Commuting on your (t)rusty steed

Having used my trusty Trek 7100 hybrid to commute to work for some years now, I realized that I’ve absorbed some lessons of the road. My feet sit on the pedals, my hands grip the bars, I scan the road for sights and sounds that could mean a threat. Instinctively, I now react to situations which earlier would have caused panic at best, or a nasty spill at worst. That’s what muscle memory is. You do something so often that you choose the appropriate action to most situations in an  only semi-sentient state.

As I write, I realize that I’m in danger of making the cycle commute sound a little like Kosovo on two wheels. Not so.  There’s a certain lift to the spirits as I prepare for the ride, pulling on my shorts and shoes (Yeah, shorts to work!). There’s a very definite spring in my step as I wheel ye olde steed out of the door and into the lift. Put on the obligatory lid, crank up some R&B, and I’m all set. As I ride out of the gate, my legs are getting used to the cadence and I’m thinking ahead a little, to the traffic I’m going to have to plough through, to the well-established traffic lights I can cheat at by wheeling my bike to the head of the queue, to the speed I can put out on Assaye Road. I feel almost like I’m cheating; the commute was not meant to be fun, surely? I have the wind in my face, the sun in my eyes, and hell, I’m multiplexing my commute and workout. The commute definitely comes out ahead in this relationship…

On the road, there are some things you figure out over a period of time, and now do (mostly) automatically :call them the Hydra Commandments if you will (because if you take one off, another takes its place)

1. Thou shalt assert thyself: yes, Bangalore traffic is a nasty place to be. It’s loud, smoky, and chaotic. Lights are jumped, and auto rickshaws run amok. That newly minted driver  is a menace who ought to be put away for his own safety as much as anyone else’s.  Rukmini, driving her brand-new Alto, is adhering to the letter to her driving school teacher’s instructions regarding honking: you must honk, you will honk, loudly and incessantly because the muttonheads in your way need to hear you. And the less said about Raju, the BPO cab driver, mowing down innocent passersby as he hangs out of the window of his Sumo, the better.

Still, or even because of this, you have to be a tiger, not a deer. The battle for space is mostly mental. Seriously.  I try to project a mental force field, almost as if I’m laying claim to the few square inches of real estate around me. It works. Still, keep your elbows handy and lungs ready to yell. There are few things more effective than active deterrence.

2.  Ride fluidly: being a cyclist, you can often time your ride so you arrive at a light as it turns green. You will still need to swerve and jinx to avoid and overtake, though. Plan how you will move  into a turn, or denser traffic, or a red light. Shift down ahead of time (if in doubt, you usually should shift down anyway). Know your braking distances and overcompensate on wet roads. Try and ride at approximately the same speed as traffic around you…that way, you’re at less risk of being nudged accidentally by traffic moving a lot faster.

3. Ride on the left: Mostly, yes. Be aware, though, that you will need to jink and swerve to avoid or overtake, as the situation demands. Staying on the left just keeps you out of the way of the faster traffic, as well as slow, asthmatic heavy traffic (both stick to the right as if Velcro-ed there). At intersections, I like to stay on the left, because whether I’m turning right or left, I end up on the left.

4. Menace canis familiaris: if you cycle during normal commuting hours, you shouldn’t have a problem. Urban dogs get aggressive in the wee hours of the morning…ever set out from home before 6 am and have the neighbourhood dogs snap at your heels as you set out?

Dogs have guarding their territory hardwired into their systems. What I do to manage that menace depends on the level of aggression of the dog or dogs in question. If it’s at the ‘stare and trot after me’ stage, it works to avoid eye contact, and maintain a steady speed. No sudden moves is the mantra here.

For dogs that trace their genealogy back to their Rottweiler ancestors, I adopt a more confrontational attitude. Yell, wave your arms, make yourself loom larger ( thank you, National Geographic :)) . And keep your ankles safe.

5. Essential gear: wow, every gear gopher’s pet subject 🙂  Still, you only need a few items when you’re starting out:

  • Helmet: watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2oymHHyV1M to see just why a helmet is so important. Modern cycling helmets are lightweight, well-ventilated, comfortable…and make you much, much safer on the road.
  • Dri-fit shirt and shorts: you will feel a lot cooler if you ride to work in comfortable gear, and change at work. A shower is great, but not always possible. Simply washing yourself and changing clothes will do the trick. Deo is a good idea.

Top tip:  Your shoes are the heaviest thing you will carry. See if you can stash a couple of  pairs at work. Carry them back with you when you use your car/  motorcycle.

  • Cycle lock: Try and get a good cable or U-lock if you have friends coming in from abroad. Locally, Decathlon makes inexpensive  locks. More important than the lock itself is where and how you lock your bicycle. Run your cable lock through the frame, and one or both wheels, and an immovable object like a railing, a bracket on the wall, a parking board…you get the idea. To do this, your lock would need to be five to six feet long. One of the joys of cycling is how you can park just about anywhere.

Top tip: remove all your accessories (lights, cyclocomps etc., when you park)

  • Spare tube, tyre levers (two) ,  a good quality frame pump and a multi-tool: while you can repair a punctured tube, it’s easier (and quicker) to whip in a new tube and pump it up. Even otherwise, a puncture shop (and an auto-rickshaw) is never too far away in India.

6. Commuting 101 for women: the rules aren’t too different, and yes, it really is fun. 

Cycling for women in Bangalore is as safe/ unsafe as it is for men, for the most part. The same rules apply – claim your space but do so in an assertive, dignified, not aggressive manner; be mindful of traffic; ride at roughly the same speed as traffic; at signals, make your way to the front of the traffic and stay where its quickest, easiest for you move to the left-hand side of the road. All that being a given, here are some basics to remember:

As a woman rider, you will probably come under some scrutiny and attention. Get used to it and don’t ascribe more to it than needed. As long as you are riding safely, you don’t need to go out of your way to seem unapproachable, nor do you need to seem overly friendly. Minding your own business should keep harm out of your way.

The usual cycling guidelines on safety visibility stay also – a helmet, sufficient light to be seen by are good ideas. Bright coloured clothes are a good idea too. Remember that while Bangalore is fairly cosmopolitan, while commuting on your cycle, you are likely to come across itinerant labourers, unemployed youth or the local perv on your path and you are far more visible than you are in a car. Erring on the side of caution as far as length of shorts/ type of dri-fit top is recommended.

Common sense guidelines apply also: if you will be commuting solo late in the night/ early in the morning, avoid the cycle. You don’t want unnecessary attention on you, flashing tail lamp and all, with diminished traffic on dark roads. Drinking and riding a bike is as bad an idea as drinking and driving – unless the drink in question is Gatorade

You might get approached by people on motorbikes asking how much your cycle costs or how fast it goes – these are usually harmless. It’s a good idea to downplay the cost, if you feel like sharing it at all. Just have an answer ready.

The golden rule for cycling is the same as the golden rule for self-defense/ urban survival: don’t provoke anyone, don’t start a fight, don’t get involved in a fight someone else starts, if you have the option of fight/ flight, flight is always, always the safer option – “if you walk away, you can fight another day”.