Friday, June 27, 2014

Annals of obsession: Bike commuting

In which, instead of writing another "first in a series" post, I actually add to a series! Though full disclosure: I outlined all the topics connected to cycling and bike commuting that I thought I might have something to say about, and the list was long. So there might be another series coming. But for now, I'm here to talk about the period during which bike commuting was a major obsession.

Getting started

Having lived in Mt. Airy and worked in Center City the whole time I've lived in Philly, I basically always wanted to be riding to work but never thought it was possible. It's about 11 miles each way, which seemed like too much. And that's not to mention the sweatiness issue.

I especially felt like I should have been able to make it work after starting my current job, with its nonexistent dress code and easy flexibility, but I never did. I thought about riding one way and taking transit the other, alternating direction each day, to make it not so hard, but I never did that. So what finally broke the pattern and got me to start? A coworker did it. A friend from work who lived nearby started, and behold, it turned out it could be done! The secret was to do it. We both started out riding a couple days a week and worked our way up, but it turned out the round trip wasn't as impossible as I had imagined it.

Getting hooked

Having finally gotten past the barrier of getting started, I dove in. Some items to illustrate the situation:
  • My first commute was on August 13, 2007. Some time in September, when I was still riding only 2 or 3 times per week, I started a spreadsheet to track my mileage and keep notes (the first entry was in honor of my first flat, after 396 total miles).
  • I set myself a rule that I had to do the ride the first time I faced some new set of conditions (e.g. heavy rain, cold, high winds). That way I would know what it was like and could choose to skip it the next time, but I couldn't be daunted by imagined hardship. This rule served me well, except on the first day it snowed. I went down twice, banging my knee pretty hard on the second one.
  • I geared up immediately. By the end of 2007, I had a variety of wacky synthetic clothing items, several lights, a few new tools, and neoprene shoe covers. (As mentioned in the previous bullet, snow and ice were a problem that first winter. So in late 2008, I got studded tires.)
  • I joined on August 26, 2007, (i.e. less than two weeks after my first ride) and posted for the first time on September 13. Though the spreadsheet might be considered more extreme behavior, BikeForums was the center of what made this a major obsession. It's possible I kept up with the commuting forum for more than a year. Anyone who has spent significant time in active online forums will appreciate how shocking that is.
  • The spreadsheet started out fairly tame, but grew quickly to what I think would be considered a "maybe a little unbalanced" level of detail. Actually, I think it gets its own heading.

The Spreadsheet

At the beginning of 2008, I started taking notes on every ride (ride time and distance, weather conditions). It also tracks cumulative commuting and recreational mileage, skipped rides, maintenance, and spending.

Some factoids I know thanks to the spreadsheet, to illustrate how ridiculous it truly is:
  • As of today I've ridden 25,744 commuting and 5,790 recreational miles since my first commute.
  • Coldest ride (tie): 12 °F, February 11, 2008, and January 28, 2014.
  • Hottest ride: 102 °F, July 22, 2011.
  • Windiest ride: W 29 mph, gusting to 46, February 12, 2009. 
  • Total spending: $5,089.45. The most recent item was a new studded rear tire, since the old one lost its ability to stay on a rim. According to my somewhat-convoluted formula for calculating how much I would have spent commuting by other means, I'm only $105.72 away from breaking even (at last!). Unfortunately I need a new cassette at the moment, so that'll set me back a couple weeks.
  • In mid-August of last year, my current bike (pictured above. It's my ideal commuting bike, bought piecemeal and built in March 2011, to replace the circa-1990 Sirrus Sport that wouldn't take fenders) became my highest-mileage bike. It's now a month or so away from hitting 10,000.
  • The data I have isn't fantastic for the Wolverine's mileage, but she's right around 500 lifetime miles, mostly commuting (i.e. to and from daycare).
Ok, so that makes it sound like I'm still dangerously obsessed, since a lot of those items are recent, and clearly I'm still maintaining the spreadsheet.  However...

Calmer times

I still love commuting by bike. And I still love data. But I haven't read BikeForums in a few years, and I pretty much never end up down the rabbit hole on some question of gear or technique the way I used to do all the time. I have my habits and I maintain them, but they don't take up much time or attention. I figure the obsessive phase of this hobby wound down some time in 2009 (replaced by: endurance cycling! Not such a radical shift. In fact they overlapped. More on that when this series continues).

And finally, a note on what I like best about bike commuting. Is it the view of the Schuylkill instead of the one from the bus (mostly urban decay) and subway (darkness)? Is it being in shape, or the 20 pounds I lost pretty quickly after starting? Is it the double tailwind days (so rare!) or the quietly falling snow? Those are getting closer. It's the joy.

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