learning to live car-free

Many people make the choice to live car-free.  I admit I had the choice made for me more than five years ago.  You see, my husband and I separated and since he was working at the time and I was not, our only car went with him.  I was angry at first – I felt abandoned and stuck.  But I lived in a medium sized walkable city with access to good public transportation so I really wasn’t stuck.

I didn’t embrace using my bike for everything at first.  I walked.  I carried a little canister of pepper spray and I walked.  I bought what I call a “little old lady grocery cart” to do my shopping and I walked everywhere.

Then it occurred to me that I could get places a lot quicker on my bike. At the time I had a big-box store Schwinn.  Nothing fancy, but it was a bike and I could go farther and faster than on foot. After nearly crashing with my handlebars heavy from grocery bags I bought a rack and a detachable basket for it.  I felt almost like a serious bike person with that set-up, I tell you.

Eventually I found a job and needed to move to a completely different city.  Well, the suburbs, actually.   Work was a 3-mile bike commute, mostly on paved bike trails.  The grocery store was down the street but this wasn’t city anymore; this was suburbia and things were more spread out. I make it work but I have to be honest – living car-free is much more convenient in a decently sized city that has good public transportation.

But I found that bike commuting was freaking awesome.  I had my morning time with the quiet of a world just waking up.  Birds sang to me as I rode by.  I communed with squirrels.  A river otter silently slipped into a creek as I rode by and I glimpsed a bobcat one morning.  Dozens of tiny baby quail ran across the bike path, their mamas herding them. I loved the wildlife on my commute and by the time I rode home I was serene no matter how crappy my day may have been.  The stresses of my workday melted with each mile.

One great thing about this small city is its bike infrastructure.  While many cities have bike infrastructure that I positively drool over and this city’s infrastructure is modest, I enjoy a pretty decent network of trails and painted bike lanes on most streets.  And the city is incredible about keeping the trails in great shape. However, there are always those jerks who can’t stand sharing the road with cyclists.  It never ceases to amaze me that in a city where a lot of people ride supported by decent infrastructure, there are those completely intolerant idiots who think roads are for cars.  Morons.

Over the years I’ve embraced a car-free cycling lifestyle.  Shopping trips need to be planned a bit because I need to consider how to carry whatever I buy.  Distances need to be considered.  Riding at night is something I mostly avoid if I can even though I have a gazillion lights. Over the years I’ve equipped myself and my bike with various essentials to make us visible and noticeable.  And safe.  Also to make carrying things and doing everything by bike easier.  But no one has to spend a fortune on equipment right away.  The important thing is to ride and see how you feel doing more things on your bike.  Then get what you need, whether it’s a handlebar basket or a pannier and rack set-up.  Everybody has different needs and styles.

Being car-free and living on my bike has also made me the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.  I haven’t even had a cold in more than five years.  Coincidence?  Naw.  I don’t think so.

I suppose rural areas are even more challenging if one doesn’t have a car.  The suburbs aren’t a piece of cake, that’s for sure.  My city ostensibly has a bus system but it is very rudimentary and hey, even if it’s raining it’s just more convenient to don the rain gear and get on my bike.  Someday I hope to move back into a decently sized city so I can walk as well as bike everywhere.  But for now I embrace my car-free cycling lifestyle,  even in the inconvenient suburbs, where everyone but me drives everywhere.

How about you? Are you car-free?  Do you want to be?  If you are, how do you make it work?


riding tips for cold weather

Okay, yeah, I live in California so my cold is nothing like the cold some of you experience.  You have my sympathy and my utter admiration.  It’s daunting to ride in cold weather.  Where I live it’s been in the 20s at night, which is unusual.  It warms up to a whopping 30 degrees F by the time I bundle up and leave the house.  That’s cold to me!

