What the Right Bike Can Do for You

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If you work close to home, why not join the growing ranks of bike commuters? It’s a green choice that will save you money, too!
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A hybrid bike can handle both smooth city streets and rural roads. 
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A recumbent bike is easier on your back than a standard bike is.
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A mountain bike is a good choice for riding on trails or rough terrain.
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A folding bike works well for city dwellers with limited storage space.

The bicycle is a simple machine that can help solve some of our planet’s most complicated problems. Traveling by bicycle can boost your health, slash your spending on transportation, and reduce your fossil fuel consumption — so it’s no surprise that bicycling is growing in popularity. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of annual trips made by bike has more than tripled since 1977 and now exceeds 4 billion. Biking to work is becoming more popular, too. Data from the U.S. government’s American Community Survey shows that the number of people who bicycle to work doubled between 2000 and 2009.

“The beauty of bicycling is that it fits every lifestyle, and its benefits are universal,” says Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, a national coalition of bicycle and pedestrian advocates based in Washington, D.C. “Whether you bike 5 or 10 miles to work every day or pedal a few minutes to the grocery store once a week, you’ll build your health — and the health of the planet.”

4 Good Reasons to Start Pedaling

1. Save Money. The U.S. Department of Labor calculates that the average American family spends more than $8,700 a year on transportation — the largest expenditure after housing. Riding a bicycle can take a bite out of that expense by reducing the amount you spend on gasoline and oil. In 2009, that was an average $2,400 per household!

2. Be Healthier. Looking to get in better shape? A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who biked to work were less likely to be obese and enjoyed better overall health — including better triglyceride levels, blood pressure and insulin levels — than those who didn’t bike.

3. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. Cars, pickup trucks and SUVs are responsible for nearly 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and about 40 percent of our nation’s oil use. Bicycling has the potential to put a big dent in those figures.

4. Boost Your Local Economy. The biking industry creates and sustains thousands of jobs in the United States. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin found that the bicycle industry contributes more than $1.5 billion a year to that state’s economy through bike-related businesses, tourism and reduced health care costs.

Pick the Right Bicycle for You

Fixing Up an Old Bike. High-end bicycles go for thousands of dollars, but you can get a good-quality new bike starting at about $450. However, you can spend even less by buying or fixing up a used bike. If you’ve got an old, beat-up bike in your basement, take it to a local bike shop for a tuneup before you toss it. Chances are, with a few new parts, it will run as smoothly as the first day you bought it. If you don’t have a bike, investigate recycled options. Check for a bicycle cooperative or nonprofit in your area that fixes up donated bikes.

Best Bikes for Smooth City Streets. If you’re going to ride on paved streets, your best bet is a road or commuter bike. Road bikes have lighter frames and slender tires, so you’ll be able to zip around with ease and speed. If you’re pedaling longer distances to the store or to work, these models could reduce your exertion and increase your enjoyment. If stability tops speed on your wish list, think European. In countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, where bicycle travel rates are the highest in the world, many people ride commuter bikes. These models are heavier, but their frames are more durable, their tires are a bit thicker, and their handlebars allow you to sit more upright. Many commuter bikes also have V-shaped, step-through frames, which makes it easier to ride them in work clothes.

Best Bikes for Rough and Rural Roads. Skinny tires and heavy frames don’t work as well on gravel, so if you’re planning to ride on rough terrain, in rural areas or on trails, consider a mountain or hybrid bicycle. Mountain bikes have fat, knobby tires for traction, shock absorption for uneven ground, and low gears for easier hill climbing. (Ask your local bike shop about the best gear options for your area.) If your travel takes you on both gravel and pavement, consider a hybrid bike, which combines the treaded tires of the mountain bike with some of the features of road and commuter bikes, including a more upright riding position and a lighter frame.

Nontraditional Bikes. If you think biking won’t work for you, take a look at some of the many specialized bike models now available before you decide. Does the structure of a normal bike give you back or shoulder pain? A recumbent bicycle allows you to lean back, as if in a chair, while pedaling to your destination. Are you traveling a long distance on hilly terrain? Get an electric-assist bicycle that can provide the added boost of a small motor when you need a little help on those inclines. Live in a small space or need to take public transit for part of your trip? Consider a folding bike, such as those from manufacturers Dahon or Brompton.

Sizing a Bicycle Correctly. Whichever type of bike you choose, be sure it fits your body. When you stand over the bike with one foot on each side, there should be about 1 inch of space between your body and the top tube of the frame. When you adjust the seat, your knee should be slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke. And, when you reach out to the handlebars, make sure your arms don’t lock. You’ll want to have a slight bend in your elbows to help counter the vibrations of the road or trail. Keep in mind that some bikes are designed specifically for men or for women — this may help you find a better fit.

Time to Hit the Road!

Pick Up a Helmet. If you’re going to be riding, the first thing you should do is buy a bike helmet. In many states, including Florida, Oregon and Maine, riders under the age of 15 are legally required to wear a helmet. But research suggests all adults should protect their heads regardless of the law: The majority of bicycle accident fatalities are caused by head injuries, and helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 85 percent.

Be Visible. The best way to make sure other road and trail users give you adequate space is by making sure you can be seen from a safe distance. In some states, such as California, cyclists are required to have a white light on the front of their bikes when riding in the dark. Whatever the law in your area, be safe and invest a few dollars in a set of front and rear lights.

Make Your Bicycle as Practical as Possible. If you’re planning to carry groceries or other items, buy panniers, a basket or a bike trailer to carry your purchases. Protect your items and your clothing from mud and water by spending a few dollars on a set of fenders. Boosting the utility of your bike also provides an opportunity to support artisans and small businesses. Search for your desired bicycle accessory on Etsy, and you’ll almost certainly find many handmade products that meet your needs.

Consider a Class. Take a class on bicycle safety and maintenance to increase your confidence. The League of American Bicyclists offers many free or low-cost “Smart Cycling” classes across the country. These workshops provide tips on how to navigate the streets safely and how to perform basic roadside maintenance on your bicycle.  

Find a Local Bike Club or Advocacy Group. Joining a local group is a great way to find a few friends to ride with, and by participating in efforts to increase your local biking infrastructure, you can enhance the quality of life in your community. To find a group in your area, visit the website of the Alliance for Biking & Walking.

Carolyn Szczepanski is the communications coordinator for the Alliance for Biking & Walking. Check out her blog, People Powered Transportation.