Hamilton presents some unique challenges when it comes to commuting to work on your bike. The biggest one being the Mountain (aka The Niagara Escarpment), 300 feet of limestone and shale dividing the city in two.
I’m an out of shape desk jockey, but for the past few months I’ve been cycling to work from the Limeridge Mall area to Dundas with relative success. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned that make my 30km (round-trip) commute possible.
1. Google Maps is your friend, and enemy (Frenemy?).
Before I took my first ride, I planned out my route using Google maps using it’s bike route option. Hoo boy, did I almost die that first day.
Google prefers to direct you to signed bike lanes and along trails. In my case, I ended up taking a much longer route that included a portion of the Bruce Trail off Beckett Drive. Google wanted me to ride my road bike on a rock and root strewn off-road dirt trail with a 2 metre drop-off at the end. Needless to say, I ended up walking along that portion of my ride. Google Maps doesn’t make a distinction between off-road and paved trails, and doesn’t consider that some mountain accesses are more bike-friendly than others.
After that first ride, I decided to take a more active role in planning out my route. I ended up using Limeridge Road on the east/west leg as it’s fairly flat and doesn’t carry much traffic, unlike Stonechurch which is neither of those. With the satellite view I was able to find some shortcuts through a few neighbourhoods which ended up shaving almost 2 kilometres off that first ride. Switching to the pedestrian mode reminded me about the Chedoke Stairs (Bike friendly!) which replaced the hair-raising ride down Beckett. Both the bike and pedestrian maps introduced me to the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail, which makes the ride through the west-end really pleasant.
2. Bike seats suck. Bike shorts make them much better.
For the first few weeks I rode with the stock saddle, this was painful. Every bump, pothole, and crack in the road added to the soreness from unused muscles, making sitting a challenge for days after. I bought a new seat with a little more cushioning that was fitted to my sit bones. It helped, but the lovely gents at Freewheel Cycle finally convinced me that a pair of bike shorts was the way to go. I spent around $80 on my pair, and they’ve made the commute infinitely more comfortable. You wear the bike shorts as your underwear and can throw a pair of shorts or pants over top, which hides the dorkyness well.
3. Build a better handle.
While we’ve got several bike friendly stairs throughout the city, I’m not their biggest fan. It feels like I spend half my energy preventing the bike from rolling away from me, so I’d end up carrying my bike on my shoulder. This was faster, but somewhat painful. A Kickstarter project offered a great solution, a carrying handle just above the pedals! I grabbed an old belt and built my own version for free. Now when I get to the stairs I just wrap the belt around the frame, and carry the bike using the stronger muscles in my arms, rather than resting it on my shoulder. I also carry my bike somewhat across my body so the wheels don’t bounce off the stairs.
4. You will get wet.
With an hour’s ride up & down the mountain, staying dry is fairly important to me. If I were to get caught in a storm, then I’d be miserable for quite a while.
I’ve actually ended up using a combination of weather apps and sites (The Weather Network, Google Now’s Weather, and Forecast.io) to get the best picture of what the conditions for the day look like. The night before, I’ll check the weather to get a general feel for the next day and see if I can prep for a ride. The morning of I’ll recheck the weather for the day. With the distance of the commute, I also check the weather for both Hamilton and Dundas. The key for whatever weather service you use is to ignore the pretty icons, pay attention to only the POP (Probability of Precipitation). As long as it’s under 50%, you’ll most likely stay dry. However, if the POP looks menacing around 8am and again around 5pm, I’ll usually skip that day’s ride.
Even with all that careful prep, I’ve still gotten caught in a downpour, and so will you. That’s where splash guards on my wheels become incredibly handy, keeping the wheel spray off my legs and back. Once you get inside, give your bike a quick wipe down to help it dry off and avoid rusting.
5. Let your bike carry your stuff.
Carrying a lunch and a change of clothes on your back over a long distance gets a little uncomfortable. A backpack ensures that my back gets soaked in sweat, and my lunch containers usually find great spots to jab me. A bike rack and a set of panniers eliminate the need for a backpack and make my ride much more comfortable. The bike rack will cost around $20 – $30, and I paid around $110 for a pair of panniers. Panniers can get quite expensive, but the key feature is that they need to make a hard locked connection to the rack. I previously had a set of panniers that just hooked over the rack and used a bungie to connect to the bottom. As the bungie wore out, large potholes and bumps would send my pannier flying onto the road, nearly getting run over by cars.
The disadvantage is that my bike is 5-10 pounds heavier near the back wheels, so I end up hooking a pannier onto the front handlebars to balance the bike as I carry it up or down. It’s awkward and heavy, but worth the comfort during the rest of the ride.
If you’ve got a smartphone, then you can track your ride and easily see a variety of stats on your commute, watching your progress with each ride. There are dozens of apps for both Android and iOS that will keep track of your rides. I use My Tracks which covers average & top speed, total distance, and even lets me play back my ride on Google Earth. There’s also Moves and RunKeeper for both Android and iOS.
So far, my average speed is around 12-13 kph, with a top speed of 40 kph on the way in. I’ve burned around 7,000 calories, and have covered around 450 km’s on my bike. That also works out to an approximate reduction of 270 lbs of emissions.
If you’ve been thinking that Hamilton’s roads or the mountain make for an insurmountable obstacle to commuting by bike, I can tell you that with a little planning and the right equipment it’s a great way to get exercise, save money, and reduce your carbon emissions. I’ve now been riding at least once a week (usually 2-3) since April and other than a popped rear tire and a near-wipeout (my fault), I’ve found it a really pleasant way to travel to and from work.