This time of year you’ll find lots of great advice about what to wear when riding in the winter.  But I’d like to share some riding tips if you’re not normally a winter rider and you’re getting gutsy enough to try.  Do try – people will either think you’re crazy or freaking awesome!   I prefer to think I’m awesome for riding in all weather; your mileage may vary.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown used to riding in the cold:

  • Consider going at a slower speed but pedaling at a higher cadence to stay warm.  This accomplishes two things: 1) there will be less cold wind resistance freezing your face at a slower speed and 2) the higher cadence keeps the blood flowing through your legs and keeps you warm.
  • Take an insulated water bottle or a spill-proof insulated coffee mug with you and fill it with warm water.  You always need water to help keep you hydrated in cold, dry air, but nobody wants to drink cold water on a cold day!  Just a sip of warm water can feel really good when you’re riding in the cold.
  • As you ride along, clap your hands to keep blood flowing to your fingers.  If you’re not comfortable going hands-free for this, clap them whenever you’re stopped at a traffic light.  Who cares if you look silly if your fingers are warm?  Alternatively, a couple of things I do to keep my fingers toasty is alternately gripping my handlebar grips and flexing my fingers in rapid succession and taking one hand off my handlebars at a time and shaking my whole arm out.  You’ll be surprised how much more enjoyable your ride is when your hands are warm.
  • Keep in mind that if your core is warm your body doesn’t have to “steal” heat from your extremities.
  • Be careful for water puddles that may have frozen and look out for painted parts of the street – they can get icy and slippery.  Also, if you’re on bike paths that have those yellow rubber bumpy strips at intersections, be aware that these can freeze and become very slippery when wet. Wow, I learned that the hard way (literally).
  • Let a couple of pounds of pressure out of your tires to increase road-to-tire surface area if it’s wet or snowy or icy.  Sure, you’ll go slower, but you’ll also ride with more stability.
  • Be prepared for the brighter sunlight of winter – the sun is at a steeper angle than in the summer and it can suddenly blind you.  Go slowly if the sun is in your eyes.
  • If it’s dreary and cloudy – even if it isn’t raining or snowing – use your lights.  Better to be too careful than not careful enough.  A lot of motorists don’t expect to see people riding bikes in the winter.  Make sure you’re visible.

And when you get done riding in the cold, have a nice huge cup of hot chocolate.  You’ve earned it!

how to fix the inevitable flat

Wow, is that lucky or what?

Wow, is that lucky or what?

Are you like me and hate changing a flat so much that if at all possible, you’ll limp along for as long as you can with a tube that’s failing?  Dumb, huh?

I usually lose tubes due to punctures or eventual failure at the valve stem.  I’m obsessive about checking my tire pressure before every ride so my valves get quite the workout.  There’s no mistaking that “sssssssssss” when you press your pressure gauge onto a stem and it starts leaking.

But this time my back tire kept losing more than the 1-2 psi it usually loses overnight.  At first I thought that it had to be due to the weather.  After all, when I’m done riding my tires are much warmer than they are the next morning, when they’ve been sitting on my cold balcony all night, the rubber contracting from the cold.  Then it lost 5 psi overnight.  Then 10.  Oops, now it lost 20 psi.  Seeing that it was a slow leak I knew there wasn’t a hole to patch; the tube needed to be replaced.

Tires can lose pressure when the tire tread gets worn, and I worried it might be time to replace my tires.  I have probably 4,000-5,000 miles on this set, and although I’ve rotated them about half-way through they are getting worn.  But the cheapest way to find out if it’s the tire or the tube is to just replace the tube and see what happens.  Thankfully, that’s all it was – just a tube that had been getting weak and losing its elasticity – although I procrastinated because changing a tube isn’t the easiest thing in the world if your tires are like mine – they have a stiff bead and they’re hard to get on and off my rims.   But now that I’ve got a nice new tube in there and my “tuffy liners” are protecting it from punctures I’m happily pedaling along again without worry.  

To help you, here is a fantastic video from Bicycling.com that shows how to change a tube.   The guy is a pro and he makes it look easy, but it really isn’t hard.  For me, the hardest part is working the tire back onto the rim.  Once you get it on your rim make sure you inflate it only part way, then check thoroughly to see that none of the tube is being pinched – you will get a pinch flat if so.  What I do is massage the tire and the tube all the way around the rim a few times, then inflate the tire a little and spin it, holding my fingers lightly against the sides of the tire and along the bead of the tire.  I visually check to see if there are any spots that look uneven. Once I’m satisfied it’s perfect then I fill it up with air and do a final spin check. Then I’ll check a few hours later to see if it’s holding.  Like I said, I’m a bit obsessive about my tires.

