Bicycle Commuting to a Simpler Life

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Bicycle commuting and other adjustments to a simpler life finally enabled the author and his friends to buy a homestead.  LEFT INSET: The drop handlebars style favored by the author. RIGHT INSET: Upright handlebars.

My friends Jim and Randy and I had spent years struggling to save enough money to purchase our own piece of land, blindly following the popular notion that “hard work will get you where you want to go.” But, although that truism certainly represents a worthwhile code of ethics, it seemed like labor alone just wouldn’t ever let us make our dream come true!

In fact, in two years of scrimping, we had managed to put away only $800. No matter how diligently the three of us toiled, our paychecks barely covered our living expenses, and precious little cash was left to put into savings.

Still, Jim, Randy, and I were terribly eager to become homesteaders. We were determined to live a simpler life, but with each passing year we found that our goal was slipping further and further away.

Cutting Back

It soon became obvious that the only way to save our dream would be to pare down our basic living expenses. So, for a start, the three of us invested our $800 in a 20-year-old, 8′ X 40′ mobile home. Although the structure looked less like our dream cabin than had many of the houses we’d previously lived in, we knew that the money we’d save on monthly rent would enable us to move onto our own acreage.

A trailer park in Weare, New Hampshire (where we were living at the time) leased us a lovely spot by a stream for only $45 a month (a far cry from the $350 in rent we’d been paying elsewhere!). And, as an added plus, we felt we could repaint and repair our trailer and sell it at a profit later on.

We next decided to give up our automobiles. Gasoline prices alone were becoming higher than we could afford, and we were also being battered by the never-ending procession of other car expenses: license plates, registration fees, taxes, repairs, inspections, and outrageous insurance premiums.

Of course, in order to do without automobiles we had to come up with an alternative form of transportation. (Our lifestyles involved too much travel to allow us to simply walk everywhere we had to go.) It seemed to make perfect sense to sell our three gas-guzzlers and use some of the money to buy a trio of ten-speed bicycles!

Pedal Power

My job site was 15 miles from our trailer, but I was too thrilled with our new austere budget to let that fact bother me. I quickly conditioned myself to long-distance bicycling, a process that took some 30 days of hard-headed perseverance. Before long I realized that bicycle commuting had become, well, a breeze.

Furthermore, throughout my first New Hampshire winter–during which temperatures dropped to as low as 4°F–I never missed a day’s work, I was never late, and I usually “felt like a million” by the time I arrived! There were only two occasions–both during blizzards–when I was forced to ask a friend for a ride to my job site.

And, just two years and eight beautiful seasons of biking later, my friends and I had jointly accrued $12,000. So, in the spring of 1978, we sold everything that couldn’t be carried on a bicycle, and took off–pedaling–to find our place in the country!

A Dream Come True

I guess we were pretty demanding, because we ended up biking through the entire eastern seaboard, the South, and the Southwest without finding a suitable home. But we were awed by our first sight of the dazzling peaks and deep blue skies of Northern California, and we decided to settle there on 12.5 jointly purchased acres.

Nowadays, none of us has to work full time. Occasional, part-time jobs provide us with all the cash we need to augment our homegrown food and keep our bicycle wheels greased. We stay plenty busy though, transforming an old shed on our property into an attractive cabin; planting a wheat field and fruit orchard; and working our garden. And all jobs which have been attacked with joy, especially since our energies are no longer drained by full-time jobs outside the homestead.

Still Not Convinced?

You know, one problem with society today–we think–is that everyone tends to believe that “more is better.” However, we think we’ve added quality to our lives by living with less.

Bicycling has enriched us in any number of ways over and above helping purchase our dream spot. We’ve found that we can achieve an almost intimate relationship with our environs by pedaling from place to place. We’ve been serenaded by yipping coyotes while biking under the moon’s gray light and have inhaled spring’s sweet elixir of mountain lilac and meadow grasses under a morning sun.

