Each school day morning, Brianne Northcutt dons her cycling clothes, throws a leg over her Surly Cross-Check and bikes from her Kenwood home in St. Petersburg about 3 miles to Maximo Elementary School, where she teaches. Her route is simple and relaxing as she rides along quiet residential streets.
"That's why I took this job," Northcutt said. "I wanted a route that was safe and convenient."
Doug Bentley doesn't have that luxury. The IT worker lives near the Cove Cay Golf Course in Clearwater and bikes to a job near East Bay Drive and Belcher Road. His 3-mile commute is usually via Belleair, U.S. 19, East Bay or Belcher, all major roads.
"It's difficult knowing that I could die at any minute, even more so than when I rode a motorcycle," Bentley said. "The ironic incident was when a car passed very close — and had a bicycle on a trunk rack!"
The two experiences illustrate the best and worst of commuting by bike.
Northcutt finds that it "brightens her day," and, despite his location, Bentley takes up to five trips a day on his bike and soon plans to sell his car. Northcutt already has.
What seems to make bicycle commuting so enjoyable is the route. That's why your first step should be to grab a map and consider your alternatives. There aren't always a lot of options, especially for people who live in Clearwater or other communities built during an era when cul-de-sacs were considered optimal residential planning. Sometimes the only route for many trips is via major roads. In St. Petersburg, however, the grid street system provides many paths. Once Northcutt navigates south of Interstate 275, if her usual route down 31st Street seems too busy, she can go down 28th Street or any number of other north-south residential streets.
A quiet, less traveled road, even if it's a couple of miles longer, makes the commute that much more fun. You can experiment with alternatives during the weekend, when roads may be less crowded.
Biologist Peter Hood, 58, rides his recumbent bike from his home in the Pink Streets south of Pinellas Point Drive to the NOAA Fisheries at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He said one of his biggest issues is the heat. Fortunately, he has a shower at work. He carries with him a shirt and keeps a couple of pairs of trousers at work. Some bicycle commuters make do with baby wipes. Bentley said that for hot days he makes sure he has a change of underwear and socks. Northcutt also changes at work. Sometimes health clubs have shower-only memberships.
Your bike — road, hybrid, mountain or cruiser — should be equipped for commuting. That means it should have front and rear lights. Fenders, which help keep your legs dry in the rain, are good too.
When it comes to hauling stuff, many commuters use racks to hold a briefcase. Some use panniers, soft bags that are slung over the front or back wheel and can carry quite a bit. Placing them at the front of the bike affects its handling, so try them out with substantial weight in them before you try to ride in traffic.
A reflective vest can be handy when the days are short or wet. Riders I've talked to will ride in the rain — to a point. Downpours make riding treacherous and render bikes almost invisible to motorists. Use common sense. Hood has staked out spots along his route where he can take shelter if he gets caught in one of our typical Florida thunderstorms. At the first sign of lightning, seek cover. Even on a carbon bike, you probably have enough metal under you to be a convenient lightning rod.
The League of American Bicyclists reminds commuters that wet roads can be slick in the first few minutes of even a light shower as oils on streets are released by the rain. Your stopping distance will be greater, as the first few revolutions after applying the brakes simply wipe rain off your wheel rims. Corner slowly and avoid metal grates and lane lines, which are dangerous when wet. Avoid puddles, which can hide deep potholes.
You also shouldn't carry your lock and chain or cable on your handlebars. It hinders steering.
For commuters, indeed all cyclists, the greatest challenge is always traffic. Riding along Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg, Hood wishes there were signs stating that "Bicycles may use the full lane," and "sharrows," those stencil markings on the road that depict a bicycle. "Share the road," he said, conveys the wrong message. Cars and bikes can't share a lane unless it's 14 feet wide, according to Florida Department of Transportation guidelines. Ride toward the middle of the right-hand lane, forcing cars to use the passing lane as they would when passing any other slow-moving vehicle. The same is true for any narrow lane.
Despite the obstacles cyclists face, Hood rides every day he can, saving gas and hoping to stay healthy.
"People say to me, 'I wish I could [bike to work],' " he said. "Stop wishing and give it a try."
Bob Griendling is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at [email protected]