Of course, you can always take your bike to the shop to change a tube but I firmly believe everyone who rides regularly needs to know some basic skills, starting with fixing a flat.  A nice side benefit is that you feel a real sense of accomplishment once you fix your own flat.  Empower yourself!

more about women and cycling

Within its ground-breaking report about women and cycling, the League of American Bicyclists presented:

Wow:  60% of 17-28 year old bicycle owners are women!  I surely didn’t expect that statistic.  The growth in bike commuting is also pretty impressive:  56% growth in just four years.  And check out Myth #9: men are not necessarily the face of cycling advocacy; 45% of paid staff at advocacy organizations are women.  Also? There are 630 active women’s cycling blogs.  We really are on a roll and the momentum is building.

The report can be downloaded in .pdf form here:  Women on a Roll.

Here are some of the health statistics from the report that I find most encouraging:

  • Bicycling just 20 miles per week reduces women’s risk of heart disease by 50%.
  • Active commuting — biking and walking — reduces women’s risk of cardiovascular disease by 13% (compared to 9% for men).
  • Women with an active commute of just 30 minutes were half as likely to suffer heart failure as women who didn’t have an active commute.
  • Women who walk or bike 30 minutes per day had a lower rate of breast cancer.

I overcame serious illness through cycling and I’ve stayed incredibly healthy over the last five years of being car-free.  I haven’t even had a cold in five years!  I can certainly attest to the incredible health benefits I’ve seen in my own life.  I feel healthier now than I was at half my age.  A little creakier maybe, but definitely healthier and much more fit.

Also described in the report: the five Cs of women’s bicycling:  comfort, convenience, confidence, consumer products, and community.

There is a lot of good information there. Please do yourself a favor and take a little bit of time to read it.  It’s inspiring!  I’m sure a lot of you already know much of what’s outlined in the report but having it laid out so clearly in one comprehensive report and with excellent references is eye-opening.  And it motivates me even more!  I hope you are equally as inspired as I am.

Ride to live; live to ride!

the road can be a battlefield

This week I read a couple of sobering stories about cyclists and the dangers we face.  The reports are out there if you only look.  They are ubiquitous; there seems to be a lot of cyclist hate in the world. 

Certainly there are assholes of every stripe in the world but it consistently astonishes me how much cyclist hatred there is.  Yes, there are jerks who take chances, run lights, cut dangerously in front of cars, play chicken, etc.  You name it; there are plenty of examples.   There are also assholes behind the wheels of cars all over the road.   However, as cyclists we are painted with the same brush and we’re assumed to be assholes before we have a chance to prove otherwise. 

I could say that we need to ride defensively and yes, we should.  But no amount of awareness and consideration can prepare you for something like this:  Avid Cyclist Grabbed, Dragged by Man in Passing SUV:

Jana Kinsman, 27, had been heading north on Kimball Avenue to check on a friend’s cat in Albany Park just after midnight. As Kinsman passed Wrightwood Avenue, an SUV rushed her.

“A car pulled up really close next to me — this big maroon-purple Tahoe — and it was pushing me against the [parked] cars and I couldn’t do anything,” Kinsman said. “I couldn’t brake or swerve. I was pinned between this moving car and this other car.”

Someone reached from the rear passenger-side window, Kinsman said, and grabbed her messenger bag, which was slung across her back.

“I started screaming. I didn’t know what else to do,” said Kinsman, who said she’s been cycling in Chicago for about six years. “I could hear them laughing like it was a game or something.”

After a few seconds, Kinsman’s bike smacked into a parked car. The man lost his grip on Kinsman and she fell to the ground — hitting her hip hard before bouncing onto the left side of her body.

Bystanders rushed to help Kinsman, who laid on the ground until police, paramedics and her roommate, Brent, arrived.

“My arm hurt really bad, and I was too scared to move,” she said.

Kinsman, an avid cyclist who works as a beekeeper and freelance illustrator, doesn’t have health insurance. She turned down an expensive ambulance ride in lieu of a taxi trip to Swedish Covenant Hospital. She was badly bruised, doctors said, but no bones were broken.

Who in the world would do something like that?  Why would anyone think that was a good idea, or a fun thing to do?  

