Drive? No Way--Not This Biker : Using His Two-Wheeler, He Stays in Shape, Communes With Nature, Saves Money and Gets to Work on Time


The reaction is usually the same. First comes the incredulous facial expression, then words to the effect of, "Gee, how interesting. Are you nuts?"

I marvel at how nearly everyone I know seems to regard riding a bike to work as the equivalent of an out-of-body experience. There are more bicycles (about 120 million) than cars in this country, yet few commuters would contemplate the prospect of abandoning their beloved four-wheel behemoths.

My scenic ride each morning along a secluded, tree-lined path between the Potomac River and the historic C & O Canal is nothing less than inspiring. The 45-minute trek brings me close to graceful great blue heron, geese paddling in perfect formation, squirrels dashing for cover, an occasional deer in the woods and turtles basking in warm sunlight.

I see people too. Couples on a peaceful morning stroll. Out-of-town visitors sightseeing. Fishermen wetting their lines. And avid joggers--such as Tipper Gore leading an entourage of Secret Service agents and her black Labrador sans leash.

But where are the cyclists?

The only regulars I have encountered after nearly three years of riding to work are grungy office couriers, which makes me wonder where the estimated 4.3 million Americans currently commuting by bike are .

In Southern California, land of year-round balmy weather and nightmarish traffic conditions, the story is just as bleak. A 1991 survey found that only two of 500 commuters in Los Angeles County relied primarily on bicycles to get to work. The City of Los Angeles officials report that about 1% of city residents ride two-wheelers to work.

The resistance is understandable. For more than a decade, I wanted to commute by bicycle while tied up in traffic hell on highways in San Jose, San Diego and Los Angeles, but I always had excuses. Too inconvenient, no room for my briefcase and there must be some reason why no one else is doing it.

Now I'm so hooked that the mere thought of sitting behind the wheel of a car in gridlock is unfathomable; I'll take a ride in 100-degree heat or subzero wind chill any day. I've even come to enjoy cycling in rain and snow. Now only icy streets keep me out of the saddle and behind the wheel of my '62 Plymouth Valiant.

So why not dust off your old Schwinn. Not only will you burn extra calories and lose weight, but you'll save hundreds of dollars each year in gasoline, auto insurance and repair costs; arrive at work relaxed rather than stressed; contribute to a cleaner environment, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Moreover, many large companies offer their employees financial incentives to get out of cars, and municipalities are becoming bicycle-friendly. Los Angeles plans to double its existing 300 miles of bike paths over the next decade. One project in the works consists of a 50-mile bike path along the Los Angeles River from the Sepulveda Basin to Long Beach with lights, telephones and water fountains installed in some sections.

At this point, you're probably thinking that there's no room in your hectic schedule for bike commuting. Besides, it's too dangerous and inconvenient, right? Well, think again. In Los Angeles--where the No. 1 cycling enthusiast resides in the mayor's office--biking to work can be a snap. Here are tips to help get started.


* Map out a route.

The most important preparation before heading out the driveway is meticulously planning a safe trip. Avoid busy thoroughfares whenever possible, even those marked as bicycle lanes. You'll grow tired real fast of getting flats from riding on broken glass, competing with traffic and sucking exhaust fumes. But with a little experience, you'll get comfortable riding on less congested city streets.

"People are afraid to ride in the street because they think they are going to get hit by a car," says Alex Baum, longtime chairman of the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee. "We have to educate the American public. In Europe it is done. Look at Japan. Thousands and thousands of people use the bike to get to work."

To find the best route, you will need to get creative. Don't necessarily follow the most direct line from home to work. Biking is supposed to be fun and challenging too. Instead, try to take advantage of a nearby cycling path that cuts through remote areas.

My daily route extends 12 miles and consists of four legs: hilly neighborhood side streets, a straight dirt path along the Potomac, an asphalt stretch of abandoned railway and several blocks of heavy downtown traffic. The paved path allows me to hit speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour and get a good aerobic workout.


* Get the proper equipment.

The bike needn't be new or expensive. But make sure it's in good working order with tires inflated, chains lubricated and seat properly adjusted. A bike shop should perform a tune-up for less than $50.

A helmet is a necessity. So is bright-colored clothing. A sweat shirt or T-shirt and comfortable athletic shoes will suffice. A quality pair of biking shorts with extra padding sewn into the crotch and cycling gloves will make the ride more enjoyable. In the summer, don't forget sunscreen--particularly for your face--and wear some form of protective eye-wear.

I ride a 21-speed Cannondale M500 mountain bike with tiny pedals that snap into the soles of my shoes for maximum stroke efficiency. A mountain bike with knobby tires is preferable to a classic 10-speed for the simple reason that you want to reduce the odds of getting a flat.

I know that wearing a Walkman while bicycling is dumb and dumber, but for me it makes the ride so much faster. Ever since I stopped listening to National Public Radio in favor of a local rock station, I've been pedaling a lot harder to keep up with the music. I carry my wallet, keys, appointment book and other items in a backpack. Other riders prefer a saddlebag attached to the bike.


* Arrange for storage and shower facilities.

You'll need a secure place to lock your bicycle, a shower and a locker to store your work clothes. If your employer does not provide access to shower facilities, consider a nearby health club. Some cyclists do without. The Washington Post reported that one man shuts his office door, strips off his exercise outfit and works naked at his terminal until the sweat dries.

I am fortunate to work in an office equipped with a shower and closet space. It helps to have a supportive boss who also cycles to work. For $70 a year, I lease an enclosed outdoor bicycle locker at the Foggy Bottom Metro station.

My shirts and suits get laundered at a downtown cleaners. On Mondays, I stuff a week's supply of underwear and socks into my backpack and haul the laundry home at the end of the week. I left a belt at home once and was short a pair of socks on another occasion. I have yet to forget underwear.

* Plan a safe return trip.

Daylight Saving Time makes it convenient to ride home after a long day at work. Not so in winter when it gets dark about 5 p.m. and most people don't care to get caught riding alone at night.

What to do? Try mass transit. The Metro Blue Line and area commuter trains in Los Angeles allow two bicycles per car. And while bikes are not permitted on Los Angeles County buses, cycling advocates hope to get that policy changed soon.

Another option is to hitch a ride with a co-worker who commutes by car within several miles of your residence. For this, you will need to purchase a bicycle rack that fits easily on the back of most vehicles and lights for the front and rear of your bike.

I take a subway train to within one mile of my home. In Washington, bicyclists who pay for special permits are allowed on trains after 7 p.m. on weeknights and all day on weekends.

"The biggest thing is getting out there," says Michelle Mowery, the full-time bicycle coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. She finds that people are motivated to hop on their bikes when they see that "normal people who have 9-to-5 jobs, kids and things like that are doing it."


Benefits of Biking * Burns calories, depending on the effort: 210 calories per hour (at very leisurely pace); 250+ (moderate pace); 500+ (pulse-pounding, hill-climbing pace).

* Tones calf, thigh and gluteus muscles.

* Improves cardiovascular system.

* Trims inches off waistline.

* Energizes mind and body.

Where to Go for Hints

* California Bike Commute Day, an effort by the California Bicycle Coalition to encourage people to try an alternative mode of transportation, is scheduled for May 4. Call (800) 679-BIKE for more information.

* For assistance with commuting by bike, contact Michelle Mowery, the full-time bicycle coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. She can be reached at (213) 237-0477.

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