From Bike Race to Rat Race by Michael Tanner

On any given weekend in the Bay Area, the hills are alive with the sound of freewheels. But when the gears of commerce start whirring, the machines that so nimbly ate up the miles Sunday afternoon are sitting in garages for fear of crashes, thefts, impatient bosses, and crumpled suits Monday morning. So, while more and more people are convinced that their off-road adventure trucks make perfect vehicles for expeditions to the grocery store, many others don't quite feel their weekend two-wheelers are fit for a ride to the office.

Carol Wells uses Caltrain for her commute from Burlingame. Photo by Peter Birch.
Which is a shame. Riding is riding, after all, and this labeling of bikes as mere exercise toys robs many bikers of some of the most rewarding rides they can take, and subjects them to unnecessary frustrations while commuting. Or as Dylan Snodgrass, a longtime bike-racer puts it, "I drove to my new job in the city the first day, and it was just dumb."

Having lived in Humboldt County, racing and training on his mountain bike while using a car for everything else, he quickly realized this strategy didn't make as much sense among the traffic, parking meters, and tickets of San Francisco. But he still faced the hurdles that make many otherwise bicycle-loving people hesitant to hit the streets. For starters, he remembers, "that first commute scared the sh-- out of me." Soon, though, he chose a path less glass-strewn and sketchy, and that has made all the difference. "I was instantly converted on day two," he says.

Tracey Iglehart, who sells gear to bikers of all levels at American Cyclery, concurs. Sure, riders look terribly vulnerable when you're zooming down Oak Street in an automobile, she explains, "but if you're biking, you're not putting yourself in the same traffic situations as you would in a car." Just as you'll pretty quickly figure out the flattest route between home and work, you'll also find one without highway-speed traffic on short notice.

Of course, even the quietest of city routes can subject your shiny race machine to rigors it wouldn't encounter in a hard month in the Tour de France-unless perhaps the race were re-imagined for FOX TV with potholes, broken bottles, car doors, and staggering drunks. If the anorexic highway tires or motocross-style downhill rubber of your sport bike don't seem quite up to the task, you're not alone in feeling that way.

Mo Devlin stashes her riding gear in a drawer before starting her work day. Photo by Peter Birch.
"The bike industry as a whole is ignorant of the practical side of riding," says Chris Fenster, SFBC board member and former co-owner of Swobo clothing and Start To Finish bike shops. "To them it represents this sort of geeky subculture," he continues. The industry's (and by extension, the athlete's) overemphasis on racing leaves the sporty commuter in kind of a bind-choosing between a rarified competition machine or "some engineer in Wisconsin's idea of what a good commute bike is."

"Nobody wants to put racks and fenders on a high-performance bike," says Iglehart, "and most high performance bikes aren't designed to make it possible." Which is not to say there aren't workarounds. There are easy on-and-off racks that mount to a seat post, and even without racks, you can still load a day's worth of goods in a backpack or messenger bag. Clip-on fenders can be attached to most frames with a little ingenuity and without a seasonal commitment.

Nonetheless, there will always be some compromise between performance and practicality when adapting a bike in this way. And you still have to find secure parking for your investment while you're inside working to pay for its next set of $50 tires.

If all this seems too much to take, you might consider buying a dedicated street machine. By Iglehart's calculations, "You can get a decent commuter bike for under $500 and that's still a lot less than buying a car." She recommends a hybrid bike particularly, which can accept racks and fenders, but could still make it off-road or on longer weekend rides if it's your only bike. Or go used. Remember those pre-80s sport bikes? They're still out there, they're cheap, and they're surprisingly agile on the road-especially if you've been spending your weekends on a suspended mountain bike. There are also old mountain bikes, cruisers, and even complete junkers for people more scared of thieves than hills.

For those whose biggest fear is the noses of their coworkers, Iglehart says, "that doesn't have to be a big deal." Splash some water on your face after your ride, bring deodorant and a change of clothes. Leave shoes and maybe a few key items of clothing at work to take home at the end of the week.

And before the weekend is even close, a ride is always at hand. Compared to driving to work, says Snodgrass, biking is "much more spontaneous," allowing him to go on a longer ride if the mood strikes, rather than rushing home by five to find parking. And these jaunts to and from the office might lead to rides you wouldn't have discovered otherwise. Or vice-versa.

For example, Rich Lesnik had given up trying to bike commute from a new home in the Sunset. He assumed his job at SFO airport was impossibly distant until he "decided one day on a recreational ride to explore possible routes to the airport, and discovered a quick, relatively traffic-free route from my house to the airport." Now he rides to work 2 or 3 days a week.

