The Commute. An obvious, sometimes overlooked gap in a busy day to get fit, test gear, test limits and take some time out. Why on earth did I ever stop?
I am mindful that this should not be a ‘how to’ guide. There are much better resources out there for people starting out. I have put some links at the end of this post. Here I want to share my journey back to commuting with you. What works for me may not work for you. Part of the fun is figuring it out for yourself. Hopefully you will pick up some useful tips, or maybe it will inspire you to start getting to work by bike.
Why Commute by Bicycle?
Starting the Bicycle Adventure Club was a brilliant way to get us out playing on and rediscovering our bikes again. It started with little day adventures and built up to our spectacular summer tour over the Lake District and Hadrian’s Cycleway.
At the end of 2019 Mary and I tried cycle to Aberystwyth. We booked the time off work, arranged a puppy sitter only to find at the end of the first day, after just 40 miles, our tanks were empty. Youth no longer on our side, we can’t just ‘pull it out of the hat’ anymore. There has to be some preparation and we hadn’t done enough.
It was a good kick up the back sides for both of us but especially me. Whatever my head was telling me, I was simply no longer able to jump on a bike and cycle 50 miles, day after day. At the beginning of 2019 I struggled with 20 miles and could easily talk myself out of any physical activity.
I started suffering with terrible leg cramps after cycling 20 or 30 miles. I would berate myself for being so incapable. I would spiral mentally and angrily, creating a fear hurdle for the next ride.
I would berate myself for being so incapable. I would spiral mentally and angrily, creating a fear hurdle for the next ride.
If Mary and I want to be capable of doing all the adventures and rides we plan in 2020 we must spend time getting stronger and fitter. The best way to achieve this is to spend more time out on the bike.
I had to make some changes.
Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work I go….
My 20s were when I last consistently commuted to a place of work by bicycle. In the UK it was a 12-15 mile round trip and I did it throughout the year, day & night, in all weather. I lived in Alice Springs and commuted from one side of town to the other every day. Setting off before dawn in the freezing desert and riding home in 30+ degree heat. In Melbourne a 40km round bicycle ride was preferable to sitting in a line of traffic on a bus. In San Francisco the fastest way around the city was to fall in with the couriers and follow their lines, flowing up and down the hills, in and out of the traffic.
It felt amazing. Riding was second nature, easy and a base level of fitness meant that it was always enjoyable.
Life wore on and my 30s became self indulgent, messy and inactive. It is a decade that I am still trying to process and counteract. I arrived in my 40s, out of shape, out of touch with myself and the world and really missing using my bicycle.
Don’t Call it Excercise!!!
For me, the very thought of monotonous, sweaty, repetition in pursuit of fitness is a daunting and fearfully boring prospect. I know to trade short term hurt and suffering for long term comfort is worth it. I am also old and wise enough to know the barriers are mental rather than physical. It doesn’t make the task any easier but it does change my approach.
3 things had to happen:
- I had to make riding fun again.
- It had to feel like a choice not a chore.
- Most importantly; it had to become a habit. Consistency is key to any achievement in life.
Consistency is key to any achievement in life.
I needed to fit riding in around work, life and the winter. The simple answer was to commute by bicycle.
The goal is to get to work and get to work I must so, I may as well have some fun doing it. I’m saving me, I’m saving the planet, I’m saving money. I’m spending time reconnecting with my bike and with myself.
My only rule initially is: ride and develop the habit. Do not chase time nor distance. Just ride. Slow if need be, with no pressure.
I am fortunate not to live too far from work. This gives me a ton of route options for my commute. Going further if I feel like it or just a quick ride if I don’t. I vary the route every day. Even if it is only by one street, or the same loop in a different direction.
I’ve found a couple of favourites. Long stretches I know I can blast along, technical paths to navigate, rooty runs, kerbs to jump off. I’ve found one loop that has naturally become my benchmark. I can gauge my progress.
Looking at the numbers on Strava and the gadgety goodness of computer and heart rate monitors, can be like cat-nip for me so I try not to focus on them. If I find myself drifting back into a negative narrative, I refocus by taking a different route and putting my garmin in the barbag out of sight.
Zen and the Art of Bicycle Commuting
Riding to work slows down my day. I’m not panicked or rushed. Traffic incidents and road closures don’t affect me. I am more mindful and grateful of my body and my surroundings. It is my thinking time.
Getting out of the traffic, onto a bike path or through the park. Into the trees, under the sky. I notice the birds and the brook. Bid good morning and wave to everybody. I smile at unruly puppies that come lolloping into my path. I feel the wind and notice the temperature. I see the sun and moon rise. I see the sun and moon set. Rain is never as bad as it sounds from inside the house.
The physical exertion and mental focus purges bad energy and stress. It is a good start and a good end to a day.
