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The No Sweat Way to Bike to Work

I’m cross-posting this story from my Bike Fun blog in the Mountain View Voice because I think the message bears repeating: It is possible to ride a bike and not be a hot mess on arrival!

It’s the 20th anniversary of Bike to Work Day in the Bay Area, celebrated this year on Thursday, May 8. For two decades, casual riders have pumped up their tires and dusted off their bikes for a short ride across town, while weekend warriors have charted longer commute routes and come up with a post-ride cleanup strategy. For people who bike to work year-round, the weeks ahead of Bike to Work Day are a time for answering questions from and giving advice to new bike commuters, like me back in 1997.

Like so many others, Bike to Work Day launched me into bike commuting. I went to a short “getting started” information meeting at my workplace, learned the best way to cross Hwy 101 from the local bike expert, then pedaled the 12 miles to my office in North San Jose. The ride was about an hour so I stowed my clothes in my new bike panniers and cleaned up at my workplace’s gym locker room when I arrived.

bike-gear-on-coat-rack

Over the years I kept it up once or twice a week during daylight saving time, whenever my work sites gave me access to a shower. Bike commuting was a great way to get miles in when I was training for triathlons and long century rides. When I wasn’t training per se, two hours a day a couple of times a week was a great workout.

Then I took a job in Palo Alto that was less than five miles from home. It was too short to be a workout and hardly seemed worth putting on lycra and packing my work clothes, plus a towel and toiletries. Five flat miles just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Then one day in late summer I slapped myself on the forehead and said to myself, “It’s only a 25 minute ride, why do you need to change clothes anyway? Just wear your work clothes.” I put a summer dress with bike shorts underneath, slipped on flat shoes and stowed my laptop, purse and heels in my bike pannier. I rode slowly, keeping my heartbeat down at the equivalent of a walking, not running, pace. When I arrived at the office I took a moment to switch into my heels and cool down before walking in the building. No sweat!

It worked so well I was biked every day that week, then the next, and the next. Somewhere along the way I figured out that heels aren’t hard to bike in so I stopped packing my shoes. And I learned that if I stopped and took off a layer as soon as I started to warm up I could arrive sweat-free wearing almost anything, even a suit.

Bike in Suit

It helped that I started reading blogs from bike commuters in cities like Chicago, Boston and Portland. If they could ride in a professional dress there, even during the cold and stormy winters, California would be easy. And it was. Once I got a proper raincoat and boots, I was able to keep riding every day through the rainy season.

When I switched jobs two years ago to one back in North San Jose, I learned to combine my bike commute with a Caltrain ride so I could keep commuting in my work clothes. Occasionally, I’ll pack my work clothes and ride the full 13 miles to the office when I want a workout. But 95% of the time I choose my multi-modal bike + Caltrain commute. That way I can bike to work every day instead of 1-2 times a week.

There are lots of ways to make your commute no- or low-sweat. Here are my top tips:

  • Ride slowly. Save your workouts for the weekend or the times you’re planning to clean up on arrival.
  • Don’t worry so much about wasting time going slower. If you don’t change clothes at the end of your ride you’ll save at least five minutes.
  • Remember that it’s cooler in the morning here than in the evening. If you sweat on the way home you can always shower there.
  • Nothing heats you up like wearing a backpack or messenger bag. Get a rack or basket instead and get that bag off your back.
  • Underdress so you’re a little chilly for the first 5 minutes of your ride. As soon as you feel like you’re starting to warm up, pull over and strip off a layer.
  • Stow some wet wipes or a towel at work just in case you sweat more than you expected.
  • Consider partial clothing changes for your commute. Replace a dress shirt with a t-shirt or flat shoes instead of heels.
  • Wearing a helmet doesn’t have to mean you’ll have a bad hair day. Sweating, not the helmet, is the bigger cause of helmet hair. Experiment with different helmets and/or hair arrangements until you find what works. For me, all I have to do is finger comb my hair on arrival.
  • Riding a more upright bike helps. The extra windchill from being upright cools you, and somehow being upright discourages riding hard.
  • I installed a front basket so I can grab everything I need while I’m riding or walking my bike. I can strip a layer off and stow it without pulling over and my train pass, my phone, and my sunglasses are all at my fingertips.
  • Not packing clothes means I have room in my panniers to pick up a few items at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Are you riding to work on Bike to Work Day this year? Will you wear your work clothes or wear cycling gear and change on arrival? How far is your trip?

