The Joys of Cycling

June 1, 2011

In December, as a late birthday present to myself, I bought an entry-level road bike. I had been meaning to buy a bike for years and had been setting aside money for this purchase for several months—all so that I could eventually become a bike commuter and maybe participate in a triathlon or two.

I took my new bike out for a joyride once in December and quickly realized that there’s not much joy to be found in cycling in thirty-degree temperatures. My gloves were too thin, my tights were too thin, and I should’ve worn at least two pairs of socks. I planned to layer up and get out on the bike again before winter ended, but alas, the weather just got colder, the roads got icier, and my enthusiasm for cycling went down the tubes.

Until April, that is. Shortly after I ran the half marathon with my sister, I realized the triathlon I had registered for in January was now only six short weeks away. If I wanted to survive the twelve-mile bike course, I needed to log some time on the saddle. I started by doing a couple rides on my own on a bike trail about a mile from my house, the W&OD (for Washington and Old Dominion—it takes its name from the railroad line that used to follow the same route). Even though I felt more comfortable on my bike with each ride, I decided to enlist the help of someone with a few more years of cycling experience under her belt, i.e., Melissa, who, if you recall, is also participating in the No Stuff Experiment. Melissa has taken me out on a few rides now, including my longest ride to date—a thirty-three-mile roundtrip from Ashburn to Purcellville. During our rides, she has imparted some invaluable knowledge. For one thing, she showed me how to safely stop and start cycling at intersections (the key is to get your butt off the bike seat—who knew?).

I’m still a novice cyclist to be sure, but this weekend I achieved the primary goal of my bike ownership: I became a bike commuter. I rode my bike to the office on Friday (for only the second time), and after work I rode to my credit union and then to the Reston Association’s office to get summer pool passes for Channing and me. On Sunday I rode to the library and the grocery store to pick up as many items as would fit in my backpack. And on Monday I rode to my parents’ house for a Memorial Day cookout.

I discovered that riding a bike in 90-degree heat does make for some unsightly sweat stains if you’re not wearing appropriate clothing, but thanks to the inevitable breeze, cycling is just as comfortable temperature-wise as sitting in a car on a hot summer day. In fact, it’s a heck of a lot more fun. When I arrived at the library on Sunday only to find it closed for the holiday, I wasn’t nearly as upset as I would’ve been had I drove there because it wasn’t a wasted trip. By the time I got home, I had burned about five hundred calories and I had watched a big black snake (a northern black racer?) wiggle across the bike trail. (It was only the second adult snake I’ve seen in the “wild” in my life, and although it was probably harmless, it would’ve scared me to death had I not been a safe distance off the ground on my bicycle.)

I managed to run nearly all of my errands this weekend using the W&OD and a couple other major trails in the area. If the reading I did over the weekend is any indication, Reston has a better bike infrastructure than many towns in the United States. In addition to a big chunk of the W&OD, which runs nearly forty-five miles from Arlington to Purcellville, Reston has an extensive pedestrian path network, which cyclists can also use. I find these paths extremely convenient for avoiding heavy vehicular traffic and left-hand turns on the road. (Of course, Reston’s bike infrastructure is far from perfect. Riding on the pedestrian paths can be just as treacherous as riding in the street when too many folks are out running or walking their dogs.) Another plus for cyclists in Reston is the prevalence of bicycle parking. This weekend I found a bike rack at all of my destinations but one (my credit union, in Herndon).

Not every community is so lucky to have bike trails and designated bike lanes, and this lack of infrastructure is perhaps the biggest obstacle for bike commuters. But cycling has so many benefits that it’s worth giving it a try in your community nonetheless. The first that spring to mind are the health benefits, which include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, stroke, and type-2 diabetes, less anxiety, and increased muscle mass and physical fitness. Cycling has several obvious environmental benefits as well, not the least of which is energy efficiency. A car emits about a pound of CO2 for every mile is it driven. A bike, on the other hand, releases no emissions, and runs on the energy of the cyclist (energy derived from the food he or she eats) rather than on fossil fuels.

Less obvious are the economic benefits, both for the cyclist and for the community. The average American spends more than $8,000 per year on car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, registration fees, taxes, parking, and tools and repairs—the necessities of car ownership. Bike ownership costs a small fraction of that sum. Most of the money you spend on your car—to pay big auto companies, big insurance companies, and big gas companies—leaves your community to pad the pockets of corporate executives. The cycling economy is often more localized, with independent bike stores that build, sell, maintain, and repair bikes aplenty.

Finally, a few tips for other novices like me: First, be sure to plan your route in advance, keeping traffic volume and patterns in mind. I try to plan bike trips at times when traffic is light, and I choose routes that avoid left-hand turns. Second, when you’re out on the road, obey all traffic signs and signals, as you would were you driving a car. This is the law in Virginia, and it’s just plain safer. Oh, and when you’re stopped at a red light, make sure the cars around you know you’re there. Don’t stop in a driver’s blind spot. Third, always wear a helmet. Duh.

May was Bike Month, so you can find a ton of recent news stories about cycling and bike safety via a quick Internet search. Your local cycling club probably also has a website with safety tips and route maps. If you’re interested in reading more about the bicycle economy, I’d recommend Elly Blue’s Bikenomics series in Grist.