Commuting to work by bike can be challenging but worth it

Fifteen years ago, a co-worker who rode his bicycle to and from work almost every day, year-round, talked me into giving the bike-to-work commute a try. I owned a bicycle, but was not one to ride for pleasure; I needed a destination.

 Annually a local bike association promoted a “Bike-to-Work Week” in April, offering a pancake breakfast and other incentives to try biking. For me, the sweet spot for bike riding to work in the South Bend area is June through August. Those months, for the most part, are temperate with adequate daylight for both the ride to and from the office. Also, with schools closed for the summer, there is significantly less automobile traffic. 

Taking my co-worker’s suggestion, I loaded my lunch and work clothing into a backpack and set out on my silver Giant bike for the six-mile ride. As I rode, I took as many side streets as possible, avoiding streets with heavy traffic, and when I had to, rode on sidewalks, even though in many municipalities it’s illegal. The ride took me about 25 minutes and was an enjoyable start to my work day. 

At that time, the office I worked in had no shower facilities, so the only way to freshen up was a sink bath. It was not optimal, but it worked. After the morning ride, I found I had better energy at work. The adrenaline rush lasted a good portion of the workday. At the end of the day, I retraced my route back home. 

That first summer of riding, I was relatively picky about what days I rode, based mostly on the weather. I only rode on days without rain in the forecast and I avoided days where the temperature dipped below 50 degrees. The first year of riding, I stopped in mid-August, when the mornings became too dark and cold for my comfort and school started back up. That first year of riding, I only made 30 or so round trips.

During the following couple of years, I kept to the June to August riding schedule. I tinkered with my route, trying to stay on smooth, less-travelled streets.

Occasionally, random drivers would yell something unintelligible at me, probably not worth hearing. Strangely, there seemed to be a simmering antagonism by some drivers towards bike riders. You would think fewer cars on the road would cheer them up. Maybe it was a sign of the continuing breakdown of our social order. 

Cell phones, although illegal to use when driving, are a serious distraction for a lot of drivers. Also, a lot of automobile drivers don’t look both ways at intersections. They just roll through. Bike riders are in peril if they assume car drivers always see them.

I had a couple of run-ins with loose dogs that tested my ability to stay ahead of them while they chased me down the street. I witnessed two men fighting on a sidewalk using snow shovels as weapons. I saw plenty of wildlife, both dead and alive. I saw a lot of trash strewn about; there are a lot of litterbugs among us. On recycling days, I had to dodge lots of broken glass left in the streets by the recycling trucks. I suffered a few flat tires from that glass. These are things you may not notice while traveling in a car.

Yet when my employer moved to an office building with a locker room and showers, I decided it was time to extend my bike-to-work schedule. The cold and the dark were my new adversaries. Defeating them required that I invest in many types of flashing lights and reflective clothing as well as warmer biking clothing. I had fenders installed on both tires to keep the road grit off of me. What made my rides easier is that my wife worked in the same office, so she transported my lunches and changes of clothes.

Having a warm shower awaiting me at work made the decision to ride more months of the year more attractive. But starting out in the dark and cold required fortitude. It turns out that riding a bike to work can turn a person into a major weather obsessor. I found myself checking weather radar and hourly forecasts multiple times a day. Many evenings I raced home trying to beat the oncoming dark clouds and their imminent precipitation. I got drenched plenty of times.

I began keeping a calendar of my rides and the morning temperatures. In both April and November, it was typical to ride in the high 30s. Doing so required gloves, a headband, multiple layers of clothing, and goggles to keep my eyes from tearing up. Then on the warmer afternoon ride, I would have to schlep all the extra clothing home in my backpack.

In 2019, I rode to and from work 120 times, my personal best. In order to accomplish that, I rode in a lot of weather I would have preferred not to. Late in the year, after yet another expensive repair to my 15-year-old Giant, I invested in a new, lighter bike. The new bike got only one season of serious use before the coronavirus shut the world down.

Bicycle riding is not a money saver. Parts, repairs, bike clothing, and tuneups are expensive and necessary, and they cost as much as gasoline. Do-it-yourselfers can save money on repairs, but I’m only able to do minor maintenance. On the plus side, bike riding gives you a good workout, a natural adrenaline rush, and you don’t produce air pollution. 

Working at home for more than a year during the coronavirus, my bike rides were limited to small trips around my neighborhood. My wife and I have ridden on the beautiful Pumpkinvine Trail in Elkhart several times. I took a July 4th ride to the restored fountain in Leeper Park and had the place to myself.

The thing I’ve noticed though, like with any other routine, once you stop doing it, it’s hard to get back into it. When I hang up the bike for the winter and get back in my car, I appreciate the heat, the dry, and the music on the stereo. The weather matters much less. Sure, in the winter, I still layer up, but nothing like I have to in order to ride.

 And as we finish up a cold April 2022 in South Bend, it’s time for me to get the bike down from the hanger in the garage, pump up the tires, lube the chain, and steel myself for some dark and cold morning rides. June can’t get here soon enough.