I’ve been yelled at, chased, honked at, clipped, and nearly run off the road.  I’ve been forced to stop and I’ve pulled my pepper spray on a guy and threatened to use it.  I had an asshole in a giant black pickup truck road rage at me because I dared to flip him off when he clipped me and honked his horn in my ear.  He kept passing me, then turning around so he could continue to heap invectives on me, veins bulging in his forehead, spittle flying, u-turn after frightening u-turn.  The amount of rage he spewed scared the hell out of me. Unfortunately I had a load of groceries and I wasn’t very nimble; I had to take his abuse until he tired himself out from screaming and he peeled away, spitting loose gravel as he tore out.  Must be pretty sad to be that insecure and nasty.

At that time I didn’t have the police department’s phone number programmed into my phone; I do now.  I also have steeled myself to ignore even the most egregious insults while I ride.  These people want a reaction.  They get off on fear.  And I’ll be damned if I give that to them. 

But I’m fortunate so far that no one has physically accosted me.  It’s all been verbal, other than the guy who physically stuck his arms out, forcing me to stop or run off the trail.  I think the best I can do in a situation like that is to stay as calm as possible, don’t talk back, don’t react.  Don’t give them the reaction they want.  I’m working on the blank stare. 

But for crazy people who might grab a cyclist like the story I linked above?  There’s no way to plan for that.  But I’ll be damned if I let fear stop me from riding. And neither should you.  Take as many precautions as you can – don’t ride by yourself late at night, be aware of your surroundings, make sure you can be seen with bright colors, lights, and reflective tape.  Follow traffic laws and show by your actions you are a responsible cyclist.  Stay on lighted roads as much as you can.

But please take the additional precautions of programming the police department’s number into your phone and keep it handy (or use bluetooth).  Carry pepper spray.  Make your camera app easily accessible on your phone in case you need to record a license plate. Plan your outs.  Be prepared for how you’ll react when you will be yelled at and insulted.  Because you will be hassled.  It’s a given. 

And each time you get to your destination safe and sound, breathe a sigh of thanks to the universe; that you survived to ride another day.  It’s a scary world out there and we all need to have our wits about us. Be safe, be smart, and enjoy your right to the road. 

bicycling stats: how do you ride?

Bicycling Magazine asked its readers how they ride, where they go, how far, and how often.  One thing is certain: more people are riding bikes for more purposes now than ever.  Bicycling is no longer only a leisure activity.  Many people commute to work and ride bikes to run errands.  Many people live life on their bikes.  Are you one of them?

Some of the statistics, excerpted:

How often do you ride your bike to and from work?

Every day: 30%
Several times a week: 30%
Several times a month: 12%
Several times a year: 11%
Never: 17%

Do you wear a helmet when you ride for transportation?

Always: 80%
Almost always: 9%
Sometimes: 4%
Almost never: 2%
Never: 5%

Not including your commute, how frequently do you ride your bike for transportation?

Every day: 13%
Several times a week: 31%
Several times a month: 26%
Several times a year: 18%
Never: 12%

All statistics from Bicycling Magazine’s Reader Survey.

There are more interesting statistics in the link, so check it out! Where do you fit?

life on the bike

Do you ride your bike to and from work?  Errands?  Social activities?  Grocery shopping?

I’ve been car-free for five years.  I do just about everything by bike. But learning how to make appropriate adjustments has been a learning process.  It has taken time and more than a few errors. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Commuting to work.  Much of how you go about bike commuting depends on how you need to dress at work and what your weather is like.  If you workplace is casual it’s easy – wear what’s comfortable.  The last time I commuted to work I wore skorts in the summer because my workplace was casual, but a little dressier than jeans.  If you prefer to commute in cycling lycra, by all means go ahead.  If your workplace is a little more formal you can bring your work clothes in panniers or you can even keep some clothing at work.  Don’t forget a change of shoes! In addition, some things you might want to keep in your desk are towelettes (if your workplace doesn’t have a shower), hair spray, and touch-up makeup. I kept some spray-on sunscreen in my desk as well, to apply before heading home.

