In a city such as L.A., where the car rules the world, biking to work can seem like an impossibility. Getting informed is a good first step toward two-wheeled, sans-motor freedom. These resources will help you get up to speed:
* The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition has a free, 30-page bike commuting primer on its website, (www.labikecoalition.org/) that spells out the financial, environmental and health benefits of pedaling while dispelling 11 myths about cycling, such as "You're too out of shape to ride" and "It's not safe to bike in Los Angeles."
* To find routes to get around town, try www.bikemetro.com, a kind of MapQuest for Southern California cyclists.
The site allows users to choose different hill tolerances (a low tolerance translates into flat but more roundabout routes) as well as cycling ability (more novice cyclists are pointed toward roads less traveled).
The site is the only one of its kind but can be slow to load; also, make sure to double-check your route with other resources such as the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority (www.mta.net/riding_metro/bikes/bikes.htm, which has a printed map and one that you can search online; and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (at www.bicyclela.org/maps_main.htm).
MapQuest itself can be helpful, but be sure to check the "avoid highways" box so you don't end up being directed onto a freeway.
* To learn the rules of the road, take the Road 1 Bike Safety Training offered by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the League of American Cyclists. The course includes lessons on how to safely ride the roadways, as well as on-road training. The next session starts Tuesday night and costs $25 for coalition members and $35 for nonmembers.
Getting the bike
* Buying a bike is as easy or as complicated as you make it. Consider maintenance policies (shops usually offer a free initial tune-up, many provide free service for a year and some even offer adjustments for the lifetime of the bike) and the quality of the customer service. Make sure the staff gives you the attention you need, including help switching out components to your liking.
It's important to get a bike that fits you well and is comfortable -- whether that means sitting totally upright, being as aerodynamic as possible or something in between.
Much of the choice comes down to personal preference. Some folks like thrift store bikes that can be locked outside for days, while others want a bike that Lance Armstrong could borrow.
* Want to build your own bike but don't know how? Try a course in bike mechanics by immersion. Check out the Bicycle Kitchen at 706 Heliotrope Drive, (www.bicyclekitchen.com). This nonprofit and volunteer-run shop has piles of used bike parts and will help you put your rig together piece by piece.
* Commuting can be accomplished on just about any two-wheeler, but you'll be happier with slick, non-knobby tires. They're faster, quieter and perform better on city streets.
* Travelers who want to pedal once they reach their destination should consider a folding bike. Los Angeles' Dahon Inc. has multiple options; its Ciao model just won the prestigious Dutch "Bike of the Year" competition.
* Make sure to pick up a water bottle (and a bottle cage to hold it) to keep you hydrated.
* Consider adding a rear rack to help you carry books, groceries, etc. Racks are handy for saddlebags.
What to wear
* Helmets are required for cyclists younger than 18 and are a good idea for adults. A $200 helmet is no safer than a $30 one. The pricier option will be lighter and have more vents.
The helmet should fit snugly and come down to just above your brow. Try several for best fit; make sure to properly adjust the straps.
* Sunglasses will reduce the unpleasantness of riding through a gnat swarm on the Ballona bike path and protect your eyes from detritus kicked up by autos. Clear glasses are useful for cyclists riding at night.
* Cycling gear is made from fibers that wick sweat away to keep you dry. Lycra often gets stinky quickly. Companies such as Swobo and Boure offer looser clothing, much of it made with merino wool for longer wear.
Padded cycling shorts will make longer rides more comfortable but are not a necessity.
* Large group rides are a great way to get comfortable cycling in the urban environment. Check out Midnight Ridazz, an unsanctioned ride on the second Friday of every month that is a cross between parade, costume party and rolling happy hour.
Less anarchic options are posted on www.bikeboom.com, an online calendar devoted to L.A.-area cycling events, as well as on the Bicycle Coalition's website. The coalition's Ice Cream Ride, a slow 15- to 20-mile cruise suitable for lactose-tolerant pedalers of all ages, takes place later this summer. (The ride stops at a succession of ice cream shops.)
* Biking to work is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can bring your bike to work on mass transit in the morning and pedal home in the evening. Buses have bike racks, but getting to work by subway is a little trickier because some Metro trains ban bicycles during peak times. Be sure to check the website for specifics and pick up a Metro bike map to help you plan a route.
Rules of the road
* A list of laws that apply to cyclists can be found online at www.bikelink.com/law_safety.asp.
* Safety and etiquette tips from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation can be found at www.bicyclela.org/Etiquette.htmTips.
* One of the best and safest approaches to riding around town is "vehicular cycling" (VC), which Wikipedia defines as "the practice of driving bicycles on public roads in a manner which is visible, predictable, and in accordance with the rules of the road for operating a vehicle," en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicular_cycling.
* Cyclists should never ride too close to parked cars where an opening door can cause a collision. Where bike lanes and the "door zone" overlap, it is important to ride in the roadway, a move protected by California Vehicle Code 21202.
* Being assertive, communicative and gracious will make your commute safer and more enjoyable. If you are going to move into a lane, look over your shoulder to make sure it's safe, then motion to the traffic behind you that you're shifting over. When you leave the lane, motion the traffic through and offer a little wave.
* Don't blaze in between stopped traffic. Passengers often hop out of cars in these situations.
* Avoid passing cars on the right because a quick right turn by the auto could cause a crash.
* Laws concerning cyclists vary. Cycling on sidewalks in L.A. is legal if you yield to pedestrians. It is illegal in Santa Monica.
* Knowing how to change a tube is a valuable skill. Many local bike shops have clinics where they teach novices basic maintenance. Or you can pop by the Bicycle Kitchen and one of the "cooks" will teach you.
* Those who don't want to get their hands dirty, or need help with a significant mechanical failure, can join Better World Club, which offers emergency roadside assistance. www.betterworldclub.com, (866) 238-1137.
* Cyclists who ride after dark should equip their bicycles with flashing red tail lights and white headlights that offer extra illumination, and more importantly, allow for easy visibility. They can cost as little as $15. More serious commuters may want Light & Motion's Vega, a powerful and compact unit with an internal battery.
* Most riders carry a small pump and tube, money for the Metro, or a cellphone for emergencies.
* So you've done it -- you rode to work. Now what? Hopefully, you're prepared and have extra clothes as well as a pair of shoes. If you're lucky enough to work at an office with a shower, use it. If not, a package of baby wipes and a reapplication of deodorant works wonders.
For more information
* www.bicyclela.org/guide.pdf. A short guide to bike commuting.
* www.lisaanneauerbach.com/projects/saddlesores.html. A quirky magazine about bike commuting produced by Los Angeles-based writer and artist Lisa Anne Auerbach.
* www.cicle.org/. A left-leaning collection of all things cycling with a Los Angeles emphasis.
-- Stephen Krcmar