How to Commute by Bike: Resisting the Urge to be ‘Epic’

There’s a stubborn, almost militant vein that seems to run through die hard commuter cyclists in the UK (and no doubt other cultures where cycling isn’t a statistically major form of transport). In contrast to our northern European counterparts, many of us (myself included) seem to treat our daily commutes as acts of individual heroism, especially when (as has been all too apparent of late) the weather takes an inclement turn.

Exhibit A - an 'epic' commuter steels his jaw to the rain

Let’s contrast the approach of the UK cyclist and his Copenhagen counterpart. Exhibit A (above) is someone who I snapped one morning during some particularly nasty Manchester weather. Note his gritted teeth, knitted brow, earnest look. There’s no doubt that, at least in his mind, this is one ‘epic’ commute – a two mile journey that Shackleton would no doubt have been proud of. Mr Epic of Manchester here is not an isolated case. On rush hour roads throughout the country, you’ll bear witness to countless other display’s of grit, fortitude and determination. Piece them together, make a slideshow, dub-over Barber’s Adagio and you’ve got yourself one tear-jerking montage sequence.

Exhibit B - How can riding in the rain look so happy and care-free? (photo from Copenhagen Cycle Chic - http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com)

Contrast this picture of grimness with the snap above, taken on a similarly rainy day in Copenhagen (pic from the excellent Copenhagen Cycle Chic). Despite similarly inclement weather, our subject is sailing along to her destination with the calm, relaxed aura of a two-wheeled Zen Buddhist. Note the altogether more pragmatic approach to weather protection! The task in hand is the same, the weather conditions are similar. So what’s the difference?

Of course the difference is obvious for anyone who knows about cycling in Copenhagen. Over there, bikes are a dominant force in the city centre. Proper facilities and a critical mass of cyclists on the roads mean that every journey is a more relaxed affair. Motorised traffic is separated from cyclists to a degree and, when they meet, the sheer volume of cyclists on the roads forces drivers to relent. These factors in turn have a soothing, calming effect on cyclists – they ride slower (no need to ‘compete’ or ‘keep pace’) – their shoulders relax. Their chosen form of transport isn’t a badge of resistance, a fight to be fought. It’s just the best way to get around.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of Sky Ride city rides this summer and have experienced an albeit artificial, fleeting microcosm of that calming, strength in numbers phenomenon. Okay, these rides are on closed roads, however, one can still experience the relaxing effect of riding amid large numbers of other riders. The imperative to ‘push on’ disappears, no matter whether you’re a pootler or a training-junkie. The urge to be ‘epic’ disappears.

So how has this experience translated to my daily commute? Do I approach my commute in a less do-or-die, militant, ‘epic’ fashion? Well I certainly try, although years of programming are hard to erase. On a particularly rainy commute earlier in the week, I was caught in a torrential downpour just after leaving the railway station. The immediate urge was to press on the pedals harder and get to my destination (around 3 miles away) as quickly as possible. However, another thought struck me moments later – “What would I do if I was walking right now?” The answer to which was, “Why Eddie, I’d take shelter under something large until the rain eased off, that’s what I’d do.” And so I did. Hardly a mind-bending, paradigm shifting notion, I grant you, but the amount of grim faced bike commuters who soldiered on through the deluge as I sheltered bore testament to the fact that the primal urge to take shelter has been somehow lost on UK cyclists.

As it happened, I still got pretty comprehensively drenched, but I feel I made my first tentative steps to being less epic and more aligned with those blissful, almost mythic, riders of Copenhagen.

So, faced with a deluge, what would you do? Press on with stiff upper lip or take five and take shelter?

