Ditch the Car, Bike to work.

I’ve been mulling the issue for a while: Why don’t more people cycle to work? There are a number of excuses given. I thought I’d have a go at dealing with some of them.

1) It’s too far. Fair enough – 10 miles is probably the longest reasonable daily commute by bike (though some do much more), but this is something of a cultural and life-style choice. People endure long commutes at the cost of health, marriage, fitness and time in order to gain an extra bathroom, used rarely.

I’ve avoided a long commute, after enduring one of 2 hours for a few months, I’d never go back. I’ve set a strict upper limit of 20 minutes each way. If I can’t get to work in 20 minutes, I move. It is that simple. I’m happier, though probably poorer for it. Move to your job, or move your job to nearer home. It’s not a decision you’ll ever regret.

There are a lot of issues here. These range from planning law: Zoning actually prevents people living and working in the same area; to Public transport, which is poor. These policy decisions have the effect of forcing people to the car, and so car-friendly policies which often preclude other forms of transport, become the norm. This has the effect, over a couple of generations of encouraging people to make a bad choice of a nice house far, far from work. People don’t take into account the economic and emotional cost of their TIME when factoring the utility of house purchases, and having bought a house 30 miles or more from work, agitate for more road-building to mitigate the inevitable congestion of near-mandatory car use. This is an economic error made by people & governments which probably costs “the west” more in happiness than any other.

If you cut your commute to less than half an hour from 2 hours, it’s like getting a 80% pay rise in terms of happiness. If you think your long commute makes sense, or you think it suits you, you’re probably wrong. You also probably think you have no choice. You do.
2) I arrive all sweaty. Not necessarily. It is possible to cycle at a lower cadence using no more energy than walking. This is what most Dutch and Danish commuting cyclists do, and makes sense for short, urban commutes of less than a couple of miles. If you do want to thrash yourself on the way to work over a long journey, many offices have showers and lockers. Or it maybe possible to use a nearby Gym. Once you’re used to rolling out of bed into cycling gear, and showering at the office, it’s easy and makes a lot of sense. You get your exercise in before coffee & breakfast. Breakfast at the desk isn’t all bad.
3) It’s uncomfortable. No it isn’t. Well, you just need to acclimatise your sit-bones, which takes a week. And the kit needs to fit you and the job you want it to do. You need the right saddle. That comfortable-looking wide, gel filled saddle which looked and felt so great in the shop actually prevents blood getting to key muscles causing cramp and soreness on any more than a trip to the shop. Mega-distance cyclists are almost unanimous on Brooks as the way to go as it moulds to your sit-bones after a couple of hundred miles. A thinner, stiffer saddle is actually more comfortable than the big soft one. Look at what people who spend all day in the saddle use. Saddles needs to fit. Spend a bit of money on it.

Make sure the saddle is the right height. That probably means putting it up a couple of inches. Most inexperienced cyclists have the saddle far too low. This causes back and knee pain. Ultimately the cycling position you choose is a compromise: the more efficient pedalling action is upright, like a dutch bike, but as you go faster, the more hunched over you need to be to combat wind resistance which increases with the square of speed. Utility bikes are more upright than tourers, which are more upright than audax bikes, road racer, Time-trial and triathlon bikes, which are uncomfortable and unsuitable for traffic, are the most ‘bum-in-the-air’ geometry widely available. There is a bike for every occasion: from Downhill mountain bikes to Track bikes. From touring bikes to fixies, don’t go into a bike shop and let yourself be sold what’s available to them. Research what it is you want to do, and talk to cyclists who are already doing it.

Above all, don’t ever, ever, ever buy a cheap mountain bike. They are shit, when you can get a perfectly serviceable hybrid bike for £300. Halfords’ £300 ‘full suspension’ ‘mountain’ bikes are probably the cause of more people abandoning cycling as a means of transport than anything else. They’re heavy, have knobbly tyres, which whirr along the road. That sound energy is being taken from the energy propelling you to the destination, yet the bikes are completely unsuitable for off-road work, where they are unsafe as the forks and frame just aren’t strong enough. If you want to start commuting to work, get a bike designed for the job. Remember this: Light, strong, cheap: choose two. Knobbly tyres aren’t safer, and fat tyres may be more comfortable, but at the cost of a lot of extra work.

If you start to enjoy cycling then you can decide whether you want to go knobbly & off road, or skinny, bendy-barred and on-road. Or both, but remember you’re using an engine with about 1/3rd horsepower. Everything is a compromise. Before you start making decisions as to which expensive bike to get (and you will…) make sure you’ve thought of the compromises you are actually making. In general though, a touring bike or Audax bike will be suitable for most people who don’t go off road/track in most circumstances. 4) Weather. There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Spend money on the right kit, you’ll be comfortable in all weather. There’s a certain hero value in winter commuting on a bicycle. Whenever I saw footage of snow on the news in the UK, there’s always a hardy cyclist getting through it.

5) You can’t carry much stuff. How much stuff do you actually need? And you would be surprised how much you can get on some bikes. Golf-clubs for example have never been a problem for me. I can carry a week’s shopping in a back-pack. If you add panniers and racks a family shop shouldn’t be a problem. If you invest in a cargo-bike, you’ve got more capacity than a small car boot.

