By Leah Barry
In 2014 my car broke down. I lived in Uptown and worked in Oak Park. That first day after it died, I rode my 50lb Schwinn beach cruiser (The Yellow Beast) the 14 miles to work and back, and immediately collapsed on my bed from exhaustion at the end of the day. My first commute by bike! I continued to take public transit for a time, and was altogether intimidated by the whole biking scene. In early 2015 I met a bike-angel, my partner, a man with the patience of a saint and an extraordinary wealth of bicycle knowledge who helped guide me in getting myself onto a “real bike” for commuting. I purchased a nice steel single speed, swapped out all the crappy bits over time, and the bug had bit me. I’ve now commuted over 2,800 miles since March of 2015, and have learned a whole lot during that time. I’ve compiled a few tips and tricks to help you get in the commuter groove too!
"The Yellow Beast"
Dressing right for Winter/Fall:
During the fall and winter, the three most important things are warm, dry, and breathable. Depending on how far you are going, if you have over-bundled yourself you will find you become sweaty and uncomfortable, and have to take breaks to strip off layers. I find that having a detachable rear fender really helps keep the salt and road grit off of my pants, and I recommend finding a pair of snowboarding pants to wear over thermals for wet, snowy days to keep you warm and dry. For shoes and pedals, I like to ride platforms in the winter, and I found that IceBug shoes have great grips on the bottom that really grab the pedal; additionally, the shoes are water resistant and fairly warm when layered with wool socks. For temps from 15-35 I wear a fleece headband, heavy mittens or gloves, a lightweight thermal jacket underneath a heavier fleece with front zip pockets, and having the front pocket makes a good quick place to stash a hat or headband when you get too sweaty.
If it is dark out, I am using lights, so this generally means from about Halloween to mid-March I need to be riding home from work with my lights on. I have the Niterider Lumina 550 for a headlight, it is powerful enough to illuminate a good distance in front of my bike so I can avoid potholes and glass, I am loudly visible with this very bright headlight. For my rear, I have a simple red blinker from Nashbar. Both of these lights are extremely easy to remove and take with you – don’t leave anything easily detached when you lock your bike up for your workday!
Dressing right for Spring/Summer:
As temperatures warm up, I transition to more bike-oriented clothing. My commute is about 9 miles each way, and I have found if I don’t dress for my ride I am overly sweaty, or end up with a saddle sore from a badly placed seam. As spring rolls in, I wear my light thermal from about 40-55 degrees, unzipping the jacket and jersey underneath if I get a bit warm and need some airflow. I have a lightweight headband to keep my ears warm when it is still a bit chilly, and end up taking it off when I start sweating around 3.5 miles. When temperatures climb above 60, I tend to lose the jacket altogether; it makes for a chillier beginning of the ride, but I hardly break a sweat until about 20 miles with a good breeze. If I wear my light thermal jacket at 60 degrees for short rides, I find myself starting to sweat around mile four.
For summer, I almost exclusively wear “bike gear” when temperatures reach 75+ during the day, it is important to wear clothes that wick moisture. I purchased a Bondi Band from Lively Running in Oak Park, it is a thin sweatband that does an amazing job keeping sweat out of my eyes and keeping my forehead cool. Try to keep a small travel pack of tissues in your bag to wipe the sweat off your face when you reach your destination, it helps keep it from dripping and burning your eyes. I have found that immediately getting out of my sweaty, clammy bike clothes and taking a shower as soon as I get home has greatly cut back on saddle sores.
If your seat angle isn’t quite right, one of your legs is longer than the other, it’s humid, the sky is blue, so many reasons, you’re going to get a saddle sore someday, it’s inevitable. I have a couple of hot tips to make them disappear as fast as possible: When you notice the sore: DO NOT SQUEEZE IT! Take a hot bath if you can, swab with Witch Hazel, let it dry; follow with Burt’s Bees Blemish Stick (I like it because it is easy to roll on, and very effective because it contains tea tree oil); let it dry again; then, put on a blob of Cortisone 10 and chill for a while before you put pants on. Repeat this twice a day for two days, the sore should reduce in size. On the third and consecutive days until it is gone, apply a 10% Benzoyl Peroxide acne cream before bed (be careful, this product causes bleaching of fabric) and it should disappear quickly.
When my commute was only 6.5 miles (25 minutes or so), I did not feel that I needed to fuel my efforts. Having a coffee before leaving the office often proved sufficient. As I have moved, my commute is now 9 miles (40 minutes or so) and I absolutely need to fuel myself before riding. If I can, I have a protein shake before my morning ride, it helps stave off the drained, hungry feeling.
Coming home was always an issue for me; I was hungry and cranky on my ride. I found Lively Running in Oak Park a couple of months ago and have been buying gels and other fuel foods there, it has really helped me have more enjoyable rides home. I will usually have one Gu or Huma gel, a bag of Jelly Belly Sport Beans or Honey Stinger Chews and I feel much more refreshed when I get home. Bonus: The ladies there are super nice and helpful, and if you buy 10 gels you get 1 free.
I have two go-to bags for commuting: a big backpack for when it is raining or I need to carry things to/from the office, and a handlebar bag I just recently got for light days and training rides. I bought both of my bags off of SierraTradingPost.com, at significant discounts from the bike-specific sites. I love this site because they have off-season products at deep discounts.
My backpack is the Timbuk2 Especial Tres – I can’t say enough great stuff about this bag. It retails for $209, but I paid $109 from Sierra Trading Post. It is fully waterproof; I haven’t met a storm that this bag could not handle. I can carry a ton in this bag and never worry about it getting wet, it’s great all around. This isn’t the world’s lightest bag, but it is heavy duty and well designed.
My handlebar bag is the Detours Rainier Handlebar Duffle. Retails for $50, I paid $11 on Sierra Trading Post. This bag holds everything I need for a ride: tube, pump, tire lever, multi tool, tissues, cable and a tightly rolled change of clothes, and looks cute to boot. It is a breeze to affix to my bike and also doubles as a cute purse. If I ride with this bag, I end up affixing my U-Lock to my frame.
Leah Barry first began cycling in Chicago in 2014, pedaling the LFP on a 50lb beach cruiser. In early 2015 she upgraded to a "real bike" and began commuting regularly between Chicago and Oak Park, and has since endeavored into bike camping, triathlon, century, and cyclocross events. A former rugby player, mud and competition runs in Leah's veins, and in 2016 she is racing in W4 Cyclocross events on The Chainlink's Racing and Riding Team.