Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bicycle Commuting Tips: The Myth of Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Let's talk about riding to work

In order to understand a challenge or problem, I like to break it down into its parts, and look at the sub-problems within each part, so that rather than one big mess of scary impossibility, the challenge can be seen as a set of smaller problems, some of which are already solved, and all the rest of which can be solved, one at a time if need be.

So, as far as bicycle commuting goes, there are really two main sub-parts in the bicycle commuting instruction manual:

Bicycle Commuting Instructions
1) Get on your bicycle
2) Ride your bicycle to work

That's really all there is to bicycle commuting. If you are interested in commuting by bicycle, but feel uncertain or overwhelmed by the idea of it, take a look at the two simple sub-parts of the idea, above, and take them one at at time. Don't focus on irrelevant or extraneous questions, keep focusing on these core issues. 

For example, it may be hard to get on your bicycle if you don't own one. That's not really a bicycle commuting problem, that's a bicycle ownership or access problem. You can tackle that.

Or let's say you have (1) nailed, but get hung up on (2). Again, that's not really a bicycle commuting problem so much as a route-finding problem, or an endurance problem, or a traffic problem, or whatever. Again, you can tackle that. Look at your options. Most important of all, don't get hung up on one dead-end answer that leads you to conclude that (1) or (2) is impossible. They are not. It is much more likely that you have just not thought of, or tried, all the options you could. Keep trying. See what works. In large part, the hundreds of posts on this blog are either directly about that, "keep trying, and see what works," or else are the happy results of this part scientific, part fun-engineering (I like to call it "fungineering"), ongoing process.

You can spend a lot of time and effort working on the sub-sub-problems between (1) and (2), but really, I can tell you from personal experience, the actual problems are not larger than those, and most are smaller and easier to solve. 

However, I have noticed when talking to pretty much everyone I know that I never get that far. I never get a chance to talk about how easy and straightforward the Bicycle Commuting Instructions are to follow and implement because people are so hung up on mythical objections to bicycle commuting: that riding your bicycle to work requires a Stoic effort of will (think about the movie 300) which results only in blood, sweat, and tears. 

Another way to restate the myth: it's dangerous, you'll stink, and it's impossibly difficult.

Blood No activity that we do is perfectly safe, it's true. I have found that by learning, practicing, and using safe riding skills, though, my confidence about riding in and around traffic has risen, and I have put the risks into perspective. Let's talk about perceived risk compared to actual risks. The actual risks that I'm talking about are heart disease, heart attack, obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, and type II diabetes, just to get started. A sedentary and typical affluent 21st Century lifestyle contributes to these. In addition, I have a family history of people dying from those and related conditions. Those are the statistics to go and study and ponder, these are the real dangers to health and happiness to figure out how to conquer. Focusing on the dangers of riding a bicycle distract attention from these real threats to life that you can see all around you every day. The benefits of riding your bicycle to work are directly targeted at lowering the risks of these real dangers. And regarding the perceived (and distracting) dangers of commuting by bicycle, they pale in comparison. The real threat here is a slow death from stress, overeating, and inactivity, not from riding your bike to work. The real threat is compounded by the impacts automobiles have had and continue to have on our cities, our environment, our psyches, and our world. These costs are substantial, and dwarf (again) the risks faced while riding your bike to work. There's practically no comparison.

Sweat First, a brief editorial comment: sweat is not a toxic fluid that kills all who come near it. It is often the result of hard work, and I suppose for a long time was recognized as such, but in recent times we've taken to covering up its presence and even taking steps to prevent working up a sweat. Our present squeamishness about it seems bizarre to me, but I harbor no illusions that I would be able to alter that a bit. So let's talk about managing it. The ride into work does not need to be a workout, or a race. Take it easy, ride at a moderate pace, learn to achieve thermal balance and control through monitoring your effort and adjusting your layers of clothing, and you can manage your sweat to a large extent on the way in to work. On arrival, clean up as much as you need to in as convenient and efficient a way as you can manage. I always shower before I ride in, and that seems to help, perhaps by decreasing odor-causing bacteria, but I don't know about the science behind that thought. Save the workout or racing for the ride home at night, and go crazy then if you want to.

Tears Once you fulfill the basic Bicycle Commuting Instruction steps (1) and (2) above, this one starts to seem absurd, that you could have ever thought that it would be hard to commute to work by bicycle. I think it is true that anything worth doing may entail the possibility of difficulty and disappointment. It may take you longer to commute by bicycle, and it probably is more physically demanding than driving a car or riding a train, that's true. Once you get into the swing of it, though, and once you get your legs and lungs into decent shape for riding, it's a pleasure. It truly is. I find that after two years of commuting full time by bicycle, my overwhelming emotional response to it is happiness and laughter. It has become a mental and physical fitness ritual for me that I would be very reluctant to give up. Rather than tears, I find that more than anything else, laughter is the emotion that goes with bicycle commuting for me, and I can't say that any of the other methods I've tried (car, bus, subway) even come close.

