Biking to work has unexpected benefits

Based on the increased number of cyclists I've seen out on the roads, bicycling as a mode of transportation seems to be more popular this year than I've ever experienced.

I'm sure there are many reasons for the increase, and one of the most common seems to be rising gas prices. If I drove a typical car, it would cost me more than $6 in gas alone each day I drove it to work and back. When you can convert your commute to miles per banana, it begins to make a lot of "cents."

Recently I had the pleasure of indoctrinating Kelly Powell, an adventurous co-worker of mine, into the world of bike commuting. At 6:30 on a foggy morning, we hopped on my tandem bike and rode 23 miles from South Elgin to our office in Palatine.

Kelly hadn't been on a bike since she was 13, and within minutes she was like a kid in a candy store. Each roller coaster-like hill on the Fox River Trail brought delight and by the time we returned back to South Elgin that night, Kelly had some refreshing observations.

"Biking to work made the average Wednesday seem a little bit like vacation," she said. "I'm aware that that sounds a bit extreme, but it just takes the stress out of a commute. Even when moving at a pretty fast pace, it seems leisurely, especially compared to sitting in a car cursing at the other drivers (none of whom know how to drive as well as I do).

"Rather than catching tiny snippets of the world around me, I got to legitimately look at things - trees, particularly large houses, - or was that a museum? - cute restaurants. I saw things I hadn't noticed before.

"On this commute, I got to see seven towns worth of things - really SEE them, not just catch a glimpse out of my dirty car window."

To make this opportunity more accessible to others, I gathered a few basic tips for getting started.

• Begin by seeking out a reputable bike shop and have them tune up your bike appropriately for commuting. While you're there, get yourself a helmet, padded shorts and gloves to protect your vital parts, and a minimal repair kit to fix a flat tire.

• Since a bicycle is legally treated as a road vehicle, be aware that the law requires you to ride on the right-hand side of the road, obey traffic signs, and signal when turning.

• Try riding your route on a weekend first so that you won't have to worry about delays from route experimentation. When you get to work, look for an area in your building to store your bike such as a closet or your own office.

• Bring clean clothing to your office beforehand to cut back on your bike luggage. Most commuters don't shower at work, but as an alternative, you can either ride at an easy pace to keep from sweating, or do as I do and towel off before applying liberal amounts of deodorant.

• Finally, scope out a good stand-in for a phone booth so that you can change from colorful cycling superhero back into a mild-mannered citizen. For everyone's sake though, make sure it has a door that you can keep closed!

Todd Underwood covers cycling in the Chicago suburbs. To contact him, e-mail or write to him c/o Daily Herald, 385 Airport Road, Suite A, Elgin, IL 60123.