Bike in heels

 
12 Comments

Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Around Town

 

How to Get Women to Race Dirt (And How Not To)

The Sea Otter Classic, the largest consumer bike festival in North America, is running this weekend down the coast at Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey. In addition to the large expo hosting over 450 vendors, there will be pro and amateur racing in almost every cycling discipline, from downhill mountain biking to BMX to criterium road racing to cyclocross, plus recreational events for all ages, including Gran Fondo endurance rides.

I won’t be one of the estimated 65,000 people headed down there. It’s partly because Sea Otter’s focus is on the sport side of cycling and my interest these days is more in the practical side of cycling: city and cargo cycling. But it’s more than that. I haven’t been back to Sea Otter since I stood on the podium there in 2008, which was long before I got into city cycling. It’s that my last experience there made me feel like Sea Otter isn’t really for people like me who love bikes but don’t fit into American cycling’s hardcore dude culture.

After Work Girlfriend Rides

Back in 2008 I was mountain biking regularly with the Dirt Divas, an informal group of experienced mountain bikers and road racers with a taste of dirt. Every Monday night during daylight saving time we did recovery pace after work spins, and every few weeks or so we did longer weekend rides on more challenging trails. Just as importantly, we were an online community of 200 dirt-loving women sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, offering support and advice for each other that was just as valuable as having women nearby to ride with.

With my friends from Dirt Divas and the support of the Velo Bella and Velo Girl race teams, I had raced several smaller races. We had even challenged ourselves with a 24 hour mountain bike relay on the trails at Laguna Seca. Those races were all fun, but didn’t bring out the crowds like Sea Otter. Where else can recreational riders race the same courses, on the same weekend as the pros?

The Sea Otter excitement started on the Diva email list in March: how hard it it? who’s racing this year? In no time we had set up carpools down to Laguna Seca to pre-ride the course a few weeks before the race. The course wasn’t particularly technical, but the hilly 20 mile course had proven challenging for some beginner fields, so they shortened the women’s, juniors, women’s single-speed and Clydesdale men’s (over 200 lbs) races to a nominal 10 miles. For some reason, they didn’t say it was actually over 13 miles.

Dirt Divas

The nine of us were a mix of experienced and brand new racers. A couple were new to Dirt Divas and had never ridden in an all-female group before. With only a printout from the web site for navigation, we fared well until the climbers out front missed a key turn and got lost. Afterward, it was laughing over burritos and lots of email banter: reporting trail conditions and answering questions from women who couldn’t make the pre-ride.

So when things went wrong at the race we had each other. After a good start on the paved track (picking the right wheel to draft is key) I hit the gravel in top five. I was behind my friend Holly as we picked up speed where the course descended. As we approached a left turn, I could tell Holly was aimed straight. I yelled “go left,” she did and we both hit the singletrack ahead of the main field, then up the ridge and down the long sandy descent.

On the long grind back up, my climber friend Lesley passed me and asked if I had missed the turn. That’s when I realized Holly wasn’t only one. There were many others confused about the turn, including my friend E who’s zooming downhill in this photo. Her boyfriend took the shot right after she went off course. Not easy to tell, is it?

Missed Turn

I was still grinding away uphill when I came to the turn where we lost the climbers on the pre-ride. I was moving slow enough to read the signs carefully: “XC Race 20 miles” and “MTB Tour 10 miles.” Even though I had raced the course the year before, studied the map, pre-ridden three weeks before and have the nickname “GPS Janet,” I wasn’t confident I should turn left to stay on the 10 mi XC race course. But I did, even though I could see racers going straight ahead of me, and knew that going straight would cut the course by at least a mile.

Lesley

When I finished the race they were already posting our race’s winning time at 41 minutes, an impossible time. Holly and I reported it to race officials, waited a while until it got cold and dark, then gave up and went to dinner. The next morning they posted results: I was 2nd, Holly 3rd, and Michelle 4th. On podium we didn’t recognize the winner and we didn’t see the two or three other women that I was pretty sure were ahead of me. (I found out much later that one missed the first turn and the true winner had lost her chip somewhere on the course.)