The Practicalities of Commuting by Bicycle
Currently, I ride between 6 and 15 miles. Sometimes I let my energy levels dictate, other times I will push myself. I find myself thinking about where I would like to ride the night before. I’ll want to check out an old canal towpath or see if a bridleway is passable, or find a completely new route. So I’ll have a general idea where or how far I am going.
My Surly Long Haul Trucker is my go to commuter and tourer. I built it from the frame up about 7 years ago. It is solid, dependable and heavy, but if anything breaks (nothing has yet – touch wood) I know I can fix it myself. I can also confidently carry some pretty heavy loads (i.e. – me!).
The trucker has V brakes and a 26” wheelset with carbide rims, handbuilt by Spa Cycles. Mountain Bike Gearing – Triple 22,32,42 chainrings up front and 11-34 cassette at the back. It gets me up and over most things and is enough for me on the downs and flats. Tubus racks front and rear, Brooks B17s Saddle and a Jones bar on the cockpit. Plenty of hand positions and real estate for bags and gadgets.
I used to ride clipless but I have gone back to flats. I’m not fast enough nor fit enough to make the most of clipless. I feel more confident on flats and I’m not limiting my shoe choice.
My comfortable, average speed on my trusty 26” wheeler is 8-9 mph. So for a 15 mile commute I allow a couple of hours. Although, as I ride more gravel I am starting to enjoy going faster for the same effort on my 700c gravel bike and have used it a couple of times to commute. In my head, slow and steady on the 26″ is making me strong. We shall see.
Showering in the morning before I go means I get to work nice and clean. My clothes might get dirty but I don’t. Yes I get sweaty but, I can dry myself, wash my hands & face and I’m fresh as a daisy.
Packing my bag the night before means I’m not rushing or forgetting things in the morning. I ranger roll my work clothes, compact to pack and surprisingly crease free. Clean underwear in addition to clean dry clothes is important as I sweat a LOT. Working in sweaty commuter clothes means feeling cold and so It’s best to change. The stock room is where I get changed. The toilet is small, unpleasant and cold but, the biggest reason: I’ve dropped my fair share of gear down toilets over the years whilst getting changed in the limited space, and I’ve had to fish it back out, so I avoid!
Find Your Fuel
Ross Edgley’s book, the excellent ‘The World’s Fittest Book’ taught me to find my fuel. In days gone I would just cycle; then eat whatever. It doesn’t work anymore. Running out of energy means a miserable ride and probably a headache. I am trying to make it fun and painless and not fueling sufficiently is the quickest way to ruin a good ride.
I have discovered that I can ride fasted for about an hour. Then I need a banana, chocolate dusted date or a square of granola bar. Then some delicious morsel every 30 – 40 minutes for a comfortable effort. There are some really good, simple recipies in Ross’s book that I make for ride snacks.
Riding for under an hour and I will drink a pint of water in the morning then have breakfast at work. If it’s going to be closer to 2 hours I will also take 500ml of water with me and a snack. If it’s really cold I have porridge before I go and take a flask of hot tea.
Figuring food out has transformed my riding. I don’t feel guilty about eating lots of delicious food. If I feel like a treat during the day I have one. The weird thing is; the more I ride my bike the less inclined I am to fill up on junk food.
Keeping a loose eye on the forecast is always a good idea. It can also become the fastest excuse not ride. A forecast full of weather the night before can start the negative chatter and next thing I know Ive talked myself out of riding. Once outside and riding it is never as bad as in my head. Unless it is absolutely apocalyptic, life-threatening weather, I don’t pay too much attention.
If it is raining. I get wet. I have dry clothes to change into. In waterproofs I end up just as wet through sweat as if I didn’t have them. A cheap, synthetic jacket by Regatta does the job. Keeping the wind out and me warm. If I get wet and muddy it’s easy to wash and dry. I try not to stop too much, that’s when the cold gets in.
Wet hands and feet mean cold hands and feet. My hands sweat a lot. I always carry a pair of merino glove liners and put them on before any long descents. I also carry two hand warmer sachets. When struggling to warm my hands I open the packet, give it a shake and pop one in each glove. A toasty, external heat source.
By wearing shoes that don’t let the wind through I keep my feet warm. Same with my ankles. Nothing worse than cold, wet ankles. Thick merino socks are fabulous and will keep you warm when wet. In a pinch I have tied carrier bags over my feet. They stop excess water getting in and windproof my feet. Why do I have carrier bags? To put my dirty, wet clothes in when I get to work. I’m toying with the idea of sealskinz socks, mixed reviews and price being the hurdles.