You’ll probably want to invest in some good raingear if you’re riding to work.  Don’t just get a regular waterproof jacket – go to a bike shop and get one specifically for cyclists.  Trust me on this.  The last thing you want as a distraction when cycling in the rain is whether your raingear is keeping you from getting soaked.  Things to look for are a hood that can fit over a bike helmet, cuffs with velcro so you can keep the rain out, a drawstring around the bottom, and reflective accents.  Some of the better cycling rain jackets also have a loop on the back so you can attach a blinky light.  Rain pants with snug cuffs are necessary – your legs will definitely get wet. You can get shoe covers but I just use a crappy pair of waterproof shoes or boots that don’t slide on my pedals (I haven’t gone clipless yet but plan to do so soon).  Gardening/rain boots can keep your ankles dry.  But be careful – wet shoes can slip on your pedals.

Grocery shopping. It’s entirely possible to grocery shop on a bike. You should have a rack over your back tire, and grocery panniers or a detachable basket.  A bungee net is also important and can be used with panniers, a basket, or even to secure just a few items to your rack. The challenge is learning exactly how much you can carry – weight and volume – will it all fit in the basket or panniers?  Can you keep your balance?  You may want to spread out heavy things over more than one trip.  However you carry your items, do not hang grocery bags from your handlebars – it makes it very hard to steer and it’s dangerous, especially when they sway.  Make sure your load is balanced and not too heavy on one side. You might also  consider investing in an insulated bag – my grocery store sells them and having one is vital when taking cold stuff home in the summer.

Learning how to load up your rack and panniers is a delicate balancing act.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  I unlock my bike first, but I leave it in the bike rack.  I then load two 12-packs of diet soda on my rack, holding my back tire between my knees so my bike doesn’t tip over.  I then secure that with the bungee net, wrapped tightly around and through the rack.  After that, I load up the panniers.  I always keep one hand on my bike so it doesn’t tip over.  I bought long-handled re-usable grocery bags from my store and I place those in the panniers, then I tie the handles through the bungee net that is holding the diet soda.  It makes the load quite secure.  Experiment. I have my process streamlined but I’ve been doing it for a few years and I’ve had a lot of practice.

Errands.  This is probably the easiest way to fit more cycling in your everyday life.  Wear whatever you like.  Take your panniers if you’ll need them.  You can ride your bike to the dentist or doctor’s office (the staff will be impressed, believe me), or to mail a package or drop off dry cleaning. I try to limit the number of errands I do at a time because I find it tedious to keep locking and unlocking my bike, so I spread them out over a few days. I never, ever leave my bike unlocked anywhere even though my town is pretty safe and even if I’m only running in somewhere for a minute.  And I carry detachable equipment with me when I leave it parked. I’ve had a lipstick-covered insulated coffee mug lifted off my bike when I was only running in for a moment and I left it in the bottle cage.  You may find it’s fun to cram a lot of errands into one trip.  Experiment!  Play! Enjoy!

Fun shopping and socializing. I’ve gone on shopping trips to the outlet center on my bike.  I’ve met friends for coffee. For shopping I attached a basket to my rack, then I carried it from store to store with me so I could easily tell when I was doing too much shopping – when I had too many bags to fit into the basket it was time to go home! But what a fun thing to do – go with a girlfriend or two.  Have lunch while you’re there, and cycle home afterwards.  Not only did you do some fun socializing and shopping with your friends, you enjoyed some nice fresh air and exercise at the same time.

I don’t have car payments and I’m happy to never worry about gas prices or car insurance.  However, there are times I need to bum rides from friends and times I need to use public transportation.  I have also rented cars for job interviews and I have a local cab company’s phone number stored in my cell phone.  I’m lucky that I live in California and I can ride year-round, so I’ve been able to live without a car for a few years.

Not everyone has the weather or the schedule that allows for living life on a bike.  It definitely takes longer to get somewhere than driving a car.  And some have family responsibilities.  But think about how you might be able to incorporate daily bike riding into your life.  Start small – a quick trip to the grocery store to buy some dinner ingredients, perhaps.  The benefits are numerous, including reducing your carbon footprint.  Bike commuting is amazing when you have a bad day at work – by the time you get through your front door you’ll be amazed at how de-stressed you feel. For me, nothing erased work tension like seeing a bobcat or another animal looking at me from the side of the trail.  And I guarantee that you’ll feel at least a little bit victorious when you make your first grocery trip by bike.  You will have good reason to be proud of yourself.

Happy cycling!