An encouragement: bike commuting

In honour of Bike Month, here’s how to die on a bicycle:

Fall under the rear wheels of a large vehicle (bus, dump truck, transport truck, etc.) which is turning or otherwise at an angle to the cyclist.

The Coroner’s Report from a decade or so ago has many more details, but that’s the easiest and most common way to manage it.

Happily, it’s easy to avoid, isn’t it? Just never ever allow your cycling self to be between the front and rear wheels of a large vehicle at or near an intersection. Simple. It’s not like you won’t notice they’re coming; those things make a ton of noise. So get out of their way. Don’t pull up on their right. If they’re behind you, take the lane so they can’t pull up on your left. Give them some space. Done.

I mention this because I think we need to remember what the primary danger is when cycling.

Is it the act of cycling itself? No. It’s pretty darn hard to kill yourself on a bike. If you try very hard and if you don’t wear a helmet you might manage it, but generally a fall won’t kill you.

On the other hand, on one discussion board I’m on, just this past weekend two participants were involved in serious car crashes. Luckily they’re (mostly) fine, but it’s not that hard to kill yourself in or with a car. People do it all the time. In fact it’s one of the most popular ways to die if you’re under 45 or so.

Think: how many people do you know, even very slightly, who have died in car crashes? I’m betting it’s a nonzero number. Someone from your high school class? A colleague? A friend of a friend? All of the above?

As a society we’ve somehow normalized a very substantial death rate due to motor vehicles and made it acceptable, just like we’re not especially fussed about the thousands of people who die each year of seasonal flu. Somehow we manage to delude ourselves into thinking that it all happens to other people when demonstrably it does not. We do the opposite when we think about cycling: we’re sure some jerk in an SUV will kill us, when in fact it’s wildly unlikely. As a society we completely suck at understanding risk.

Anyway, my point is that it’s not the bike that’s the danger here. And my other point is that as a cyclist even with millions of cars around it’s pretty hard to be killed in city traffic unless you do something foolish around the rear wheels of a very large vehicle.

So, bike commuting. It’s not as dangerous as you think. It’s often faster than either a car or the TTC, it’s definitely better exercise, and it’s probably more fun. Give it a try!

If you’re uncomfortable riding on your own, get someone experienced to ride with you the first few times if you like, but make sure they’re not Asshole Cyclists of the stop-sign-running, wrong-way-on-a-one-way-street-riding, weaving-in-and-out-of-traffic kind because the last thing Toronto needs is more of those jerks. Ask if they’ve taken a Can-Bike course, and book yourself into one. They’re good and they’ll give you both experience and confidence riding in traffic.

Aside from a bike, there’s other stuff that makes your riding life more pleasant. Here’s my list, but (as with baby supplies) what some people find absolutely necessary others find useless, so consider it just a starting point.

Well, except for a helmet. That’s not really optional if you prefer your brains on the inside of your head. Helmets are hot and mostly ugly but if you fall they reduce your chance of a head injury by (estimates vary) 63-88%. After the Ontario law requiring children to wear helmets came in, cycling deaths in that age group dropped by half. Sure, you might ride carefully and slowly but you never know what other people are going to do so best to wear the darn helmet.

Helmets have become both more comfortable and much cheaper in the past fifteen years, so it ought to be possible to find yourself something that fits you and doesn’t feel like your head is in a packing crate for a reasonable sum. If you have a micro-noggin like mine, go for a Giro. Otherwise you have a broad range of choices.

Don’t wear it on the back of your head; the front edge belongs two fingers above your eyes. This is so the helmet can protect your forehead. Frontal lobes are good things so you probably want to protect them.

Other stuff:

1. Gloves

Kind of like a helmet for your hands. You hardly need bike gloves for comfort over a typical commuting distance, but if you fall they’ll save the skin on your hands. I spend a lot of time typing for a living so I find this important. I buy very cheap gloves, since I’m not riding hundreds of km at a time and thus do not care about gel inserts and whatnot. I toss them in the washing machine every week (in a mesh bag) and dry them on the ends of my handlebars, so they don’t last forever but nor do they get really smelly.

