• Sun April 19 2009
  • Posted Apr 19, 2009
By MICHAEL MORAIN April 10, 2009 Any article about biking to work should begin with a noble list of virtues: the money saved, the calories burned, the gasoline unguzzled. But let's just pretend it did and skip to the real question: Can people who aren't sweaty hippies or Lance Armstrong really make it work? I'm about to find out. I'm moving from an apartment in downtown Des Moines to a house on the city's west side later this month. And although I own half a car, my better half drives it most days to his office in Clive. So for now, at least, it looks like my new commute will be on two wheels. I came up with a few excuses to buy another car, but the people who organize the annual Bike to Work Week (May 9-15) talked me out of it. Here's why: Timing The average Des Moines commute takes 19.2 minutes, according to the city's Web site. That statistic, which includes the vast majority of workers who commute by car, is only 5 minutes quicker than the time it took me to pedal from my new driveway to the office during a practice ride a few weekends ago. It took about 5 extra minutes on the way back, which climbs uphill, but the time saved from hiking to a car in a remote parking lot makes up the difference. A Web site called mapmy, helped me find the most direct route (4.12 miles) and calculate the number of calories I'd burn (114). Traffic Since nearly 88 percent of American workers told the U.S. Census they drive to work - and 77 percent drive alone - roads can get pretty crowded during rush hour. But in even the busiest cities, some roads are more bike-friendly than others. In Des Moines, Ingersoll Avenue is a better bet than Grand because drivers are more accustomed to sharing it with bikers, according to the League of American Cyclist instructors who teach bike safety and maintenance classes every Saturday in April throughout the metro. They suggested checking the city's Web site,, to find a map of snow routes, where streets are usually wider and unclogged by curbside parking. The instructors also explained that no matter where bikers ride, they should behave as if they were driving a car - be visible, be predictable and think ahead. The easiest way to avoid traffic, of course, is to stay out of it altogether. The Des Moines City Council unanimously agreed on Monday to hire consultants from bike-friendly Portland, Ore., to develop a master plan for the metro's trail system. And when crews finish the final link between the Walnut Creek and Bill Riley trails this summer, I'll take that quiet route instead. Flat tires My mom took an auto mechanics course while she was pregnant with me - she could barely slide under the cars - but I must not have been paying attention. None of her know-how rubbed off. In high school I drove 20 miles on a flat tire before realizing what the strange thwup-thwupping sound actually meant. A few years ago, during a trip to France, some friends and I found ourselves stranded in the countryside with three bikes, only five good tires and a very long walk back to town. But fixing a tire is easier than I'd realized. The instructors at Saturday's class showed me how to pry off the outer tire, yank out the inner tube, replace it with a new one, pull on the outer tire and pump it up - good as new. It'd be even easier, though, to use a trick from RAGBRAI: Get someone else to do the work and pay them with a can of beer. Weather Maybe you've already noticed this, but Iowa isn't always sunny and warm and dry. Bike shops sell all kinds of rain gear, but I think my favorite option is the pair of nylon RainLegs someone modeled during Saturday's class. He tied them around his waist like a belt and - yeehaw - unrolled them like a pair of chaps. On really soggy days, I can load my bike onto the front rack of a city bus and hitch a ride. During the month of May, the DART service offers free rides to anyone who pedals at least part of a daily commute. Sweat Starting the workday off smelling like I just stepped out of a sauna isn't an option. (You're welcome, coworkers.) When summer heats up, I may duck into the showers at the office or over at the YMCA, which will offer free showers to bike commuters during Bike to Work Week. And if all else fails: wet wipes. Clothing Since I can get by without a suit and tie, I'll make do with wrinkle-free versions of the downtown uniform of khakis and button-down shirts. I may keep an extra pair of pants and a few shirts at the office for when I need to spiff up. If I wanted to go all out, I could borrow a solution from a woman who works near the capitol. She drives to work every Monday morning with all the outfits she'll need for the next four days, bikes to and from work all week and then drives the car home on Friday evening. Helmet hair A Google search for "helmet hair" provided all kinds of tips, urging me to shave my head (no thanks), grow a ponytail (um, no again) or spray my sweaty head with an air compressor (seriously?). But I've decided my best strategy is to simply lower my standards: I'll just "forget" to remove my helmet until I sit down at my desk. That way, my better-coiffed coworkers will understand why I look like Janet Reno. And if anybody makes a crack about it, I'll ask them why they love burning fossil fuels.

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