Bicycle Diaries: Celebrating Urban Bike Commuting in Seattle

By: 
Roddy Scheer
© Roddy Scheer Photography
Riding on the Burke-Gilman Trail in Fremont

Since May is Bike Month around the world, I am devoting my Outdoors blog posts for the next few weeks to urban bicycle commuting around Seattle. I will be virtually following two urban bike commuters as they make their way to and from work every day on two wheels under their own power, and I will personally be doing all the grocery shopping for myself and family members by bicycle (since I work from home). Stay tuned throughout the month for trip reports, helmet-cam video snippets, gear reviews and other goodies for cyclists of all kinds.

One of the riders I will be tracking this month is Greg Widmyer, a senior program officer at a giant Seattle-based foundation and recent transplant, with wife and three kids, from the Bay Area. These days he rides the 4+ miles (mostly downhill) to his South Lake Union office from his home in Wallingford -- and back (uphill) at the end of the day -- three to four days per week. Here are Greg’s thoughts on his bicycle commuting last week...

"It was actually an interesting commute week.

So, the week started off with that typical, ”hmmm, I’m going to be a little bit wet when I get to work” phenomenon. I kind of relish those days a bit for a few reasons.  First, and this is in pure recognition of some id deep inside me, is the feeling that I’m earning my ride. I feel kind of bad-ass when I sitting at a stop light and the car next to me has their wind shield wipers going and I look over to them and a few small drops of water trickle off the front of my helmet. It gives me a weird little adrenalin rush to feel that I’ve got some level of commitment to do this in the rain. I know that’s probably not a big deal around here but having just moved from California, doing almost anything in inclement weather adds an element of hard-core cache to anything. The second reason, I somewhat enjoy the rain stems from some deep seated guilt I have about buying gear.

I have a lot of gear and buying gear is often one of my greatest motivators for sticking with a sport.  So it is with bike commuting. I bought an awesome bike rain jacket at REI and was feeling a little guilty about it b/c it was like $120 (on sale). I already have a couple other rain coats so was thinking I could just double down with those.  But it didn’t really work, I was uncomfortable or too hot or not dry enough. But man, this jacket is awesome. I love how I’m getting all wet on the outside and stay dry on the inside. If I was biking further (say 10-15 miles one way), it might be too warm, but this thing is great on those rainy 40 degree mornings, of which I’m finding that there are more than I thought there would be – especially this spring. 

I also had a few big rookie learnings this week. First, on Tuesday, my tire was flat when I went to leave for work. I was in a rush, so I convinced myself that some air fairy had stolen the air out of my tire overnight and that by pumping it up, I would be okay and that somehow just putting more air into the tire would somehow magically solve the problem that had led to the air disappearing in the first place.  At least that’s what I was telling myself as I rode to my first meeting in a different building then where I work. Worst case, I had a spare tube in my seat bag and can use that. I came out of that meeting, and, guess what? The tire was flat again.I was running a bit late again and had changed into nicer work clothes so didn’t feel like changing the tube then and my office was only a few minutes away. So, I figured I’d just pump up the tire and ride the mile or so that remained. Thankfully, this was a building with a bunch of bikers so there were pumps around. So, get to my office and figure I’ll change the tube at the end of the day when I’m in my bike clothes. So, at end of day, I pull my own tube out of my bike bag and discover that I mistakenly had my mountain biking tube in my bag that wouldn’t fit my road tires.  Thankfully, again, this building had generous stored biking supplies/tools (including a spare tube).  So, how many lessons are embedded in this tale, I’m not sure, but I count at least three: 1) tires don’t generally mysteriously lose air for no good reason; 2) tires don’t fix themselves; and 3) bikers are generally a generous bunch.  

Second major rookie lesson (or perhaps this should be a theme unto itself: “How to deal with the post work happy hour/drinks fest with colleagues”.  I was facing this situation and had a few things to consider: 1) what to do about changing gear.  I have a long enough ride that I prefer to change into biking stuff.  But, to do that in this situation means that I go into the happy hour looking like a giant reflective dork.  I choose this option.  2) how much to drink.  Not that it’s that much better to be behind the wheel of a 3,000 lb piece of metal after a couple quick beers, but pushing a gas pedal is certainly easier than turning the crank on a bike pedal after the lazy feeling a few post-work pints will give you.   In the end, neither choice mattered.  I looked silly in both situations – drinking while reflecting; and pedaling after drinking.   But, I was still kind of smug that I worked probably one of those beers while riding home"

The other rider I will be checking in with is Julia Trippel, who works in the Cycling and Paddling departments at the REI Flagship store in Seattle and also teaches free bike maintenance basics classes on Tuesday and Thursdays at 7 p.m. She rides her bike into work five days a week up and over Capitol Hill from her home in the Central District, where incidentally she and her partner are raising five chickens that love their food scraps and provide wonderful fresh eggs. Here is what Julia reports about her ride to work one recent morning...

"After spending over a week in Portland, the steeper topography of Seattle welcomes my legs with the familiar rush of adrenaline and its compatriot, lactic acid.  Cresting Capitol Hill, I admire the fascinating mix of folks waiting for the bus, grocery shopping, walking, biking, driving, working, and sometimes feeding pigeons.

 From that ridge, after the up, the down begins.  First, Madison Avenue’s two lanes give berth to vehicles of various types, side by side.  At the Central Coop, the wind picks up as I accelerate down Pine.  While the stop sign at 15th Ave wears down the Novara Veritá’s brake pads, happily the downhill continues.  Pine Street’s new pavement smoothly guides me past Zaw and Poco Wine Room where potholes were an obstacle course last year.  After the stop sign at 14th, the decline levels out as I pass the Fire Station.  I tip down toward the ocean again as I cross 13th at The Cuff.  The lighted intersection at 12th is home to the Police station and liquor store and is another people-watching thoroughfare where in the mornings, bicycle traffic always seems to be Southbound.  The next light at Bobby Morris Field often has an aroma of burning toast, which I inhale to pedal up the slight incline and catch the green light at the next intersection, with Broadway. 

Next, the slope of the road steepens down again.  The bike lane, into which parking cars birth drivers eager for delicious Stumptown coffee, is a welcome buffer as each car door protrudes three feet into traffic when opening.  I usually travel at a pace with cars in this section.  As I approach Bellevue Ave, I hold up my left arm, elbow level with shoulder and hand pointing up at the sky.  I begin braking with my right hand, preparing to turn right.  One last look for through traffic from the left and pedestrians to the right and I bank turning right, threading between the metal utility covers that lack the friction to support my tires at a high speed angle."

Look for more “deep thoughts” on the topic of bicycle commuting from these urban warriors and others over the following weeks. I am also working with Julia on a video showcasing some of the latest and greatest products to make that urban bike commute that much more manageable. And I’ll be checking in with the Cascade Bicycle Club and some other organizations to help fill in the blanks for people wanting to learn more about ditching the car in favor of the bike this spring and summer. Stay tuned!

 

Seattle mag contributing blogger Roddy Scheer recently explored the art of biking in the city. Check out more posts from his series:

Bicycle Diaries: Essentials for Bike Commuting

Bicycle Diaries: Shopping for Groceries on Your Bike

Bicycle Diaries: The Competitive Side of Bike Commuters