So You Want To Be A Cyclommuter?

Bike advocates offer tips on making the most of your commute

May 2, 2012 at 7:38 am


he light bulb that is Cincinnati’s cycling culture is shining brighter than ever as more people switch out steering wheels for handlebars for their morning and evening treks to and from work. The reasons are multitude: to keep in shape, save a hunk on gas, use green transportation or just to slip some fresh air into the long days at the office. If you’re looking for longevity in your cyclommuting career, there’s only one way to succeed: Like it. There’s a bit more to being a smart cyclommuter than just hopping on your bike, so wise up before you make your first pilgrimage. Two of Cincinnati’s cycling gurus — Nern Ostendorf, executive director at Queen City Bike, and Mel McVay, bike advocate and city planner for Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation, offer some pointers.   

Dress right.

Assess your situation: If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere that lets you rep jeans every day, it’s probably OK to wear your work clothes cycling if the sight of a bit of dirt or sweat won’t send your boss into a state of hysteria. If you work in an office setting, do a little more thinking. Are you likely to sweat on your commute? Can your clothes get wet in case of rain or puddles? Consider bringing sets of clothes and grooming equipment to the office on Monday mornings to prepare for the upcoming week. 

McVay and her coworkers at the city’s Department of Transportation also swear by baby wipes: use them to freshen up after your morning ride for a quick, easy way to rid of sweat and grime. 

Helmets are really a judgment call, say Ostendorf and McVay. Helmet hair will never be in, but the statistics don’t lie: Helmet use is estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Ostendorf says she doesn’t mind wearing her beat-up old red helmet because it’s become a trademark. “You look less ridiculous than you think you do … people recognize me on the road all the time.”  

Know some bike laws.

In Cincinnati, a bicycle is defined as a vehicle under law and is subject to a number of common automobile rules and a separate set of biking rules — they’re especially nifty to know if you’re confronted by a grumpy driver. A few of the big ones to boost your bike IQ:

• Bike law states it’s technically only legal for cyclists 15 years old or younger to ride on the sidewalk, unless it’s specifically designated a “shared path” for cyclists and pedestrians. 

• Cyclists must obey the same traffic laws as drivers and ride in the same direction of traffic flow. That means respecting stop signs and traffic lights. 

• Bikers are required to use lights when riding at night, and reflectors don’t count: Ostendorf recommends a flashing LED light, available at most bike stores. 

The city’s Department of Transportation created a Pocket Guide to Cincinnati Bike Laws anyone can view online or pick up at MOBO Bicycle Coop in Northside. Grab one for quick reference.   

Be on the defense.

Two wheels and a couple of skinny steel bars can’t compare to the revving two-ton behemoths that are everyday cars, and drivers aren’t always obliging when it comes to sharing the road. “You have to take responsibility for yourself. It doesn’t matter if [the driver] is at fault if you’re dead,” says McVay. 

That means staying vigilant. Some bikers enjoy the rhythm of pedaling along to music — especially during an early morning commute. Just like when driving a car, though, headphones significantly decrease your perceptual awareness. Ostendorf recommends cyclists consider leaving one ear free to stay as attentive as possible when opting for headphones. 

Conquer your fears.

McVay notes that switching to road-riding is a little harder than it sounds: “I was shaking the first time I was riding [on the road] by myself,” she admits. 

You’ll never stick to your cycling regimen if you don’t feel safe, so be proactive about making your attitude the right one. 

She and her colleagues at the Department of Transportation emphasize that it’s OK to ride in the center of the lane when necessary, versus the far right. That’s a good strategy to avoid being “doored” — hit by a car door being opened by a negligent passenger— running into debris on the side of the road or being too confined. 

Ostendorf recommends trying out the “Thursday Night Slow and Steady Ride,” an independent, community-led ride focused on getting riders comfortable in trekking around urban environments. “You’ll see weirdos, dudes in kilts, jocks, kids, families; it’s the most inclusive. It’s a good way to start feeling comfortable in streets versus trails, and everybody’s welcome and so friendly,” she says. “The right kind of peer pressure is the best thing to use to become a bike commuter,” she adds. 

Keep your bike safe.

Bike burglaries are common incidents in urban areas, and if you’ve ever had a bike stolen, you know it’s like losing a piece of your heart. Take the time to both invest in a good bike lock and leave your bike somewhere secure. 

McVay and her coworkers advise commuters to store bikes in the most visible area possible. “For a baseline, U-locks are a great way to go,” she says. “If your bike has a quick-release wheel, you’ll want to get a cable lock, too.” 

Little known fact: The city of Cincinnati has a program to install free bike racks around the city upon request. Visit

and request a rack under the “General Request.”

Be realistic.

Your daily commute is no Tour de France; there’s no ribbon waiting for you to zip through at the end. Don’t make it complicated — commuting should become routine. Remember why you started: “It’s really nice to have dedicated ‘me time’ — just me and myself on the road breaking a sweat. You don’t get frustrated like in a car and there’s much less variable time when you bike,” says Ostendorf.  

If the concept of bike commuting still sounds intimidating, consider starting small: Drive or bus part of the way and bike the rest. “Being a bike commuter doesn’t mean you have to do it 24/7, five days a week,” Ostendorf says. “We don’t live in a perfect city, and there’s just not the infrastructure to do it all the time.”