Bicycling to work in the suburbs requires risk, effort; why I do it anyway

Bicycling has always been part of my life.

It started with riding my Schwinn Sting-Ray all over the neighborhood in Harwood Heights in the 1970s, and it progressed to my Schwinn 10-speeds, procured with the help of my Aunt Linda who actually worked at the old Schwinn factory in Chicago.

My bicycling father got my sister and me riding on the North Branch bike trail starting on Chicago's Northwest Side, and my 10-speed was my primary mode of transportation at Northwestern through 1992.

I rode that last Schwinn 10-speed through 2001, when my then-girlfriend and I decided to buy a couple of basic Treks. I was stunned by how much better the "new" bikes were. A monster was created.

By 2003 I was ready to get really serious; I bought an entry-level Giant road racing bike. I never officially raced, but I pursued big mileage including charity rides and weeklong tours, and I began occasionally riding to work.

Now, during the warm months - which I consider March through November - I try to ride to work once a week, maybe twice. And because I work second shift, I ride before work two or three other times a week.

I have a few reasons for riding.

Health benefits

No. 1 is my mental health. Yes, the benefits to my physical health are tremendous: the cardio work is great for my heart and overall endurance, I keep loose, and my cholesterol and other blood-work readings come out nicely. But what bicycling does for my head is what gets me out on the roads and trails.

That began with my childhood, too. I sometimes rode around the neighborhood to escape a tense household or childhood bullies. Eventually the rides grew longer, and I began to explore outside my neighborhood to satisfy my curiosity for new places and other people.

Today, the bicycling takes the edge off a high-stress job and other endeavors. It's remarkably effective.

Riding to or before work starts the day's routine. It's like a reset.

Riding gets the blood and brain going, and by the end I'm alert and ready for life ahead. I ride for an hour to an hour and a half in peaceful surroundings like the forest preserve or sleepy neighborhoods, no headphones.

The ride will make me more relaxed at work. With the muscles tired and recovering - legs, arms, shoulders, neck - it simply is more difficult for them to tense up when the stress comes, so I feel better handling it.

There's also that endorphin rush. What runners call "the runner's high" happens in cycling, too. It provides feelings of peace and invincibility, and that brings confidence at work.

Later at home, I sleep better.

Planning ahead

Riding to work does take some planning.

I said I work second shift; riding home after midnight is ill-advised. That means I must somehow leave a car at work. I happen to work with my wife on the same shift; she brings the car with the rack, and we load up the bike at shift's end. That problem's solved.

My workplace doesn't have a shower. So on days I ride to work, I oddly must shower before riding. Then at work, I wipe down with a towel and/or towelettes. It's not ideal, but it'll do. Obviously it's worse on hot days.

I must have my work clothes at the office. I pack and bring them earlier in the week. Helmet hair is hard to avoid, but I keep my hair short.

Being safe

Riding to work does involve some risk. I ride from southwest Schaumburg to Arlington Heights. I figured out a good route through Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village neighborhoods, and on the Busse Woods trail; the Active Transportation Alliance also helped with an excellent map on which safe roads are highlighted.

But sometimes in the suburbs one has no choice but to ride on a busy road. For me, it's Arlington Heights Road. I must dash north under the Addams Tollway and past the ramps. I'm long used to riding in traffic, but this segment still can make me nervous.

No matter which roads I ride on, all I can do is follow some basic safety tenets: Stay to the right and otherwise follow the rules of the road, and if drivers are not making eye contact with you, assume they don't see you.

Stretching, resting

Generally, if it's too hot, too cold or too rainy, I don't ride that day. I call them built-in rest days.

The problem with that thinking is if we get on a streak of good weather, I want to ride every day.

I once rode 18 days in a row. That was eight years ago. I'm 47 now, and I can't do that anymore; I must take more rest days. Going to work too tired, and then possibly irritable, doesn't help me or anyone at work, either.

Aging also means it's imperative that I stretch before and after each ride (mostly after, when warmed up), and do core work and other exercises to ward off back and nerve pain.

I know people who ride to work year-round, winter included. I'm not one of those; I don't enjoy frigid air blowing on my face.

Nor do I take any pleasure whatsoever in stationary cycling; it's nowhere near the real thing. So when winter comes, all I can do is take walks to clear my head and get me going, and do those core exercises.

Otherwise I'm like a ballplayer staring out the window waiting for spring. When the warm weather does finally return, thank goodness I can get on the bike again.

  Neil Holdway of Schaumburg packs and brings clothes to work ahead of time when driving to work so that he doesn't have to ride in them or try to carry them on days he bicycles to work. Mark Welsh/
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