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Friday, October 13, 2006

Biking is the New Driving

I rode my bicycle to work for the first time on Monday. I'm lucky I can do that – I live on one of the longest bike trails in Houston, which also happens to end about one block away from my office. My old apartment, like most places in Houston, was simply too far away from downtown to ride from.

I thought about borrowing a friend's bike and testing out the route, but in the end I decided that no matter what, riding to work was going to be inconvenient. The best way to make myself actually do it would be to channel my own cheapness. In other words, if I just bought the bike, I would ride as much as possible to recoup the investment.

Multiple people warned me away from cheap Target bikes so I shopped around at real, honest-to-God bicycle shops. There are surprisingly many inside the loop. If you've never been to one, you should. Although I haven't looked into it, it seems that bicycle-shop owning is a tough business, one that nobody chooses unless they really love bicycles. I'm not one to romanticize the pre-big-box-store past, but there aren't many places left where you can walk in, declare you want to buy the cheapest item they sell, and still command the knowledgeable and opinionated help of the owner. Forget about supporting your local independent bookseller – support your local independent bicycle shop.

The first two shops I visited turned out to be each owned by one of a single pair of brothers. It was painfully obvious which brother was the flaky one. The third shop I went to, West End Bicycles, was a dumpy concrete warehouse building hidden and out of place inside a recently yuppified, town-homed neighborhood. Inside, two cats lazed, looking up with annoyance as customers examined bikes in the racks, while the over-polite owner answered my questions, constantly fretting about his pushiness.

Of course, now that I've bought the bike, it's rained every other day.

Things I've learned:

  • Helmet hair. My hair's not very short, and I was afraid that I'd be stuck either cutting it, wearing a hat all day, or looking ridiculous all day. Turns out, no problem – I just brush it and go.
  • Sweat. Even now that the weather is cooling off, I'm a sweaty mess for a good fifteen minutes after arriving to work, especially because my trendy warehouse-office is hardly air conditioned in the morning. The partial solution is to ride in a t-shirt and shorts, and then change into real clothes I've stowed in a duffel bag under my desk that I stock on the inevitable rainy days I have to drive to work.
  • Travel light. I keep changes of clothes at work so I don't have to carry the weight while riding. Clothes don't weigh much, but on a bike, every little bit helps, especially when it's in your backpack pressing against your back (see Sweat, above). The stow-at-work principle also applies to lunches.
  • Have the right keys. I keep my muddy bike in shipping. I thought the shipping warehouse used the same key as the rest of the office, but it doesn't, as I found out one day when I tried to leave after everybody in shipping did.
  • Municipal spending. Much of my route goes through a series of parks surrounding the Buffalo Bayou. Make no mistake, these are beautiful parks, it's just that so far the only people I've seen using them (besides the occasional jogger) are the homeless. The thing is that for most of the year, hanging out near a bayou either during the heat of the day or the cooler but mosquito-infested evening is miserable, so few do. Maybe this is money that could have been better spent.
  • Cycling is a cult. By walking into a bicycle shop you're entering the headquarters of a cult. People get really, really into this stuff. If you need proof, the League of American Bicyclists has a 2006 Election Guide. Issues include the 2006 Bicycle Commuter Act, which would give tax breaks to employers offering cash benefits to workers cycling to work. Now you too can vote in your bike's best interest.

I found a lot of practical advice online at www.bikewhenever.com and Harris Cyclery.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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