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The No-Pollute Commute

May is Bike to Work Month, a perfect time to get in shape for summer. But how do you keep your work clothes clean and your bike running smoothly? Patch bicycling columnist Bill Thorness has the answers.

I’m a pretty lazy commuter, so when I started biking to work, I was not enthusiastic. It was something I should do rather than something I wanted to do. I don’t bike to work now, because I have the “carpet commute” up my stairs (I work at home), but for about a dozen years I was a part-time bike commuter.

Because May is National Bike to Work Month, I will be offering a series of columns about this growing trend. Last May, more than 10,000 cyclists took part in the Group Health Commute Challenge, and on Bike to Work Day, the third Friday in May, more than 20,000 people rode their bike to the office. Look for more ideas, stories and activities in this column in the coming weeks.

Before I started biking to work, I took the bus. It was easy to drag myself out to the bus stop and wait, flash my pass at the driver and then sink into a seat, open the paper and catch up on the news. Aside from occasional overcrowding that forced me to stand, or a malodorous, ranting person sitting next to me, it was pretty much a no-hassle commute.

But then I got into the no-pollute commute on my bike. It involved planning a route that didn’t take too long or get me too sweaty. I had to arrange a way to clean and change at the office, and get saddlebags to carry my work stuff. And I had to mentally gear up for the effort.

Here were my three big challenges:

  1. Figuring out my office clothing.
  2. Keeping the bike ready to go.
  3. Getting my lazy butt onto the seat.


Packing for Work

Getting cleaned up once I got to the office wasn’t too tough for me. At one job, I worked right next door to the downtown YMCA, where I was a member. At the next job, my company had a locker room with showers for bike commuters. (I really felt pampered at that one. I’d occasionally see the executives coming in on their bikes as well, so I guessed that support from the top had resulted in that locker room.)

However, schlepping the clothing was a hassle. I’d fold the clothes, slip them into a big plastic bag and stuff them into one pannier. Into the other pannier went any office materials or work that I’d taken home. This definitely added a few pounds of weight to my ride.

The Bicycle Alliance of Washington had a good solution, though. Their commuting tips suggested taking a bunch of clothes into work once a week when driving in, and they’d be there waiting for you. Good idea if you have a dedicated locker space, but not so great if you’re just using the showers at the Y.

The ideal situation would be to commute in your work clothes. That would be possible if a) you lived pretty close to work, b) your commute didn’t involve a lot of sweaty climbs, and c) you could wear very casual clothes at work. I just got used to carrying my clothes.

Prepping the Bike

It was a bit easier to surmount item No. 2. Keeping the bike ready to go was not as challenging as I’d expected. If you’re using your bike every day, you observe what it needs and you get into a maintenance routine.

I would pump up the tires every third day, oil the chain once a week, and give the bike a good wipe down right away if I’d ridden home in the rain. I started pumping the tires at the end of my ride, which meant I didn’t have to get my hands dirty in the morning. It also helped me get a quicker start.

What I didn’t anticipate was all the flats. My main commute street seemed to sprout broken glass on a daily basis. I don’t want to name names (East Union Street), but it was a mess. I was riding a hybrid mountain bike with smooth, but wide tires, and those things would pick up the smallest shards, so tiny you couldn’t really see them. Paradoxically, I seemed to pick up more glass when the road was wet (which is, oh, about 80 percent of the year).

I did a few things that helped. I bought tougher tires. I tried the rubber strips that lay flat between the tire and the tube. I paid more attention to the street. And I got very good at fixing a flat; I patched a lot of tubes to save money.

What helped most, though, was keeping my tires inflated. I confirmed this with my bike mechanic: tires will pick up less grit if they’re fully inflated. Bonus: you’ll go faster. So I started pumping up my tires more often, and pumped to the upper end of the inflation range.

I also started wiping down my tires after a ride, in case there was any glass hanging on to the edges. Sometimes it takes a while for it to work its way into the rubber.

One more thing I learned: how to find the glass. When fixing a flat, if you don’t get the problem piece of glass out of your tire, you’ll just get another puncture. So when I take the tire off, I figure out about where the puncture occurred, and then I get my eyes up close to the tire and pinch the rubber hard so that the center of the tire bulges out. I’ve found a lot of micro-holes that way, and sometimes the glass piece is so small it requires a tiny screwdriver to dig it out.

Overcoming Laziness

Nobody who knows me would describe me as a high-energy guy. I’m definitely Type B, a person content with a good book, a walk through the woods or a leisurely ride along the waterfront. So getting out on my bike first thing in the morning took effort.

My tactic for this was to just get started. I forced myself for a while, and then it became a habit. After I got used to that early activity, I started to enjoy the benefits, including one that was unexpected.

It felt good to get the day’s exercise out of the way right away. And to do it in fresh air, rather than in the gym environment. They say that biking to work can reduce your stress, and I probably benefited from that too.

But one thing surprised me: the bike ride cut down my need for caffeine. I would get to the office wide awake, and I noticed that I was hitting the coffee shop less often on those days.

If you’re thinking of trying bike commuting, visit the Commuting page at the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation website. CBC offers classes, tips and resources for riders and employers. Check out the activities around Bike Month locally, and get ideas for creating your own events from the League of American Bicyclists.

Bill Thorness is the author of Biking Puget Sound: 50 Rides from Olympia to the San Juans. Contact him at bill@bikingpugetsound.com.

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