You know you need more exercise to boost your energy, but you’re too tired to make dinner, much less go to the gym. It’s a vicious cycle, and one way to break it is, well, cycling. But with work and a busy schedule, who has time to go for a leisurely bike ride?
Though it’s certainly not for everyone, cycling to work might be a good way to get regular exercise without consuming precious weekend time. The key, experienced riders say, is to start small and stay safe.
Steve Wardle, a member of Chatham’s bikeways committee, pedaled around 800 miles last year, and hopes to best that number this year. While he doesn’t often bike to work – the timing doesn’t work well for him – he knows plenty of people who do.
“I do meet a lot of people that I know are commuting,” he said. They’re all experiencing some distinct advantages: they’re enjoying the outdoors, fighting rising gasoline prices and air pollution, and meeting other cycling enthusiasts. And, of course, there are health benefits.
“It’s a nice, low-impact exercise,” Wardle said. “You can do it your whole life, and you may do it at whatever rate you want.” Some cyclists pedal hard and need to freshen up at work with a bird-bath in the restroom and a change of clothes, and others cruise along at a steady pace “and show up without being a sweaty mess,” he said.
“I had been plagued by knee problems in my youth, and cycling just tunes them up,” he said. Regular cycling benefits the heart, lungs and blood vessels, and a study published in the British medical journal BMJ suggests that people who commute regularly by bicycle cut in half their risk of developing cancer and heart disease. Experts say cycling builds muscle, burns fat, and can help improve sleep patterns.
Cycling offers mental benefits, too. “It’s not unlike fishing,” Wardle said. “You’re just sort of focused on doing one thing,” and cycling can create a zen-like feeling of wellness, he said. There’s also the ability to see the scenery and take in smells you don’t encounter in a vehicle. “You know who’s barbecuing and who’s making pies,” he quipped. “All in all, it’s a wonderful experience.”
Of course, the health benefits of cycling are erased if the cyclist gets in a serious traffic accident.
“Safety first,” Wardle said. Unless you and your workplace are located very close to a bike trail, commuting by bike is best left to the shoulder seasons on Cape Cod, he said. “The edge of our roads vary in width. They neck down in a number of areas,” he said. For many bike commuters, it makes sense to pedal a longer distance if doing so means taking advantage of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, the Old Colony Rail Tail, or a roadway with a designated bike lane. Even if doing so adds distance to the commute, “it won’t add time,” Wardle said.
“If you can’t work with this nice conduit down the center of the bike trail itself, it’s going to get dicey somewhere. Also, the sidewalk is really not made for cyclists,” he said. Hazards aren’t limited to vehicle traffic; potholes that wouldn’t bother a car can flip a bicycle, and the risk of a parallel-parked car opening a door into an oncoming bike is something cyclists often think about.
Cyclists need to wear helmets and should wear bright-colored clothing. Bikes need to be properly maintained – many bike shops will provide free safety inspections – and need to have proper reflectors and lights. It’s also a good idea to know how to change a flat tire. Carry a cell phone, but don’t use it while riding – not even for listening to music, since you’ll need to be alert to sounds around you.
The most conspicuous group of bicycle commuters in the summertime includes seasonal foreign workers, some of whom can be seen riding in their work uniforms for local hotels or restaurants. Their employers, employment agencies and local police departments strive to educate foreign workers about the need to use safety equipment and to be alert.
“There are efforts to get them to practice safe driving,” Wardle said. “In Europe, motorists really expect cyclists, so they drive accordingly.” In the U.S., drivers are less tolerant of bikes on the pavement, he said.
If you’re game to try cycling to work, experts say it’s wise to start with a reasonable distance, even if that means carpooling to work and riding home. Try cycling to work just one or two days a week, and then increase the frequency over time. The first time you make the trip, consider making a dry run on the weekend. Regular cyclists say it’s not important to start by buying special clothing and gear, but a pair of cycling shorts might make your commute more comfortable if you’ll be biking for a half-hour or longer at a stretch. Be ready to roll up your right pant leg to keep it out of the chain (don’t worry, cycling commuters think this looks cool), and if needed, bring a change of clothes. It might make sense to bring the clothes to work the day before you cycle in.
Opportunities to safely cycle to work are increasing on the Lower Cape, thanks to efforts to extend bike trails and to install bike lanes on roadways that connect to bike paths and popular destinations. In the next five or 10 years, it will be easier and safer for more people to try cycling to work, Wardle said.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com