Riding to work

I love my daily commute to work. It’s 2 x half hour exercise sessions that don’t take any time out of my day. All of the stress of the work day has evaporated by the time I get home. It’s faster than driving or catching public transport…and I’ve reduced the number of times I’m almost killed to less than 3 per week!
I’ve ridden to work for about the last 12 years, and there are more people doing it than ever before, so I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned over this time and provide some basic etiquette tips for the potential commuters and the new commuters alike.

Don’t just jump in the deep end
People will happily tell you that riding on the road is dangerous and that you could be killed. There is a very good reason for this…it is dangerous and you could be killed. But there is plenty you can do to lessen the danger. One of these things is to get to know your ride before you start commuting.
I really noticed this over the last 6 months of living as a gypsy in a few different place and having to adjust my ride to work. The first couple of times you do a ride, your senses are overloaded; there are new things to look at, new smells, new sounds and a litany of other things that your brain is trying to process…adding peak hour traffic to this is not a great idea. This year I worked through the Christmas –  New Year period, and I realised that this would be the perfect time to start riding to work. There was hardly any traffic and so you could really get comfortable with the ride itself; learn where the big bumps are, learn where the hills are, learn roughly how long it will take, all without having the stress of cars going past at 60km/h.

Learn the flow
Once you’re comfortable with your route, then learn how the traffic works on it. Where does it all slow down? (you’re more likely to get people pulling into the bike lane to get around other cars)? Where are the slip lanes? (cars rarely look for bikes if they are merging onto a sliplane…and they tend to start drifting across the bike lane as they approach it) Where are the schools? (there will be a lot of parked cars with doors opening) Where are the tram tracks? (for those not living in Melbourne, a tram track is a long piece of metal with a hole the same size as a bike wheel running along it. They are strategically place so that if you have to swerve around a car door opening or a pedestrian stepping out from between parked cars your wheel will hit it and you will be sent crashing to the ground. The only thing more dangerous than a tram track is a wet tram track…and possibly BMW X5 drivers). What are the traffic light sequences? (if you’re in the far left lane, and there is a left hand arrow, it’s better to position yourself right near the gutter, rather than in the middle of the lane…that way people behind you can still turn left).
The more you ride, the more attuned you become to the way the traffic works…but only use this a safety mechanism to protect you…not as an opportunity to make up time. Just because that light normally turns green 3 seconds after the turning arrow turns green, doesn’t mean hitting that intersection at full speed assuming that the light will change is a good idea. Sometimes lights use different sequences…and suddenly you’re hurtling towards moving cars.

Be aware of what’s behind you
Just as a good driver checks their rear-view mirror regularly, you need to make sure you take the occasional look behind to see who or what is behind you. Obviously you will also be using your ears to hear cars coming up behind you, or to hear another cyclist letting you know that they are coming past you, or any number of important cues…so I highly recommend against wearing headphones.

Basic etiquette
As with many things, there are a number of unwritten rules that you only tend to discover when you transgress them…and then get yelled at/publicly shamed. Here are a couple:

  • Don’t roll to the front of the queue at lights This is acceptable if you are a very quick cyclist and will leave everyone else for dead when you take off. But if even one of the cyclists who you have just rolled past is faster than you…then you may as well just have served them a decaf coffee for how poorly they are going to think of you.
  • The ‘Commuter Cup’ is just a joke. It’s not a race. Some people are going to be slower than you…but you do not need to make a big show of how much faster you are than them. And you certainly don’t have to swerve wildly into traffic to get around them.
    By the same token, if you are a slower rider, have a regular look behind to see if you’re holding anyone up. If you are, give them enough space to pass…no-one likes that prat with the caravan that is holding up all the traffic on the way to the beach.
  • Use your hands You may know you’re about to stop, or turn, or that there is something on the road ahead…but the person behind you probably doesn’t. So where possible, use hand signals to let them know. For example
    – put your arm out in the direction you’re turning
    – put an open behind your back to let people know you’re slowing or stopping
    – move a pointed finger around your back to let people know there something ahead to swerve around
    – point your finger at hazards…or wiggle your fingers if there is glass on the road ahead
    People should be sufficiently aware of their environment, and shouldn’t be riding too close to the person in front of them. So these aren’t essential…but you do get a lot of people thanking you if you do use them.
  • Written laws There are of course quite a few written laws as well as unwritten laws. Laws like stopping at red lights. Stopping for trams. Stopping for pedestrian crossings.
    Just sodding do them…nothing sh!ts me more than watching a cyclist cruise through a red light. You give cyclists a bad name, and you give fuel to the fire of every ‘they shouldn’t be on the roads’ wanker out there.

‘Remember, everyone else on the road is an idiot’
My Mum used to say this to me every time I went to go for a drive during the glorious P-Plate days. It was true then…and it’s true now that you’re on your bike…it’s just that you are no longer surrounded by 100kgs of metal and numerous safety features. So never ride in a way that relies on other people doing the right thing. If that car could pull into that side street without indicating, then slow down so that if they do, you can stop in time. If that pedestrian could step out from the curb, then check behind you to make sure that if you have to swerve to the right, you won’t go straight in front of a car or tram. If that cyclist is riding unpredictably, then give them enough space so that if they stop suddenly, you’re not going to crash into them.
At worst you get to work or home a minute or two later…at best, you save yourself a lot of grief.

You will crash
No matter how attentive you are, no matter how careful you are and no matter how much you do to mitigate against having a crash…if you ride often enough, you will eventually fall off. It may be at the hands of car, a pedestrian, another cyclist, a tram track, a wet drain grate, or an ill-advised track stand…but you will come off. Andy from Fyxomatosis wrote an awesome post on Cycling Tips about what to do if you have a crash…I suggest you head here and read it…I’ll wait.

The good stuff
Yes there are negatives and downsides to commuting on a bike, but never underestimate the sheer joy of riding a bike. A bad day commuting on a bike, still sh!ts all over a good day commuting on public transport. You will get fitter. You will arrive at work invigorated and return home relieved of your day’s stress. You will ride past portly people sitting angrily in their cars and resigned people squashed into trams and know that you are not one of them. You will see and experience things on your bike that people in cars and trains wont. You will save money and help the environment. But best of all, you’ll be getting back in touch with that 4 or 5 year old version of yourself that first felt the exhilaration and liberation of riding a bike…and you can blow their mind by telling them that the bike you are riding is worth roughly 18,000 weeks of their pocket money!