September 8, 2017

Riding to work: bike commuting isn’t pretty, but it sure is effective!

Katie Macarelli shares her experiences of riding to work, whatever the weather, in Colorado

U Got That Look

When you picture someone who says they like to use their bike as transportation, you might have a vision of someone pedaling a Dutch Bike with loaves of bread, flowers and happy children spilling out of the cargo-portion. Or perhaps you picture a trendy hipster-esque person on their fixie, wearing the perfect scarf and jeggings. I am far from both of those things (though I DO have a penchant for scarves and have a “go-to” pair of jeggings I found at Goodwill 2 years ago).

I recently turned 40 years old. I don’t ride my bike gracefully to and fro in the streets of my city; sitting up, head held high, taking in the sunshine and blue birds. Nope. I’m a little bit of a mess.

In the mornings, I’m usually juuuuuuuuuuust on the verge of “running late” after drinking too much coffee (while listening to NPR in my kitchen) cursing at political sound-bites after my two teenage daughters get on the bus. The relaxed, happy commuter look is additionally thwarted by the fact that I am in survival mode—dodging spacey drivers for the 5-6 mile daily commute to and from work. *Today, for example, I literally put my hand on the side of an RTD bus through a round-about because the driver just HAD to pass me in the right lane, though technically I was going the speed limit and the other lane was empty.

After work, it’s a different crowd. People are less sleepy but often more angry. I’m still running late—but now I’m late to get home to my family. It’s a constant battle that working parents have within themselves every day: the work/life balance…or lack thereof. That scale is always out of whack in my head. And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the whispers of inadequacy, self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and blah-blah-BLAH.

And so I ride my bike because it helps. It helps everything. I also listen to music (one headphone in my right ear). That helps too. I have rediscovered my love of music and now seek it out with the same force I had as a teenager listening to U2 cassette singles. There is just something about finding the perfect song to crush the pedals as you cruise past cars in the bike lane. My recent retro-favorite is “U Got That Look” by Prince and Sheena Easton. That’s right. I said Sheena. Easton.

I have been cruising a good 25-30 mph down the steep hill right outside my house to work to this song now for at least a week. It’s my spirit song when I don my high-vis GORE vest and Handlebar Mustache socks. And you better believe I sing it. If you were to GoPro me, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight or sound but it works for me. Because I’m 40 and “I Got That Look.”

This October will mark three years of commuting to work (year round along the Colorado Front Range). I can honestly say that I am the fittest, fastest and happiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Some people hire coaches and adhere to training plans to achieve personal athletic goals. That’s all fine and good, but you don’t have to turn 40 to figure out what works for you or what doesn’t. I am what you call “uncoachable”. Surprisingly, commuting keeps me just fit enough to sort of compete among my fellow age-groupers when I race Cx–particularly with my technical skills. I let the traffic, my mood, the weather, my cycling discipline preference of the day dictate my “training plan”.

My commuting quiver consists of a cx bike, a mtb bike, a road bike and (as of my 40th birthday) a fat bike. I use them all. I could say that as a one-car family, it’s a necessity, but that’s a flimsy excuse. The rare days I do drive to work, you can almost see the dark cloud of unsettled anger, angst and pent up energy over my head. The truth is, I love my commute.

I live for that 20-30 minute sprint 2 x a day to and from my marketing manager job at Feedback Sports. No matter how my day goes, what life throws at me, I have that ride as a daily bookend. I know every part of my city. How it lives, breathes, sighs, struggles, laughs and celebrates. I see my city age with the seasons the same way I see myself in the mirror. And it’s beautiful. In my opinion, life is muted when you’re sitting in a car. I am lucky to witness nature and humanity face to face on a daily basis and often think after, “How sad I would have been to have missed that.”

Now let’s get on to the practical lessons I’ve learned over these three years

  1. Practice when the stakes are low. The first time you ride to work you may feel exposed, scared, cold, hot, uncomfortable, silly, tired, angry etc. Give yourself time to find a good route when your paycheck doesn’t depend on it.
  2. Be seen/be safe. Light yourself up like Vegas (only a smoke-free Vegas because you are a cyclist and you need healthy lungs). I like to mix high-vis with all black. There’s power to a flash of a neon foot or shoulder in a sea of blah.
  3. Assume drivers don’t see you…because they don’t. They are on their phones, distracted, angry, idiotic, etc. Ride your bike defensively, but don’t let it scare you out of trying. I am convinced I own the road and I mean business. If more of us rode our bikes for transportation it wouldn’t BE so scary. It. Would. Be. Normal.
  4. Pack extra clothes to leave at work. You’ll arrive to work, unscathed, alive and SO PROUD OF YOURSELF until you realize you forgot your bra, underwear, pants, or shoes. It will happen. *True story. I once lamented to a great friend that I forgot underwear and SHE DROVE FROM COLORADO SPRINGS AND BROUGHT ME A PAIR TO WORK. IN GOLDEN.
  5. Go easy on yourself. You’re already doing something to save the world, your body, your mental state and MONEY. It’s enough that you’re simply trying. You’ll get better at it. And don’t worry about the hand signals. Just point. It’s enough.

Give it a shot. Ditch the car—maybe for just one trip per week to start. You won’t be sorry. Even PRINCE would be proud. Rumor has it he LOVED riding his bike. You can follow me on Strava, Instagram and Twitter to see my latest adventures, run-in with RTD’s and get a commuter cheer/pep-talk any time you need it.

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