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July 4, 2011
By: Sarah McKenzie and Jeremy Zoss
Sarah McKenzie and Jeremy Zoss
A guide for beginning bike commuters

There are plenty of reasons to consider bike commuting: rising gas prices, the unveiling of new bike paths and the obvious health and
environmental benefits.

But there are obstacles that keep many people in their cars — unpredictable weather, the sweat factor and the prospect of getting hit by a distracted driver.

How do veteran cyclists deal with those challenges? We checked in with some local experts to put together this guide for beginning bike commuters and those contemplating trying it out.

Tips from a veteran commuter

Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, has been bike commuting for more than 25 years. He works out of his home in Mahtomedi now, but often bikes to meetings in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Before he starting working from home, he biked to his office in downtown St. Paul — a 15-mile trek.

“At the start of my career I worked for the Department of Natural Resources and thought it was a good fit with my environmental ethic,” Grilley said. “However, I rapidly discovered that it was really fun and quite practical. It saved lots of money and was a great way to stay in very good physical condition.”

As for tips for beginners, he urges people to make sure to get a bike that fits well and is comfortable. He also stresses the importance of wearing a helmet.

“You may never use it, but if you need it, you’ll be thankful it was there,” he said. “My helmet saved me from traumatic brain injury and maybe death last August when I was hit by someone who was ticketed for careless driving.”

Grilley advises commuters to take time to plan a good route that avoids streets that aren’t bike friendly.

Choosing a bike as the main way to get around instead of the car has so many benefits, he noted, including providing a boost to the local economy.

“One recent ah-ha moment for me was to realize the fact that the vast majority of money spent, hundreds of millions of dollars per year, on fuel and motor vehicles leaves our region and country,” Grilley said. “The majority of money spent on bicycling stays local.”

Defensive biking

Learning defensive bicycling techniques is crucial for commuters.

Bike Walk Twin Cities has some good tips on its site bikewalktwincities.org. Here are some potentially dangerous situations to watch out for:

• A motorist turns left in front of a cyclist going straight. To guard against an accident, bikers should be visible, make eye contact and be prepared to stop and make an emergency turn if need be.

• A motorist makes a right turn in front of a biker. To be prepared for this situation, bikers should not pass cars on the right near intersections to avoid being in the car’s blind spot. “Do not rely on other drivers’ turn signals,” Bike Walk Twin Cities advises. “Wait to see that they are not going to turn.”

• A car pulls out of a driveway, parking space or alleyway. To avoid getting hit in this scenario, bikers should make sure to be in the proper lane position and be extra alert when crossing driveways and intersections.

Using bells and lights is another good way to become more noticeable on the streets.

What to wear

Picking out the right clothing for biking can be tricky, because a lot depends on how you plan to ride and for how long. But if you’re serious about making frequent trips of any real length, you should invest in a few essentials:

• Shorts: A pair of padded cycling shorts will be your best friend on a long ride. While it can be intimidating to wear form-fitting clothing out in public, there are several varieties that can be worn under other pants.

• Shirts: Choose a top that wicks sweat away from the skin. There are many biking jerseys that have pockets to hold keys, ID and the like, but a simple workout shirt will do to start.

• Shoes: Even if you don’t plan to get biking shoes with features like toe clips, good shoes are important. Make sure your shoes leave room for your feet to expand as they get warm.

• Sunglasses: You may want a pair of glasses to keep debris and bugs out of your eyes.

• Gloves: A good pair of padded fingerless gloves will reduce the strain on your hands.

Gear

Of course, the single most important piece of gear any biker needs is a helmet. While it’s not illegal to bike without one, every biking expert in the world recommends that all riders wear a helmet. They’re available in a variety of styles, so you may be surprised that not all of them will make you look like a dork.

In addition to a good helmet, here are a few other pieces of equipment that beginning bikers should invest in:

• Bicycle pump: Make sure to get a pump with a gauge so you can inflate your tires to the proper PSI. Don’t use a gas station air pump if you can avoid it — you could easily pop a tire through over-inflation.

• Bike lock: If you plan on leaving your bike anywhere besides your garage, you’ll need a good lock. The Recovery Bike Shop staff recommends that you never opt for a chain lock — bolt cutters will make quick work of them. Opt for a sturdy U-lock instead.

• Tool kit: Always carry a spare tube, patch kit and tire levers. A good multi-tool and hex key (allen wrench) are recommended as well. Remember, almost all modern bikes use the metric system.

• Lights: If you plan on riding at night, a front-mounted flashing light is the law. In Minneapolis, riding without one could earn you a ticket for $95.

• Bag or rack: You’ll likely want some way to carry things on your bike. Most beginners opt for a courier bag or backpack, but there are plenty of racks you can install if you want to carry more weight.

New trails

The Cedar Lake Trail — a 3.5 mile path linking St. Louis Park with the city’s riverfront — is now complete. It’s considered the nation’s first bike freeway because it has two paved lanes for bikers and one for pedestrians.

The RiverLake Greenway is another new trail for cyclists. It’s an east-west path that connects Lake Harriet with the riverfront.
It’s about midway between the Midtown Greenway and the Minnehaha Creek.

Resources for cyclists

•    Bike Walk Twin Cities (bikewalktwincities.org): The website has a wealth of information on the local cycling scene, including route maps, news on bike projects and lots of good safety tips.

•     A good bike resource for beginners (and everyone else) is sheldonbrown.com, says the staff of Recovery Bike Shop, 2551 Central Ave. NE. The biking enthusiast and his community have written about every bicycle-related topic you can think of in clear, novice-friendly language. According to Recovery staffer Joram Livengood, the site is “the epitome of everything bike.”

•     Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition at mplsbike.org is another great resource information about biking in Minneapolis. The coalition, which organized the recent Open Streets event on Lyndale, is run by a group of volunteers devoted to make the city better for biking.

•     For a local take on biking, head over to mplsbikelove.com. The site includes an amazingly active forum and news about every biking event, trail and bike news story happening around the city.

•    Another resource is Google Maps, which now offers bike maps. The feature is relatively new, so don’t be surprised if the maps aren’t as accurate as driving directions.