For colder weather you can get a lobster-claw type of mitten-glove hybrid which is warmer than normal gloves but which still lets you brake and shift easily.

2. Lock(s)

I like to carry both a U-lock and a cable. Neither are top-of-the-line, but my theory is that if some evil bike thief sees two locks on my bike and one on the one next to it, mine is more likely to be the one that’s still there when I come out of the office at the end of the day.

If you can park your bike inside, do so.

3. Rack and pannier

A rear rack is pretty cheap and so is a low-end pannier or basket. If you have a rack and pannier (or two) you don’t have to carry your stuff in a backpack, which can be really sweaty. Those black wire baskets that attach to rear racks are cheap, permanently attached and foldable, so they’re a reasonable choice. Also, they hold a 12 of beer.

4. Water bottle cage and water bottle

It’s nice to be able to have a drink at red lights.

5. Lights

The law in Ontario says you have to have a front light and a rear light or reflector. This makes little sense. Unless you’re doing something deeply inadvisable, a front light isn’t all that helpful in a well-lit city setting. You can generally see where you’re going thanks to streetlights, and you can also see anyone coming toward you. A rear light lets people see you as they come up behind you in the dark, though, and THAT is important. So get both front and rear lights. There are lots of good, cheap LED options now, and it makes a HUGE difference in your visibility.

6. Bell

The law in Ontario calls for a bell, horn or gong. There’s a sad, sad lack of bike gongs out there.

A bell is nicer than a horn because you can ding lightly and politely to announce your presence without startling the heck out of someone.

7. Light-coloured cycling jacket with reflective stripe

If you’re riding at night this is a good idea. Never mind that it looks dorky.

8. Padded shorts

Again with the dork factor. I like my lady bits to stay unbruised, however, and I find my 10k commute is long enough for some serious discomfort if I don’t wear the shorts. If you have a reasonably short commute (or more durable bits) you might not need these.

I just wear any old t-shirt. Some people like those bike jersey things but they’re all made of polyester and they all seem to have pockets right in the sweatiest part of the small of your back. Bleah.

9. Bike computer

For data geeks. It’ll tell you how fast you’re going, your trip distance, and all that kind of stuff. Mine’s a really cheap one but I like having an odometer. It’s fun and motivating to watch it tick up and up.

10. Repair kit

This doesn’t have to carry anything major, just enough to fix a flat or otherwise get you home. Anything more serious than a flat and you’re going to want a bike shop, or at least somewhere that’s not the side of the road. My kit includes a tiny pump, a spare tire tube, some tire irons, two quarters (so I can use the air machine at a gas station), a subway token in case things REALLY break, a couple of wet wipes, and a really clever little carbon dioxide tire inflater device that’s like a teeny scuba tank full of compressed air. It’s the size of my thumb and it holds enough air to fill one of my tires very well in three seconds with zero effort. I highly recommend them.

The whole kit probably sounds huge but in reality it’s about half the size of a kleenex box. The tube is the biggest space hog.

A patch kit would be smaller than a tube and probably more environmentally friendly but in practice I never patch punctured tubes. It takes ages and it’s messy and unreliable, at least when I do it. I find it’s easier to just chuck a new tube on there, deploy the CO2 inflator and get back on the road.

11. Patience

There’s zero point darting in and out of car traffic to try and get one or two cars ahead. Day after day I see people do this and you know? There they are stressing themselves out with this bizarre unsafe gotta-pass-everyone stuff while I hang back and wait ten seconds for dude in the car to make his right turn or for the light to turn green or whatever, and yet I get to where I’m going at exactly the same time as they do. Plus I feel more relaxed and have time to look around a bit. It’s not a competition.

Final advice

If you’re just starting out, don’t worry too much about what bike you get. It won’t be the one you ultimately find you want. Take a few bikes for test rides — any good shop will let you test ride — and then get something that fits (get the shop to fit and adjust it properly for you), that you like right now, and that isn’t too expensive. In a year or two you can trade it in once you’ve figured out what style and features REALLY appeal to your needs. In the meantime grab something and go!