Taking stock: a summer of bike commuting

In 2015, I had one fitness goal (beyond just continuing to lose weight): to ride from home to my office, eat lunch there, and ride back home. It quickly turned out that I wasn’t exactly aiming very high — it’s under 42 miles round-trip — and I managed to do this before July 4 last year. I didn’t really have any other goals in mind other than burning calories and losing weight, and I was a bit disturbed when, at almost exactly the same time, my weight-loss trend line turned around and I started gaining weight again. (I’ve gained about 20 lbs since then and I still don’t have an explanation.) After three years of stationary-bike training, it was a great relief to spend more of my exercise time outside, and I soon decided that if I got a 14-mile ride before going into work in the morning, I could drop my evening stationary-bike routine from 70 minutes a day to 45. With the help of my Garmin Edge I was able to develop a few regular routes around my town for morning rides, as well as longer rides for weekends; I developed a habit of eating lunch at Nashoba Brook Bakery in West Concord (32 miles r/t) most Saturdays.

I was able to keep this up well into December last year, and also joined some MIT Cycling Club weekend rides (63 miles round-trip for the Harvard ride if I join them in Concord), but it was clear that I had reached something of a plateau. So this year, my goal was to commute to work by bike whenever feasible — and thanks to the drought, it’s been warm (occasionally too warm) and dry for most of the summer. There were two issues that I had to resolve: where to wash and change when arriving and leaving work, and how I was going to carry my clothes, toiletries, shoes, etc. Our building has a rather scuzzy employee shower in the basement that I wasn’t too keen on, but there’s also a fitness center (in a nominally separate building that happens to be attached to ours) if I was willing to pay a substantial fee. After having a look at the shower in the basement, which I had used a few times before, I decided that it was worth the $400 to buy a fitness membership — which also solved part of my luggage problem, as my membership came with a locker rental, allowing me to leave shampoo, comb, sunscreen, and shoes close to the office, rather than having to lug them back and forth (let alone subjecting my officemate to the smell of sweaty cycling kit all day long).

There was still the matter of carrying my work clothing, and the occasional baked goods, to and from the office. I have two bikes: an old Cannondale touring bike (from back in the days when bikes were actually made in the U.S.), and a brand-new racing bike. Now I am totally not a racer, but my mother was working for the manufacturer at the time, and before she retired I wanted to take the opportunity to get the nicest bike I could possibly justify at a steep discount. The old Cannondale is made of aluminum, and in fact already has a pannier rack on it, because I actually used it for touring with my parents back in the early ’90s (I told you it was old). The racing bike, like all fancy bikes these days, is made of carbon fiber, and not only does it not take panniers (on a racing bike? seriously?) there is no way to mount anything at all beyond a water bottle and a tiny under-seat bag. On the other hand, the racing bike is vastly more fun, not to mention more comfortable, to ride, so it was inevitable that I’d have to solve the carrying problem by putting everything on my back.

My fitness membership was scheduled to start June 1, and that was in fact the first day I did the whole thing by bike. Although my routes to and from work are almost totally different (sharing less than three miles total), both come in at 20.8 miles, so my daily round-trip was 41.6 miles or about 1,200 kcal of energy expenditure. This is almost exactly the same distance as my commute by car, over different roads yet again, and time-wise has been pretty consistently around 83 minutes each (with the fastest being 78 minutes on day with a big tailwind, and the slowest being 87 minutes into a monster headwind). Astonishingly, this is much less variability than doing it by car, which at the “off-peak” times I usually travel can still vary from 35 to 55 minutes. Over the 63 work days from June 1 to August 31, I actually managed to do this a total of 32 times — and in retrospect I could surely have done it at least another 15 days — for a total of 1,331 miles. (With that kind of distance, you’d be correct to suppose that some of those non-riding days were due to mechanical problems rather than weather!)

In order to make this work, I had to make a few adjustments to my schedule. Most important is the matter of daylight. Sunset around Boston in June is well after 8 PM, but by the end of August it’s approaching 7 PM, and by October it will be 6 PM. Normally I work 11–7, but my schedule is flexible, so for much of the summer I was able to make it 10–6 on bike-commuting days (which has caused a bit of confusion among co-workers not knowing when to schedule meetings). Since I’m doing all this riding on a racing bike — with no reflectors and only a minimal, barely visible flashing taillight — I really want to be home well before sunset, and that has meant adjusting my departure time a few minutes earlier every day throughout August; I had to trade time in the office for more work-from-home time, but I felt it was worth it to maintain that 1,200-kcal daily activity level without spending an hour on the stationary bike. Following the sunset has one unfortunate consequence: unlike in June, when the sun was effectively overhead for my entire homebound commute, in August the sun has been fairly low in the southwestern sky — and my route home lines up almost directly with the path of the sunset, meaning no shortage of panic stops when I’m blinded by the sun and can’t see the cars stopped ahead of me. It has also meant that more of my bike ride overlaps the very heavy rush periods that I originally set up my work schedule fifteen years ago to avoid.