Pedaling our way around is a wonderful way to keep fit, too. Yet the improvements in our physical health aren’t the most important changes we’ve noticed. Long-distance cycling has led us into a self-discipline that can be applied to all aspects of life.

There are other valuable, but less obvious, benefits to the sport, too. Bicyclists tend to be efficient and wise shoppers simply because their panniers (saddlebags), although quite roomy, won’t be able to hold a whole lot of supplies at any one time, and there’s no room to spare for nonessentials.

But, in our opinion, the greatest benefit of switching to two-wheeled transportation comes in the knowledge that we aren’t polluting our environment as we travel.

On the Other Hand …

I’ve given special emphasis to the positive aspects of biking because I believe that attitude has more to do with one’s potential for enjoying bicycling than does any other single factor. But, to be fair, I must admit there are disadvantages as well.

First, the person who travels by bike must accept the fact that his or her range of easy access will decrease considerably. For instance, a trip to a shopping center that’s only one hour away by car will be a serious expedition by bicycle. Furthermore, the cyclist won’t always be able to purchase replacement supplies as soon as the need is noticed. Instead, he or she will learn to wait until the shopping list is fairly long before making a trek into town.

Buy for Comfort and Safety

The most important component of a bicycle–as far as the comfort of the operator is concerned–is the seat. Don’t buy a bike with a plastic seat . . . we’ve found the perches to be about as flexible as granite. A long-distance jaunt on one of those supports will leave you so saddle sore you won’t approach your bike again for days. Avoid soft, cushiony-springed models, too. They seldom provide the comfort required for serious biking.

We’ve come to prefer all-leather saddles. Such seats look hard because they are hard, but one of the beauties of leather is that, after a prolonged battle with your behind, the cowhide will give in and shape itself to the contours of your buttocks.

Ten-speed bikes offer you (of course) ten potential gear selections to suit the varying conditions of terrain and wind. Don’t limit yourself to one gear, because, if you do, you’ll never learn cadence. The key to developing a perfect rhythm is to time your cranking revolutions to your body’s metabolic rate. Don’t worry , it’s really much easier than it sounds. Just pedal consistently at all times, because pumping your feet too fast or too slow is terribly inefficient. For instance, an extremely low gear may seem easy at first, but you’ll soon exhaust yourself performing the extra revolutions necessary to maintain speed. Always find the gear that allows you to pedal comfortably under a given set of conditions.

Naturally, if you haven’t ridden a bike for quite some time, you’ll need to start in gradually. Begin by taking a short ride on level terrain. Then listen to your body. Let it tell you how fast to proceed.

When you pedal into the wind, ride like a jockey with your head down and your shoulders pulled in. It’s also a good idea to assume a similar stance when pedaling up steep grades. If you look up and anticipate the summit, you’ll likely find it more difficult to reach that goal. Keep your head lowered and concentrate on only one stroke at a time.

For the sake of comfort, try to avoid wearing pants with thigh-chafing heavy inseams while riding. (Chamois-lined biking shorts are great, but also expensive.) Ordinary sweat pants are a practical alternative. (If you pedal to work, as I do, you’ll probably find it best to carry your work clothes in your panniers and change when you get there.) By dressing comfortably–and maintaining proper cadence–you can stay cool on warm days and warm on cool days.

Although snow and ice will occasionally thwart any bicyclist, cold temperatures are surmountable if you dress in layers and take special care to protect your outer extremities. (For example, wear a woolen stocking cap to cover your ears, heavy down mittens, two pairs of wool socks, etc.) Remember, too, that even on the coldest day your body requires liquid. Therefore, you should always carry a canteen. (On a hot day, try pouring some of the liquid over your head while you ride. You’ll dry off in no time, and your body will savor the refreshing treat! )

Another way to increase the safety and comfort of your ride is by attaching toe clips to the bike’s pedals. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not difficult to remove your feet quickly from such stirrups in an emergency provided you leave adequate slack in the adjustable straps.