Sea Otter Podium

Back on online I shared my story and learned that three more of my Diva friends had missed the first turn and doubled back. A Velo Bella race team friend was spectating at the junction, saw the confusion and started calling out directions to racers. She confronted the course monitor about why he wasn’t doing it. He shrugged.

So I wrote my first letter of complaint ever to the race director. I let him know the impact on us as racers, but focused on what I wanted for next year: cones, course monitors, and accurately labeling the course as a 13 mile, not 10 mile course. After a long email exchange his response was that it’s the racers responsibility to stay on course and lessons were learned on both sides. He didn’t get that if that much of the field is confused, it’s the course, not the riders. And that beginners could use a little more, not less, consideration and support.

Sea Otter 2008 crop

I will agree that lessons were learned, indeed, but probably not what the race director expected:

  • Women often enter sport through men and they learn a lot from them. But there’s something special about riding with women: it’s empowering and challenging in a different way.
  • Until women ride with or race women, they don’t know really how how they stack up. Too many women who only ride with men think they’re slow when they’re not slow at all.
  • Having a social aspect makes many women more strongly engaged and loyal to the sport. Romantic relationships end, but bikes and bike friends stay.
  • If you want more new people racing, it takes group support. We hosted our own group pre-ride for women on our Dirt Diva email list. A pre-ride from the organizers with racing tips might encourage riders to try racing.
  • Community support is important both in person and online. The fewer women that ride in an geographic area, the more important online friendships are.
  • Women (especially beginner women) don’t expect to be the focus of an event. We don’t expect to race at prime time, we don’t expect our results to be listed first. But when things go wrong and we get an attitude, it’s feels deeper than “that guy is a jerk” it becomes “they don’t care about women or beginners.”
  • When you complain, adjust your argument for the personality of the official. When I advocated from the perspective of disoriented racers I got nothing. When I complained that riders might have placed ahead of me by cutting the course I got more sympathy. I needed to switch from chick talk to dude talk.

There was a silver lining to the story. One of the silent members on our Dirt Diva list was an employee of Sea Otter. She wasn’t part of the racing side, but she contacted the right people within the organization. They gave us a discount registration code for the next year’s race. That taught me my last lesson: complaining can pay off, even when you’re blown off at first. You may have allies you don’t know about that are listening.

I was touched and grateful. I know at least one woman used the discount to race the next year. Just not me.

IMG_5425

 
11 Comments

Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Dirt Trails, Women & Bikes

 

Fashion Weekend Edition: Bike Date Dreamy

The things you do for love. Like wearing a button-down shirt and a sweater for a Friday night bike date, and swapping your singlespeed’s pedals so you can wear regular shoes instead cycling shoes. Or growing a beard just because your sweetie wonders out loud how it would look on you. That’s what love is all about.

Bike Date Portrait 1

About Fashion Friday: Inspired by a 2011 Bike to Work Day challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, this series highlights the broad range of “dress for the destination” bicycling fashions.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on April 5, 2014 in Cycle Fashions

 

Why We Need a National Bike to Shop Day

“I can see people biking to offices here and even to the movie theater, but I can’t see people biking to shop here. Shopping is all about driving your SUV to the store and filling it up,” said the planning commissioner at a city meeting on the redevelopment of a major shopping center. I was stunned. I had just stood up and spoken about why bicycle access there was important to me.“The center is where I buy my groceries, my clothes, my household items,” I had explained. “It’s only two miles from home, so I ride my bike.”

I was so angry at not being heard (or believed) that it took me an extra two hours to fall asleep that night. Didn’t the commissioner see the busy bike racks outside the center’s two grocery stores? Didn’t he realize that purchases from a jewelry store are small, and that when people buy mattresses they have them delivered?

Trailer at Trader Joes

For the past 20 years we’ve pushed hard to promote bike commuting through Bike to Work Day, and it’s worked to get many commuters hopping onto bikes instead of into their cars. Like me, back in 1997. I got a little route advice from an expert at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, then pedaled to work. I kept it up once a week until daylight saving time ended, then went back to driving until Bike to Work Day the next spring.

