By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
It has been almost two years since I left professional cycling. My chosen cycling sub-genre has always been road riding. Mountain biking is terrifying, track is worse, and the drop-in alone for a BMX race is clearly incomprehensible. Yet in my retirement, I have adopted a new cyclist mantle: I am a bike commuter.
I haven’t owned a car for four years, and I grew up riding to school, so commuting isn’t actually new to me. I have always loved it. As a racer I never grew emotionally attached to my light, technologically advanced steeds. They were transitory co-workers. The vast majority were returned to the team at the end of the season, per contract. My golden cyclocross bike, however, covered in dirt and grease and with fifty-fifty odds of having bar tape, is a best friend. She’s mine. After so many years of padded shorts and power files I will identify proudly. I am – first and foremost – a bike commuter.
You should join me.
“Why should I commute on a bike?”
It’s a good use of your time. You get extra riding hours – for fitness or fresh air – instead of traffic time.
You connect with your community. I love finding new routes through my neighborhood – watching fences be built, gardens grown and foliage change with the seasons. It gives me a thrill and a sense of ownership to know the paths and back roads well enough to skillfully plot a stoplight-free route to my destination.
It’s an environmentally responsible choice. One of my biggest struggles as a professional was the amount of waste produced by bike racers: the transport to the race, water bottles and equipment that got used once, the race caravan, pockets full of gel wrappers and cases of bottled water. Bike commuting, on the other hand, is one of the most sustainable methods of transportation. We all have to get from point A to point B at some point. This one matters a lot to me, but if it rings hollow for you, I refer you to…
“Will it make me richer and more popular?”
Yes. If you add up the maintenance, parking and gas costs you avoid by commuting by bike, you might be able to justify a new set of wheels or a quick vacation to ride somewhere new at the end of a year. At the very least, if you rode to the coffee shop you could justify tossing in that extra shot of espresso onto your tab.
I’ve also found that when I ride places I arrive more cheerful and with rosier cheeks than I might otherwise. I figure that’s the first thing that the handsome fella’ in the coffee line in front of me notices – that is, after he admires the chainring gash on the inner right ankle of my jeans.
“But I have a workout…”
If you have a long enough commute, you can absolutely use it as training volume – maybe even toss in some sprints to make it through lights before they change. Just because you aren’t in a full kit doesn’t mean the training miles don’t count. My commuter bike of choice has always been a cyclocross bike. It has knobby tires for dirt and light snow, but I can set it up with the exact measurements of my road bike. That helps me to be confident that a long day of running errands won’t leave me with a sore knee or a tweaked lower back.
If you’re a runner, consider riding to a trailhead or meeting spot as the perfect warm-up and cool-down for your workout. If you do a workout on the bike before work, consider the ride to the office a chance to spin out your legs. Allow extra time if you aren’t looking for more exertion – I have been passed by more than one platform-shoe-wearing college student on a beach cruiser.
“What should I ride?”
The perfect commuter bike is entirely personal and infinitely customizable. I added a rear rack to my ‘cross bike and strapped on a fruit crate to carry heavy stuff without overloading my backpack. Last year, I found a fruit-crate shaped fishing tackle box (waterproof, with dividers) that snuggles in perfectly. I like a very plush saddle for the days I wear jeans. I prefer platform pedals with toe straps, and I wrap pipe insulation underneath my bar tape for a comfy grip.
► Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz
Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.
My mom has raved for years about her beautiful, chocolate brown hybrid bike and how it helps her feel comfortable and stable. When we were caught in a rainstorm together last weekend, she did note that she was now going to have to oil her stylish leather saddle – a problem I confess I have never encountered.
If you have a long ride, have to carry kids, live on top of a steep climb or just want a little extra assistance, e-bikes are becoming more and more popular. This is a great option – and it even offers the chance to use a bit of power to get to a summer afternoon happy hour without sweating through your t-shirt.
“My commute is too long.”
You don’t have to do the whole thing. If you live in an area with good public transit, toss your bike on a bus and ride the last few miles. If you have friends you can carpool with, consider riding your bike to work one day, leaving it overnight and riding home the next day. A good friend of mine (not a competitive cyclist) drives the longer portion of her commute, but then parks and hops on her bike when she gets into town so she doesn’t have to fight traffic. The fifteen minutes on the way to work helps her arrive ready to talk to people all day, and the fifteen minutes on the way home helps her leave any stress behind.
Sometimes I get caught in rainstorms or windstorms. Sometimes I get flat tires. One time, my fully loaded rear rack broke off right at the seatpost attachment. Once I hit a tree well and went straight over my handlebars in front of a crowd of Friday night revelers on our downtown mall. Yet, as I always tell skeptical onlookers as I suit up in the rain pants and jacket that make me look suspiciously like an oversized trash bag, since retiring from professional racing I just don’t get as many grand adventures as I used to.
So buy that waterproof backpack, invest in a burly bike lock, stick some wet wipes in your purse and roll up your pants leg. We are cyclists because we like fresh air, the outdoors, experiencing our communities, challenge, exertion and adventure. A bit of extra time, cash and fitness never hurt anyone, either. We are cyclists because we like riding bikes. Let’s do it more often.
► FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time
Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.