Cycling, The commute to work

Like more and more people, cycling has become a primary form of transport in metropolitan areas to get to work and do day to day things like shopping and going to social events.
I live in Brisbane Australia, and the local government’s road development model is changing to reflect this slow but sure paradigm shift into accommodating cycling into future infrastructure. They are encouraging cycling to reduce the amount of redundant space caused by one person driving to work in a 5 passenger vehicle and parking somewhere. Obviously, in all metropolitan areas there is a finite amount of space close proximity to everyone else is inevitable; however, you can fit more than 5 bikes in a parking spot of a 5 seater vehicle. So in terms of efficient population density, it is impractical to have a traditional motor vehicle in the city.

If you are looking for reasons why and why not to cycle, perhaps look into some of the health risks associated to cycling and the possible hazards faced on day to day basis with riding on roads- theft, potential for injury etc.

The perception of cycling being too dangerous is fading; however, there is some validity behind these concerns. I choose to ride only on the road or dedicated cycle-ways in Brisbane due to the fact it is too risky to ride on the common 1 – 1.5m footpath, shared with pedestrians and on coming cyclists . Even though the government’s model has changed (called the Copenhagen Model), existing infrastructure still causes difficulties for most. Narrow footpaths and narrow roads are common throughout Brisbane and motorists in peak times don’t seem to have much tolerance for other motorists, let alone cyclists. However, cycling persists to be the cheapest, most fun and most effective method to get to work.

Here are a few primary points to consider that I have come to appreciate in my 7 years of cycling to work, come rain, hail or shine.

  1. Bike selection: Choosing the right bike for the right reasons ( gear ratios, style of bike, weight, comfort)
  2. Riding technique: Posture, mechanical motion, visibility, traffic
  3. Night riding: Things to keep in mind while riding at night including careful light selection
  4. Weather proofing: Keeping warm, dry and alert (all the gear you need)
  5. Power assistance: Electric and fuel based power assisted modifications (advantages and disadvantages)

Bike selection

Originally as a poor student, I had to make do with whatever bike I could find. However, now that I am in a more comfortable position, I had the privilege of purchasing a brand new bike. Bikes are expensive relative to what they are, so that’s why you better be sure you are getting your money’s worth. There are many bikes for many applications; however, I couldn’t buy multiple bikes- I could only buy one. So what do I choose? I sat down and carefully thought about what I needed in a bike. Below are some questions I asked myself:

  1. What style of riding do you do most? Around town, the occasional tour
  2. What terrain do you traverse most? Moderately flat roads and pathways
  3. What weather do you ride in? Rain, hail or shine
  4. What baggage do you take? Laptop, keys, wallet, the occasional textbook and food
  5. Where do you store the bike when at work? On bike rack attached to offices

From the answers of these questions you can start to extract physical requirements and can be interpreted as follows:

  1. Style of riding: around town and touring would indicate a touring or, commonly known as, a hybrid bike. This gives you a fairly good idea on tyres, frame, build material and handle bar configuration. You would require tyres with perhaps road tread; however, slightly wider than that of road bike tyres to support extra weight and handle rough terrain. The frame is very important. For a touring bike, frames are generally steel for strength, so you can take camping gear and luggage with you up to and over an additional 30kgs. However, these days billet alloys have become very popular due to its light weight and fairly strong framework designs. In a daily commuter and touring bike, perhaps one of the most primary requirements is comfort. Four major factors affect comfort on a bike and they are: Handle bar selection, seat selection, seat height and distance between the handle bars and seat. Handle bars for commuting would generally be standard straight bar with perhaps some side rests because drop bars can be uncomfortable over a long period of time. When choosing a seat, generally you go with the one on the bike you choose or buy an additional one with gel padding.
  2. Terrain: Gives you an idea of the drive gear you would want. As the terrain is changing, you want the most versatility. It might not be the fastest nor the best up steep hills but rather, a good mix. Now, in my experience with touring and mountain bike riding, there is one serious flaw in a traditional bike drive gear set up. Any chain and cog is susceptible to jamming by a stick. When a stick gets caught in the rear de-railer while you are applying force to the peddle, you can bend the de-railer bracket or bike frame quite easily. This has happened to me a few times, but perhaps the worst was when I was on a tour around Morton Island. The de-railer bracket bent, and without a work bench, I couldn’t repair it. So I had to do the remainder of the tour with only high gears; however, it kept occurring so by the end I only had two of my 16 gears, fast and super fast which as you can image on the beach being impossible. So fortunately, there is now an option for people such as me, and that is the nexus 7 and 8 speed internal hubs. Although only 8 speeds, they have put great thought into the ratios. And the great thing is, there is no de-railers at all and you can change up or down gear without applying pressure at any time of you choosing.
  3. Weather: Well there is not a lot you can do to prepare your bike for the weather; however, you can add a couple of features that prevent you from getting mud and water in the wrong areas. You guessed it- mud guards. Although they don’t look that great, they are very useful.
  4. Baggage: I am not sure if you have done much cycling with a heavy backpack on, but in my experience, over a long period of time, fatigue sets in and limits your distance. It becomes uncomfortable and quite likely can cause irreparable damage. So I recommend equipping your bike with pannier racks, either just the rear or even the front and rear. You can also get great deals on panniers from the Touring Store. I have a matching set of Ortlieb Touring panniers bought from this store, a very durable product. Great service and support.
  5. And lastly, bike storage and security: I recommend not buying anything with quick release seats, wheels or any other sort of attachments. Get a decently thick bike chain, maybe even two if you are buying brand new, and where possible take the bike with you. I also recommend adding it to your contents insurance under a mobile item for at least theft.

