Trails add distance but make bike commuting a better experience

I pedaled into the world of bicycle commuting last month, joining 1,622 other participants in the 22nd annual Thurston County Bicycle Commuter Contest sponsored by Intercity Transit.

My 78 total miles logged on three commutes to work and one trip to the grocery store won’t win me any extra prizes, but the experience was an eye-opening adventure.

First, the good news: I had no accidents or nasty encounters with vehicles or their drivers. And I have a renewed appreciation of the rails-to-trails system that allowed me to bike to work on the Chehalis Western and Woodland trails, reducing my travel on bike lanes and county roads to a bare minimum from my home in East Olympia to downtown Olympia and back.

Using the trail system required some backpedaling, adding about 4 miles to what otherwise is a 14.5-mile round-trip commute on the roads. But it was worth the extra distance – more relaxing, less hilly, scenic, quiet and, yes, safer.

My one day riding my bicycle to work on the more direct road route was nerve-wracking, to say the least. I quickly learned that bike lanes do more than accommodate bikes. They are used by utility crews to post those orange “Workers Ahead” signs, forcing a bicyclist to suddenly merge into the flow of vehicle traffic. I experienced that on Boulevard Road.

A few blocks later, I found myself sandwiched at a stoplight between an Intercity Transit bus and an Olympia School District bus after a left turn onto Pacific Avenue between Boulevard Road and State Avenue. I felt small and vulnerable as I took in the smell of biodiesel exhaust from the IT bus.

I encountered the same bus again as it pulled over to pick up passengers on State Avenue, blocking the bike lane. I suddenly realized that these two alternative forms of transportation often conflict with each other on city streets, with the bicyclist at a clear size disadvantage.

My response? I bought a rearview mirror that attaches to my bike helmet for the ride home that night.

Perhaps the most dangerous stretch of road I encountered while bicycle commuting was Rainier Road just south of Yelm Highway. There is no bike lane, not even a shoulder to ride on, and a steady stream of rush-hour traffic sent me scurrying to the sidewalk.

It took me about 50 minutes to bike to work on the trails and 35 minutes on the road. The extra 15 minutes was worth the peace of mind.

The exercise value of bicycle commuting is a real boon. But it did disappoint my dog, Jake, when I was too tired on bicycle commute nights to take him for a walk.

I figured I saved about $10 on gasoline by leaving my car home for the four bicycle journeys, But I spent more than $125 repairing and outfitting my bike for commuting.

I was part of a four-member team from The Olympian newsroom. Reporters Matt Batcheldor, Christian Hill and Gail Wood joined me in logging a total of 645.5 miles on our bikes in May.

Wood led the way with 309.1 miles and 21 days of commuting, followed by Hill, with 218.1 miles and 20 days, my 78 miles over four days and Batcheldor’s 40.3 miles over 12 days.

Hill and Wood have biked to work occasionally in the past, but all four of us were new to the contest.

Hill parked his car at work early in the month to provide him flexibility to go on assignments and respond to breaking news during the day.

“If I hadn’t had a car here, I couldn’t have done it,” Hill said of his near-perfect bicycle commute track record from his Lacey residence.

Wood, also a Lacey-area resident, has the dubious distinction of being the only Team Olympian member who doesn’t wear a bicycle helmet.

This despite the fact he suffered a fractured skull while bicycling in 2002.

“Riding safely, making good decisions and staying alert and careful supersedes the benefits of wearing a helmet,” Wood said. “Besides, helmets are uncomfortable, and they make me sweat more.”

Batcheldor, who lives in downtown Olympia and had the shortest commute, bought his first helmet in the midst of the contest.

“I’m still kind of a fair-weather biker, but I think I’ll bike commute occasionally this summer,” he said.

Both Wood and Hill rode their bikes to work this week, even though the contest is over.

Me? I think I’ll be back on my bicycle this summer, preferably on the trails for both recreational riding and commuting.

And I’ll keep nagging Wood to wear a helmet.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444