cycling utah April 2000

Bike Advocacy

To see and be seen is key to safe commuting

By Rob MacLeod

Last month's article on bike commuting seemed to find a lot of resonance with readers of cycling utah (see www.cycling if you missed the advocacy column). So this month, I'll continue on this topic, with some help from some friends who sent me a bunch of their favorite commuting tips and questions. Before we slip into that blissful time of year when daylight savings comes to brighten our evenings, it also seems like a good time to talk at least a little about bike lighting systems and visibility.

Clothing was a topic of a number of emails I received and, of course, everyone has ideas on the best bike clothing. Here are some from Chris Colgan, a fellow RMCC buddy and hard core winter commuter.

I have a zippered, lightweight, wind/waterproof jacket, 1 long sleeve jersey and 1 short sleeve jersey on top. This is for cold days. For the cold, fast downhill descents, I simply zip everything to the top. After I warm up, I can unzip the jacket, and the short sleeve jersey for ventilation. Pit zips (zippers built into the armpits of good quality riding jackets) are also useful.

Two types of bootie covers - lightweight for days above 32 F and heavyweight for below 32 F. I used both together in Minnesota and have had to do that only twice in Utah.} (Note from Rob: another variation on this theme is to use old fashioned pedals with two clips and add toe clip covers made by Lone Peak. This way, you can use any winter shoe/boot and enjoy the protection from the wind that is key to warm tootsies.

Two types of gloves - lightweight gloves for mellow days, medium weight for cold days. I occasionally use my ski gloves for the REALLY cold days.}

(Note from Rob: a popular option are the "lobster claw" gloves that have two large fingers. The idea is combine the warmth of mitts with something you can actually use safely on a bike. I am still searching for the perfect cold weather bike glove so send me your favorites!)

Skull Cap - This is a thin, moisture wicking slip that fits tightly on your head, under your helmet. I use it on the way into work and skip it coming home when it's warmer.}

Pants - I've been using a pair of Pearl Izumi winter riding pants for 2 years. They are AWESOME! Keep the knees warm, are cut for cycling, have zippered cuffs, and are lined for general comfort. I highly recommend these.

(Rob again: the fabulous outdoor co-op in Canada called Mountain Equipment Co-op carries a great winter tight with nylon in front, uncovered heavyweight lycra in back. If you are lucky enough to get north of the border in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto or Ottawa then visit Mountain Equipment outlets and go crazy.)

Related to clothing on the bike were questions of getting acceptable clothing to work so you can change. My work permits pretty casual dress so I can carry this in a pannier without too much damage (after all, how much worse can shorts look, even when they are wrinkled?) Another option for those with less enlightened employers is to take a bunch of clothes to work and leave them there. Circulate them as needed or even have them cleaned close to work. Most of us use a car once in a while to get to work so use those opportunities to do lots of errands, like moving clothes around.

One of the great buggaboos to commuting is what to do with all that good, healthy sweat that follows us into the office. Some of us are fortunate enough to have showers available at work (not me!) I love the solution proposed by George Sheehan the cardiologist and great writer about running. George claimed that fresh sweat does not smell - the bacteria that generate the odors have not had time to do their work. So he proposed showering in the morning, then riding/running to work, and just toweling off when you cool down. Put your clothes on when your temperature has returned to normal and relax! I have never polled my colleagues about this, but it seems to work for me.

A final question that came up from one reader and is a good link to bike advocacy is the question of what to do with the bike at work. Most of us want to ride a fairly nice bike to and from work and leaving it outside, even locked to a rack, can be a constant source of worry. The best solution is obviously to have secured, covered parking for bikes, just like for cars. In some places, new building construction must include bike parking and getting this sort of zoning laws in place can have a dramatic long term impact on bike commuting and use. Push for such ordinances in your community.

