a shower.  Because I arrive early enough, I guarantee that I can cool off  and then stop sweating while reading e-mail and drinking some whey protein.  Then I can have one of the bathrooms to myself and change.   Because I have showered before bike commuting, all I have to do is use baby wipes to clean off.  I wash my hair in the sink to complete my preparation for the day.  All of this takes no more than 20 minutes.

 

Hair

Taming my hair after biking became an ordeal. When I first started commuting I had longer shoulder length hair so it was easier to fold it over and tuck into my helmet and it would survive the commute.  With my shorter hair now, I seem to get a helmet line circulating my head.  Humid days are the worst.   I eventually decided to just wash my hair at work since I never like the feeling of a sweaty head.  If your hairstyle can survive the commute, then that’s great, it never did for me.

I’ve used several texturizing creams to combat the effects of helmet head.  They were all sufficient to make me look presentable.

One product that I did like that re-fluffed my hair was a hair potion.

I could sprinkle it on my head and my hair would regain its volume where my hair had been matted by the helmet.

 

“Cheating”

On days when I do not bike commute I try to bring as much stuff for the next few days. This includes snacks, clothes and any toiletries that are running low.

Now that I am more optimized and confident in my commuting, I prefer to haul as much as I can on Mondays and Tuesdays so that I have less to carry at the end of the week when I am worn down and more likely to forget things.  I’ll use my heavier hybrid bike for this, as I can strap more stuff to my rear rack.

 

Bike maintenance

I clean and re-lube my chain on the weekends if I’ve bike commuted all week.

I re-inflate my tires 2x a week.

I maintain a good relationship with my local bike shop in case of repairs or questions.  When I only had one bike, I was in there about every month asking questions about every little thing.  With time, you get to know your bike more and can do repairs by yourself.  Now I no longer need to go to the bike shop when I have a flat and understand more of where the squeaks and cracks are coming from.

Making sure your bike is in good working condition will enable you to get the most out of your ride everytime.

So that’s how I go about bike commuting.  It may be harder or easier based on your needs, but once you have your routine set, biking to work becomes easy.

Finding a safe route

Biking to your destination is different than driving there. Plan your bike commute around your usual route, but seek out quieter roads and avoid the major ones. Ride on roads that you feel comfortable on. I would avoid very busy or narrow roads so that there is enough space between you and the cars. I also avoid intersections which are “dangerous”, such as when there are angle streets intersecting with other busy streets. For my 20 mile commutes to and from work, I know of several routes. They are mainly on roads which parallel busier roads, or shortcuts through residential neighborhoods. In the city, busier roads can be hectic, but once you understand the flow of traffic and other bicyclists sharing the lane with you, then it is not so bad.

You can drive the route you want to take to familiarize yourself, but there is no substitute for actually biking the route. I suggest biking the route at a less busy time so that you can understand the traffic flow and judge how much spacing you have between yourself and cars. If you don’t have the time to bike the route before you commute for real, just take your time when you first try it out. As an alternative, “drive” the route by using Google Maps, but don’t depend on Google Maps to tell you which route is safe by clicking on the bicycle route option and seeing roads appear in green. Most of the time it is ok, but you really don’t know. I once trusted a route Google Maps suggested, but it turned out that during rush hour, cars didn’t want to give me space. The same road at 6am is safe to bike on, but in the evening rush hour it is not. Bike paths are OK if you are not going very fast or want a more leisurely ride, but you will find that quieter roads will allow you to travel more quickly.

The diagram below gives a cartoon version of the idea:
WhichRoad

Roads
You will want to consider the conditions of the roads. You’ll want to watch out for cracks and bumps in the pavement. Wider roads will allow you to have more space between you and the cars and I avoid narrow roads unless the speed limit is very low or with speed bumps. Also pay attention to when construction on roads will happen, as you’ll need to plan for an alternative route.

Public Transportation
If you live far from work, don’t feel like you have to bicycle the whole way. I live 20 miles away from work and found that a bike-train-bike mode of transport is great.
Go ahead and use public transportation to break up the route and bypass roads. The CTA and Metra have restrictions on bikes based on the time of day and which way you are traveling, so check their websites before you decide to bring your bike.
Once you become more fit, you may realize that you can eventually bike the whole distance and save yourself some cash.

Closing thoughts:
By knowing your main route along with other alternative routes, you can be flexible and handle any unexpected situation. Finding a safe route makes your commute easier by minimizing stress so that you can fully enjoy your ride. Once you are comfortable with your route you can use that knowledge to your advantage. For instance, on hot summer days, I know which route can offer me the best shade. I also remember certain houses which have their sprinklers go off near the street so that I can ride through the spray and be momentarily cooled.
Once you get your route down, the amount of time it takes you to bike commute will be fairly consistent. Don’t listen to people who say they can ride xx distance in xx time. You could be faster or slower, depending on the traffic and how hard you want to ride. Also, bike commuting is not a race. Take your time, follow the traffic rules, and BE SAFE!

The Cubicle as a Rest Stop

Think of your cubicle as a rest stop between your bike commutes. It’s where you can recuperate and prepare for the ride home.

My cubicle is not the most spacious in the company, but it is big enough. I’d say it is 5’x8’, which was nearly the size of my dorm room back in college. Between my piles of paper and a computer and phone, there is still plenty of room to store stuff in file cabinets and drawers above and below my desk. I devote half of my storage space for bike commuting items and the other half to work-related items.

If you are lucky, you may even store your bike in your cube until HR tells you not to. I don’t because it is a hassle for me to wheel it through the cube farm and through the security doors.

 

Here’s what I keep handy:

 

Food and Drink
When I’m not in lab doing experiments, I eat and hydrate as much as possible while I’m doing paperwork in the cube. It’s important to take care of yourself throughout the workday to maintain your energy. You need to be focused when you leave, so take every opportunity you can to sneak in a snack and drink liquids.

I have one drawer dedicated to all of the snacks that I have. This includes tea, crackers, fruit snacks, Gatorade, an emergency can of sardines, and whey powder that I drink in the morning. I also have some spare change in case I need a sugar boost from the vending machine. I keep a mug and a drinking glass at work.

 

Clothes and cosmetics
I bring a change of clothes everyday, but you could certainly stash them at the start of the workweek if you wanted to.

Bringing shoes to and from work is very exhausting due to their weight and space that they take up, so I have a drawer dedicated to work shoes. I also keep a hairdryer, shampoo, baby wipes and cosmetics to help me look presentable.
You may also benefit from simple first-aid items such as band-aids and antiseptic spray, in case of a fall or accidental cut.

 

Bike supplies
I have a spare bike pump and patch kit in a large drawer in case my bike tire goes flat. I also have a bottle of chain lube in case I’ve biked through rain in the morning and have time to lubricate my chain during the lunch hour.

 

Other use of space:
The only things I don’t keep in my drawers are my bag, helmet and clothes that I commute in. I hang up my clothes to let them air out during the workday.

 

I like to hang up my bright clothes to let them dry out and also to blind my co-workers.
Bright clothes to blind my co-workers.