There's never been a better time to consider walking, public transportation — or the greenest, most efficient form of transport: cycling.

Once a novelty of the Industrial Revolution, bicycles now supply millions of people with efficient, healthy, pollution-free daily transportation. Bicycles can reduce traffic congestion and noise. You can park a dozen bikes in the space of a single automobile, and the idea of a morning commute free of fossil fuels seems particularly attractive fuel costs go up and down.

Even if you only cycle once a week — on Casual Fridays, perhaps — you'll be reducing your weekly commute's environmental impact by 20 percent. That's about the same as trading your current vehicle for a hybrid, and a lot cheaper.

Yes, you'll sweat. No, you won't smell like a horse around the office. Yes, you can really do this. You'll be healthier and a little richer for the experience.

But commuting by bicycle takes planning. Let's get started!

Make it work at the office

There's an old saying that a journey starts with a single step. With bicycle commuting, your journey begins with deciding what happens once you arrive.

The first thing you need is a secure place to park your bike at work. Bikes tend to get in the way indoors, so keep yours out of hallways where people might knock it down or get their clothes greasy. A back room or storage area might work, but your best bet is probably outside — a covered location, if possible — with something solid for a locking support.

Mornings are the coolest time of day to ride, but depending on the length of your commute, you may want a place to change or freshen up. Talk to your employer about your plans and the possibility of setting up a bike-to-work program. If there are no suitable facilities where you work, look for a public washroom (or even a gym shower) within easy walking distance of your destination. You really don't need much: just some privacy and room to change.

Are you in good-enough shape?

Probably so. Whether you're a casual commuter or a pro bike racer, cycling is all about pace.

The biggest mistake made by beginner cyclists is pushing too hard. Regardless of how many "speeds" your bike might have, choose a midrange gear in which you can comfortably turn the pedals at 70 or 80 revolutions per minute. Over mixed terrain, use your gears to maintain this rhythm. This is the secret to efficient cycling. Spin — don't grind.

Commuting should be a gently aerobic activity. If you're feeling winded, ease back. As your fitness improves, you'll be able to turn bigger gears at that 70 to 80 rpm cadence. Ride for pace, and the speed will come naturally.

As with all exercise regimes, consult your physician or primary care-giver before getting started.

Key consideration: Route planning

The shortest way to work may not be the best. Scout roads with marked bicycle lanes. If none are available, look for routes that avoid overly narrow roads, tricky intersections and open storm gratings.

Routes through residential areas are pleasant and usually have the benefit of less traffic. But keep in mind that people are heading to work at the same time you are, and the most dangerous place on the road for a cyclist is the foot of a driveway. Watch for distracted drivers backing into the street. Avoid the temptation to hop up onto a sidewalk: it decreases the time a car has to spot you, and bikes are a hazard to pedestrians.

Once you've found a good route — find another. Part of the fun of cycling is slowing down enough to really see things. Vary your commute and keep things fresh.

It's not about the bike ... entirely

As Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong pointed out in his autobiography, it's not about the bike. You can commute on anything — but the right equipment will certainly make your experience safer and easier.

If you're going to be riding before the sun is fully up or after it sets, you must have lights. Most municipalities have specific regulations about the degree of lighting required by night-riding cyclists, and common sense dictates you get as bright as possible. Here's the good news: a properly lit cyclist in reflective clothing is generally more conspicuous than a daytime rider.

Whether they're legally required or not, ride with an approved and well-fitting helmet. A "lid" can be the difference between a scraped knee and a hospital stay. Or worse.

We'll discuss the selection of commuter-specific bicycles in future articles. But rain fenders and a good bike rack will keep you cleaner and make your bike more useful.

Choosing what to carry

Some commuters cycle in their work clothes. Depending on the length of your ride, your fitness and local climate, this might be an option for you.

Not all of us live in a cool, flat place like Holland, so you may need to carry a change of clothes on the bike. A towel and a washcloth in a ziploc bag will make freshening up a breeze, along with whatever cosmetics or personal items you'll need for the day.

It's smart to learn how to change a tire. Most bike shops will be happy to show their customers the ropes, and it's a quick roadside job once you're in the know. You'll need a flat kit: a spare inner tube, two or three tire levers, and a rag to check the inside of your tire for glass. There are also flat-resistant tires and tubes. They're a bit heavier and more expensive than their conventional equivalents, but well worth the money.

Buy an impressive lock. Kryptonite is the dominant manufacturer in this field. In any case, look for a case-hardened chain or heavy aircraft cable model. Bicycle locks can be defeated, but a sturdy chain wrapped through your frame, both tires, and a secure anchor will make your bike much less attractive to a casual thief.

Finally, carry water. You should drink regularly while riding — at least one standard water bottle per hour. Diluted sport drinks work well, too. If you're thirsty, you're not drinking often enough.

Enjoy your ride!

Traveling by bicycle is a healthy and environmentally friendly way to move around. Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine — and check back for more tips on cycle commuting bikes and gear.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008.

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