Take our ‘Am I Epic’ Test

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How to Commute by Bike: The ‘Faster Than Walking Mantra’

Let me introduce what I call the Faster Than Walking Mantra – my time-honoured technique for short-hop, ‘dressed for the day’ cycle commutes. The Faster Than Walking Mantra (herein referred to as the FTWM) helps you to overcome that deeply imprinted urge to get your daily commute over with as quickly as possible, to treat your ride to the office like a PB attempt. Why do we feel the need to commute at breakneck pace? To keep pace with cars? To feel the burn? To ‘get our adrenaline fix’? To give in to the speed-demon on your shoulder will result in that uniquely attractive ‘steaming like a racehorse look’ upon arrival at work, which will make packing a change of clothes a necessity (lose 10 minutes) and will create A DIRE NEED FOR SHOWERS IN THE WORKPLACE – the lack of which seems to be reason #1 to give up on the idea of riding to work forever.

Instead chant the FTWM. On your next commute, I urge you to try a slow, loping cadence, akin to the pedalling style of the Amsterdammer. Rather than doing battle with wind resistance, just do enough to preserve your momentum. Don’t gauge your progress against the cars passing by. Don’t pay any heed to the numbers on your cycle computer (leave it at home/cut the wires if it helps). Take solace in the fact that, for the same effort level, you’re loping past walkers at around three times their speed. Try where you can, to avoid steep hills and when you can’t, resist the urge to stomp up – even if you gear down and spin up, you’ll still beat the pedestrians on the pavement. Ditto headwinds – don’t fight them, cos they’ll win. Chant your FTW mantra (silently in your head if you prefer), adopt your best Copenhagener attitude and just keep it rolling.

Our mantra is also helped by dressing sensibly – ‘dress cooler’ is sound advice. If you’re a bit chilly when you start out, you’ve probably got it right. I see cycle commuters in full dayglo motorway-maintenance-style hi viz jackets in the height of summer, and can only wonder at how much fluid they lose on their two mile spin to work…

To put some numbers against our FTWM and give you some perspective, a car commuter in the city will be lucky to attain a 12mph average speed. The guy on the bus will be lucky to average 10. A pedestrian will be lucky to hit a dizzying 3mph. Most moderately fit people can amble along on a bicycle at around 9 mph without breaking a sweat, even warm conditions. Follow the FTWM and you can ride to work in your day clothes without arriving like a sweaty wreck, just like you would if you drove, walked or got the bus. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Bicycles at work, rest and play

I’ve been spending some quality time lately with the camera – both at work and at play. In my hometown of Liverpool, it seems that there’s a true cycling renaissance happening, with bikes appearing in all areas of life – bicycles earning a living; bicycles in parks on lazy summer afternoons; bicycles just casually leaning against racks and railings, waiting for their next assignment.

Pedicab on the Liverpool Waterfront

Here’s a shot of the new pedicabs on Liverpool waterfront – taken on the day of the Matthew Street Music Festival – there were four cabs in all, John, Paul, George and Ringo… The Fab Four’s drivers were busy all day, propelling tourists and day trippers around the docklands, at £4.00 for adults and £2 for kids. Those in the expensive seats, just rattle your jewellery, to paraphrase Mr Lennon…

Two bikes relaxing under a tree next to the water, waiting for their masters to return

Here’s a shot of a brace of bicycles in repose. In my opinion, cycles at rest on railings and racks give any urban space a optimistic, cosmopolitan air. I often like to think who the bikes belong to, where they’ve come from, where they’re going to and when they’re next going to spring into life.

Resurrectio's Brooks B17 perch, waiting for its next errand, commute or other everyday adventure

Just as public spaces are lent a bohemian air with a subtle smattering of bicycles, for me nothing brings a hallway alive more than a bicycle in repose, waiting for its next errand-run or stress-busting getaway. Here’s a shot of Resurrectio (or at least his well worn B17) waiting impatiently for his next assignment.

12,000 cyclists lit up the Blackpool seafront for Sky Ride.

You could argue that every bicycle ride is playtime – legitimate playtime for adults and children alike. Here’s a shot (taken in my ‘day-job’ capacity) from an incredible night on Blackpool Promenade on 31st August, when Sky Ride hit the town. For one night only, the whole seafront was closed to motorised traffic, the lights were switched on early and it as fiesta time! I went along, took some pictures, shot some video and wrote some words. Click here for the detail.