As the days get long in the summer, Iglehart says she even finds herself taking the scenic route home. "So if I don't have time for a ride on the weekend," she says, "I still get a long ride in, because I've made it a part of my commute." People who don't think they have time to ride to work tend to overestimate the time difference compared to driving, she says, even before they consider the extra riding they can squeeze into a week.

In fact, riding often turns out to be faster, or at least a lot more certain. Just ask Jean Fraser, a purely recreational cyclist turned suit-wearing executive bike commuter. What caused the transformation was a realization she had during a few rides downtown to do some weekend overtime. "I knew I would get to work in 25 minutes rain, shine, or traffic notwithstanding," she discovered, "whereas driving or [taking] MUNI was a complete crapshoot."

No Excuses

If you haven't tried riding to work yet, or you just want to convince the folks on your weekend ride to make the attempt, we have the answers:

Excuse #1: Are you crazy? OK, riding on the street's a little scary at first, but so was kissing-it just takes some getting used to, so you might want to try it first with a friend. Soon you'll figure out the safe routes and develop the protective instincts. The SFBC has maps and safety handbooks to help.

Excuse #2: Commuting's for granola-burning geeks with mirrors on their glasses. Tell that to the messenger with the five facial piercings doing 35 down Nob Hill with no brakes. And those guys basically bike-commute for a living. So no, it's not geeky getting a ride in every weekday, rain or shine; it's 'core!

Excuse #3: I haven't got a thing to wear. Contrary to popular belief, high-end bike saddles can indeed come in contact with textiles besides Lycra without voiding the warranty. With a few nips and tucks, you can ride perfectly well in your work wear. Or keep nice shoes and clothes in the office, ride in race garb, and change at work. Or compromise with looser-fitting, multi-purpose mountain-biker-style wear.

Excuse #4: Fenders would emasculate my bike. Au contraire, my streaky-backed friend. First of all, big-fendered downhill bikes are the ultimate in mountain-bike extremeness. And a pair of full fenders lends class to even the most mass-market road bike. Besides, when the spring rain ends, your machine can resume its svelte, bare-tired silhouette for the long, fast rides of summer. Useful-ize your steed!

Excuse #5: Well anyway, I'm not subjecting my baby to the mean streets! OK then, here's your excuse to buy another bike, Mr. or Ms. Gearhead. Hybrid, touring, or cyclocross bikes make great commuters; they're sturdy, comfortable, and made for fenders and racks. Same with old rigid-forked mountain bikes and vintage ten-speeds (plus, they're cheap, and you can upgrade parts for an elegant retro ride or bitchin' single-speed).

Excuse #6: I don't have time. Please. If you live in the city, by the time you've parked or waited for Muni, biking's either faster, or it's a wash. For the thrill of competition, time your motorized commute and try to beat it. In any case, riding's riding, so you're really getting in a bunch of free training. Actually you don't have time not to.

Lexicon: Race Jargon for Commuters

Altitude training: Napping at your desk on the 24th floor between commutes lets you "sleep high/train low," just like endurance experts recommend.

Breakaway: Blasting ahead when the light turns green to avoid the fellow commuter who's just a little too vocally impressed by your racer's legs.

Bunny hop: Levitating both wheels over that puddle of mysterious goo that suddenly appears on 6th Street.

Doping: A fourth cup of coffee at 4:30pm will give you the edge when racing the fog to your house in the Richmond. Use of other substances may result in unannounced testing by race officials.

DNF (Did not finish): Left the office early on the sunniest afternoon in July for a winding 30-mile detour to your house.

Neutral support: Paper towels from the office bathroom, a Phillips-head screwdriver from the IT guy, or having the mailroom signing for your packages from Nashbar.

Peloton: Commuting home on the last Friday of the month with Critical Mass is about nothing if not handling your bike in a pack.

Race officials: Easily recognized by their spiffy black and white race vehicles emblazoned with the SFPD federation logo, these referees assess fines for jumping the gun at stoplights and violations of the center-line rule.

Sprint: Surge of speed to squirt past the bus stop before Muni tries to shoulder you into the barricades.

Support vehicle: The car you use to take four days worth of work clothes to the office on Monday so you can ride the rest of the week unburdened. Feel free to put Mavic stickers all over it.

Sag wagon: After a particularly long or wearing day, throw your steed on the bike rack at the front of most Muni busses to avoid a...

Time trial: The character-building upwind, uphill slog along Market Street from most offices to most homes on most evenings in the city.