cycling less environmentally friendly

Cycling is Less Environmentally Friendly Than You Think. Here’s What You Can Do About It.

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By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

This week, I came across new kind of consumer bike guide. It didn’t talk about weight, color, innovation, hot deals, or even proper fit. Instead, the National Geographic explainer offered tips on how to outfit yourself for riding in the most environmentally-friendly manner possible.

Although some outsiders to the sport might conflate “pro-bike” with “car-free,” recreational cycling and bike racing aren’t always the greenest of pastimes. Cycling can be a gear, travel and product-intensive sport, aside from Washington State Rep. Ed Orcutt’s much ballyhooed comments that excessive cyclist exhalations should be considered in carbon emission calculations. In my view, the culture and commerce of the bike industry at large simply haven’t taken to environmentally friendly opportunities as readily as have some other sports.

I spent the majority of my adult life as a professional racer, so I’m not in a position to throw stones, nor do I intend to. However, as members of the cycling community and consumers of cycling-related products, we each bear responsibility for the trajectory of our sport’s environmental impact. My hope is that we can target our voices, our votes, our habits and our consumer dollars to advocate for a world where our grandchildren — or great-grandchildren — can continue to enjoy learning how to ride.

Start small

As with training, committing to daily green habits adds up. Here are a few to use as starters:

  • Find a source for recycling your spent tubes and tires. Ask local bike shops or outdoor gear retailers if they will accept rubber for recycling — many do. If you can’t find a local venue, you can ship that tangled pile to Green Guru, where it can be repurposed into backpacks, underseat bags, and wallets.
  • Experiment with adding homemade ride snacks to your nutrition strategy, and wrap them in aluminum foil, which is recyclable. Wax paper and parchment paper are not. Here is a great rice-granola bar recipe that chef Matthew Accarrino shared with CTS. And here’s an espresso banana cookie dough bite recipe from chef Jeff Mahin.
  • If you ride or tour in remote areas where you don’t trust the water, invest in a Steripen to purify your bottles. It fits in your jersey pocket and pays for itself faster than you might think.
  • Choose biodegradable soaps and eco-friendly lubricants when you wash your bike.
  • Share any of your favorite eco-friendly bike habits in the comments section below!

Leverage your purchasing power

I wrote an article for Bicycling Magazine last fall about apparel companies that planned to use recycled nylon in their new lines of shorts and chamois. I initially assumed it would be a feel-good story, but as I researched fabrics and talked to designers, I learned that recycled nylon had already been in use in swimsuits, surfwear, and other types of outdoor gear for almost a decade.

“Cycling has been super super slow to adapt to using recycled and more sustainable materials,” Margaux Jo Elliott, an apparel designer for Giro, told me then. “Cycling is pretty deeply rooted in tradition… traditional materials, traditional outlook. A lot of companies that have been doing cycling apparel have been doing it for a long time and change can sometimes rock the boat.”

As consumers, we have the power to make company choices like this pay off. Bibs, socks and chains inevitably wear out. The next time you have to make a purchase, do your research, find companies that are well aligned with your personal ethics, and let your dollars do the talking. This information can be challenging to find, so if you verify the practices of retailers and manufacturers that you love, tell your friends about it (and tell me too!).

Use your voice as a fan/consumer

Attempting to be a conscious consumer in Bike World doesn’t always leave you with a lot of options. The Guardian wrote in 2014 about how difficult it is to purchase sustainable bike gear. That’s changed some in the last five years, but as I learned when I wrote my article for Bicycling, it’s not changing as quickly as it can or should.

In 2017, Outside Magazine published an article about the environmental impact of manufacturing high-end carbon bicycles. It offered a window into the practices of an industry that many of us rely on but don’t know much about. The short version: It’s scary, but that means there are opportunities for improvement.

Outside reported that brands like Specialized and SRAM have signed onto the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry’s Responsible Sport Initiative, which shares information about suppliers and helps leverage collective influence. Since then, other prominent companies have placed members on the board. Let them know that their actions matter to you, and let them know what you want to see in the future.