So after years of cycling what do I do? For the daily commute I use a Courier Bag which I had custom-made by Bagaboo. The Large workhorse messenger bag is quite beautifully designed and keeps kit dry and can easily carry enough kit for a weekend away. I have a handlebar bag and saddle-bag by Ortlieb. On the Brompton, I have the front luggage, and use the rack to carry a rucksack if necessary.

6) Cycling kit looks ridiculous. Yes, it does, if you think the clothes worn by the mobile advertising hoardings of the Giro D’Italia & Tour de France are all that’s available. However there are plenty of people supplying clothes cut for cycling, which look normal off the bike. They are expensive, but so’s any specialist kit. Outlier and Rapha are two which spring to mind.

Rapha’s urban cycle range.

It’s perfectly possible to throw a pair of trousers over your bib-shorts at your destination. You can even get cycling shoes you’d be able to wear in the pub or a reasonably dress-down office. Dromarti & Quoc Pham‘s leather offerings look pretty good. And a Merino wool cycling shirt looks ok with jeans in the pub. It’s not all Lycra and polyester. I’ve even eschewed the helmet for a stylish cap.

7) I like the freedom of the Car. So do I. No-one is saying you have to get rid of it, as I have mine. But consider this: Insurance: £600+ per year. Tax: £200+, MOT/Service: £600+. Depreciation: can be thousands a year. If you replace the car with the bike for a daily commute, how often do you actually need a car? Once a week? You can hire a car for £33 a day. You’re still in pocket and you don’t have to worry about it when you’re not using it. When you need a small car, hire a cheap small car, when you need a van or estate, hire one of them. You’re more flexible. And faster. Everyone knows hire cars are the fastest vehicles on the road.

8) It’s dangerous. But not as dangerous as being fat. In any case, cycling is only dangerous to the inexperienced. Teenagers especially. Cyclists in general face lower mortality per journey than motorists, and lower mortality per KM than motorcyclists or pedestrians. When you consider how much of the “danger” of cycling is concentrated in a few demographics – teenagers especially, the statistics for adult cyclists who know what they’re doing on properly maintained kit will look even better.

Give it some thought, ditch the car, and buy a bike.

11 replies
  1. David Jones
    David Jones says:

    Rapha is the road to financial ruin! Actually I wear it almost as much off the bike as on it. The merino stuff is superb next to the skin and it never smells.

    Get a fixed gear you won't regret it. I'm 66 and I have two (Mercian and Condor).

  2. lost_nurse
    lost_nurse says:

    Excellent post, well said.

    "Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two." was the design mantra of Keith Bontrager, who built my favourite mountain bike ever (Bontrager Race, a beauty on singletrack). Now, of course, he provides wheels for Lance & gets his name plastered all over Treks.

  3. Lord T
    Lord T says:

    Fall out of bed and into cycling clothes.

    Its the shower than wakes me up. I then wander down to the cup of tea I prepared whilst half asleep all nice a refreshed.

    If I fell into cycling clothes and went on a bike the first thing I would remember is standing in front of the pearly gates with a 'so I died in my sleep then?' question on my lips. To be told 'Yes. You were squished by a lorry'.

  4. andy5759
    andy5759 says:

    Rule No. 1: do not park your bike on street furniture not intended for that purpose. It is an obstruction.
    Rule No. 2: do not cycle on pavements.
    Rule No. 3: do not cycle the wrong way along one-way streets.

    If the majority of cyclists obeyed those rules I might not be quite so anti cycling. Sadly, the cyclists I encounter are arrogant, smug, planet saving cycopaths.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Agree with andy5759.

    You are right about travelling distance but ditch the bike and WALK! I have managed that for 23 years and seven different jobs in London, Dunfermline and Bath.

    Bikes are so 19th century and have no place on the roads and especially the pavements.

  6. Andrew Zalotocky
    Andrew Zalotocky says:

    Jackart, one possible explanation is storage. If you don't have a garage or a bike rack where you live, where do you put the bike? You might not have enough space indoors and even if you do you risk bringing in all the mud, rain and dog mess you've just cycled through. You can't park a bike on the street like a car without a high risk of it getting stolen, vandalised or accidentally damaged.

    Another possible explanation is that a lot of people just don't like cycling very much. It really might be nothing more than how many people happen to want to do it.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I would add….

    Wholly concur with the bike shop observation, bought my first bike in over 20 years back in 2004. Got sold something with a 19in frame rather than 22-23in.

    Buy a track pump to keep tyres properly inflated. Hand pumps are a RFPITA.

    Buy a bike with mudguards.

    I am reliably informed that on cheap mountain bikes with a shock absorbing spring in the middle, 35-40% of pedalling tractive effort disappears into it rather than being put on the road.

  8. Malcolm Stevas
    Malcolm Stevas says:

    Oh no, bike propaganda again… I have a brief visit to make in the morning, not much more than a mile so I planned to use the bike. Forecast says drizzle – so it won't be much fun, and I'll drip water all over my destination, which won't make a very good image (it's sort of professionally related).
    If I lived in a flat bit of California and had a "job" (I'm self employed) not far from home I'd happily use a bike, if I could avoid main roads. England is not really very bike friendly, if one has limited time/facilities for all that bike storage, special clothing, changing at work, not being able to carry much if anything, allowing extra travel time, getting knackered if one lives in a hilly area (I do), and so on.
    Oh, and Monday nights I play badminton in the next village, 1.3 miles, delightful to commute by bike on a summer evening, post-game pint in a charming pub then wheel home through the gloaming… Unless the weather's poor, in which case it's bloody miserable.


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