I don’t like being buffeted by wind. A windy forecast is more likely to stop me riding than a rainy one. I have realised it is the noise of the wind I particularly don’t like so, a simple fix is some in ear headphones. I’ll also wear a buff or head band to cover my ears if it is cold. Sometimes I’m not even listening to anything but keeping the wind and noise out of my ears makes it less daunting. If I do need to take my mind off the distance or effort, I like to get lost in an Audio Book.
Mud guards are my friends. Better than any clothing to keep me and my bike clean and dry.
I cannot wait for those magical, warm summer mornings and evenings. There is nothing better than being out riding your bike! Maybe spend a little longer getting to work and go a little slower home.
All the Gear…….Some Idea
Commuting is a great opportunity to put my bike and gear to the test. I can find out what works and what to ditch so that I am always ready for adventure.
I run on 26 x 1.75 Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tyres. They are bombproof when navigating the myriad of traffic shrapnel lining the roads and the thorn-strewn paths of the canal and cycle network.
However, having recently gone tubeless on both my Kona Big Honzo and my Kona Rove, I really noticed a difference in rolling resistance and plush suppleness of my tubeless WTB tyres. Over the coming weeks I will commute tubeless to see how the thinner tyres and sealant cope with the road conditions.
One or two small Ortlieb, front roller plus bags allow me to carry everything I need. They are super water proof and durable. I prefer the weight on the bike rather than on me. I’ve got enough weight on me already. I’m not averse to a ruck-sac on occasion if I need to courier extra stuff.
A bell isn’t really much use when urban cycling. Most people don’t hear them or don’t know what the sound is. I find myself furiously ringing the bell and still having to stop. A good loud shout is often better. Oddly, a bell works a treat with folk out in the countryside!
A Mirror is my top cycling must have. The same as if driving a car I need to know what is going on around my vehicle at all times. Especially in traffic. The downside to a mirror is, I edge into competition mode, I feel chased by cyclists coming up behind me and I push harder to race away. I never win but It’s hard to relax and just let them overtake.
The best mirrors EVER are the Mirrycle Bike mirrors. Easy to fit and adjust. They don’t move when you are bouncing around and they are big and clear.
Totally, completely obsessed with bike lights. They have opened up a whole new world of night time riding. It’s like magic! In my 20s, bike lights were halogens with big, lead-acid batteries and a run time of 20 to 30 minutes if your bank balance was big enough. I now run an Exposure Lights Sixpack. Rechargeable, 3600 lumens for 2.5 hours. It lasts forever on a low setting and still illuminates the way. My next purchase will be a better helmet light for full on night time off-roading.
It has only been a month of commuting regularly. Already I feel a physical difference in my riding. Despite covering more than 50 miles commuting last week I completed a hilly, muddy, 15 mile trail ride on Sunday with relative ease and it felt great. No sign of cramps, painful knees nor the utter exhaustion I have felt in the past.
The FOGG or Fear of Getting Going is lifting and it isn’t a chore. I look forward to it.
This time round I am enjoying the process. I allow myself time, knowing I am capable of really leaning into discomfort when I need to, understanding any discomfort is temporary and the rewards are great.
Another huge help has been Yoga. Mary and started doing Yoga in October 2019. A wonderful new experience for us with a lovely welcoming teacher Yogi Irina Billingham. https://www.facebook.com/IrinaBillinghamYoga/
Along with physical stretching and poses; the breathing and gratitude she teaches is really making a difference, re-awakening my body and allowing me to push into discomfort, knowing I am still capable. It’s probably worth a blog post all on it’s own for the benefits it has bestowed.
It is becoming clearer that I am on the road to menopause. Riding consistently has definitely been a symptom leveller, I am grateful for that alone. A sweaty, hormone ravaged night and a lack of sleep doesn’t stop me riding. I may not go as far but I do go.
Another thing I notice is; as I become more sure of my capabilities on the bike, I am more open to riding with others. Commuting isn’t really a social affair and my cycling has always been a solitary pursuit. As I get older I see the benefits of community and I want to get involved. It’s so much easier knowing that I can say yes to group rides without feeling too intimidated, happy in my capabilities.
I am excited to continue my commuting journey. The simple freedom of giving myself permission and time to ride my bicycle to work and back will hopefully mean I am fitter and more prepared for the Bicycle Adventure Club outings this year.
I’ll keep you posted.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. What tips and tricks do you have or is there anything you would like me to expand on?
Thank you for reading this post.
If you would like to start commuting to work by bicycle there are some really good YouTube videos and web sites that cover the topic well. Here are a few of my favourites:
Cycling UK offer some tips for beginners in this article:
Lots of useful articles on the cyclescheme blog:
If I can help at all with your journey. Please get in touch.
There are also a lot of lovely friendly cyclists over on the Bicycle Adventure Club Facebook page. Head over and join us for lots of cycle related goodness.
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