But what to do if there is no secure bike parking at your workplace? One positive approach is to try and identify a location in your building, perhaps a basement room or some corner in the underground parking, and propose to your employer creating a bike parking facility. Emphasize the positive benefits of bike commuting to workers' health (and thus absence due to sickness). If your company rents parking lots, point out that the space required for one parked car can hold 12 bikes so there is even a chance to save some money. Many employers will go along with such a scheme as long as you are willing to do the leg work, find the best racks or lockers to install and come up with the scheme for managing the system.

One of the most important pieces of bike gear for commuting is a lighting system. Most of us spend a good part of the year either arriving or leaving work in the dark. Without lighting, we are both invisible targets for motorists and semi-blind stumblers as we try and avoid potholes, curbs and pieces of road shrapnel. Unfortunately, light systems seem to have also become one of the most expensive items on a bike and one that requires constant attention.

There are some wonderful light systems out there, ones with computer controls that dim as the battery drains, or that throw more light than your average lighthouse. I have ridden behind red flashers that blinded me once a second and had me hypnotized within two miles. But while it is possible to spend more on a light system than the cost of your bike, this is not necessary. There are some reasonably priced systems available that may weight a little more or have less flexible controls, but that shoot out the light needed for a safe trip home.

Vista has long been famous for making affordable lighting systems and you can buy into one in stages, adding additional lights and rechargeable battery packs over time. A recent welcome addition to the market is NiteHawk, a Canadian company that makes a variety of very cost-effective systems by using sealed lead-acid batteries rather than NiCad. They carry the full range of lights and have very clever mounting systems for handlebars and helmets. You can find both lines on the web and local bike shops carry them or can get them for you.

One features of modern lighting systems is that most are driven from battery rather than from a generator. Generators just do not produce the power required for 30+ watts of light and they turn off when you stop. Among the rechargeable battery systems, NiCad occupies the high end with replacement costs well over $100 for some battery packs. But they are lighter than sealed lead acid batteries, which for their part are very cost effective and quite robust. You need not worry about a lead acid battery leaking all over your leg, they really are sealed and maintenance free. Replacement costs for lead acid batteries can be half those for NiCad.

Another point to note as a commuter - always carry a spare light. You can forget to charge batteries or suffer a switch, bulb or wire failure and be left in a bad situation. Even a small, standard D-cell powered halogen light can save your life. A spare light (or a headlight) is also handy for doing any repairs required on a night-time commute.

Before my space is gone for this month, let me talk a little bit about visibility. This has to do with bike lighting system, but also with bike clothing. I am amazed and appalled that most warm bike clothing is made in dull, dark colors. I mean the blacks, blues, and deep purples that we see in the stores and catalogues. Look at the regular summer jerseys and you need sunglasses to deal with all the bright colors. But when do cyclists want to be most visible? What time of day and year are we most likely to be riding in poor lighting? In the dark mornings and evenings in the cool times of year, of course, when we need the warm clothing!

Statistics show that the risk of getting hit from behind is small enough to ignore during daylight. That all changes at night. If motorists cannot see you, they sure are more likely to hit you by accident. And while lights are important for visibility and protection, bright, reflective clothing can do even more - making best use of the car lights to shine back at the motorist.

So spend the money to buy a good quality, brightly colored shell vest or jacket for commuting. Vests are amazingly versatile and work in lots of temperature and weather conditions. Get a bright yellow or day-glow green one with reflective strips sewn in, and you will suddenly notice that drivers see you like never before. For warmer weather, buy a reflective mesh vest like runners often wear for night jogs. This single piece of clothing will do more for your safety than all the megabuck light systems around.

Please keep those emails coming - I love to hear from you and share your experiences and questions from commuting or anything related to bike advocacy.

Ride safe!

You can email Rob MacLeod at [email protected]

Editor's Note: Rob MacLeod is the chair of the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee, a trustee of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee, and former president of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club. His other job is as a professor in both Bioengineering and Cardiology at the University of Utah.

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