Ok, so now we have defined your individual requirements you can now start to take a look at what’s around. In my case, I eventually found a bike that fit the bill. I went with a Scott Sub 35 with a few added extras like pannier racks (front and rear) and arm rests on the handle bars. I am immensely happy with this bike. I ride it everyday and have loaded it up with an additional 40kgs and it handles just fine.

A note about selecting brakes: For all intents and purposes, disk brakes are safer and can handle braking under excessive force; however, they are much more expensive and if you are riding in or around dirt or sand (especially sand) disk brakes can be rendered useless. One hard grain of sand is enough to reduce the surface area of compression, drastically reduce braking capabilities. Again, it is one of those things that barely happens to people; however, it has happened to me a couple of times, and it hurts.

Riding Technique

There are a couple of very simple techniques and ideas to consider while riding everyday:

  1. How to get the most out of riding
  2. How to prevent repetitive strain

If you ride everyday, you would think there would be some kind of physical benefit. And there is. Ideally, if you can keep your heart rate above 130bpm for 20mins a day, you have fulfilled the minimum fitness requirement for a healthy lifestyle. But what about building muscle? I am a pretty skinny person- my goal has always been to build muscle. Let’s talk about your calve muscles, perhaps one of the more underused leg muscles. You need to adjust your riding technique to consciously use the calve for propulsion rather than your upper leg. Now, one thing I have always considered getting is cleats. Although at times it would be frustrating when stopping and un-clipping, the advantage is you can make use of the entire upstroke, whereby your upper thigh quite literally pulls the peddle up.  I hear this is a primary contributor to muscle growth. However, no growth will occur of course unless you have a diet to support it.

It is also important to always rely on your muscles and not your bone structure to get leverage on the pedels. When entering a big hill, it is better to stay seated and gear down then it is to try and maintain speed and stand up. This saves your knees from almost certain repetitive strain in the future.

Night Riding

Personally, I have needed a bicycle light for quite some time now for my daily commute to uni. Even more so coming now into the winter months when days are shorter and night falls right on 5:30 here in SE Queensland. But I have been holding out, sitting on the side lines observing, researching and almost colliding with other cyclists, but it’s time I make a decision.

So where do I begin?

There are many, many options in illumination type, mounting, optics, power output, power source and the list goes on. Fundamentally, with all the tech bits aside, your selection is narrowed down by one thing, your bicycling application. In my case, I am a daily commuter on a road bike with very rigid, thin tires that require balance and control compared to its leisurely counterparts. So the majority of riding will be on the road or specified bike ways avoiding other cyclist, elderly folk walking their dogs and the odd teenager on their skate board. The speed at which I would travel would be as fast as possible within a safe, logical reason.