Another ‘Essential Cycling Toolkit’ Article

Click the image to play the video (link to Vimeo)

Getting around by bike is all about fresh air, freedom and a feeling of getting from A to B under your own steam. However, the utopian dream of free-spirited, low-impact travel can die a death very quickly when you hear that dreaded hissing sound from your tyres. The sinking feeling of a flat half way from home, half way to work, can be a real pain – unless you come equipped. With this in mind here’s what I carry on my bike at all times – and, without sounding too preachy, it’s what I’d suggest you carry too.

  1. Spare Tube – make sure it’s the right size and check it regularly for air-tightness
  2. Pump – make sure it fits the tubes on your bike
  3. Tyre Levers – Three of them will remove even the most stubborn tyres. Plastic ones are best.
  4. Multitool – with flat-head and cross-head screwdriver plus 2-8mm Allen Keys
  5. Chain tool (if you know how to use it)
  6. Pliers – handy for pulling nails/chunks of glass from tyres plus a whole raft of other uses
  7. Puncture Kit – to be used as a last resort if your inner tube fails
  8. Mobile Phone – the ultimate get you home accessory (store the numbers of a few local taxi firms)
  9. Cash – If all else fails – for taxi fare home.
  10. Pair of latex gloves or a small pack of wipes – to keep your hands clean when doing repairs
  11. Lock – even if you don’t plan to leave the bike

All of this (with the possible exception of the lock) will fit in a small bag which should be permanently attached to the bike, so you never leave home without it. Everyone has their own variation on this ‘essential’ list so feel free to chime in with your suggestions, or to point out any frightful omissions!

Happy cycling!

MM (Multi Modal) Commuting

Combine the romance and practicality of rail travel with the romance and practicality of cycling and you've got yourself a winning combination.

Multi Modal travelling makes up the lion’s share of my cycling, usually combining the bicycle and train to get me to work. I live in Liverpool and work in Manchester – a car commute of anything between 1 to 2 hours on one of the busiest motorways in the UK, the M62. During rush hour, there’s usually a hold up of around 30 minutes at the halfway point and another slow moving queue near journey’s end. Every day there are accidents or near misses – it’s a game of Russian roulette – with ever decreasing odds. It’s a game I try to opt out of as often as possible.

By contrast, my bicycle/train commute is serene, civilised and predictable. I ride to the railway station – a leisurely journey of around 20 minutes – grab a ticket and a coffee, stow the bike in the cycle area aboard the train, then find a seat for my rail journey of around 45 minutes. In this time I can do anything I like – listen to the radio, read, blog, stare vacantly out of the window, write my to-do-list for work or make some phone calls. There’s none of the constant stress and anxiety one gets when driving to work.

Right now, I’m sitting on the train bound for a video editing training course in Nottingham. I’ve driven to Nottingham from Liverpool a couple of times before and each time, R.E.M’s song “Can’t Get There from Here” springs to mind. It’s a difficult, stressful journey combining the aforementioned M62, the busiest section of the M6 heading south from Cheshire toward the West Midlands and a nasty selection of A-roads taking you east towards Nottinghamshire.  Compound these facts with today’s wet, windy, unseasonal weather and you’ve got a recipe for suffering.

So instead, today I opted to travel by train, first riding into the city in the light early morning traffic (it’s 6:59am as I write this) to find a practically empty train with two available bike spaces. I’ve got the luxury of owning a Brompton, which is great for rail travel but today I’ve chosen the full sized bicycle – because I knew in advance that the trains I’d be travelling on have good dedicated bike spaces.

In terms of clothing, today’s wet weather throws up some serious challenges. I need to be comfortable on the bike, yet look normal on the train and during my training day. There’s nothing worse than being the sweaty, Lycra-clad sore thumb, especially in a situation where you’re meeting new people and just trying to blend in. So I’ve opted for a pair of jeans, a merino wool base layer and a merino wool t shirt. This gives me an entirely normal, everyday look but with the wicking properties of wool. On the bike journey, I rode through persistent drizzle, so I wore a thin breathable and waterproof jacket, with pit zips open. I rode SLOW, always resisting the urge to push hard on the ‘false flat into a headwind’ section of the route, coasting on the downhill sections and regulating my temperature with my front zipper. As soon as I reached the shelter of the station I took the jacket off, allowing my body to cool down, while I got my tickets and my latte – by which time my body temperature had returned to normal, I was sweat-free and busy finding the (empty) bike space on the Norwich bound train.

