Recently, I gave a talk at The Substation for Reel Revolutions 2008, as part of their Learning Talks series. For the first time ever, I got to speak about bicycle commuting. It's a nice change from talking about blogs, new media, or politics.
I am no environmentalist, athlete or someone who cannot drive due to a drink driving conviction. I am a bicycle commuter by choice, because it is fun and practical.
Many people ask how I ride daily to work and I thought I would collect some of my experiences and thoughts here. I have posted some of these ideas on forums and in my own comments section, but I thought it would be good to have them in one blog post. So here goes.
1. THE CLOTHES
It is not practical to cycle all the way to work in business clothes. Not in Singapore weather. Unless you work near your home.
Many bicycle commuters I know leave a set of clothes in the office. They may carry a week's worth of clothes to work on Monday, and cycle in lighter clothing (e.g. t-shirt and shorts) from Tuesday to Thursday. Then on Friday, they carry the clothes back. Or they carry home a day's clothes every day when they cycle back.
Some people leave the bulky items in the office. Like a pair of work shoes and belt. Then they carry just shirt and pants in their backpacks or panniers (bicycle rack-mounted bags).
Others, like myself, with non-formal dress codes, just cycle in our work clothes (I am in berms and t-shirts all day) and pack an extra t-shirt to change into in the office.
I also do not commute in lycra. You don't want to see me in tights anyway. Not a pretty sight. No offence to those who do, but I am totally comfortable in t-shirts and bermudas. I have one pair of cycling shorts which I wear only for long weekend recreational rides. The only concession I make is I try to wear dry-weave t-shirts for riding to work and change to cotton after I get to the office. Dry-weave (or dry-tech or dryscience) material is cooler, dries quickly and does not hang on to sweat.
As for bathing facilities, it is nice if your office has one. Mine does but I find over time, I did not need to shower after a ride. My ride to work takes 30 minutes in the sun. Just dry with a towel, maybe use some wet wipes to clean up, change into clean clothes, and you're ready to go. The key is to bathe BEFORE leaving the house. Sweat is not smelly, it is just salty. It's germs that make sweat smell. Strange as it may seem, bathing before riding helps a lot.
There are also bike parking facilities in town. There is a place in the CBD that offers showers, lockers and a safe place to park your expensive bike. Then you can walk to work from there, provided you work in Shenton Way area. It is cheaper than a gym membership, and you get to ride your best bike to work.
2. THE BIKE
Contrary to popular belief, a relatively ok bike does NOT need to cost $2,000. Sure by all means buy one if you like but you can get by on much less. A $500 mountain bike with slick tires will do fine, or if you like, a hybrid costing around $750 will be more than adequate. My brother-in-law rides a $200 no-brand mountain bike to work every day. I started on a $500 Kona mountain bike.
Because entry-level mountain bikes tend to come fairly cheaply, it is very often the first bike people buy. If you do get a mountain bike, bear in mind that the knobby tires are not very efficient on roads, and will make your bike slower and heavier. It may be better to change those tires to "slicks". Some go further and swop out the heavy suspension fork for a rigid fork (you don't need those for road riding), but if you overdo the upgrades, you may as well spend the money on a bike that is more suited for road commuting.
Heck, even a good quality "market bike" (the kind with a basket in front) will do. Good "market bikes" cost between $150 to $250. I've seen an excellent Made-in-Vietnam Asama "market bike" with 6 speeds, rack, fenders, basket and an old-school dynamo-light for $239. It is made to Japanese specs and rides beautifully.
You're not buying a bike to compete in a race, you're getting a functional bike to commute. Big difference.
In fact, you will not need the lightest and the fastest. You don't need 27 or 30 speeds. I ride a folding bike with only 3 gears in an internal hub. It works totally fine in our relatively flat city. Ride whatever works for you but don't get hung up on the need for competition gearing.
Traffic conditions here mean you are hardly racing anywhere. So no need to pay for that carbon bike. You will over time also add things like racks and lights to your bike, which will add some weight, so any weight savings you gain from getting some really expensive bike will be negated.
