Bikes are an ideal way to get from A to B while helping your health, not to mention saving money and Mother Earth.
Without question, bicycling is one of the greenest modes of transport. Fossil fuel combustion, particularly in motor vehicles, is the world's largest contributor to air pollution. Petrol-run vehicles create both exhaust emissions, including dangerous gases like carbon monoxide, and evaporative emissions, which are vapours of fuel released into the atmosphere without being burnt - you see this vapour when you fill up, which is why it’s important to avoid spilling petrol or overfilling the tank. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, cycling increases our physical activity, boosts transport capacity, and relieves congestion.
According to the National Cycling Survey released in July 2015, four million of us (17.4 percent) ride a bike for transport or recreation in a typical week. Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory have the highest participation rates, with almost twice as many men riding (22 percent) as women (13 percent). Other numbers show cycling to work accounts for less than one percent of journeys in Australia’s major metropolitan areas. Clearly, safety is the big issue: while the overall road toll has decreased by 3.7 percent per year, bicycle rider fatalities have risen by around 7.4 percent year-on-year over the past five years. Major cycle-centric cities in Europe, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, have bike lanes that segregate cyclists from cars, making commuting less hazardous.
Commuting made simple
By far the worst polluters are short car trips, as they involve engine warm-ups – and these are the ideal journeys to make by bike. Consider whether cycling to work is an option. You’ll save money on petrol, fares, parking fees, and possibly gym fees, as well as do the environment a huge favour. The journey may not take much longer, but even if it does, that extra time may be no different from you already devote to exercising. If cycle commuting doesn’t appeal, think about other short trips you make by car and whether biking could be a realistic alternative.
If your journeys involve high-traffic roads, unless you’re a highly experienced rider, it’s smart to prepare yourself with a defensive riding or city cycling course, such as the one offered by BikeWise (www.bikewise.com.au). You’ll learn effective road positioning, how to select the best bicycle for commuting and tackle different intersections, and your rights and responsibilities. But what if you've never learnt to ride a bike? The general consensus is that it’s never too late to learn. BikeWise says most adults can learn the basics – start, ride along and stop safely - in a two-hour session. From there practice will consolidate and develop these skills, and you can take a follow up lesson if necessary.
Choosing a bike
Road bikes are designed for multiple uses besides commuting, e.g. fitness riding, touring, racing, distance and event rides. Typically lighter than a mountain or comfort bike, road bikes are suitable for riders of all levels, from novices to seasoned enthusiasts. Your bike must be the proper fit to ensure comfort: poor fit can be painful and reduce pedalling efficiency. Some models are built for speed with a more aerodynamic riding positioning, while others provide a more upright position, which is preferred for city cycling. Prices range from $500 to $5000, and as with most things, you get what you pay for.
Two distinct handlebar styles distinguish road bikes. Lightweight and aerodynamic drop-bar handlebars are the preferred choice for riding faster, plus they facilitate a greater number of riding and hand positions, including a more aerodynamic riding position (i.e. bent over at the waist). However, this position can put more strain on the back in less-flexible riders. Flat-bar handlebars combine the efficiency of the drop-bar with a slightly more upright riding position, which enables you to sit in a higher, more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. This position reduces strain on hands, wrists and shoulders, but the trade off is that it’s slightly less efficient from an aerodynamic standpoint than the typical drop-bar road bike.
Ideally, test a bike before committing to the purchase – some online bicycle shops actually allow a testing period. If you know of a good local bike shop, spend time there talking about your plans: these places tend to be staffed by enthusiasts who will share practical advice and tips.
* Know and follow the road rules relating to cyclists, as you can be charged with traffic violations.
* Plan your route in advance by identifying roads that carry the least traffic, or have bike lanes or off-road cycle paths. Ask colleagues who cycle to work for advice, and check your local council’s website for cycling maps.
* Ride the route in advance when you’re not under pressure to get to work on time, to check the journey and get an idea of how long it will take.
* Ease in by commuting just one or two days a week in good weather. As your confidence and fitness levels build, increase the number of days. Cycle at your own pace because it should be enjoyable.
* A major hazard cyclists face is “dooring”, where car drivers don’t check before opening their doors. Be alert when driving near parked cars, use your bell, or ride a metre out.
* Wear high-visibility clothing.
* Keep your bike in good repair.
Stephen Eddey (MHSc,B CompMed, Dip App Sc Nat, Ass.Dip.Chem) is a director of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society. www.atms.com.au