On Fixies, Bartering, Bike Commuting

When I first heard about the fixed gear “fixie” bike (that is, a bicycle that doesn’t change gears where the pedals are linked directly to the rear tire so one can never stop pedaling while the bike is moving) I thought “that is the stupidest bike ever, why would anyone want that?”  But I’m not one to knock something without trying it.

Fast forward a couple of years to when I have talked to several fixie owners and watched a documentary on it.  Now I’m thinking, ok I see why some people like it. Not long later, while studying a triathlon training book, I found a recommendation to ride fixed gear bikes as a part of training.  Riding a fixed gear bike can improve your pedaling mechanics because it forces your legs into a constant circular motion at high cadence. This teaches your muscles where the transitions are from one phase of pedaling to the next.  Now that there was a good “technical” reason to ride a fixie, I decided I could give it a whirl.

It just so happened that while conducting research on different bikes a good friend of mine had one he was looking to part with. This actually worked quite well.  I had purchased a very nice -15 degree sleeping bag a few months back, just prior to deciding to move to Miami (hopefully I won’t need a -15 degree bag there). My friend happens to be an avid outdoorsman himself and so we negotiated a 1 for 1 trade.  What an awesome deal, we each got rid of something we no longer needed without spending cash and without having something we don’t really need any more taking up space. I love a good old fashioned barter. There seems to be a social stigma attached with bartering, as if it is something that only poor people do.  The fact is that it’s great all around, it’s win-win for the barterers, and it’s great for the earth, less junk lying around (I guess the bike and sleeping bag industries would have preferred we purchased new ones, but maybe we can’t please everyone in this situation). I think people need to consider bartering as an option far more often.  

So I had myself a fixie.  I must admit, it was a bit awkward on the first spin around the block after 25 plus years of being able to coast down the street.  I adapted quickly (probably due to my training in smooth pedaling for triathlons). Once I overcame the difference in the pedaling I noticed a strange connection to the bike.  I felt a much more direct connection to the bike and the road. No gears to shift, no coasting, if I wanted to go faster, I pedaled faster and if I wanted to go slower, I pedaled slower.  It feels much more of an extension of your body and less of a tool for transportation.

I have since put on 1000s of miles on it and have no regrets.  It became my daily commuter bike for my 6 mile daily round trip to class (sometimes twice a day) and my only means of transportation in Miami, as I didn’t need to own a car.  Now I used it to commute regularily to work in Minnesota, a 24 mile round trip.

What a wonderful commute it is!  Minneapolis and St. Paul are very bike friendly cities (except for the several feet of snow half of the year).  I’m able to hop on a bike path across the street from home and stay on it the entire 12 miles, overlooking the beautiful Mississippi River much of the way, before it connects me directly to the building where I work.  I feel grateful than my morning commute isn’t a dreaded time only appreciated by stand up comics but rather a time most others look forward to as their weekend activity.

It is also a dramatic cost savings.  I pay $2.50 a day to park at my work and if you factor in the cost of gas (for my particular vehicle) of 1 gallon of gas per round trip (someday I’ll get a more fuel efficient vehicle) I save over $5 a day that I bike.  Biking just 2 days a week for 9 months of the year (I will bike in winter, but not joyfully) is a savings of $72 per year…for something others due for fun!

I know, I know, what about the value of my time?  After all, isn’t that what Financial independence is about; buying back the ownership of our time?  I will argue that biking, for me, is a net SAVINGS of time.  Lemme explain: My driving round trip commute of 24 miles takes about 1 hour each day (traffic, traffic lights and 10 minutes circling to the top of the parking ramp).  Biking takes me an average of 1:45 round trip each day including time to change (fortunately, I’m not naturally a sweaty guy so I don’t need to shower, that or I have overly polite co-workers who never complain about me needing to).  Yes, yes, that’s LONGER. Stay with me. On driving days after 8 hours of sitting a desk and a 30 minute drive home I NEED to get some exercise and will spend an hour (in ideal state) getting some sort of physical activity. On bike days by the time I get home, I just got my second 45 minute workout in for the day and can unregrettably proceed to re-watching Trailer Park Boys all evening if I so desire  (check it out, it’s stupidly hilarious). The math: Drive days = 1 hour commute + 1 hour workout = 2 hours. Bike days = 1:45 commute/workout = 15 minutes net saved plus 45 min extra exercise.

This is in addition to the immeasurable impact bookending bike rides on your workday has on your mental health.  I arrive at work in a great mood with my thoughts and plans for the day pulled out of mental storage and organized and I get home with my thoughts about work organized and put away for the day.

If you don’t bike commute yet, what’s stopping you?  What would it take to overcome that barrier?

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