What is bike commuting "expertise?"

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Yesterday I was talking with Josh Lipton (the guy who did all those NAHBS interviews) about publicity for the forthcoming Bike to Work Week.

I suggested we could hype Commute by Bike to the local press, with a pitch such as, “Did you know that the Web’s top site for bike commuting is headquartered right here in this two-bit city?”

Then I pulled back a bit. “But, I’m not sure if I want to tout myself as the world’s expert on bike commuting.”

Josh smirked and said, “We’re the experts in the thing that requires no expertise.”

Really? Is it that simple? Get on your bike and ride it to work?

When I think of the barriers to bike commuting, I have a few unflattering stereotypes of what makes people resist the idea–and none of them have to do with any sort of expertise.

  • Aversion to effort
  • Devotion to a pristine hairstyle
  • Concern about sweat and/or body odor
  • Exaggerated perception of the danger

If a resister can set all of those aside for one week, is that all there is to it?

Maybe we’re the wrong people to ask. We’re so habituated to cycling, maybe some things are second nature to us, but would be completely mystifying to someone whose bike is covered with cobwebs and hanging in the garage with rotted tires.

Some people might not remember which levers are for shifting, and which are for braking; which is the front brake, and which is the rear.

I remembered this cringeworthy video, where the patronizing reporter gets on a bike, clearly for the first time in a decade or more. She identifies the bell, but not the brakes.

What are the things that we experienced bike commuters know, but don’t recognize as specialized knowledge?

Ask a friend or co-worker who does not bike commute: If you could talk to an expert on bike commuting, what would you ask him or her?

I want to believe that we know something that at least would take a few minutes to impart to a noob. Maybe that’s just the smug cyclist in me talking.


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24 thoughts on “What is bike commuting "expertise?"”

  1. A real life fer instance from last Monday in my area: new prospective bike commuter working on a route from Point A to B that maximizes bike paths which he’s not at all familiar with. He gets really really lost and ends up calling a friend to pick him up and gives up.

    If he were driving in an unfamiliar area, the same thing would happen but nobody would think twice about it. Dude riding a bike for the first time in 20 years, though, gripes about how horrible cycling is.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      If he were driving in an unfamiliar area, the same thing would happen but nobody would think twice about it.

      So true. When a mishap happens to a noob on a bike–be it getting lost, having an accident, arriving late for an appointment–a common response would be blame cycling.

      It reminds me of this recent post:

      Why should cycling be any different, except that we tend to consider car use as obligatory, and bike use as optional?

  2. Misty says:

    Of course there are things we know that a person new to bike commuting wouldn’t know. Particularly someone who hasn’t touched a bike since they were a kid. There are probably a thousand little skills that I could name, but the point is that bike commuting /is/ a skill.

    This has been made especially clear to me recently, as I teach my younger brother how to ride a bike in the city (he can’t afford a car right now). I’m coming to realize that there’s so much more to riding a bike than just being able to stay upright and find the brakes. He will sometimes do things that seem very dumb to me, such as riding on a partially obstructed sidewalk when the street is wide open and there’s little to no traffic. It’s interesting to watch his skill increase as I point out little tips to make riding a bike in the city safer, more enjoyable, and less stressful. I’m just glad he’s not having to learn the hard way, like I did. 🙂

  3. Karen says:

    Some of your sterotypes really did apply to me and if hadn’t learned to work around them I just would not have commited to bike commuting. I get asked about the hair and sweat issue all the time, mostly by other women. In a lot of jobs appearance does matter. So I explain about slow bicycling and having a repair kit at my desk if there’s not a place to shower and change. My cousin is a novice bike commuter but lives inPhx and very releuctant to take her 2 yr old w/ her in a trailer for safety reasons; I think that is a big one to overcome and route planning and confidence building tips might help. I think another overlooked barrier is concern about image and not wanting to become “that weirdo who bikes everywhere”. I truly believe that a few people I know see me that way. Biking is seen as recreational and not transport unless you got convicted of DUI or had your car repossessed.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      “that weirdo who bikes everywhere”

      You may be a weirdo, but biking everywhere is not necessarily a symptom of your weirdness.

  4. Martin says:

    “Then I pulled back a bit. “But, I’m not sure if I want to tout myself as the world’s expert on bike commuting.””

    Please do not tout yourself as such. Please also do not tout this website as “the Web’s top site for bike commuting”. Seriously, please do not do this.

    Thank you.

  5. I agree with Richard, knowing the safe and efficient biking route is a big deal. I see a lot of newbies riding on big busy streets and I cringe. Riding on safe routes can make a big difference. I am glad that Google Maps is incorporating biking routes in their directions. The routes may not be perfect right now but it is an evolving process.

    I also think bike fit and accessories make a big difference. Riding an uncomfortable bike that doesn’t fit you is no fun. Selecting the right accessories to make bike commuting more stylish and more convenient (carrying your stuff, etc.) can make bike commuting more fun.

    There is also bike maintenance and repair that seems to intimidate people. They are not difficult skills but I think we take our skills for granted. The cool thing about bikes is that we can work on them, unlike newer cars these days.

