The past year I have been commuting by bike on most work days. The distance is about 6.2 miles and my odomoter shows 1736 miles for the year. Granted, I have done some recreational riding as well including a half-century, that is 50 miles, on some particularly crazy Saturday, but I doubt that totals more than 150-200 miles. I have ridden in cold weather and frozen my legs off (note to self: get some longer bike shorts) and I have ridden in temperatures in excess of 100F. Given that our car’s gas milage is maybe 20mpg in city traffic and the price of gas around here is $3.5/gallon, I figure I have saved around 75 gallons of gas, over two thousand pounds of carbon dioxide or $262.5 dollars. In addition, I have saved maybe 1% in car depreciation which comes to another $150. Maybe I should ask DW for a reimbursement (DW handles the gas). Given that I biked 8 months out of 12 (didn’t move here until April), this comes out to $600 a year in annual “savings”. Not bad! With oil prices touching $100 for the first time yesterday, I expect “savings” to keep improving of course.

When I moved to CA, my new boss lent me his old racing bike. I had never owned a racing bike before, but I was hooked on speed almost immediately. After a couple of months and having not found anything on craigslist, I forked over $1500 to the local bike shop (LBS) and got a Trek2100ZR. With the above figures, this bike should have paid itself off in 2.5 years.

The “problem” with racing bikes is that they are somewhat special in that they should be fitted especially for you. Almost anything can be adjusted, the height and position of the saddle, the size, position and orientation of the head set, the lenght of the crank arms, the gearing, etc. The point is to obtain the best fit which will transfer the maximum amount of power to the pedals while still being comfortable. When your feet are going at 90RPM and you’re outputting 200 Watts of power, even being a few milimeters off in the saddle position feels less comfortable. So for my first racing bike, I preferred to rely on an expert and since I don’t know any roadies, I had to pay. Now knowing what the right fit feels like, I plan to get my next bike on my own though.

There are some interesting thing to note about racing bikes. First, the saddle looks too narrow to sit on comfortably. The important thing to note here is that on a bike your bodyweight is supported by your hands, your butt and your feet. The faster you go, the more force will go into your feet to support your weight. My bike feels quite uncomfortable at anything below 15mph because most of my weight is suddenly supported by my hands, wrists, elbows, and butt. Going faster (20mph) the force on the arms and saddle becomes almost zero though. Riding in 100F is another potential source of discomfort. One may think that this is too hot. However, at high speeds evaporating sweat easily cools you down. I can even feel the coolness of my breath as it hits my face where the humidity evaporates right off. In conclusion, 100F will feel very hot and the bike will feel uncomfortable and cause aches and pains unless you go fast! It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s much more comfortable riding a fast bike in 100F than it is to walk.

It would seem that there is a barrier of entry to road bikes, which are pretty much the most efficient way of travelling on land. It is more efficient than walking and a lot more efficient than driving. If you can’t go at 17mph+ they don’t feel as nice as when you can. On the other hand, if you get a “lesser” bike, you probably wont build your power and riding style up to 17mph+. Riding a mountain bike or one of those fashion forward cruisers at 17mph or more requires serious effort. It reminds me of credit cards. If you have them already, it’s easy to get a new one although you probably don’t need one. However, if you don’t have credit, it’s very very hard to get even though you need it more. Barriers of entry.

The only way to get around this is to keep pushing with what you already have. If you already have a bike, ride it daily to build up miles or work on strength and endurance in other ways. With credit, realize that you won’t get far without savings. There is no reason in either case to look into fancy methods until the fundamentals are correct. For instance, there’s a difference in technology between my new bike and the beater I used to borrow. Gears shift more smoothly, brakes are more efficient, the frame is stiffer and lighter. Despite all this my average speed on this bike is only maybe 1-2mph higher which I attribute mostly to using clipless pedals instead of toeclips. The law of diminishing returns thus suggest that I should work on getting stronger and fitter rather than upgrading my equipment. It just pains me to see some skinny legged weekend warrior on a $4000 bike all decked out in spandex and goretex doing 17mph. Of course wooshing past him in office attire feels kinda good :p .

Now for commuting purposes, which incidentally are also one of the better ways to train for long distance marathon-like riding, I recommend getting a spare tube and some tire levers. While flats are rare (at least in dry weather) you don’t want to be caught having to carry (never drag a flat tire on the rim!) your bike 3 miles because of a blowout or a rimcut or worse, get caught 15 miles out on a recreational ride! You also need a light weight pump. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Avoid the palm sized micropumps. It takes 15 minutes to pump up a tire that way. Get a slightly larger one. You can get a spiffy saddle bag to keep it in or you can just keep it in your backpack. Just don’t forget them. I generally get my “accessories” at I’m not associated with them, but I do like having paid a flat $5 in shipping every time I have bought something there so far.

If you are going for a racing bike I would recommend is to get “clipless” pedals i.e the kind where you get a special shoe with cleats that clip into the pedal. This allows one to power the crank all 360 degrees around, forward, down, backward and up. In comparison, toeclips, in which you put your normal shoe into a strap only allows for about 180 degrees or forward and down. Strapless only allows power on the down stroke and is far inferior. If you can have only one upgrade, clipless would be it. If you pay more than $1000 for your bike it will most likely come with clipless.

Here are some more blogs to get you going.

  • Alright, this settles the equipment issue. Next time I will discuss various tips and tricks for commuting and growing beyond commuting e.g. making cycling part of one’s overall exercise routine.

    Originally posted 2008-01-04 07:32:51.