Bike Friendly Fort Worth board member Elisabet Westbye shares her experiences as a bike commuter.
I sold my car four years ago and haven’t looked back. I could gush for hours about how incredibly amazing the choice to make my bicycle my primary mode of transportation has been for me. It isn’t necessarily the right choice for everyone, but for my two kids and me, it was life-changing in the best way. Not only did selling my car free up a significant amount of money in my monthly budget, but we relish the time we get to ride together. It has brought us closer together, strengthened our ties to the community, and improved our physical and mental well-being.
Should you want to consider bicycle commuting, either on occasion or as a long-term commitment, there are a few things I would recommend doing first. I didn’t necessarily do everything right the first time, so I hope you can learn from my mistakes. First off, I want to make it clear, you do not need a fancy bike or a ton of expensive clothing or equipment to be a successful bicycle commuter. Those things can be nice, but are completely unnecessary. When I first went car-free, I had a bicycle I picked up at a flea market for $60, a backpack and a patch kit.
The most important advice I could give would be to work up to it. Don’t try to do it all at once or you may become very discouraged. Gradually increase the distances you travel and the frequency of your trips. I had been riding pretty regularly so I thought it would be no big deal, but when rest-days were no longer an option, I became exhausted. My legs ached all the time and I felt like I had been paddled (and not in a funway). After the first month, I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake. I eventually figured out that I needed to increase my protein intake. Once I did this, my body adjusted and I’m glad I stuck with it.
I would also recommend that you try different styles of saddles until you find what works best for you. While a wide, cushioned saddle may sound like the most comfortable option, I have found that the less contact my body has with my saddle, the better. Since I’m on the topic of seats, let’s address clothing. Padded shorts are great, but not completely necessary. If you aren’t going to spend the entire day on your bike, there is no reason you can’t wear normal street clothes. That being said, tight fitting skinny jeans are bad news if you are going to be riding more than a couple miles. I learned this the hard way and my doctor still teases me about the very unfortunate abrasion caused by riding 30 miles in skinny jeans.
If you have the money, go to a bike shop and get your bike fit to reduce physical strain. If money is tight, you can make adjustments to seat height/angle and handlebars yourself. In my case, there was a lot more trial and error than if I had just sucked it up and gone to a shop, but I’m stubborn and like to do things myself. Proper seat height makes a world of difference on the strain to your knees and back. While you’re at it, get to know basic bike mechanics. At the very least, learn how to fix flats. The last thing you want is to get stranded somewhere. Familiarizing yourself with the bus routes, just in case, is a good idea too because you won’t always be able to fix something. On particularly hot and exhausting day, I have jumped on the bus to avoid having to ride up a hill and have zero shame about it. I do what I have to do.
When you are using your bicycle for commuting, there are a few additional accessories that I would recommend. Besides the basic head and tail lights, water bottle, and patch kit that you should probably have all the time anyway, you are going to want to have some way to carry extra things. There are many options available from backpacks, messenger bags, panniers, and trailers. Pick what works best for your needs. Most days I only use panniers. They are sufficiently large to carry my basic supplies, a change of clothes, and still have room to haul some groceries home as well. I like to be prepared for anything, especially when my kids are involved, so I keep more things with me than the average cyclist. The basic supplies I keep in my panniers are as follows:
- Patch kit
- Two spare inner tubes
- Compact pump
- Tire levers
- Tweezers for pulling thorns, glass, wire, and other miscellaneous causes of flats out of tires
- Bicycle multi-tool with assorted Allen wrenches, screwdrivers, and wrenches
- Spare set of lights (charged) •U-lock & cable Four bungee cords (Never know when I might decide to pick up a little something extra along the way)
- Bandana (can be used as a headband to keep sweat out of your eyes or tied around your face in the spring to keep from breathing flies down by the river)
- Lip balm
- Granola bars
- Small first aid kit including assorted waterproof bandages, butterfly bandages, sanitizing wipes, antibiotic ointment, Tegaderm film (for road rash), sanitized needle and floss, instant ice pack, ace bandage, and ibuprofen.
- Rain poncho
- Dry sack (zip lock bags work too)
- Flick-baton (for dealing with dogs), although a gel pepper-spray would work too. You just don’t want to use the standard pepper-spray because it can blow back on you. Again, learned the hard way.
- Safety vest, because you can never be too visible
Not all of these items are necessary, but I’d rather be over prepared than be found lacking. Besides, the extra weight just makes me stronger. I didn’t obtain all these things at once; I have collected them gradually over time as I felt they would be beneficial. I’m also a huge fan of fenders, so you don’t end up covered in mud or road grime on wet days. A loud bike bell is also a helpful safety feature, but if you don’t mind shouting, your voice is a perfectly suitable alternative.
After a few years of daily riding, I began to have problems with my Achilles’ tendons. It felt like they were ripping off my heel. I tried, stretching before and after riding, adjusting my seat height, and many different types of shoes. As much as I didn’t want to, what finally corrected this problem for me was wearing shoes that were designed for cycling. After a couple of gnarly crashes, stabbing my leg with my chain ring, and a concussion, I learned to ride clipless. I almost never clip in now, but the shoes are a tremendous help. I have also found that a sturdy pair of trail running shoes works just as well for me, and they don’t click when I walk.
Despite what it might sound like from the above, riding my bike every day has been fun. I sprained my ankle a few weeks ago in a moment of complete gracelessness, and was forced to stay off my bike until today. My stress level has been slowly creeping up each day despite the fact that driving is easier and more time efficient.I am grateful to have been able to borrow a car in this circumstance, but I need my time on my bike. It is my happy place, where I can think through problems and feel connected to the rest of the world. I love getting to see the sun rise each day and experience the subtle changes of the seasons. I feel very lucky that I never have to sit in traffic. Even when it is difficult, I feel strong and accomplished.