It can be tough to let your dollars talk if the eco-friendly product you desire doesn’t exist yet. If something is missing, communicate that to your favorite brands. If you don’t think your new derailleur really needed three levels of packaging, say something. Both Giro and Pearl Izumi representatives indicated in interviews with me that their decisions to start using sustainable fabric were based on internal ethics, not solid, cycling-specific consumer research. If you want these kinds of initiatives in the industry, speak up and be a part of the justification for future projects.

Are you a pro racing fan? As prominent ambassadors of our sport, pros and their teams help to shape the culture and norms of the cycling community. The Tour de France and Flèche-Wallonne have faced criminal complaints in the past for in-race littering. Tell your favorite team — as their fan — that their sponsor choices and operating practices matter to you.

Vote

Last November, Strava partnered with Protect Our Winters to promote the Run To Vote challenge. More than 16,000 participants dropped their ballot off mid-run in 2018. The challenge not only promoted climate-friendly transportation, but also it got runners thinking about which candidates would fight for clean air, accessible trails, and safe places to recreate.

Local and national political leaders hold a great deal of power when it comes to creating a bike-friendly climate. Our votes can elect representatives who will support the infrastructure, laws, and policies needed to make cycling safer and more accessible. That will not only enhance your experience and keep your loved ones safe, it will also help new riders feel confident and inspired to try out two-wheeled transit.

Commute

The opportunity for recreation-as-transportation is cycling’s claim to green-sport fame. I have always been an advocate for bike commuting, but the gravity of recent scientific reports and the pace of change to the climate and environment make it harder for me to take a moderate stance on this one.

If you can ride, ride. If you think you can’t ride, consider options like a bike-bus combo. If you have lots of kids or gear to transport on a regular basis, or if you have big hills and many miles between you and your regular destinations, consider whether an e-bike makes sense. If you genuinely can’t ride, that’s fine — hop in your car, that’s what it’s for. Just don’t let that be the default decision. You are a cyclist.

A few years back, Grist published an explainer on what type of bike frame — carbon, aluminum, titanium, steel — was the most sustainable. The real answer was surprisingly simple: The most sustainable bike is one that you will ride, that you love, that will last, and that you can continue to use for years to come.

So ride. Please, ride. Just remember to roll up your right pants leg first.


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Comments 18

  1. Wax paper and parchment paper are compostable. A bike uses about 1/100th the materials of the smallest car, so is always more sustainable. Use tubeless tires. I have not had a flat in the three years since converting all my bikes. I ride 10,000 miles per year. Ride the same bike for a decade or more. The “lastest thing” will be only marginally better. Ride from home as much as possible rather than driving to a start point. Use repairable bike lights, like Niterider, so a failed light is not just thrown out. Stop using foil gel packs…how many of those do you see on the road? A gel flask is far better. Tell the pros to stop throwing out water bottles during races whee no one will pick them up.

  2. One thing that I’m not seeing mentioned here is the excessive and often non-recyclable packaging that bikes and components are delivered in, almost all of which is immediately jettisoned.

  3. Hi Mara & everyone!

    I appreciate everyone’s comments and passion on this topic. I believe we all need to be good stewards of this earth, which God created and gave us dominion over (Genesis 1). Ultimately, I’m glad God is in control.

    I was blessed in my LE career to ride a MTB at work. Now in retirement, I continue to train, race, teach, and run errands on my bikes, including an eMTB!

    Take care & be safe out there!

  4. I don’t understand why more people to patch their tubes. I love seeing all the patches on my tubes each time I get a flat and thinking about how much money I have saved. A couple weeks ago I turned a tube into bar tape for my road bike by splitting it, rinsing it, and then wrapping it on the bars inside out. It looks just like bar tape but is much stronger.