3. THE WEATHER
Weather is an issue. Sometimes I do pack a raincoat, rain pants and shoe covers called rain gaiters. I try to check weather forecast before going out. And maybe I am lucky, but in one year of daily riding, I've been caught in the rain less than 10 times. Light rain is actually very pleasant to ride in.
My other strategy is to ride a folding bike. When it rains, or I am tired, I just fold up, and take public transport or a cab. Foldies are also easier to "park". No need to worry your bike will be stolen. Prices start at $300 for decent entry level ones, and go beyond $2k for premium ones.
4. THE DISTANCES
Distance is relative. It is very often all in your mind. Of course don't ride a 25km distance for your first time or you will shack yourself out and lose interest. Eventually, that distance will not feel that bad, as you get fitter and more road-wise. The first few weeks riding to work is the hardest, especially when you have not exercised for a long time. But the human body is a very adaptable machine.
It takes me a hour to travel 25km from Katong to Clementi when I have to meet friends there. Most trips in Singapore are short. On average, I find most of my trips to work or to town, are about 7km to 12km, which takes 30 to 40 minutes. Longer rides, from one end of Singapore to another, take about an hour. You never need wait for the bus, never have to walk to a station, fight for a cab, or circle around looking for a parking lot. And you usually ride to the doorstep of your destination, a real time saver.
But even if you find longer distances daunting, it is possible to travel mixed mode. So ride to your MRT station, fold up, take train, unfold and ride from station to work. Nobody needs to ride all the way from Pasir Ris to CBD if they don't want to. But trust me, once you start riding, you will want to ride further and further, and eventually, you even stop taking the train. Haha!
In rush hour, bike can beat car and public transport. In non-rush hours, bike beats public transport almost always.
There are many ways to ride to work. The key is not to think like a driver and ride only the busy main roads. Take the smaller roads running parallel to main roads. Ride the park connectors and then reconnect to the roads. Ride along the Singapore River. The route may be a little longer, but usually more scenic and less dangerous. On a bike, that extra few kilometres traveled is only 5 to 10 minutes more.
It will be nice to wait for infrastructure and the government to build bike parking and bike lanes. But I'd rather enjoy my rides now. Actually, it is not that unsafe now. Our roads are well maintained, drivers are actually a little more polite these days, and as long as you are visible (lights lights lights!) and ride defensively, you can be safe.
5. THE PAINS
The most common pain for people riding longer distances for the first time is Butt Pain. There are several reasons for butt pain:
1. Saddle height
Most people ride with their feet touching the ground when they are seated on the saddle. That is too low. Correct height is legs must be almost fully extended when at lowest pedal point. This means when you stop, you need to get off the saddle. Takes practice but once you learn it, you will never cycle the old way again.
2. General fitting of the bike
Saddle height, saddle angle, handlebar height, size of bike. All these need to be fitted to you. Also saddle design. I went for saddle fitting before, everyone has a different butt and bone structure there. Also relevant is the KIND of cycling you do (upright or aerodynamic) and posture, which impacts the riding position and saddle you will need.
3. Most likely cause? You are out of shape
Most people who do not cycle and suddenly cycle a lot will feel butt and general ache for a while. Because cycling uses muscles you usually don't use in walking and running. The tendency for new cyclists is to put all your weight on your ass (hence ass pain). As you get better at cycling and stronger, you will learn to distribute your weight between the arms, the butt, and the legs.
6. THE ACCESSORIES
There are some essentials you will need to budget for when you get a bike to commute. Basics include bell, front and back lights, and a helmet.
There is a lot of controversy over the need for a helmet and I won't go into them here, but I wear one because I have seen it help in a fall.
Other things you may add over time:
Knowing what is behind you adds to your situational awareness, and helps you to anticipate danger.
For carrying stuff, because you will learn that backpacks are uncomfortable if you ride longer distances. Why lug it on your sweaty back when you have this metal thing with wheels to lug it for you?
These are bags for bicycles, not only useful for people who go touring, I've found them useful for carrying my laptop. I also use trunk bags like the Topeak MTX Trunk Bag DXP with Expandable Panniers. If you like, you can also try handlebar bags, like the Ortlieb Ultimate Classic 5 (the yellow bag above).
