Author Topic: My story: 12 Months of commuting – the good, the bad, and the n+1  (Read 1611 times)


  • Quiet please
A bit of a long one. It's the story of my return to the saddle. Fortunately, there are some pictures to distract from the shambling prose.

12 Months of commuting – the good, the bad, and the n+1

It’s been almost 12 months since I posted my declaration of intent here – to return to day-in-day-out bike commuting and bring to an end a hiatus that had lasted some years. I’ve had a few false starts and failed attempts at this before – driven off the road by a combination of post-crash mental demons and, if I’m honest, an appalling lack of fitness. But this time, I publicly and domestically “published” my ambition, hummed and hahed about routes and kit – and then got stuck into 15 miles a day on the road.

The good news is that the past year has been a fantastic success. Not only have I succeeded in doing almost all my commutes by bike – but I’ve made that mental paradigm shift to the point where cycling to work is simply how I get there. There’s no decision to make. And, not just commuting – I’m reverting to my old, car-free, modal default and it’s liberating.

I cannot overstate how much cycle-commuting has improved my life generally this last year.

I’m fitter for starters. For the first 6 months, I was in a lot of pain while riding – arm pain and arse pain – and found myself getting simply tired out towards the end of the week. Much of the pain – and all of the exhaustion – was simply due to physical feebleness, flabby muscles, and general atrophied moral fibre. OK, I’m no athlete but I’m clocking up around 100 miles a week without trying. That’s enough to make a real difference to a 45 year old body. And it shows – my BP has fallen despite me rebelling against the pills; I no longer stagger around in shock and sweat when I reach my destination; and I'm now finding Friday's commute as easy as Monday's.

I’m also happier. Much happier. Some  of this is, I suppose, endorphins wrung out by exercise twice daily. Some of it is simply being in the fresh air (and sometimes sunlight) for an extra hour a day - in winter often the *only* hour a day. But I think a lot of the resultant happiness is that I’ve regained a minor but daily personal “story”. After a long period of work life being too interesting, I’d made the choice to scale it back – to the extent of it becoming rather grey, dull, and office-based. And car-commuting to such jobs was turning me into “one of the ants” – mentally coshed and zombiefied.

But cycle-commuting brings just enough difference to each day to reawaken me. This year, I’ve seen snakes, dodged rabbits, raced deer. I’ve watched capsized ships righted, cycled through knee-deep floods, played human-pinball traffic-jamming. Even if it’s just the weather or the light, every day is different to at least a small degree. Basically, I feel as if I’ve got my life back.

So much for “the good” – surely there have been commensurate low points? Not many, on reflection. I suffered from some sort of weird arm pain that may have been triggered by a new bike and new posture. It was a demoralising period – as I was forced to contemplate giving up (or buying a recumbent) but a steroid injection from the quack fixed it instantaneously. For which I remain grateful – I already have one duff arm and having both arms weakened and painful was getting inconvenient. Other negatives were mainly weather related and transitory. Ice caused me to take a tumble and break a couple of ribs during the Winter but they quickly mended (but not quickly enough!).

I’ve also had to share the road with cars and their drivers. I refuse to allow myself to slip into a mindset of victimhood with respect to cars v bikes and won’t list this as a negative. It's just part of the varied daily narrative of unpredictable experiences. Fear had kept me off the road for a long time and I refuse to slip back into that self-imposed exile just because of a few run-ins with life's idiots.

Now, let's talk about bikes...

Last summer I set out on my Dahon Speed TR folder. This had been my default bike for my small residual mileage for several years. I'd come to like to it quite a lot. It was comfy and served well as a utility bike. But after a few weeks, I felt it wasn't really hardcore commuter enough. Let's face facts – it looks like a “shopper”.

So I dusted off my 10 year old Tifosi Audax machine. I'd bought this, my first real cyclist's cycle, when I started cycling again after my crash. Drop handle bars and loads-a-gears. Did a couple of Denmead audaxes on this and a couple of years of increasingly intermittent commutes before abandoning it to the back of the garage. It's a good bike – but I'd never loved it. In part because I'd started to hate being on the road and, it seems, in part because I just don't get on with the geometry and the drop bars. This year saw me try again – I moved bars up and down, played with saddles and stems. But I just couldn't get comfortable. Partly physically; I can't ever remember using the drop bars and braking always seemed remote and vague, and partly “mentally”.

Around January, I was starting to lose patience a little – my fitness was slow in returning, the weather was foul, darkness was eternal, and the damn bike was uncomfortable to boot. I started idly, like a bored husband with an internet connection, to look around and see what else was out there. Answer: lots and lots of lovely bikes. But, being indecisive and cash-light, I just window shopped and told myself that all I needed was mental grit and time in the saddle and all would be well.

However, fate does what fate's good at – and intervened. Investigating a rubbing tyre one evening, I found a bust rim. At this point my dormant bike-buyers' brain part kicked in: “you know, buying a new bike is almost practically saving money (sort of)”. After all, the Tifosi needed new transmission and tyres and a professional service wouldn't go amiss. This isn't an exaggeration – everything was ten years and thousands of miles old; the tyre carcasses were held on with superglue to stop flappy bits rubbing the brakes on each rotation.

So I bought this

A butterfly barred touring bike from EBC.

Absolutely what I was after. I love the multiple hand positions and I love the “cockpit” feel of the embracing bars. The only change I had to make was to add a new saddle – the one it came with was a horror.

I made a few tweaks and additions to make it even better:

- Brooks Imperial Flyer saddle (with springs and a slot); my first Brooks and extremely comfortable
- M5 bolted light mounts on front forks; superb!
- a mirror; very useful to see what's looming
- side stand; 'cos all utility bikes and tourers should have one
- dual sided SPD pedals (clips one side, civvie flats the other)

While everyone knows what a Brooks, a mirror, and SPDs look like, M5 fork mounted lights are rarer - so here's a (bad) phot:

The new bike has cemented my return to the road.

For starters, it doesn't hurt. The transition to MTB-style shifters caused a shortlived bit of thumb/palm ache – but that was all. Even the Brooks needed no breaking in. Everything just fits and works. I like the sturdiness and solidity. The audax bike always felt a bit flighty, a little twitchy and never fully under my command. In contrast, the Revolution is stable and stoppable.

I fairly soon found myself descending with confidence for the first time. Another area the difference really shows is on gravelly tracks (which I sometimes take as a scenic detour) which were almost unrideable on narrow tyres. As for speed on road – well, there's plenty enough for me and it doesn't seem slower. And it's steel. No carbon forks made of promises and soot to worry about.

What have I learned this year?

1. Firstly, that it's never too late and that things aren't as bad as you fear.
2. Humility. Years ago, I was a bit sniffy about people who claimed they "couldn't" ride 3 miles to work. Well, it was a bit tough for me at the start as well.
3. A new bike makes things better.
4. Ponchos are the answer to rain.

Thanks for reading to the end!