My dedication to bike commuting waxed and waned over years. My next job site didn’t have a shower so I drove. The next one had showers and was close by so I started riding again. Then I took a job 14 miles away and was back down to once a week in summer only. It wasn’t until I realized I could ride in my work clothes for short distances and combine my commute with transit that I became the daily bike commuter I am today.

But even when I didn’t commute to work I biked for my weekly errands. Most things I needed were within a few miles of home, I could wear whatever I wanted, and I could schedule trips during daylight hours. Errands were fun, as evidenced by this Facebook post five years ago: “Long day in saddle again: Farmer’s market/noodles/bookstore/bike shop/Target/Bev Mo/Trader Joe’s. Only 8 miles, but it took some creative packing.”

Errand Bike

I wasn’t the only one doing errands back then and there are even more today, especially in shopping areas with limited parking and/or slow moving traffic. The bike racks are getting fuller and no one blinks twice when you roll away with big vegetables sticking out of panniers or toilet paper indelicately strapped to a rack.

Still, shopping by bike isn’t seen as mainstream. Few bikes come equipped with racks or baskets and bike shops and bike manufacturers rarely actively promote that kind of riding. I could elaborate on this, but I already have before, and if you’ve ever shopped for the perfect bike bag or basket you probably know what I mean. And there’s no national Bike to Shop Day program like there is for Bike to Work Day.

Grocery Bikes

But I think its time has come, and I’ve been working behind the scenes to make it happen this year in Silicon Valley. I sketched out a plan, convinced the staff at the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to sponsor it, recruited some hard-working volunteers and we’re all off and rolling. In two weeks we’ve recruited 22 businesses to offer incentives to shoppers who arrive by bike for Bike to Shop Day Silicon Valley on Saturday May 17, 2014.

Oh, and we have a Bike to Shop Day web site with merchant profiles, sign-up forms and a zoomable merchant map. Plus lot of how-tos, from how to convert an old bike into a grocery getter, how to pace yourself at Costco, and what you can stuff in your road bike’s seat bag for impromptu shopping trips.

Bike to Shop Day web site

I have no idea how far Bike to Shop Day will go, but dammit I had to do something. Anger is a powerful motivator. Maybe next time city commissioners discuss plans for shopping center redevelopment, we’ll hear this instead: “There’s not much space for car parking, we’ll need more bike racks.” That’s my dream.

Do you do your daily or weekly errands by bike? What makes it easy (or makes it hard)?

Cherie

 
28 Comments

Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Around Town, Issues & Infrastructure

 

Bike Commute Diaries: Barriers to Transit

The train station is only a mile from my home, but with two major road crossings it’s not that quick a trip. Hit the signal wrong at Shoreline Boulevard and it’s a 90 second wait. Time it wrong at Central Expressway and I’m waiting, waiting, waiting as multiple trains go by, including the one I was supposed to catch this morning.

20140331-081155.jpg

About the Bike Commute Diaries: Launched in May 2012 for National Bike Month, this series explores the unexpected and surprising things I’ve seen and learned while bicycling for transportation.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Commute Diaries

 

Fashions for Fifty: Fifty is Fashionable Forever

Every decade has its iconic styles, like the cloche hat of the Roaring Twenties and the knit dress of the Disco Seventies. But when a style truly works, it works for any decade, from your own roaring twenties to your own fabulous fifties. And when I’m in my seventies, look for me dancing the Hustle at the senior center.

Forever Portrait

Inspired by the poem by Jenny Joseph that begins “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go,” Fashions for Fifty is a month-long celebration of my fiftieth birthday in March 2014.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Cycle Fashions

 

Bike Commute Diaries: Skunked on the Trail

I love the wildlife on the Guadalupe River Trail, really I do. Great blue herons, snowy egrets, mallards, coots, crows, squirrels, and even the feral cats. But that black and white “feral cat” I saw tonight just didn’t look right as I rolled up. Fortunately, he was in a good mood, I was duly respectful and we both escaped without incident.

Skunk

About the Bike Commute Diaries: Launched in May 2012 for National Bike Month, this series explores the unexpected and surprising things I’ve seen and learned while bicycling for transportation.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on March 24, 2014 in Commute Diaries

 
 
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