    1. I love the repurposing idea! I used one to make a shim for a mountain rack that had a clamp too big for my commuter’s seatpost. It wasn’t my best idea, because the rubber is soft which makes the rack swing when heavily loaded. That being said, I’m still using it. 🙂

  5. thanks Mara. this is at the very least a reminder to me (and I hope others) to do what we can.

    so here’s a couple of pet peeves directed at my club buds:

    yes, i will continue to say something to you if you continue to chuck your co2 cartridges, banana peels and tubes on the side of the road or on someone’s lawn.

  6. I too try live my life Green. I did find a company that uses recycled materials and eco-friendly fabrics https://oorr.com.au/ and I’ve even reviewed their gear which is high quality https://www.roadbikerider.com/oorr-women-s-jersey-bib-shorts-d3/

    I think so many of the industry companies need to also reduce packaging. There’s so much waste there. The cosmetic industry is notoriously bad.

    Thanks for the great article. Hope it changes some peoples habits.

  7. Great article, brings to the point that things are great and right until you take a really close look and challenge what you thought and believed to be true. Thanks for shedding light on this important topic, we can always get greener than we are, and we should.

  8. Hi .. o find it difficult to contact the likes of Sram as there are details to contact them.on their website! Would love to find a contact to ask for spares but I’m driven to buy new instead of repair. Although committed to a Responsible Sports Initiative, it still makes more money for a company to sell a complete unit than a spare part.

    1. It’s super hard! That’s what I mean about passing information between friends. If you find a contact somewhere, or can vet a company as being a responsible player, share the information with anyone you can! I’d love to work together as a community to create a consumer action guide.

    2. Also, look at companies like Patagonia, which are spectacularly successful and have built customer loyalty through repair programs, quality meant to endure, and even a marketplace for secondhand products. There can be another framework.

  9. What a strange article. Unless a bike is your principle mode of transportation (in which case, it is arguably NOT recreational and certainly not a target audience for CTS), you are certainly not riding out of any particular concern for the environment. I have no illusions nor claim any environmental bona fides for being a recreational cyclist anymore than I can claim my downhill or cross country skiing in winter helps the planet. If any of your readers care a whit about the environment the only suggestion that might have an impact is the encouragement to vote for a government that intends to do something other than open parklands to mining and drilling, dismantling the EPA, rolling back auto emission standards, gutting safe water requirements and letting coal fired generating plants forego scrubbers. Anything else is frankly, just, how shall I put it….vacating your bladder into the wind.

    1. I think the perception of cycling from many outside the sport is that it is environmentally friendly.
      I also think you’re right, voting is the biggest, most important way to create change at this point. However, daily actions can get people in the habit of remembering that they have skin in the game every second of every day, and I think that is also a critically important consciousness shift.

  10. Great article Mara,
    It’s good to be reminded that we do make a difference to our planet with our choices & lifestyle.
    Even your suggestion of re-usable wrappers for homemade snacks, (I re-use a little zip-lock for my trail mix), is something I’ll bet few consider.
    It’s easy to become callused & fall into this throw-away society, but even bringing our own bag to our LBS helps.
    My bike lights use aaa batteries, so I have rechargeable ones.
    Another thing we as cyclists can do, (a pet peeve of mine), is not sit in our cars, (at cycling events, or not), idling away as we submerse ourselves in our phone-worlds. This has become rampant here in Calif, even of beautiful, 70 degree days, windows rolled up, may times in large, fuel inefficient vehicles, oblivious to the pollution their creating, (for what?).

    I’ll be looking for sustainable cycling clothing, (hopefully the learning curve is far advanced, as some recycled fabric by Patagonia I wear, didn’t feel or perform to my standard, but that was 5 yrs ago).

    1. Take a look at oorr.com.au – as suggested by Sheri above. All fabrics have a % of recycled material, are made to a pro standard, and 5 trees are planted for every garment sold.

  11. The heading:Cycling is less Environmentally friendly as thought,should be changed…as my first impression was,why is riding a bicycle less environment friendly….of course I was interested to know the answer….but I did not see it have any reference to the heading.As for the reading,yes I thoughly enjoyed it.

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