Sep 7, 2011

This commuting by bicycle thing...

I think I shocked quite a number of people a few weeks ago when I tweeted that it was the first time I’ve ever biked to work. I know, kind of crazy for a guy who’s been biking thousands of miles a year for a number of years to have never have ridden to work, but it just kind of worked out that way for several reasons.

First, when I really started riding, I lived in Chicago, and while there were some hardcore commuters who would bundle up and venture out in freezing weather, that really never appealed to me. Riding through axle deep slush and salt is not very pleasant or good for equipment. In the summer, it was just too damn hot and humid, and I had to be either in a suit or in business dress every day at work. Coming in looking like a sweaty mess into a law office didn’t seem like a very viable option. Lack of showers at the said office didn’t make it any easier.

So that was that, but then I moved to San Francisco. No snow, no hot summers and I don’t have to wear a suit to work anymore.  Apparently no excuses, right? Well, not quite.

This brings me to my second point. I actually don’t despise the commute as much as I sometimes let on through my complaints about MUNI. My commute is relatively short – 20-30 minutes from the door of my house to my office chair – and it gives me a chance to do things before or after work that I enjoy, like reading Bicycling, or getting Philz coffee, or just totally spacing out to some music while I mentally prepare for work, or unwind from work and daydream about what to cook for dinner. Somehow banking the saved time and using it for those activities never really works out, as that time is immediately occupied by something else.

Lastly, there are a few pesky logistical issues I didn’t really want to deal with, like packing a pair of non-bike shoes, finding a proper bag to ride with that won’t fly around and making sure my bike would be safe.

I know, all of these things taken individually are probably pretty petty and pathetic (that’s a lot of P-words), but taken together, the 10-15 minute time saving in my commute wasn’t worth dealing with them or giving up the things I actually enjoy about the commute. But then the BART protests started and getting stranded at the office wasn’t fun, so I bit the bullet and rode my bike to work and ended up liking it a great deal. Even those pesky logistical details didn’t seem like that big of a deal when it actually came down to it. For the last several weeks, I’ve been commuting to work my bicycle and it’s not been all that bad, very good actually.

I wouldn’t yet call myself a total commuter because the only place I commute to/from is work. I still walk and use public transportation to get around the city for all my other errands. Mainly this is because I don’t really own a bike lock and when I get to work, my bike goes next to my desk. I’m also not in the market for a bike lock because I don’t have a single bike I’m willing to let out of sight anywhere in this city, even with heavy chains wrapped around it.

The above notwithstanding, my foray into the world of bike commuting did give me a new perspective on riding and I’ll share a few of my observations.

The first day I commuted to work, I realized that there is a practical use for skinny jeans. I would never wear them, mainly because I can’t get my legs into them, unless the waist size is a 38, but even if they fit, I think it’s one of the ugliest things anyone can put on. A striped dress shirt comes in close second. (No need to get offended if you consider you skinny jeans and striped dress shirt as your best outfit. I’m sure I, too, offend the fashion senses of others on a daily basis.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into fashion at all; in fact, having worked in journalism for over a year now, I’ve probably lost whatever little fashion sense I ever had, but not the skill to tell ugly from non-ugly.

Dodging traffic is its own type of a thrill. The shortest route between my house and my office is a straight shot down Market Street and the organized morning rush chaos that it is. Other than the rails, the cracks, the bumps, cars weaving in and out of lanes and Cat. 6 commuters, the ride isn’t really that bad. I’m sure the skill of squeezing into a foot and a half of space between the curb and the oversized cargo van stopped at a red light will also come in handy at some point – cross season?

Whenever I’m out for a “regular” ride, most riders I see around me are dressed similarly: spandex, helmet, bike shoes, road bike, etc. Among commuters, however, homogeneity is non-existent. One of the ways I kill time at red lights is trying to figure out what the rider next to me does for a living based on how he or she is dressed and the bike. I’m sure that 99 percent of the time, I’m totally wrong, but that doesn’t make guessing any less fun. Especially if the object of my attention is dressed in completely incompatible way with bicycling – short tight dress, fishnet stockings and 6-inch heels pushing SPD pedals on a bike that clearly has seen its share of singletrack - and yet navigates the bike as well as the helmetless, fixie-riding hipster with no brakes on his bike and no tight dress to get in the way. (I’ve noticed a positive correlation between the absence of brakes on fix-geared bikes and absence of helmets on their owners’ heads, and all of them guys.)

I’m going to keep commuting to work on most days, and who knows, maybe I’ll become a more avid commuter and acquire an older bike I won’t be afraid to lock up outside while grocery shopping. But I’ll take it in baby steps. For now, perhaps the new cycling experiences will prompt more interesting blog posts (“more” modifies “blog posts,” in case you were wondering).

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