Experimental Bike Commuting

and so it begins… | 03/30/2010

table of contents

i. the intro


There are dozens of sites dedicated to outlining the process of outfitting your bike for commuting. There are hundreds of sites, blogs, and articles detailing why you should try to commute by bike. And there are thousands of places willing to sell you parts, services, and gear for commuting by bike. Nowhere on the internet have a I found anyone detailing how to make the switch. Let me repeat:

There is almost nowhere that tells you how to actually make the switch.

That is all about to change.

ii. the purpose


It seems that every resource of information presupposes that you are either a) an avid cyclist or b) capable of going to sleep a driver and waking up a biker. I, and I will assume many of you, do not fit into either of those categories, but I would really like to start biking for transportation.

It isn’t just for some holier-than-thou environmental reasons. I’m not doing it solely for the health benefits. It’s not only about fighting my inherent consumerism. I don’t just want to connect with the outdoors as a participant and not simply pass through it as an observer. It’s about all of these things, and the test of will that this challenge provides.

Can I wake up earlier in the morning, walk outside with my day’s work on my back and pedal my way to my responsibilities? Or will I wake up, notice the car as I’m getting the bike out of the garage and hop in and enjoy an easy, quick drive.

Now, back to the point, I hope to detail my journey from lazy student/video gamer/programmer to active, cycling student/video gamer/programmer. My aim is to help others who plan to make the switch by providing some insight into the specific challenges, adaptations, planning, and training that a non-cyclist faces when transitioning to bike commuting.

iii. the challenge


I have roughly 145 days to get myself and my bike ready for a ride of approximately 11 miles from my home in Fort Mill, SC to my school, Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, SC. The area around the school is very bike-friendly, the area between my house and the school, however, has several spots that will be both physically challenging and mentally grueling.

My greatest foe, like yours when deciding to commute, will, of course, be my determination, but there is a very close second that is far less internal. The bridge between Rock Hill and Fort Mill, which is just barely wide enough for 2 small cars and where cars routinely travel in excess of 55mph, though the posted speed limit is 35, will undoubtedly be my greatest mental barrier. Unfortunately, other than I77(which bikes are not allowed on, for good reason) this bridge is the only link between the two towns.

iv. the bike


This section details the bike that I will be using, but there is an upgrade/gear priority listing at the end that could be used a basis for your own choices on outfitting your bike.

I got the bike a week or two ago, but I haven’t cleaned it or taken any good photos yet. I meant to grab the ones from its craigslist posting, but it was taken down shortly after my purchase. I’ll have to snap a few before I go riding tomorrow.

It is a red 1980 Zebrakenko Storm 12-speed road bike. It came with a back rack attached already, which saves one step in my conversion to a commuter bike process. I’m pretty sure its got a Shimano set up, and all hardware is still original. Even the bar tape is from the factory.

It has un-indexed, down tube shifters that are definitely taking some getting used to, but I’ve been forcing myself to take a really hilly path the 5 or so times I’ve ridden it to get used to making the adjustment.

I had to get two new tires, and the back breaks needed to be replaced but other than that, its riding great and working perfectly.

The pedals have toe clips, which I have been debating taking off for the time being, but I can’t afford to invest in clipless ones yet. And, luckily, the tires are set up with quick-releases, which makes making the bike fit in my car and fixing flats, of course, a lot easier.

I have several planned upgrades, which I’ve been prioritizing so that I can afford one to two of them every pay check. They may not fall in line with your priorities, but I’ve weighed and re-weighed and this seems like the right set for what I have to work with. Use it as a guide to figure out your upgrades if you’d like. I know it can be a daunting task to figure out what to do.

v. the priorities


This checklist is prioritized based upon the importance of the item as well as how it fits into the system of building up from not biking at all to full-blown commuting. Some of the items may seem less important, but they factor into my overall training plan to get myself from inactivity to cycling regularly.

