Trading four wheels for two

Behind the wheels
Eric James knows just how tricky the transition to bike commuter can be.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Oh, the beauty of being a bike commuter. You and your toned quadriceps, oblivious to the price of oil, saving the environment with your emission-free travel.

"And then, of course, there's the whole hygiene thing," added bike commuter Eric James. "I mean, you're going to be sweaty. You're going to be smelly."

A lot of people swear they're going to park their gas guzzlers and start biking to work.

Get a grip
Eric James says bike commuting requires a number of bike commuting accessories. Still, he says he can get by without the star-studded hand grips.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Eric James is among the one percent of Americans who actually follow through with that promise. The real estate analyst bikes from his home in southeast Minneapolis to his office in northeast Minneapolis, a trip that takes him about 30 minutes each way.

"So, I guess this is my bike. I don't know why I chose it," admited James. "I mean, the seat is like, ha, this is a booty seat. It's a big seat for your butt."

James wouldn't be caught dead in biker shorts. And he's not bogged down by all the new-fangled bicycle technology.

"Four, five, six, seven," muttered James, trying to figure out how many gears his bike has. "I guess there's seven gears."

Still, if you're thinking of trading four wheels in for two, James is the perfect guide. He made his own move to bike commuter just three years ago. And he knows how tricky that transition can be.

"First of all, you need to develop very, very thick skin," he advised. "Because you get people who are just like, 'I don't care if there's a bike there. I'm gonna run it over.' And they are going to pass you and almost hit you. That's just how it is."

Wheels are turning
Eric James commutes to work via bike. But he's been know to drive to the supermarket. He's not fond of balancing bags of groceries on his bike.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Imagining all the money he'd be saving on gas and car insurance and parking tickets, James was willing to put up with the guys in SUVs shouting obscenities at him, as well as the older women in Cadillacs who preferred to give him the finger.

He quickly realized, though, that in order to save money, you first have to spend money.

A trip to Erik's Bike Shop in Minneapolis is a reminder that bike commuting requires much more than just a bike.

Giving up your car means no longer being able to stow everything in the backseat. You need it; you carry it. And since you're probably not going to enjoy balancing your briefcase on your handlebars, you'll want some kind of messenger bag. Preferably a bag that can hold all the stuff you'll need during the day, but one that won't throw off your balance when you're on your bike.

You're also going to want a bike lock and a bike light.

"There's the super fancy ones that old people buy," said James. "Then there's the cheap, cheap ones, like the 20 buck ones, which are fine. Once the light hits your eye it's like, whoah, you're blind. These are enough visibility."

Along for the ride
The way Eric James puts it, you don't need to dress like Lance Armstrong to ride your bike.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the air pumps and handle grips, water bottles and attachable fenders. But being a savvy bike commuter means knowing where to draw the line. For James, it's at the lime-green spandex.

"I'm sorry. I would never wear any of these clothes. I don't think anyone is this fit to actually be allowed to wear something like that," James said. "I guess if I designed biking clothes, I would first say we don't need biking clothes. Just wear clothes that will work outdoors."

Ideally, you'll have found yourself a bike helmet that doesn't make you look like a Power Ranger, which, according to James, isn't easy to do. Then it's on to the most challenging part of the commuter conversion.

"There's this cultural part to it," acknowledged James. "I take a lot of time to prepare before I get out and I'm sure a lot of other people do because they can't just go outside and, like, start biking. They need to prepare, you know, because you're going out and everyone can see you."

You're no longer in the cocoon of your car, where your 10-year-old sweatpants and hot pink Crocs sandals can go unnoticed.

"You can be a total slob in your car," James point ed out. "And you're just like, 'Whatever. Who's gonna see me?'"

As a bike commuter, James said, that luxury is gone. You're among the masses now.

Free ride
A typical bike commuter who rides five miles to and from work five days a week can save about $2,000 a year in gasoline costs alone.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"You just put a little umph in your step. You act differently," James explained. "How do I describe this? It's kinda like being in high school. Everyone is seeing you and you want everyone to see you in a certain light. That kicks in and you don't even realize it. When I'm on my bike, I look intense."

Now you may think you're the type of person who's above putting on such airs. But don't fool yourself, said James. You'll need that extra attitude to help combat the stares you're sure to receive.

"You walk into a place and you're all disheveled and the wind's blown your hair everywhere and you know you look crazy," said James. "And you just have to suck it up. There's a lot of that. You're not going to look pretty riding a bike. But you can do your best."

Oh, the beauty of being a bike commuter.

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