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Speaking for spokes: the art of commuting without polluting.

Amere 28 pounds of metal and rubber, it's been called "the most elegantly simple machine ever invented." It's cheap, clean, quiet and healthy, too. But, next to the fondue pot, the bicycle may be the most underutilized piece of equipment we own, quietly biodegrading in our garage or closet, as we wait for next spring. Spring then turns to summer -- and "it's too hot to ride, takes too long, is too dangerous, rumples my clothes, the air's too dirty, I'm not in good enough shape..."

But now that summer has turned to fall, biking can be quicker and more fun than sitting in traffic. A few safety precautions can minimize the dangers and bike masks can minimize the pollution. Besides, the only way to get in shape is to get moving!

Why not start off with a destination you have to get to every day anyway--work. If you live within a few miles of your workplace, you can start right in; if you live a bit farther, or haven't biked in a while, you can work up to it. Either way, it's good to get connected, however briefly, with the day's weather -- and your own power. "All that air whooshing past my head clears out the cobwebs, gets my blood moving and wakes me up--like a fresh air shower," says bike enthusiast Rose Tiger. "And after work, it's a good de-stresser."

Safety First

Here are a few simple safety tips to get you out of the car and into the bike lane:

Bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, so...act like a car. Claim your place on the right side of the road. Don't dart around obstructions, and don't get "doored"--when riding past parked cars, watch through rear windows for exiting passengers, and keep away. And give pedestrians a wide berth--people often cross streets with their ears, not their eyes. When they finally see a silent cyclist coming, they may move in any direction--or stand still. Shout or whistle an alert, and go slowly in congested areas.

Use hand signals--one every five seconds--to negotiate politely. Making direct eye contact with drivers will further help you communicate your intent. Motorists often don't signal, so keeping your eye on their front wheels at intersections may give you enough advance warning to avoid a too-close encounter. Drop back whenever there's a chance a motorist will turn off in front of you.

Be extra careful at night, in the rain, when the sun is blinding, when you are tired and -- believe it or not -- on deserted roads, where both cyclists and motorists tend to throw caution to the wind. And practice looking behind you while holding the handlebars with one hand--an essential commuter-biking skill. Or mount a mirror under the left handlebar.

Avoid or go slowly on oil, wet manhole covers or sand -- and don't turn on them. Puddles often hide debris, and those deadly sewer grates are just the right width to catch bike tires. Wet brakes? Pump them before stopping, and double your braking distance. Gradual, intermittent braking helps you stop smoothly on steep downhills.

What about uphills? Pushing in too high a gear can hurt your knees, especially in cold weather; gear low enough to spin easily and avoid climbing in the saddle. Finally, keep your bike in good working order, never carry packages in your arms, and never go faster than the speed at which you feel in control. Bike-friendly motorists look out for cyclists, slow down, and allow them as much room as possible to ride, rather than honking.

To bike in comfort, wear absorbent cotton or wool socks, and tuck your right pant leg into them to keep material out of the chain. Wear soft, stretchable, form-fitting pants without bulky seams, such as Lycra, which washes easily, dries quickly and shows off your newly-toned figure. Choose shirts that cover your back when you're bending over and won't flap around in the breeze. You'll get warm quickly--so layer and then peel as you go, or at least be able to unzip your neck. A wind-proof outer layer permeable to water vapor is ideal. Padded biking gloves and foam handlebar sleeves provide cushiony comfort. Last--but definitely not least--wear a hard-shelled styrofoam helmet.

You can also ride in street clothes, or even business clothes, minus the tie, jacket and dress shoes, to avoid changing. Simply unbutton top buttons and ride slowly, to keep perspiration to a minimum. Dresses and suits can be transported in wrinkle-proof bike compatible garment bags.

A water bottle, bicycle tube patch kit, pump, allen wrenches for tightening bolts, and levers for changing tires are must-carrys. Other items for your bag of tricks are a comb, washcloth or wet-nap, and deodorant. When you dismount, simply button up, change into dress shoes, dab your face with a squirt from your water bottle, comb your hair, and voila! No one will be the wiser.

When riding at night or in cloudy weather, wear white or bright yellow clothing and have a good front light and rear reflector. Minnesota cyclist Dorian Grilley goes one better each December, decking his bike with a string of colored tree lights wired to a six volt battery pack. "It contributes to goodwill," he says.

The Trials of City Cyclists

If you're an urban biker, register your bike with the local police precinct, get a case-hardened chain and padlock or a sturdy U-lock, and only lock your bike onto very tall, very solid objects. Better yet, take it inside with you, or at least take removable parts like wheels and seats.

Many commercial landlords won't allow bikes in their buildings, but some businesses are making it easier: Last spring, the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York City office installed an indoor rack where up to 12 bicycles -- the space required for one car -- can be "parked." Xerox Corporation offers financial incentives for bike-commuting employees. In 1991, Los Angeles became the first large city to require bicycle parking, showers and clothing lockers at new work sites. In Palo Alto, California, where such conditions already predominate, over 10 percent of all work trips are made by bicycle--10 times California's overall average.

Other bike-friendly signs are emerging. The New York Police Department has initiated a "cops-on-bikes" program. And cyclist Jeff Della Penna is working to create a bicycle museum in California. "The life of a bicycle advocate can be lonely," he notes. "Most of the time we're out there by ourselves--riding." But many cyclists believe there's strength in numbers. Joining others in advocating for bike-friendlier cities, and sharing beautiful weekend rides, can help erode that isolated feeling.

Jon Orcutt, director of the bike advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, located in New York City, agrees: "Bikers are becoming acknowledged participants in transportation policymaking. All across the country, we're more connected than we've ever been before."

Helpful Resources:

* The Bicycle Commuting Book, by Rob Van der Plas ($10 postpaid), along with other biking books, is available from: Bicycle Books, Inc., P.O. Box 2038, Mill Valley, CA 94941/(415)381-0172.

* Eccosport "Sport" garment pannier ($99 postpaid), 41 Sutter Street #1836, San Francisco, CA 94104/(800)642-0800.

* Respro Anti-Pollution Mask, $40; two replacement filters, $18; Anti-Pollution Scarf, $35 (add $4 postage per item), 9936 77th Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6E 1M5/(403)448-0393.

* Return of the Scorcher, a half-hour film celebrating cycling, is $35 (postpaid) from: The Video Project, 5332 College Avenue #101, Oakland, CA 94618/(800) 4-PLANET.

* Transportation Alternatives, 92 St. Marks Place, New York, NY 10009/(212) 475-4600.
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Title Annotation:environmental advantages of bicycle riding
Author:Wolfson, Elissa
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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