Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bicycles can mean a cheap commute

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Forget the fancy jersey covered in ads, the Shimano shoes and the $8,000 feather-light road bike.

This isn't France and you're not Lance Armstrong racing down the Champs-Elysees.

You're a commuter looking for an inexpensive, healthy, eco-friendly way to get to and from work. And as a growing number of commuter cyclists have learned, all you need is a sturdy bike and a helmet. Neither needs to cost a lot of money, though you will have to put a little elbow grease into repairs and maintenance now and then.

Sandy Weiss, 45, of Webster Groves, Mo., relies on her oldest, least expensive bike for commuting to her multiple jobs as a physical therapist and college instructor, even though she and her husband own more than a dozen other bikes.

It's a Peugeot Canyon Express, a first-generation mountain bike that she bought for about $350 in 1990.

Steel frames like the one on her Peugeot, Weiss said, withstand the rigors of commuting best.

"This is the kind of bike that people put out on the curb, because the tires are decaying and the frame is rusty," she said. "It's been run into by cars and bent and unbent, but it keeps going."

Weiss has replaced the tires, the handlebars and, most recently, the drive train which she bought at a fraction of the retail price at a cycling swap-meet in January.


Buying used bikes and bike parts, it seems, is becoming de rigueur for many veteran and novice bike commuters.

There are at least three local shops that specialize in used bicycles, including Recycled Cycles & Service in University City, St. Louis BicycleWORKS in the Shaw neighborhood and Randy's Recycled Cycles on Manchester in the Grove neighborhood.

Randy Bond opened Randy's Recycled Cycles in St. Louis eight months ago and says he can't keep up with demand. He's had to hire extra bike mechanics to get bikes ready for sale.

"I've had a lot of people come in looking for used bikes because they want to cut down on driving," he said. "They want them to commute back and forth from work and need to go six or 10 miles. You can come in here and get a decent bike for $150 to $250."

Bond gets used bikes online, at auctions, at yard and garage sales, and from customers looking to trade or sell.

Typically, he said, he and his mechanics refurbish them with new wheels and axles, pack the bearings, adjust and lube the cranks and head sets, adjust the brakes and derailleurs and replace parts that are damaged.

"We recondition the bike so it's safe and ready to ride," he said. "And when we get hybrids, they sell as fast as we get them."

He notes that some road bikes are more delicate than hybrid and mountain bikes, because their tires are smaller. Hit a pothole, and you're more likely to blow a tire, damage the rim and possibly both.

"The hybrid is a little more durable," he said. "It'll handle a little more abuse than a road bike can take."

But, he added, you can put hybrid wheels on a road bike to make it more smooth and durable, and you can put them on a mountain bike to make it lighter and less resistant to ground friction.


Trailnet, the nonprofit group that develops bike and pedestrian trails, and Team Revolution, a local women's cycling group, offer bicycle commuter clinics to teach women how to fix and outfit bikes for specific purposes.

"I think it's important to teach people to work on bikes so they don't have to go to shops where they charge however much on repairs and maintenance," said Suzanne Johnson, treasurer and clinic manager for Team Revolution. She also said she sees no problem with commuting with whatever bike you have.

"There are definitely commuter bikes out there but there are people who commute on racing and mountain bikes," she said. "It's what you have, what your comfort level is, and what your cost point is."

At a recent clinic, topics included what to wear, and Ann Mack, director of Trailnet, showed off her zip-up skort which looked office-ready. The clinic also included rules of the road - "be a vehicle, not a salmon" was one piece of advice - and safety gear was discussed, including the best type of lights for riding in the dark. Several of the veteran bike commuters recommend ones that attach to the helmet because they're high enough to be visible to motorists.

One woman said she learned that wrapping hard-boiled eggs and bananas in bubble wrap before putting them in her panniers - a bike saddlebag - is a must to prevent cracking and bruising.

Weiss pulled a big cobalt-blue jar of cleansing cream from her pannier, opened it and instructed a woman next to her to smell it.

It's the off-brand version of Noxzema, she said excitedly, explaining that she uses it to get rid of body odor when she reaches work.

Karie E. Casey, 47, a lawyer with the downtown law firm Evans & Dixon, has a seizure disorder and couldn't drive a car for several years. But even now that she's been cleared to drive, she still bikes 16 miles round trip most days.

She recently set her road bike aside for racing and training, and invested in a 2010 Salsa Vaya touring bike for commuting.

"It's steel and very comfortable, equipped with fenders and racks for panniers," she said. "Love it."

Aside from the bike itself, the only other mandatory expense, Johnson said, is the helmet. But you can buy inexpensive ones at Target or Walmart.

"There is a minimum safety standard, so manufacturers cannot sell a helmet that is not safe," she said. "You can buy one for $25. I would never recommend buying a used helmet."

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