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You may have noticed over the past year or so that there’s been a push in the U.S. towards a more practical approach to transportational cycling — sites that espouse this approach have grown by leaps and bounds, especially in the run-up to Bike To Work Month.
This practical approach is the one that suggests that no special clothing or equipment is required to participate — all that is needed is simply a bike and the interest in using it to take place of car trips. And you know what? This approach is dead on! Any bike will do, and the only “real” equipment besides a reliable bicycle is the stuff that keeps you legal in the eyes of the law. Usually, this means front and rear lights and perhaps some reflectors or a signaling device like a bell. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?
A couple weeks ago, we talked about reasons why more people weren’t trying bicycles as transportation, and many of the comments were quite thought-provoking. Generally, people on the fence about trying a bike commute are stymied by the logistical considerations — carrying things, safety aspects, time and route issues, appropriate clothing choices, etc. Certainly, these considerations shouldn’t be discounted, but I fear that people overthink this kind of stuff…as those of us who have commuted by bicycle know, it’s way easier than folks think.
So, what should a potential new commuter do to give this thing a try? Here it is in a nutshell: find a reliable bike (it doesn’t need to be anything special), take a look at some maps to find an enjoyable route and GO FOR IT.
From there, it’s pretty straightforward to build up to other considerations. If you need to carry things for work, try something simple like a backpack before you spring for expensive panniers or other carrying options. If you ride at night, look into some visibility devices such as lights and reflectors (check your local laws by clicking here and selecting your state…this may not be an option but a requirement where you live). Plan on riding year-round in all weather conditions? Fenders and raingear make a lot of sense in that case…and it’s easy to find cheap solutions to try before investing a fortune in such equipment. We’ve written about raingear in the past. Have to lock your bike outside once you get to work, school or shopping? Bring a lock. Here’s some basic information about bike security.
Most importantly, don’t fall for the elitist approach. When I first started commuting in 1989, I figured that the commuting “community” would be an egalitarian catch-all for people who didn’t fit any other niche in bicycle culture — we’re not specifically racers or long-haul tourists, we’re not aggro offroaders or freestylists, although we may participate in such activities when we’re not commuting. So, over the past few years, I’ve become quite surprised (and more than a little dismayed) by the attitude: folks who think any bike without fenders, chainguard, a rack, internal hubs and dyno-powered lights is somehow not a “real” commuter bike. Hogwash — any bike that gets you from point A to point B qualifies…whether it’s a fully-loaded Dutch citybike or a stripped-down carbon racer. Same with gear — there are plenty of people who insist that the only “right way” of doing things is to wear performance-oriented clothing (lycra race gear, special shoes and funny foam hats). This works for some of us, but is not at all required; plenty of people all over the world do just fine in their work clothes.
A further bit about those “funny foam hats” — helmets: I don’t want to get into a big helmet debate; after all, it’s your choice whether to wear one or not. I choose to wear one; I rather value the collected experiences, memories and facts I’ve gathered over the past 41 years and I’ll do what I can to help protect them from loss. But remember, a helmet doesn’t protect you from stupidity, either yours or the motorists you may encounter on the road. And a helmet is not some magic bullet that keeps you safe in all circumstances. They’re hot, they’re goofy-looking and people all over the world seem to get along just fine without them, and I’m cool with that. But I’m still wearing mine. Think about it, in any case.
Sites like Bikecommuters.com and other bike-advocacy outlets are in a tough position at times. On the one hand, we love to encourage people to take up transportational cycling and present information on how simple and practical it can be. On the other hand, many of us are hardcore bike geeks at heart; we love getting our hands on different bikes and other gear to test, knowing full well that absolutely NONE of it is necessary in order to be a bike commuter. Our approach is to present a wide variety of options, giving a good overview of what’s on the market for folks to think about as they’re gearing up for something beyond the most bare-bones use of a bike rather than a car.
I’m sure many of you have experienced a coworker or friend who buttonhooks you in the hallway and has a bunch of questions about getting started commuting by bicycle. It happens to me all the time. Perhaps the best thing we can all do as ambassadors of this method of transportation is to demystify the process and stress just how simple it can be. Don’t bog people down with myriad details unless they specifically ask for insight; rather, encourage them to just give it a try one day using whatever bike they’ve got. Bike commuting really CAN be that simple!