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Orlando Sentinel: Lessons learned while commuting to work on a bike

os-dan-tracy-bio-20140716Cold is better than heat and heat is preferable to rain, though the end result between heat and rain often is the same – a wet body. Cool is without a doubt the best.

That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I near the end of my first year commuting to work on a bicycle from my home in College Park to the Orlando Sentinel office downtown, a one-way trip of about three miles.

One of a small but growing band of cyclists in Central Florida who pedal to and from work, my goal is to ride at least three days a week. The trip typically consumes 15 to 20 minutes each way, depending on the traffic. That’s about 5 to 7 minutes more than driving a car.

But the difference cannot be measured strictly in time.

Biking is a small-scale human endeavor, putting the rider in touch with the elements and surroundings. I am intimately aware of the weather, be it sweltering summer heat or the recent cold snaps. I know every pothole and bump in the roads I regularly ride.

I exchange brief pleasantries with school crossing guards, and with people walking their dogs, sitting on their porches and cutting their lawns.

It’s a totally different experience in a car, where I am alone, piloting a nearly two-ton piece of machinery and hermetically sealed in with air conditioning or heat, the power windows almost always rolled up, the radio playing.

Invariably, I am in a much better mood when I ride than when I drive.

But that’s not to say biking is problem-free.

One morning I stopped at a red light and a pickup truck behind me starting honking. I looked back and the driver angrily waved his hand at me in a motion that said, “Get off the road.”

When the light turned green, I started riding and he continued honking. But I was on a two-lane road and I had nowhere to go other than the gutter or sidewalk, both of which I refused to do. And, oh yes, bicycles by law are allowed on the road.

After two blocks of him tailgating me, he turned left.

Really? I thought. All that angst for two blocks and I slowed him down by what? A minute, at most?

I had another pickup truck pull out in front of me one morning and, peeved, I yelled. The brake lights blinked on and I thought I was going to be in trouble. Instead, the driver apologized profusely.

Probably the most excitement I encountered came a couple of weeks ago at about 7:45 a.m.

I slowed my bicycle on a small hill on Highland Avenue, a few yards off Orange Avenue, and just behind a car that had stopped for the crossing arms that were coming down in advance of a southbound SunRail commuter train.

As I put a foot down on the asphalt, an SUV going west rolled onto the tracks and stopped because the traffic light at Orange had turned red, lining cars back up the hill. The rear of the SUV remained on the tracks, so much so that the crossing arm came to rest on the roof.

And the driver – whose eyes seemed impossibly large as he realized his predicament – had no room to move forward because of the cars in front. I could hear the train’s horn in the distance.

I started yelling and motioning the cars to move down the hill. The bored drivers looked at me like I was a bit deranged. I pointed to the SUV behind them. They got the hint and rolled forward, helped along by a honking horn.

The SUV got off the tracks and the train rushed by. It seemed like a close call, but the engineer never felt the need to apply the brakes, according to records kept by the train’s operators.

As the Sentinel transportation reporter, I have written about SunRail collisions and close calls, but I had never witnessed an incident firsthand. I do not need a repeat.

My route offers a little bit of everything as far as cycling goes: blacktop and brick streets, bike lanes along the side of the road and a bike path (the Orlando Urban Trail) that is closed to cars, trucks and motorcycles.

I feel pretty confident and safe in all of the settings, though I closely watch my rear view mirror for cars that might buzz too close or hook me with an unexpected turn. And I avoid heavily traveled roads like Colonial Drive – I don’t even like driving on those.

Here are some tips I have learned from my rides, as well as from interviewing other, far more experienced bike commuters:

Obey the traffic laws, most prominently red lights and stop signs.

During hot weather, look for shade and pedal slowly to cut back on perspiration.

Bundle up, including gloves, in cooler weather. Biking generates its own breeze, so you are colder on a cycle than walking.

Always carry a lock to secure your bike when you are not riding.

Place lights on the front and back of the bike. You never know when you might be riding in the dark.

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