Luggage and how to carry it – today I’ve got my usual commuting gear (lock, pump, tools and waterproof) plus lunch and a 13inch laptop. All of this sits snug and dry in my Carradice Camper Longflap saddlebag. This ancient wonder, born in a small factory in Nelson, Lancashire (and made by a lady called Priscilla – as evidenced by the handwritten signature on the label) is the best way I’ve found to carry commuting-sized loads. It mounts behind the saddle, either using the saddle loops on a Brooks saddle or, as I do, using a quick release SQR block attached to the seatpost. This neat device allows me to attach and detach the bag in seconds. The waxed cotton duck fabric is hard as nails and completely waterproof. As an added waterproofing measure, the bag itself sits behind the rider, sheltered from the worst of the rain and out of the way of road spatter (unlike a pannier bag). When I boarded the train and stowed the bike, I detached the bag in seconds and now it sits beside me on the seat where I can keep an eye on all of my gear.

Sure enough today, the MM Commuting Gods have smiled upon me (thus far) and not all MM days are this slick. I’ve had days when I’ve had to cleave a way into a standing-room-only train on a hot, rainy summer evening and stand swaying and losing my balance with every jerk of the train – all the while trying not to sully my fellow passengers with chain oil and road grime. Other days, my train has been cancelled, late or simply so full that the conductor has shaken his head and not allowed me on. However, for the most part, MM Commutes have been a calm, relaxed and very human way to get to work, and today is no exception.

Daily Commuting Tip: Is your bike “Ready to Ride”?

My overriding philosophy (don’t you just hate people who’ve got overriding philosophies) for a commuting bike is that it’s got to be ready to ride whenever you are.

Your commuting bike shouldn’t sit there, like that impulse buy home multigym, making you feel guilty for not doing ‘serious’ exercise. It should lean casually in your hallway, like a two wheeled 50s era Marlon Brando, casually ready to ride.

Your commuting bike should never make you dress up for a date. A proper commuting bike should take you just the way you are. You don’t need to put on special shoes or special pants before you’re ready to go.

Your bike should be ready to go at all times and in all weathers. It should have mudguards, flat pedals and bags to put things in (bags on your back are a bad idea).

Your bike should also be ready to stop whenever you feel the need. A built in wheel lock, Dutch style, is the way to go. Flip the lock, immobilise the back wheel, pocket the key and pop into the shop on the way home for those groceries. Swap out that quick release on your front wheel too. Get a security skewer or a nutted front wheel. Seriously, how much longer does it take to undo a nut as opposed to a quick release? You’re not racing are you?

Get a prop-stand. Practicality aside, there is simply no cooler sight that a bike leaning, James Deanesque, at the side of the road, and that jaunty, 10-degrees-off-vertical angle.

The elite level commuting bike will not only have all these utiluxuries. It will be a Plain Jane – it’ll dress down, blend in with the street furniture. Subdued, natural colours and no logos are the way to go. Who wants to be a billboard, when your target audience is are bike thieves?

You can buy bikes like this everywhere, but bike shops seem reluctant to sell them. There is a movement out there, but it’s glacial. Google ‘Dutch Bike’ and you’ll find loads of outlets for quality town bikes.

But, evolved as Amsterdam Black Widows are, there’s no need to go Dutch. Maybe you’ll want a bike that’s good for high days and holidays too? Base your commuting bike around a good, light touring, hybrid or all-rounder frame and you’ve got a true multipurpose bike, ready for day rides and touring, as well as the daily potter to work; highly evolved for commuting, but not too specialised that it’s not suitable for a quick getaway.