    More random thoughts: Riding skills; being aware of what is around us, riding defensively, being seen at night, etc.

  6. Shanyn says:

    Having a bike that I can ride while dressed professionally is a must! Also, various accessories so that I can carry what I need, along with a good bike lock. I do not wear a helmet to commute on my small city streets and university campus- “bike riding is a non-contact sport”. If I had to wear a helmet all the time, I wouldn’t ride my bike. I think the benefit to my health by riding my bike, exceeds the risk of my sustaining a head injury that the helmet could have prevented. Of course, I drive a convertible as well 🙂

  7. JaimeRoberto says:

    All those barriers you listed applied to me, but I’d add one more barrier. Let’s call it fashion, for lack of a better word. There’s no way I’m going to pour myself into those spandex funnypants and wear shoes that make me walk like a duck. I think the more people see commuters dressed like normal people, though not necessarily like Mormon missionaries, the more they can envision themselves as bike commuters.

  8. Chrehn says:

    I’m sure I am “preaching to the choir” when I say bicycle commuting covers everything from Heaven to Hell. Sometimes, it can happen on the same ride. I can’t imagine what it would take for me to stop riding. One of my biggest fears is having a massive heart-attack while laying in a recliner, eating mission macaroni, watching fox “news” in the nude. Yikes!

  9. Chrehn says:

    ….oooops… I forgot, is it just me, or does Martin seem a bit edgy today?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Please do not say that Martin is edgy. Seriously, please do not do this.

      Thank you.

  10. matt says:

    I think the main skill to be learned is riding with traffic. Many of the things you need to watch out for – dooring, right hooks, oncoming cars turning through breaks in traffic – are far from obvious and simply take practice.

  11. Jon says:

    The tip I’d share is, when you’re riding in traffic, the importance of making eye contact with drivers. This mostly applies to drivers who are about to turn into or across your lane in front of you. Let them know you’re there — and if they’re not seeing you, prepare to avoid hitting (or being hit by) them!

  12. BluesCat says:

    People seem to be really interested in MY bike commuting to work, but it starts with the fact they’re really intrigued by the bike I ride: a recumbent.

    There are two show stoppers for bike commuters in Phoenix:

    1. The Distance – A lot of folks I talk to live in one of the outlying communities, and work in the central Phoenix area. This means their commute is around 30 miles, round trip, as the crow flies. So finding a safe route would mean tacking on at least another couple of miles which would mean HOURS on the road.

    1. The Heat – If you don’t have access to shower facilities near your office, riding in the summer mornings, when the temp is above 100 degrees, means you’ll offend everybody with your BO.

    Bicycle commuting expertise? Experience.

  13. Alice says:

    As a casual recreational rider considering a commute, I can tell you excatly what stops me from commuting, all of which I consider skills.

    First, stopping without falling over. I am really bad at that. I know it comes with practice, but I’m not a little kid anymore- I get hurt when I fall over. The last time I stopped and fell over I messed up my knee so bad I couldn’t walk for a week and I couldn’t run for six months.

    Second, clothing. I know it’s possible to commute in the clothes you wear to work, but it is more difficult that it seems like it should be to commute in a skirt (all I wear in terms of bottoms) without showing the world your underwear. Tighter skirts are easier to keep down, but then it’s hard to get on and off the bike.

    Third, worrying about my bike while it’s locked up on a city street all day long. I can’t take it inside.

    These three things combined make taking the bus MUCH more simple, which is why I keep doing it.

  14. Jimmy says:

    I am considering a 13 mile round trip commute through tough neighborhoods with an unavoidable 3 mile stretch of 45 mph roadway. Safety has always been my concern – I’ve driven these streets long enough to see every kind of bad driver – drunks, drug addicts, kids that can’t see over the steering wheel and cop cars doing
    50 the wrong way down a one way without lights or siren and the gang bangers they’re chasing –
    now the texters yikes!
    I’ll be the crazy old white dude on that cool
    bike… I’m going to do it anyway – any tips?

  15. AK Hunter says:

    Oh, I don’t think it’s rocket science (however, since the Wright Brothers began by making bicycles, I suppose you could say it’s the granddaddy of rocket science), but when I started I sure learned a lot from my friends who had been biking a long time. And now, I enjoy the opportunity to help make someone else’s commute safer, faster and more pleasant. Expertise? I dunno. Experience. You betcha.

  16. xiousgeonz says:

    I think that most (not all) of the “reasons” are not really reasons; they are problems that probably have solutions.
    My theory is that commuting *does* actually require experience and expertise, and people don’t realize that, so that if they get started and things go wrong, they attribute it to bicycling, not to the newness.
    Richard’s lost guy is a case in point.
    THere are *so* many details I’ve learned about commuting in general and specifics of my commute (lane position, lane position, lane position, exactly how each light cycle runs as I approach & where the potholes are, and tons of little things that I am not even aware I’m paying attention to — much like happened learning to get around in that cage thing).
    Another complication is that, like driving, everybody brings their own personality and needs to the task and people have assorted opinions about What Is Best (lane position for one ;)). So, I absolutely rely on a mirror — yet some woudl think “oh, too dorky.”
    I wince when somebody says that there’s nothing to riding a bike. Okay, maybe y’all just knew it all when you started… but y’all probably didn’t start driving and think “oh, crap! It’s all happening too fast!” either…

  17. John says:

    Everyone nearly has a bike they could use to commute on, most will tell you its in the garage with a flat tyre!
    Buy yourself puncture resistant tyres, mudguards in Britain or fenders in the US to keep the water off you from the road, a waterproof jacket and leggings in case you get caught in the rain, a rack for your bike and a bag to put on it with all your bits in.
    There you are, a commuter cyclist ready to take on the great outdoors and begin to live a new life.