Keep in mind I am basing my training mostly around long repeated runs of a 1 to 2 mile circle that loops past my house to begin with. This will allow you to really pick and choose when to purchase items and also help you readjust to riding in a straight line before you head into the serious traffic possibility of a longer commute. Not to mention, its a lot less of a burden to deal with a flat when practicing in this fashion, I expect to be riding this way for a month or so before I start working my way into more traffic and longer rides.

  • bike

    It should go without saying that you first need a bike, but, just in case, here it is. Picking your type of bike, however, can be quite the challenge. There are literally dozens of sites that try to help out, so I’ll refer you to more “expert” advice. Used bikes come highly recommended for us new cyclists from a variety of sites and all of the bike shops I spoke with.

    REI has a decent quick description of the differences.
    CommuterBicycle.com has a very in depth analysis of the styles.
    This Bike Friendly blog tells the tale of choosing a bike.

  • tires

    My old road bike needed them badly as one tire was pretty much completely bald and the other wasn’t too far behind. Both had some dry rot, as well. Yours may be fine for quite awhile yet.

  • new helmet

    Most would probably put this first, I’ve been using an old skating helmet from when I was younger, it doesn’t fit just right, but next payday I’ll be upgrading. You will need to get a helmet.

  • saddle

    That’s the proper term for what I used to call the seat, until I was politely corrected at a bike shop(a heads up to other bike newbies, take note of the vernacular and try to learn it as best you can, if a bike shop can tell you have no idea what’s going on, they may feel inclined to take advantage of you).

    My Zebrakenko has a saddle from 1980 on it and there is probably about a millimeter, if that, of padding stretched across hard plastic. This is uncomfortable and must be remedied if I plan to keep riding. You may love your saddle and want to stick with it, or you may want to upgrade to some of the newer gel technologies for your rear.

  • rear rack

    You will want a rear rack. They are cheap, fairly light, easy to install, and open up a wealth of options for you down the road. I can’t really see any reason not to get one. Luckily, my bike came with one.

  • underseat bag

    The underseat bag may seem unnecessary, but I really don’t like having to keep my house key, ID, phone, and anything else I may want to bring on a short ride in my pockets.

    This definitely may not be a necessity if you end up with panniers or a decent messenger bag, but its a lot easier to throw those few items into a little zippable pocket when you’re doing your training than to strap on larger bags. Besides, a little extra storage couldn’t hurt down the road, right?

  • bike computer

    This will help you keep track of how far you can ride before fatigue, what speed you can maintain, the total distance you’ve travelled, and other simple things. They come in dozens of styles and vary greatly in complexity.

    If you are investing in this early, as I am, go for a cheap 5 to 7 function one, just to help you keep track of your progress and eventually figure out roughly how long your trips should take based on your average speed.

  • mirror

    This will be invaluable in traffic. There are different styles and sizes, but my personal choice is very likely to be a handlebar mounted round mirror. They are classic, simple, and pretty cheap.

    The helmet mirrors do seem to offer a nicer way to check behind you without fully taking your eyes off the world in front of you. Figure out what you think fits you best and make sure you get one.

  • security

    Around this point, you may be taking longer trips and possibly wanting to stop and get a bite to eat or run a small errand. If you get off your bike and aren’t standing next to it, LOCK IT UP. Bikes get stolen, especially ones that look nice, have been taken care of and lovingly upgraded, and especially ones that are easy to take.

    There are tons of articles regarding security and comparing locks, but the best advice I’ve heard from many places is this: “Make your bike harder to steal than the ones around it.”

    If you don’t plan on leaving your bike anywhere but your house, you can save the lock for a later date when you are closer to being ready for your transition.

  • lights

    I’ve been riding only in the daytime thus far, so lights haven’t been an issue, but I know at some point I will want/have to ride at night and these are a must if you are worried about being caught on two wheels when the sun is down.

    The really cool(and expensive) ones are powered by a generator system attached to your back wheel and hub, which is pretty much one of the coolest bike accessories ever if you are a nerd like me. Make sure you get a red one that flashes for the rear and a steady white one for the front. Variable brightness is a luxury, you may find it useful, you may want to forego its cost.

