10 Miles, 200 pounds or less: first two weeks of bike commuting

2013-10-18 16.42.48

Not the greatest picture, but it’s what the picture shows that’s important. Inside that trailer is 90 pound of children, 40 pounds of groceries and toys, with another 20 pounds of bike strapped on top (6 year old goblin had a terrible meltdown and this was the only way we were getting home long before dark). Oh, and I had a good 50 pounds of water, books from the library, and my still yet-unfinished emergency collection of bike tools on my back. I am hauling 200 pounds in this picture OR 450 pounds if you include my still slightly flabby ass and the weight of my bike. All for the low, low price of free** (technically I have to consume more calories to fuel MY body, but it’s a fraction of what a vehicle costs on fuel alone, let alone the hidden $0.50 mileage figure very few people are aware of).

I’m sure you’re picturing me covered in sweat, breathing like a beached whale, all while and invisible slave driver is cracking the whip against my back. Hah! The instant I got back on my wife yesterday, after a week full of errands too far away, or in too miserable of weather (until we get good outdoor gear, that is), I was EXCITED to be back on my bike. Especially when I’d realized after commuting all week last week that my tires on both the bike and the “carriage” were dramatically underinflated (increasing rolling resistance by at least 50%).

People who already know me know I am John Q. Average when it comes to fitness. Over my lifespan, I’ve actually been dramatically BELOW average. I’ve never even considered a 5K, let alone a triathlon. Can’t swim, don’t really want to, but training for endurance bike races sounds appealing in a year or two when I can frivolously spend on entrances fees.

“But, but, I’ve got this health problem! I’ve got no energy! Waah, waah, I am a Mr. Complainypants!”

I will grant there are people with serious enough health problems that they can’t ride, but excepting the very old, you’re talking a ridiculously low percentage of the population. And there are people way, WAY worse off than I am who ride full-time. My favorite example was an autistic who had special heavy-duty training wheels (hard to find ones rated for more than 100 pounds, let alone full adult male weight) fabricated because he loved to ride and felt so free doing it, but he simply couldn’t balance.

My own example is illustrative, if somewhat less extreme, and I hope it gets you to thinking what you CAN do, not what you can’t do. 5 years ago I weighed 300 pounds. Today I weigh 215 and could easily lose another 20 pounds of fat on my 6-foot frame. Here’s the real kicker: I have mild cerebral palsy. Most people don’t notice it, thanks to a very dedicated mother and the life-changing suggestion from a pediatrician that I be started on martial arts as early as possible. I was effectively paralyzed on my ENTIRE right side when I was born. Now I regularly carry my 30+ pound 3 year old in that arm.

I’ll leave the details, tips, tricks for a future article but the important point is NOT being sucked in by the Marketing Machine, even it’s (marginally) healthier Fitness Division. This is a great time to start biking, because people are trying to off-load old bikes. If you’re willing to put up with a vintage ten-speeder, I regularly see them for $50. Quality road or mountain bikes will be $100-$150. If you absolutely can’t find anything under $200 in your area after a couple weeks’ search, go to Nashbar and grab any number of quality bikes for $300, all of which need some assembly but — critically for beginners — ship with their brakes and gears fully tuned.

Your bill of materials is as follows:

  • Bike (I use a Schwinn 21-speed mountain bike my parents got me for my 16th birthday. I think I’ve replaced one set of brake pads, but otherwise it’s the same bike I got 13 years ago for $400 at the time.)
  • Bike helmet: $25
  • Bike lights for safe night riding (one front, one back, about $30 should be enough to get you started).
  • Bike lock: $20, unless you live in gang city, where getting a nicer one like this might be worth it.

Many of you can stop here, but if I can haul 450 pounds on my bike, you can handle a couple bags of groceries! For families with kids, there are only two options: buy a used Burley (regularly under $75 used) or get one new ($250 and up). There are cheaper brands, but they are utter shit. Canvas seats can barely hold a small child, let alone any goods. For adults, cargo trailers aren’t very common on the used market (probably because the people buying them are hardcore cyclists and thus have no need to ever sell them!) but Amazon has a number of models starting around $60 and specialty companies will sell trailers with ratings of 500 pounds and up. I’ll never get one of those, not because I couldn’t use it, but at that point it’s worth getting a nice $300 welder (next on my priority list) and making my own trailer for sub-$50 of steel and supplies, especially if I found good salvage wheels.

So, that’s a MAXIMUM $655 investment. What’s the recoup? I’m writing this at 5AM because stomach cramps kept me up last night and I’d rather be productive than lie miserable in bed, so I’ll stick to back-of-napkin math:

  • Reduced driving: ($0.50 mile plus fuel costs, calculated as cost of gas DIVIDED by miles per gallon in your vehicle. My 20mpg minivan costs roughly $0.16 per mile.) Driving reduction alone pays for the bike and trailer in 1,000 miles. That’s a few months tops for the average American. After that, the bike is paying YOU. This month alone we banked $150. I’ve used two gallons of gas in my car. As soon as the Alchemist gets a bike and we train her up, our fuel and maintenance bill practically vanishes. We’ve gone from $250 (both of us) to $140 (just Alchemist) and we could probably get that under $30 a MONTH if both of us switch over. At that rate, my snowblower and mower will burn fuel faster. (!)
  • Drastically increased fitness and energy. More on this in a future post, but consider any gym membership you have CANCELLED. Every hour you spend on the bike burns a MINIMUM of 500 calories. Add a couple hundred pounds of gear or kids, a hillclimb or two, and you’re nudging over 1,000 calories. AN HOUR. You simply can’t EAT enough food to stay fat. I continue to be dumbfounded at how much I eat and I’m still hungry, and losing weight.
  • Psychological health. I plan an entire post or more, but I wonder how many Americans diagnosed with depression/anxiety could stop their medical care simply by switching to biking.
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