For your body, for your brain – go by bike

Links & content from my lightning talk at Windy City Rails 2013:

Surly Straggler bike, racks
Planet Bike lights and fenders
Arkel Commuter bag
Party Frank lock
Banjo Brothers seatbag
Park Tool tire levers and patches
Lezyne pump
Crank Brothers Multitool

As a community, software developers have some bad habits that could use changing. We have jobs and lifestyles that are often sedentary, we spend a lot of time indoors, and we don’t usually get enough exercise.

Bike commuting is a way to address all this.

Time spent commuting in the USA in large cities is stunning – sometimes an hour each way, sometimes longer.

I love to ride bikes, so I go by bike. I’ve been doing it year-round since 2007.


Well it’s not even a commute for me anymore. It’s just how I get around. It’s the opportunity to ride my bike twice a day, every day. Sometimes it’s cold, hot, wet, snowy, icy, but if you can do it in a car you can figure it out on a bike.

I think we all know the benefits, but here they are anyway:

  • taller
  • sexier
  • wealthier
  • famous-er
  • OK just kidding
  • better physical health
  • more alert to start the day at work
  • clear head before arriving at home
  • better for the environment
  • role model for the next generation
  • no traffic (YMMV … significantly)

Enough about the why – I want to talk a little bit about the what, and the how.

Most people are intimidated by the thought of bike commuting. I get it. Drivers can be jerks; cars are big and they move fast; 10 miles sounds like a lot.

Even bike shops don’t make it easy; they have a reputation as unfriendly, and some are.

But bike commuting is rewarding and actually pretty easy and I want to talk to you about how to get started.

Here’s what you need to buy:

1 – a bike

2 – pedals
(really – they are not included)


A bit more seriously ….

You want a hybrid or “‘cross” (short for “cyclocross”) style bike for commuting. Larger tires, better brakes, and beefier bits that will hold up under the demands of commuting. You do not need a suspension system and you do not need carbon fiber or titanium anything.

I’d recommend a Surly Straggler. Wide range of sizes, big tires, disc brakes, and it comes in sparkly purple or basic black.

You want a set of pedals. If you’re sort of new to cycling, get flat pedals and upgrade later. If you’re already a cyclist, consider Shimano’s “SPD” pedals and shoes – they’re very awesome and very affordable. The PD-A530 pedals and M088 shoes are great choices.

As an aside, SPDs are what are called “clipless” pedals. You might be surprised to learn that you “clip in” to clipless pedals. Naming things is hard outside of software, too.

You want a helmet. All helmets sold in the USA meet the same safety standards, so more money does not buy a safer helment. Buy one that fits you well and you like the look of. Bonus points for picking a color that complements your bike.

You want a lock. Most bike thefts are thefts of convenience – don’t make it convenient. Buy a Knog Party Frank lock in a fun color to match your iPhone 5c.

You want to carry your clothes and lunch. Buy either a backpack or a rack & “pannier” (pronounced pan-year). SwissGear makes great backpacks with laptop sleeves; Surly makes a rack to go with their bikes, and Arkel makes the completely awesome “Commuter” bag.

You want lights. Planet Bike makes affordable lights that are great for being seen – check out the Blaze headlights and Superflash blinkies.

A note on lights – batteries are cheap. Use your lights even when you feel a little silly using your lights. Getting run over will make you feel really silly.

You want fenders. Planet Bike makes very durable, decent-looking plastic black or silver fenders that are easy to install. Go with those.

You want spares. You need a saddle bag with a spare tube, tire levers, a patch kit, a pump, and a “multi tool” (think Swiss Army Knife for bikes). Buy a Banjo Brothers medium seatbag, a tube made for your size of tire with the right kind of valve (Presta is fancy-schmancy; Schrader is like what’s on a car), a Park Tool lever set and patch kit, a Lezyne Pressure Drive pump, and a Crank Brothers M17 tool. Or just carry a phone and call your life partner when something breaks. That should work at least twice.

You want clothes. They’re required by law in most places. This might be the hardest part of the whole deal; a lot of non-cyclists hate the idea of tight Spandex and/or looking like a neon circus clown. Generally any shirt will work – technical fabric is desirable. With shorts or pants, take care, as padding and chafing are considerations. Shorts made for mountain biking these days have a different look from a Tour de France racer, but they still take care of your soft bits.