The drivers have been polite, for the most part. This whole summer I’ve only had someone try to run me off the road four times — three of those times it was the same jackass construction contractor, over the course of about two miles of Beacon Street in Brookline earlier this week. One reason for the lower variability in travel times, for sure, has been a cyclist’s ability to bypass traffic jams while riding on the shoulder or in a marked bike lane; much more of my travel time on the bike depends specifically on my capabilities (particular hill-climbing, which I’m still terrible at). Given reasonable estimates of time spent commuting by either mode, doing it by bike takes about an hour and a half longer, total, each day, than by car — but if you account for the time I was spending on the stationary bike (and the associated warm-up/cool-down time) it’s pretty nearly a wash.

Which brings me to my biggest issue: having gotten into this routine, and fairly comfortable with it, I am finding departures from it exceedingly difficult to maintain — and I’m going to have to as the sunset inches ever earlier, if I don’t want to gain even more weight. I’ve gotten very accustomed to that extra 1,200 kcal of dietary headroom each day, but on the other hand I’ve also found it much more difficult to go back to my “old” routine on days when I haven’t been able to bike-commute, whether due to the weather, travel, or mechanical problems. (Even the “old” routine would only have given me about 900 kcal, but that’s still something, and given where I work, maintaining my dietary target of 1680 net kcal is nearly impossible without substantial cardio exercise.) I haven’t lost any weight over the past three months; in fact, I’ve probably gained a few pounds. I hope that at least some of this gain is muscle mass, but I have no way to tell (and even if I had a way to measure that, I don’t have any baseline to compare it with).

The other thing I got into this summer, thanks mainly to MeetUp, is the world of social cycling clubs. The MIT Cycling Club is very much a racing club, although they do tolerate oldster hangers-on like me going along on their training rides; since it’s a student activity, most of the students are gone for the summer, and those that aren’t belong to one of numerous local racing teams to keep in training. (The collegiate road racing season is the spring; cyclocross is early autumn and MTB season is late autumn into early winter.) But there’s more to cycling than just racing, and I learned about several local social clubs for cyclists that do organized rides pretty much every weekend that the weather allows. I was hoping this Labor Day long weekend to do about 185 miles, mostly with the Charles River Wheelmen, the area’s oldest cycling club, but now it’s looking like a washout is likely for at least two of the three days. I haven’t actually joined any of these clubs yet, but that may be something for next year, when (having been made aware of them) I’ll know to check the calendar for fun rides that start closer to me that the Student Center.

Another issue for me has been maintaining a reasonable sleep schedule. A number of the days when I could have bike-commuted and didn’t were a result of waking up at the first alarm still extremely tired — much more tired, in fact, than I had felt seven hours previously, tossing in bed trying to get to sleep. My regular work schedule (on days when I didn’t go for a morning ride) would have me getting up at 9:45 to be in by 11:00, which meant that I could be up until 1:30 or 2:00 AM without sleep deprivation — but getting up at 7:30 AM hasn’t left me sufficiently tired at 11:30 or midnight when I would theoretically need to get to bed for a proper sleep schedule. As a result, what I’ve found instead is that I can go for three or four days straight on only six hours of sleep, but then it catches up to me and I essentially have to sleep in. (This is part of the reason I have had so much trouble with resuming the old exercise schedule on wet/hot/unfavorable days: to leave enough time to digest dinner before starting exercise, and then enough time to cool down before going to bed, doesn’t allow for going to bed much before 1 AM, which in turn isn’t really compatible with getting up at 7:30 AM!) In theory, if I could get to bed at the unheard-of-early hour of 11 PM, I would have a chance at shifting my schedule even earlier and continuing to bike-commute through to October.

My challenge for the rest of this year is going to be to figure out how to maintain this level of activity, or something approaching it, once the early sunset (and end of daylight-saving time, should I last that long) makes bike commuting impractical. My fitness center membership runs through the end of November, so I should probably research the services they offer (beyond the locker room!) and see if I can get some more value out of my sunk costs.

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