The daily commute, biker-style

For some people, the physical activity of biking isn’t just a weekend thing; it’s their transportation mode for getting to and from work each day. They save money on gas, reduce their carbon footprint, and gain all kinds of health benefits besides.

Who are the bike commuters? More to the point, how do they do it? I happen to have one of these dedicated cyclists in my immediate family: my youngest brother, Joe, who bikes more than 11 miles (one way) from his home in Eden Prairie to Prime Therapeutics LLC in Bloomington, where he works as a senior legal assistant. The photo above is the view from his handlebars on a summer morning.

In case you’ve missed it on the calendar, it’s Bike Walk Week in Minnesota; Thursday is Bike Walk to Work Day. In honor of the occasion, Joe agreed to answer some questions about his bike commute and describe how he made it a successful daily habit.

What inspired you to start biking to work?

When I was growing up in Willmar, I tried to bike to and from work as much as possible. As part of a big family (three sisters, one brother), all with their own work and personal schedules, it just seemed easier to take my bike than to coordinate with everyone else. There is so much I enjoy about biking. Ever since I left Willmar, it has always been my goal to have a job that was close enough to bike to, via a safe route.

What did it take for this to become part of your daily routine?

It took a management training course where participants had to design and implement five projects, one of which could be entirely personal. I made my personal project to try biking to work at least once. I had to scope out the route, figure out how to take a suit and tie with me, and figure out how to get cleaned up before putting it on.

Once I had my bike commute routine figured out, it reminded me of the days when I would bike to my grocery store job in Willmar, and it became habit. The health benefits and the fuel savings were continuing motivators. My co-workers started taking interest too, asking me (usually on cold, snowy or rainy days), “Did you bike today?” or more often, “You didn’t bike today, did you?” It was really satisfying to be able to answer, “Why, yes, I did.”

That first year I biked to work 34 times. The next year, 48 times. After that, I started setting goals for myself, like “I will bike to work 100 times this year” (I actually came in at 107) and “I will use my bike to get to work more times than I use a car this year” (the final score was 135 by bike, 99 by car).

Tell us about your commute. How many miles is it? How long does it take? Do you have a special route?

I bike 11.4 miles from western Eden Prairie to Bloomington. It takes anywhere from 45 minutes (in fair weather, with a tailwind) to an hour and 15 minutes (in winter, through snow). I take the same route each day, in favor of trails over roads. I prefer to avoid sharing the road with latte-slurping, BlackBerry-using businesspeople.

Tell us about your bike.

It’s a Specialized Tricross. I put fenders on it so I can ride in the rain without getting a skunk-stripe up my back. I also have a single-wheeled “BOB” (Beast of Burden) cargo trailer to hold my duffel bag and occasionally a laptop. I think the trailer allows me more freedom than other bike commuters have. I can bike any day I choose, with very little planning. Many people I know will bring in their work clothes the day before biking because they have no means of getting those clothes to work on their bike.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to become a dedicated bike commuter? How did you solve the challenges?

The biggest challenges were posed by our Minnesota winters, and the short days. The issues are visibility, traction, and cold. I solved the visibility issue by getting lights (including one I mount on my helmet – much better for getting a motorist’s attention than a light mounted to a handlebar) and a bright yellow windbreaker with reflective strips on it.

The traction issue took some trial and error. I started with studded tires, but I just didn’t like them. A wide, knobby mountain bike tire feels more stable, and seems to have just as good traction. The cold issue is still a little tricky. I have an array of clothes, like winter cycling tights, fleece shirts and vests, insulated hunting boots, bike-specific winter gloves, and a fleece facemask. I wear them in different combinations, depending on the temperature. I don’t bike if it’s below zero, but I see others who do.

What do you think you’ve gained by exchanging driving for biking to work?

Since 2009, I have avoided driving a car to work on 247 days, for fuel savings of about 213 gallons. (Not all of it was $3.79 a gallon gas, but you get the picture.) I have put about 3,300 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I have kept some control over my weight – it plummets in April and May, and slowly goes up in December and January. My cholesterol readings are better than they were before I biked to work. Part of my ride is through wooded areas. I see and hear birds, deer, foxes and other wildlife. I smell lilacs in May. I arrive at work stress-free, and with at least a 45-minute workout behind me already. I arrive at home at the end of the day stress-free.

Rumor has it that you’re trying to organize a bike commuter club at your place of work. Tell us more about it.