For cold weather, any coat or jacket will do, though you will find that an insulated one is overkill in most cases. For your legs, there are leg warmers as well as tights, or any pants with velcro straps at your ankles will work. A fleece beanie goes under your helmet and snowboarding mittens keep your fingers warm.

So, that’s eveything you need … but you haven’t left the driveway yet.

Getting started is the hardest part. You have to just do it.

Look around your office and figure out where you can park your bike, and where you can change. Most buildings have somewhere you can lock up inside if you ask. Most bathrooms are up to the task, with some care (have I dipped my shirt sleeve in a toilet? Yes. Yes I have.)

Scout your route ahead of time. A weekend morning is a great time for a practice run, but always be imagining what it will be like with traffic.

Ride on bike paths or lanes where you can. Ride on side streets where you can. When you have to ride on a busy road, take the lane. You are a vehicle, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. You are more visible, and cars are less likely to squeeze past you, if you have taken the lane.

Be courteous and respectful. Follow traffic laws, and expect that the cars will do the same. DO NOT use your cellphone while riding.

Commit to one day a week at first, and build from there.

Finally, have fun. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the basic commute, explore a bit. Check out restaurants, bars, and coffee shops on the way. Start to check out cycling events – there are as many ways to enjoy cycling as there are to enjoy coding – not all are hardcore packs of Spandex and sweat turning circles at 35 MPH.

Any questions, ping me: @Capncavedan

See you on the road.

About Dan

I am many things. On this blog I am mostly a cyclist and software developer. Offline I am mostly a dad and a husband. Online or off, gin drinks and craft whiskeys appeal to me. Find me on Twitter @Capncavedan
This entry was posted in Bicycling. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to For your body, for your brain – go by bike

  1. Jon Thompson says:

    Great article, Dan!

    The only thing I disagree with is this:

    “Ride on bike paths or lanes where you can.”

    The rest of the paragraph is awesome, but that sentence makes it seem that bike lanes are the first choice. They are when safe, but that is not always the case.

    Case in point:
    I ignore the bike lane on Grand (yes, the one they just painted), because there are several points that they force traffic to turn over the bike lane to get to a busy driveway. I was almost clipped the first and only time I used it, and I’m now back where I belong- on the street, with traffic.

    Also, for others reading this:

    “Take the lane” means exactly that. Ride on the middle-left of the lane. You’re within a drivers conscious view at that point, which greatly reduces the likelihood of intersection-based accidents, which make up the vast majority of bike-car accidents. It also eliminates inappropriate passing, as it forces cars into the other lane, and gives you room to escape if a car does pass to close.

  2. Thanks for this. It answered a bunch of questions, but I do have one that is a bit blunt.

    You mention changing in the bathroom, which is no problem. However, don’t you get a bit “ripe”, especially on those warm muggy August mornings?

    I know my workplace has no shower facilities and I would definitely be “ripe” if I tried this.

  3. Dan says:

    Craig, I don’t usually have a problem with that. It’s not very often that it’s that super-hot in the morning, and a key thing is to treat it as a commute instead of as a workout, if that makes sense. Go easy!

    Now, on the way home, I am often drenched when I get there – but I also often do treat the ride home as a workout.

    In the summer especially, a bag or pannier on the bike instead of on your back can help keep you cool.

    Finally, a small microfiber towel and a deodorant stick may be all you need to freshen up slightly when you get there.

    Are you thinking of trying it?

  4. Craig Treptow says:

    Good point about the mentality of it and slowing down. I am excited about the thought, because I know I need to get moving again (not to mention one more car off the road) and this would be a great way.

    However, that’s about the time the logistics kick in. :)

    I currently go from SE DSM to WDSM. It’s normally a 25min commute going on I235. Google says that is about 12.1 miles one way. Surprisingly, when I flip it over bicycle, it is only 14.4 miles. However, they estimate 1hr 17min, almost all of it on trails.

    Doesn’t sound too bad, but I would have to get up around 5:00am and wouldn’t be home until around 5:00pm.

    I’m not sure I’m ready to seriously consider this. Now, if I could move one or both of the endpoints in the 5 mile range, it looks a lot more doable for me. So, I guess that’s the plan. :)

  5. Dan says:

    Craig, give it a try on a weekend and see how you fare. That will give you an idea of time for you as well as how hard it will feel. Start by trying just one day a week, then build to two.

    Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>