With these considerations in place, I can cut down the options quite significantly. The combination of the rigidity and conditions I ride daily subtracts emphasis from bike frame mounted lights, as the mount would need to be extremely robust and possibly fixed to the bike which is not a feasible option due to security whilst at uni. Also, another down side to frame mounted lighting systems is they can only point the direction you need to steer without some fiddling around. However, what if you need to see something ahead or around a bend so you can maneuverer accordingly? You can’t. So this rules out frame mounted lighting systems. Keep in mind that these systems are well developed and there are copious regenerative power options like efficient dynamo’s, solar and even wind charging systems, all of which will be discussed in later posts and they still have their applications.

Ok, so we have narrowed down the options to helmet mounted lighting systems. Why? It enables us to illuminate the places we look, not the places we steer. So the next option to consider is power output and optics. One important factor to consider while doing this comparison is the speed at which you are constantly traveling. For me, I average 15-22km/h, measured by my Google phones GPS everyday.  This is relatively quick for night riding and you’re going to want to see whats 5-25m ahead of you at all times. Whereas, if I was averaging slower speeds around hilly terrain or on a slower bike, I wouldn’t need to see that far ahead as obstacles approach much slower. Applying this to light selection, a 1watt wide angle LED light will illuminate a lager area around you but the light will dissipate further ahead. Whereas a 1w long through LED will illuminate in a concentrated area, projected at a greater distance. Ultimately, a combination would be the desired affect, one would mount the wide angle to the bike frame and the long throw to the helmet, you may see some other commuters doing this. However my ride home is only 5kms, so again remember your application and riding requirements.

One last consideration is: what are the implications of your light on others riding in the opposing direction to you? This is a good consideration, similar to driving in your car, you don’t want someone with high beams on coming at you when you’re both on a very narrow footpath, with barely enough space for the two of you. Sadly, there are no restrictions with manufactures’ designs like there are with cars, so this consideration is entirely the rider’s responsibility. To neglect such a consideration could get someone injured. The narrow lens is ok if you don’t go shining it at people as they ride past; however, the wide angle tends to flood everywhere, but always seemingly straight into your eyes while passing. You should be able to tilt the frame mounted versions or buy one with a reflector that directs all the light to below the eye-line of other cyclists and motorist. Just like low beam in a vehicle.

So in summary, a long throw helmet, mounted front lighting system, is the most appropriate for the commuter wanting to beat their personal best time everyday and want to maintain speed even at night. With their rigid road bike and narrow tires, obstacle tracking is a must. However; the wider angle options are suited to those who are sticking to foot paths and remaining at a lower more comfortable speed. Please be cautious in your selection of a wide angle for commuting on the roads and in built up areas; select one that doesn’t intrude into the eye-line of other patrons out there.

Of course the other alternative is to build your own. There are many online tutorials on how to do this and for different types of lights.

Weather Proofing

Well really it comes down to comfort. If you are cold put a jumper on; if you are hot, wear a singlet. However, there are some small bits of equipment that are useful. At speed, in cool dry air, my eyes dry out fast. So for me, riding classes were a must; they had to be completely transparent with no shade so I can use them even at night. In the cold weather, I wear a beanie to prevent me from getting intense cold ear induced headaches and this winter I am starting to think a good pair of wind resistant gloves wouldn’t be a bad idea.

And well, unless you want to wear a complete rain coat in the wet, I propose having a separate change of clothes handy at work or in your pannier, along with a towel, because you will get wet :)  Other than that, if you buy some good quality water proof panniers you can protect everything of importance. But just remember, if it is water proof, it won’t let water in, but it also won’t let water out.

Power assistance

I haven’t actually attempted this yet. Because I am an engineer, and well, in terms of touring the feasibility of an electric bike with a big heavy battery over a long distance, it isn’t really going to work. Nor is having a 2 stroke motor.

Nonetheless, I have got some friends who have implemented their own electric-hybrid bikes. You can buy a few different systems- some of which are in the form of an brushless electromagnetic motor which install into the hub of your wheel. You can get some VERY powerful electromagnetic motors these days, including some with externally mounted brushed 1hp motors. If you want to go down this path, I recommend looking on Ebay and Amazon for parts and accessories. China has many options for this. You will need to be handy with a screw driver and probably need to understand basic electronics.

As for motorised options, all options are loud and annoying. I don’t endorse this route, because I also ride to some extent offset the carbon foot print I use as a consumer on power bills and what not. So I say, why cycle if you are just going to keep emissions high? Anyway, that is my view but you are welcome to check out the options available.