By Alan Neff
I started to bike to work a couple of decades ago. In the early years, I frequently was the only bike-commuter on the streets. I’d pull up to a stoplight alone, doubtless judged crazy, reckless, and inconvenient by adjacent motorists. (“Motorists” – I love that word. Using it makes me feel like P.G. Wodehouse.)
I commute in Chicago, which is flat and fairly friendly to commuter-cyclists. According to the City’s website, “Chicago currently has 117 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than 30 miles of marked shared lanes, many miles of off-street paths (including the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail), more than 12,000 bike racks, and sheltered, high-capacity, bike parking areas at many CTA rail stations.”
However, in my bike-trail-blazing early days, I got doored twice, by drivers who opened their doors without looking in their mirrors. Dooring was a painful, bike-damaging experience. On occasion, it can be deadly, if the rider is knocked off into passing traffic.
About ten years ago, an oblivious driver – probably under-caffeinated - pulled even with me during a morning rush hour and turned right in front of me, causing me to brake so suddenly that I went airborne over my handlebars and landed in a heap just short of her car. I had the wind knocked out of me and felt like I’d broken ribs.
None of this could stop me from riding. I love being on my bike in the city – there’s so much to see and hear.
Fortunately, the riding-climate has changed. When I reach an intersection now during rush hour, there often are 5-10 other cyclists around me. Drivers have adapted – more or less, and with more or less good will – to our increasing presence on the streets. I don’t feel anymore like a two-wheeled eccentric.
That doesn’t mean I don’t dress like one. I have, for example, my cool-weather “bee” outfit: black spandex pants worn below a nearly fluorescent yellow fleece jacket. I also have my bike messenger basics: black jeans cut to mid calf, worn beneath baggy drab shorts, worn below an ironic tee (Hopper’s “Nighthawks” on black, when I can find one of my three copies). And shades. Don’t forget the shades. Dark, dark shades, sometimes even at night.
Mind, I always ruin my incomparable coolness with a helmet, which half the real messengers I see don’t wear. For me, however, helmets are indispensable accessories, no matter how stupid they look. A couple of them saved me from head injuries. Also, loved ones count on me to stay out of a coma, chiefly to pay the mortgage and college tuition.
Notwithstanding the absence of ups and downs on my route (about 9 miles each way) and my easy pace (about six minutes/mile), I perspire. Not always and not always a lot, but I do when it’s hot, or when the wind’s in my face and my flat course feels like an uphill climb.
And, on those hot/windy days, I sweat. I’m not alone in this: I’ve seen my perspiring cycling peers.
Over the years, commuter-cyclists have struggled with a two-part conundrum: (1) how to look, feel, and smell fresh and clean after riding to work; and (2) how to protect business clothes from damage while riding.
Part (2) has been easy for me: since I started riding, I’ve had private offices with doors and blinds. I’ve kept most of my work wardrobe in my office (multiple suits, ties, shirts, socks, tee shirts, and briefs), and I’ve been able to change into professional clothes at work. Wardrobe-management hasn’t been an issue.
Cleaning up my sweaty gritty self has been the issue. My solution has evolved. When I started riding, I cleaned up with wet paper towels in a stall in the men’s room. Basic, but effective. Lately, I’ve been able to enjoy a much plusher solution: a small health club opened in my building, with showers, lockers, and all the industrial-generic shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, and body lotion I could ever want. It costs me $38/month, which works out to about $3/shower/month – not a high price to pay for a fresh start to the day. It also saves me time in the morning: I get up, dress in my seasonally-adjusted bike clothes, put together lunch, get on my bike, ride in, shower, and dress.
This perfect solution isn’t available to everyone or is out of the price range of entry-level folks. And cubicle-dwellers don’t have doors and blinds for privacy, though there’s usually an accessible closet in which to keep clothing.
I have a low-cost middle-range option for problem (1) that worked very well for a number of years: baby wipes, talcum powder, and deodorant. I’d shower and shave at home before I got on the bike, and use these three tools to refresh me when I arrived. A box of 80 wipes costs about $3.00. Same for deodorant. A bottle of talc, another $2. This kit usually got me through more than two months before I had to get a new box of wipes.
Using these three tools, I’ve never had a complaint or seen a wrinkled nose after my post-ride ablutions. Of course, I might have very forgiving co-workers. Whatever solution you use works only if you let yourself cool down completely. Otherwise, you keep perspiring and you, your clothes, and colleagues suffer the results.
Now get on your bike!