There are other benefits to commuting by bicycle that I haven't gone into here: economic, social, traffic (my bike means one less car on the road at rush hour), and more. The main purpose of this post was to list the core bicycle commuting instructions, and to start to try to dispel the myths that people always, always raise, to tear down the mythical barriers they habitually and reflexively throw up, when I tell them I commute by bicycle. Blood, sweat, and tears are not valid reasons to avoid commuting by bicycle. If that's all that's stopping you, please see the instructions above to get a view of the actual steps to commute by bicycle.

The path of no blood, sweat, or tears at all


  1. I had a lengthy conversation last night with my B-I-L, who wants to buy my S-I-L a bike for Christmas. He kept repeating that Dallas, where they live, just isn't set up for bikes, that drivers aren't watching for bikes and that it's dangerous for her to ride to work, therefore she'll only ride to the grocery store.
    It saddened and frustrated me, because in one respect he's probably right, and should she be the guinea pig testing the neighborhood drivers' attention to the road?

    But on the other hand, it's so upsetting that it's just a given that everyone accepts that people are texting and not paying attention and therefore likely to hit a bicyclist in the road. I'm not sure how to square my beliefs about how easy bike commuting is (per your post) and how fearful he is, and how justified his fears may be.

  2. Very recently another bike blog looked at this and found statistically, cycling fatalities seem to parallel motorist fatalities, meaning a cyclist has an equal chance of dying in a crash as does a other words the dangers are about the same. See:

  3. Hey Cycler,

    I live in Dallas suburb and would be happy to give you my email to pass along to your SIL for any question she may have. There are many neighborhood bike awareness and advocacy groups that have sprung up in Dallas in the past couple years. I know there are people here who would be happy to help her identify some routes. Dallas is certainly not Boston or NY, it's true, but we are here on the ground trying and additionally some of the suburbs have made great strides in infrastructure and there are some great paved trails in Dallas as well. There are multi-modal options too, depending on one's home & work location.

  4. Well said. Although, I would hate to think of having to manage my sweat as opposed to showering when I get to work. I realize I'm lucky in that regard, because it would be mighty hard for me not to sweat on my 8.75 or 10 mile commute.

    Everybody's situation is different thought, I know lots of folks manage without a shower. They're probably just smarter than I am!

  5. Arg, that's "a Dallas suburb" and "questions"...I'm having problems today.

  6. I've experienced all three of those on my bike commute. Most recently tears which occur when you ride too fast on too cold a day without something to break the wind. Like safety goggles. I will now do my own post with a different message entirely with the exact same title. JRA - always an inspiration - to me at least. The master has done it once again!

  7. i ride to and from where i work every day - it's an eighteen km round trip so not every far really. i have panniers on ym commuter bike so my laptop, camera, clothes, lunch, student work, and whatever else get there dry and in one piece. since september i've put over 1200 kms on that bike. i love it!!! i'm lucky because we have showers at school. because i don't want to travel at a moderate pace. i want to pass cars!!! steven

  8. cycler, riding to the grocery store is probably a great start toward becoming more skilled and comfortable with riding. The next step could be commuting to work one day a week, say, Friday, to try it out. I acknowledge the perception of danger to cyclists, and also that the perception plays a large part in deterring people from cycling. Only .7 percent of commuters in PHX go by bicycle, so the situation here is probably not radically different from Dallas. In contrast to the perception, though, I find that car drivers are remarkably cooperative and can be relied on overall to not want to run into anything. There are exceptions and my approach is to be alert and ride defensively similarly to when I drive a car. My perception+conclusion is kind of in line with another commenter here: riding a bicycle doesn't feel more dangerous to me than driving my car, and I seem to enjoy riding my bicycle more, and also get health and other benefits from doing it.

  9. westculvermonicaside, thank you for mentioning the study, which is in line with my perceptions, as I mentioned in my reply to cycler.

    Dog Friendly Dallas, thanks for that information, local knowledge and support is incredibly helpful in this dialog.

    Steve A, I look forward to your rendition!

    steven, that's awesome. Also I wanted to mention that a moderate pace is generally only practical when you have a moderate distance to cover, or else the commute can end up taking too long. That's also where mixed mode can help, where available.

  10. Well written, and probably a good reminder to us long term cycling types that people do have fears and just calling them "Excuses" is rather counterproductive.

  11. I could not resist the temptation to add two words to your title. You may be surprised at a supporter of your sweat theory.

  12. Here's an article about the ongoing battle to implement on-street bike infrastructure within the city of Dallas (with a cameo appearance by bike engineering folks from the cities of Phoenix & Scottsdale):

    However, I can say Dallas does have a great network of trails.

  13. Thanks for that news story, Dog Friendly Dallas. City of Phoenix has a Bicycle Coordinator, Joseph Perez, who does a great job of acting as a voice for cyclists at the table. Also, the area has a history of sincere efforts at improving things for cyclists, Central Crosstown Bike Route, and the 1974 Tempe Bikeway Plan . Whatever happens, it's encouraging to hear people talking about bicycle commuting in Dallas.


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