It does not look cool but it is damn useful.
It seems like a hassle until you fall down and sandpaper the road with your palms.
Not to look cool but to keep sun out of your eyes and stuff from flying INTO your eyes. I wear clear glasses at night. You don't need $500 Oakleys. $12 King's Safety glasses work perfectly ok.
7. Air horn
Nothing like a nice blast from an AirZounds airhorn to alert drivers coming out of side lanes without looking and who are driving too close to you.
8. More lights
Lumen is life. You are competing with car lights on the road, so you do need more, not less lighting, to be seen.
On my MU P24, I run two S-Sun 1W lights on the handlebar, a Cat Eye EL-320 on the handlepost and a Cat Eye EL-170 mounted near the fender. And a Sigma white blinkie on the helmet. That's four front lights, two of which are blinking.
For rear red blinking lights, I have a Cat Eye LD-610 on the rack, LD-1000 under the saddle, and a Sigma red blinkie on my helmet. That's three red rear blinkers. You want to have a high light (helmet one) because certain big vehicles may miss the low-mounted one.
9. Fenders and mudguards
You may not ride in the rain but even wet roads AFTER rain will dirty your back and your bike's crank/bottom bracket.
Forget the cable lock everyone likes to buy. Those are the easiest things to cut. A decent U-lock will go a long way in reducing your bike being stolen, It will at least slow your thief down a little. Check out Sheldon Brown's site for a good guide to locking up. Bear in mind that getting your bicycle stolen is very common in Singapore. You can get it stolen easily at MRT stations and along your HDB flat corridor. I wish the authorities would do something about protecting people's property at MRT stations. Those CCTV cameras don't seem to work in deterring bike thieves. My bike shop auntie says her son has already lost 3 bikes at MRT stations. In the meantime, lock up the right way to discourage bike thieves. No lock can stop a determined thief but at least make it inconvenient enough to make them steal something else.
11. Water bottle cage
I have water bottle cages on my bikes but I find that very often, I don't need to drink while commuting since the distances are so short. I drink a a big glass of water before I ride and another big glass after I reach my destination. For rides longer than an hour, especially in hot sun, you will need to drink on the move so a water bottle cage and a bottle are quite good to have.
12. Cyclocomputer (or speedometer)
Cyclocomputers are handy for commuting to the extent that they tell you the time so you don't need to look at your watch while riding, and they tell you the distance traveled, so you know how much further you need to go. Beyond that, knowing your speed, average speed, and max speed are all just nice-to-haves. Do try not to glance too often at your speedo or fiddle with it while riding in traffic. You can miss important traffic or road condition information. I speak from experience because one of my big falls came from me fiddling with the Cat Eye Strada Wireless computer on my handlebar and not realising there was a road hump in front of me until it was too late.
If you have a folding bike, a wireless one is nice, so that wires don't get in the way when you fold. Do make sure the wireless cyclocomputer you get has enough range between the receiver and transmitter though, because folding bikes tend to have quite a distance between the handlebars and the spokes.
Wired cyclocomputers are fine (and cheaper too) for non-folding bikes. Wired cyclocomputers are also a little more reliable, being less prone to interference.
Many cyclists who ride for sport will be appalled at the weight a bicycle commuter adds to his bike, not to mention the un-coolness factor of the various accessories ("Kickstand? That's another 200 grams! I'll lean my bike against a wall, thank you!"). But the mentality of a cyclist who rides for function and not for sport is different.
7. THE DANGERS
Pavements and Sidewalks
Contrary to popular belief, it is actually more dangerous to ride on the pavement than the roads. There are way too many things that can happen on pavements that can trip up a cyclist, like overhanging branches, tree roots, and pedestrians. Also, cars do not expect fast moving objects like a bicycle to shoot out from pavements at side roads.
I am not totally anti-pavement though. There are times you really need to get on the pavement for safety reasons. I get on the pavement, then get back to road as soon as I can. Just like cars should give way to bikes on roads, bikes should give way to pedestrians on sidewalks. Practise Zero Impact pavement riding, meaning you ride with minimal disruption to the pedestrians walking there. By the way, pavement riding is illegal in Singapore, but it is not enforced strictly.