Be sure to protect your eyes with sunglasses or goggles. And always be on the lookout for motorists who don’t see you. Pay particular attention when passing parked cars, too. (Jim once suffered a painful injury when a car door opened in his path.) In addition, always remember to ride with the traffic, never against it. If an accident should occur, being hit from behind is less likely to be fatal than is a head-on collision.

Gravel, potholes, and sand all pose threats to your safety. Lift your weight off the seat whenever you encounter such hazards. Also be careful to avoid sewer grates, and always try to cross railroad tracks at right angles.

Liberate Yourself!

If you’ve made the decision to change from automobile to bicycle, it’s important that you select the bike that’s best suited to your needs. Don’t rush out and buy the nearest department store’s special. Such a cycle may cost less initially, but in the long run you’ll use up your “savings”–ten-fold–remedying the problems you’ll likely encounter.

Top-of-the-line machines are the best buys, and they’re not inexpensive. Expect to pay about $250 for your bike, and be sure to earmark another $125 for accessories. Remember that, although this sounds like a pretty sizable investment (which it is), it’s nothing when compared with the cost of a new–or even a good used–car.

To check for the proper “fit” of your bike, straddle the top bar (“boys’ style” wheelers, with crossbars, are far more structurally sound and therefore more desirable for both men and women). When both of your feet are flat on the ground, your torso should clear the bar by less than an inch.

Proper seat height is determined by sitting on the bicycle while someone holds it upright. When you move the pedal into the down position, your leg should be almost straight. And, for a perfect fit, the seat level should be slightly higher than that of the handlebars.

While we’re on the subject of handlebars, I should mention that many people seem to have fond memories of the upright units on the bikes they rode as children. Unfortunately, a long ride on a bicycle with upright handlebars will result in a backache you won’t soon forget.

“Drop” handlebars may look uncomfortable, but once you’ve ridden with them a few times you’ll never go back to the “kiddy” kind. (For one thing, the down-curving handlebars allow the rider to change hand positions frequently to avoid overstressing a particular set of muscles.)

Tell the cycle dealer you want a wide touring gear ratio that includes a very low gear for uphill climbs. Bikes are usually set up for racing instead of as basic transportation, so it’s important that your dealer make this adjustment.

As a rule, bicycle brakes perform rather poorly in wet weather. Insist on braking pads that’ll give you stopping power in the rain. (While you’re at it, see if the shop you’re buying from has any good rain gear in stock. Ponchos made especially for cycling will keep you reasonably dry, even in a downpour.)

Clincher touring tires are essential for touring and hauling. For superior glide, request clinchers that require 75 to 90 pounds of air pressure. Don’t accept racing “sew-ups” as they can be complicated to repair.

Of course, if your bicycle is going to be your primary mode of transportation, it may be necessary to buy panniers in which to carry your gear and/or supplies. Such saddlebags are usually quite roomy. You’ll probably be surprised at how much can actually be carried in them. Be sure to select a style and size that’ll provide heel clearance on your pedaling revolutions, though, since it’s extremely annoying to have your heels “nipped” by the bags with each and every stroke. On the average, a good set of panniers will hold 30 pounds. (I also own a handlebar bag, but only use it on cross country trips, since it affects the steering and maneuverability of the bike.)

The rack that holds your panniers in place will also be supporting the weight of your goods, so don’t scrimp. Look for durable steel or a high-quality alloy, and buy the best you can find.

Naturally, a high-quality lock is mandatory. The self-coiling cables won’t add too much weight to your bicycle, and they will discourage “casual thieves.” Always secure your bike by running the cable through the frame and around a tree or other tall, immovable object. And don’t be shy about carrying your bicycle into your workplace. Most employers will provide accommodations if you ask for them.

There have been numerous books published on the subject of bicycles and their accessories. I suggest you read one (or more) before selecting your own two-wheeler. With proper care and maintenance, your bike should last you a lifetime. And there are precious few car or truck manufacturers around who can make that sort of claim!

EDITOR’S NOTE: A good manual for the aspiring bicycle commuter is The Bicycle: A Commuting Alternative, by Fred Wolfe.