    Make has a great guide on making your own bike lights

  • flat kit

    Get a pump or a C02 inflator. Get a tube that fits your tire. Get a couple of patch kits. Get a Schrader adapter if you have Presta valves. Make sure you have the tools to get your tires off if you don’t have quick-release wheels. Keep a couple of quarters in there in case you are near a gas station(their pump will make inflating your tire much easier).

  • tools

    Allen wrenches. Crescent wrenches. Pliers. Chain tool. Screwdrivers, etc…

    Or get yourself a decent multi-tool that has the appropriate sizes for your bike. You may also want to go in on a whole bike tool-kit and learn to do your own repairs and fixes at home, but be sure before you go on any one-way trip of some distance that you’ve got the tools to deal with minor bike issues.

    As a side note: if you got that underseat bag, assuming it wasn’t one of the tiny ones, you should have enough room for your tools. Duct tape or electrical tape are a great idea, apparently latex gloves are great for flats and chain issues, and maybe a small first aid kit might save you, as well.

    Check out this Bike Commuter post and its comments for a great break down from people who know more than me

  • cycling clothing

    If you get fed up with the feeling of riding in regular clothes, which is absolutely a possibility, move this step up a few ranks. Personally I can deal with the discomfort for a bit, but I know that I won’t be wearing normal clothing when riding to school and work(it simply isn’t practical or terribly intelligent on long rides) so for the sake of your comfort and your clothes, invest in a pair of shorts, a shirt, and probably some booties to cover your feet in case it rains.

    Rain gear is a must. Be prepared for water.

  • storage

    Now comes the choice: panniers or bag? If you choose bag: messenger or backpack? Also for bags: to carry or bungee cord to your rack?

    Honestly, I still haven’t decided myself. I’m leaning towards messenger bag because I’m going to be riding it to school and I know panniers will get tampered with or stolen if I don’t take them off and carry them with me.

vi. the plan


The overall goal here is to make the transition from driving to cycling as easy and painless as possible. So, the plan(yours may vary from mine depending on your general activity level and confidence) is to ride 2 to 3 miles a day for a week or two(maximum), then increase that to 4 to 6 for a few weeks, then move up to 8 miles for a weeks, and then begin my 10 to 12 mile trips for a few weeks. This will take care of my stamina

Intermittently, after I’ve sufficiently outfitted my road bike for safe traffic operations, I will begin to carry my bike with me and ride from different points on my route to and from school to get a feel for the roads and for the traffic on the less frightening portions of the route.

I will keep this blog updated every few days with my progress in both my riding and my upgrading.

vii. the summary


Here are the values of note and how they factor in:

  • Trip distance: ~11 miles
  • Training time: ~145 days
  • Height: ~6 feet
  • Current weight: ~145 pounds
  • Average activity level: Low

Here’s a breakdown of the current costs, which I will keep updated with each post to help illustrate a rough estimate of the cost of converting to bike commuting:

  • Zebrakenko Storm: $140
  • Tires & brake pads: $56
  • Current Total: $196

And finally a note regarding the cost of the gas I used today getting to and from school:

  • Distance travelled (miles): ~22
  • Avg. price 3/29/10 ($/gallon): ~2.65
  • Car MPG (miles/gallon): ~26
  • Spent Today ($): ~2.24
  • Spent since 3/29/10 ($): ~2.24

good luck, and ride safe


1 Comment »

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of good cycling clothes. Everyday clothes are fine for short journeys but for longer journeys they become uncomfortable. Your ride will be much more enjoyable with the right clothes.

    Comment by paul — 03/30/2010 @ 6:39 pm

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    the challenge

    can one lazy guy overcome his sloth and convert to commuting by bike?

    over 100 days remain...

    the cost

    Red 1980 Zebrakenko Storm: $140
    New Tires & Brakes: $56
    Bike Computer: $22
    Total (as of 3/30/10): $218

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