On the Tampines Pavement Riding Scheme, an experiment where cyclists are allowed to ride on widened paths together with pedestrians, they have started to enforce penalties for dangerous cycling. Well and good. Now how about some stricter penalties for motorists who endanger cyclists on the road?
Nothing is more dangerous than another cyclist riding against the flow of traffic, loaded with plastic bags on his handlebars, on his mobile phone, and riding towards you. I give them a wide berth. After checking for traffic behind me, of course.
Oh, and no, it is NOT safer to ride AGAINST the flow of traffic on the road. Are you nuts?
Beware the parked cars on your left, an opening door will send you flying. Always ride a door's distance away from these cars, even if you have to take up the rest of the lane. Dooring can happen even at traffic lights, when the driver lets his passenger off while the lights are red, and you happen to be riding to the left of that car.
If you hear a bus coming from behind you, or there is one overtaking you, get ready to slow down. SBS and TIBS buses tend to cut right back in, in front of you, after they overtake because they want to get into their bus stops. If you continue riding straight at high speeds, you are going to get squeezed by the bus. Bus stops are particularly dangerous areas, always approach with caution, and check if there is a bus behind that might overtake you impatiently.
Riding Too Close to the Left
Cyclists take the "cyclists must keep left" rule too literally. The law says you keep to the side of the road "as practicable". If you keep too left, you may have no room to maneuver if a car comes too close. Or you may ride into debris or drains or grills that can mess you up. My default riding position is just outside the 2nd line of the double yellow line. I move to the centre of the lane, after checking behind, when I approach junctions and side roads to prevent cars from trying to cut in front of me at the last moment. Positioning is very important at junctions and entrances to expressways. Keeping left all the time can kill you.
Grills found in drains along the left side of the road are death traps for narrow bicycle wheels (again, another reason not to ride too left). Even the ridge to the grilled holes can throw your wheels off. Watch for unevenly tarred roads surfaces.
Watch out for people flagging cabs. They sometimes stand on the road and wave, getting in your way. They also attract taxis that will cut 3 lanes to pick them up, thereby cutting in front of you dangerously. When I see people flagging for cabs, I instinctively check behind for cabs and prepare to slow down.
It can get bad when you ride in town. I try not to ride behind buses and trucks. The other way around pollution, besides riding fast haha, is to choose your route carefully.
As mentioned earlier, don't think like a driver when you choose your bicycle route. My current route to work takes me through the lovely Tai Keng Gardens estate, and a long wide car-free path nestled between Haig Road and Onan Road. Lovely views and air in those stretches (though the middle portion is Paya Lebar, the Second Hell next to the First Hell — Jalan Eunos).
In contrast, my most direct route to work, via Jalan Eunos, is a hell hole of traffic and pollution. I am used to riding there by now but I would rather take my longer, more pleasant route.
The Right of Way Mentality
Right of Way? Cars that signal? Eye contact means he saw me? Seasoned cyclists on the road laugh at these concepts. You may as well ask the earth to rotate around the moon. There are certain realities on the road you cannot change, so stop whining and adapt.
Sure we could use better laws and infrastructure to protect cyclists in Singapore but cyclists need to take responsibility for their own safety.
Motorists should be careful around cyclists, but in an accident, they only have a dent, you pay with your life.
I have seen too many cyclists get into accidents even though the light is green and in their favour. Drivers are human and prone to error and moronic behaviour, you know. Don't ride through your green light in blissful ignorance even if it IS your right of way.
Right of way is what the courts decide on after they scrape your bike and body off the road in an accident.
I hope this helps demystify some of the ideas behind commuting by bicycle in Singapore. Contrary to what the government wants you to think, the bicycle is not just for recreation and getting around in your estate. It is a very viable form of transport. Now go out and ride safe. And above all, have fun.
Addendum, added 15 Dec 2014: When bicycle commuting in Singapore, you may sometimes be blocked by local wildlife…
Photo by KP Kwek, used with permission.
Your bell may not work with this kind of obstacle.