  18. Kelvyn says:

    I’ve been riding roughly 8 miles round trip to/from work in Philadelphia for about 6 years now. Though I’ve been an avid biker since my teens, I had to learn a few things the hard way, i.e. always have weather-appropriate clothing, learning alternate routes that avoid windy bridges and treacherous merge points, the timing of traffic lights, avoiding doors etc. I’d re-emphasize John’s earlier comment about making eye contact with drivers, its saved my skin more than a few times. There’s been a huge increase in daily bike commuters here since I began riding, and I find my biggest obstacle is often newbie riders as much as the 4-wheelers. We’ve got everything from the 75-year-old dude smoking and riding two miles an hour the wrong way, to the yuppie girls in high heels (Venti Latte in hand) that get stuck in their pedals.
    When potential riders ask me though, I emphasize the positive benefits of fitness, saving $$$, helping the planet etc, and offer to help them identify appropriate routes, gear, etc.

  19. Big John says:

    I am an avid cyclist and I would love to be able to commute to and from work daily ! the problem is that living in Downey ca. and commuting to Gardena ! as I have to go thru compton and gardena where a majority of the drivers do not have a liscense and they drive like it ! but thats the minor problem in these areas ! for the organized crime terrorist gang situation here in these areas is out of control ! as a country we send our military all around the globe to stop this kind of people but let it flourish right here ! go figure ! and as far as going green ! provide safe patrolled commuter paths 24 hours a day and just in my little world there would be about 80 less vehicles polluting the air and crouding our conjested streets and highways day and night ! I mean just imagine the amount of fossil fuel that would not be burnt ! but we must remember those same fossil fuels line our gov. officials pockets with another kind of green !.Hense again bicyclist will not fill their pockets so we don’t even get a glance ! could we even dream in this country of daily LA. marathon numbers of people commuting daily ? bye bye fossil fuel dependency ! and then you betcha some real fuel efficient affordable vehicles would show up to try and get us off our bikes ! and my commute would be 36 miles a day an easy ride for an avid rider , oh and I work second shift so I commute home at 11pm. and no matter where where one lives we all know the cockroaches come out in the dark !

  20. TrentJ says:

    Having crashed for the first time after a year of bike commuting (broken rib – 17 mile commute 1 way – my own stupidity, unrestrained pannier shoulder strap got caught in the tire) and being part of a small community of bike commuters here in Indianapolis, ‘expertise’ is simply experience, which is no different than the experience you get with the 4 wheel commute. The primary difference being the route for me doesn’t vary with 2 wheels as compared to 4. Every day I ride to work, something happens that reminds me its a commute and not a ride. Some bit of frustration that you would blow off when on just a bike ride, but ticks you off on the commute.

    To me, the primary qualification for a bike commuter is simple the courage to bike commute in the first place. For most folks, bike commuting is way out of their comfort zone, so starting is the hardest part. No holy grail of how to bike commute exists, cause I’ve looked.

    After commuting for a year by bike, I can simply say I wouldn’t trade it. Its never the same thing twice, its fun, its exhilarating (riding in downtown traffic), and a great way to stay in shape, or get into shape in my case. Now back to Triple Rush on the Travel Channel…..

  21. Ted Lemon says:

    It would be awfully nice if we could get bike clothes that didn’t make us look like bumblebees. But if you’re going to do a long bike commute in warm weather, it’s probably not a bad idea to consider wearing the fancy clothes even if you don’t like the way you look in them, because you’ll have a hope of arriving at work dry, rather than dripping. Just change into something different when you get to work. You don’t need to wear the clown shoes, although you might want to consider shoes with recessed cleats at some point of bike commuting becomes more of a habit.

    I completely agree that regular riders won’t know what to say to n00bs before sending them off into the wild on their own. Things that are built into our muscle memory are not second nature to someone who hasn’t ridden a bike in years. This is why you should ride with your friend and mentor them. They can ask you questions right then, as they run into trouble, and you can observe what they are doing and give them advice relevant to the present moment, rather than lecturing them at length about what they *might* encounter and, probably, getting it wrong.

    I was surprised that I had to explain to my wife how to pedal standing up, and I was surprised by some of the risk-avoidance behaviors that she engaged in that actually increased her risk. There is no way I would have known to advise her against these behaviors, because it would never have occurred to me that anyone would do any such thing. TBH, I can’t even remember what she did anymore, just that I had to advise her not to.

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