I leave my business card on other people’s bikes with a short note asking if they’d be interested in forming a bike commuter group. I belonged to one at a previous workplace. We’d meet monthly and share tips on equipment that makes bike commuting easier, safety tips, online mapping tools (like cyclopath.org – limited to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for now), and information on rides and riding clubs. I hope to recreate that at my current workplace.

By being very public in my workplace about my bike commuting, I have gotten several other people to try it. At least one has turned her health around by biking to work and using her bike to run errands around her neighborhood – she has lost significant weight and her doctor says she is no longer pre-diabetic.

What advice or helpful tips would you give to someone who wants to start biking to work?

Plan plan plan. There are several great websites that will show you how, such as Paul Dorn’s bike commuting tips or Penn Cycle and Fitness. Plot your route. Get your bike into good working order. If you can’t work in your biking clothes (or can’t bike in your work clothes), figure out how to get your work clothes to your workplace – such as with a backpack, panniers or a trailer, or by bringing them in by car the day before. If your ride is more than just a few minutes, and you’ll be working up a sweat, figure out where and how to get clean. If your workplace doesn’t have showers, there might be a nearby health club that you can use.

Joe doesn’t limit his bike-riding to the work week. He’s also an avid recreational biker and is participating this coming weekend in the Minnesota MS 150 to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. You can support him here.

For another perspective on the benefits of riding a bike to work, check out what Dr. David Detert, a physician and bike commuter, has to say. Dr. Detert is with Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Litchfield and shared his thoughts at Discover ACMC, a blog recently launched by the regional multi-specialty network.

The Olympian elite

For the next two weeks, many of us will be glued to the TV, watching the Olympic athletes as they race downhill on their skis and snowboards, compete on the hockey rink and perform feats of strength and grace in ice dancing.

How do they do it? Are they simply more physically gifted than everyone else? Or are they just more determined and hard-working?

To be sure, training is everything when you aspire to compete at the Olympic level. Spend some time at the official Web site of the 2010 Winter Olympics and you can find out exactly what it takes. A high-performance downhill skier, for instance, typically practices up to twice a day for two to four hours each time. In the weight room, 75 percent of the training is focused on building lower-body strength. Flexibility exercises are aimed at reducing the risk of hip and knee injuries.

For speed skaters, the drill involves many hours of skating in circles on a 400-meter track. From the Olympics site:

Ice practice sessions can last up to two hours depending on the volume and intensity required for a particular athlete. Sprinters have shorter ice sessions than distance skaters but their training intensity is extremely high and includes short bursts of speed. Distance, middle distance and all-around speed skaters have long ice sessions focusing working on balance, cornering and positioning.

In some winter sports, such as curling, it’s the mental game that really counts. Figure skaters need to be not only skilled but artistic and confident as well.

But it’s hard to overlook the importance of the genetic component. Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, two scholars who study and blog about the science of sport, analyzed this issue during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and conclude, "Choose your parents wisely!" They write: "While we will be the first to admit that a myriad of factors and variables must converge to produce superior athletic performance, it is perhaps the genetic component that plays the biggest role."

Body type makes a difference, they explain. The best endurance runners, for instance, are generally either small or are tall and lanky – two physiques that are the most efficient for accommodating the energy demands of the body.

One of the first genes to be associated with athletic performance is the ACE, or angiotensin converting enzyme gene, they write. "It is an enzyme involved in fluid balance and has an association with performance. In other words, some people who have specific variations of this gene do better in endurance events or respond better to endurance training."

Environment also is critical, Tucker and Dugas explain:

… To succeed at the highest levels of sport one must clearly have the genes. However at the same time you must be exposed to the appropriate environmental stimuli that will permit you to exploit your superior genes. We guarantee that for every Bo, Deion and Sheila, there are countless others who do in fact possess the genes for superior athletic performance, but instead of training six days a week, they are working a desk job six days a week – and that is simply because they were not exposed to the "right" environment for them to end up as an athlete.

Dr. David Geier, director of the sports medicine program at Medical University of South Carolina, can be found here on YouTube discussing the physical commitment it takes to be an Olympic-caliber athlete.

The death of a luger who crashed during a training run last week underscores another important and sometimes overlooked element: the risk-taking that’s often required to excel in the winter Olympic sports, and the capacity to ignore your own fear.

Whether we’re a weekend athlete or a couch potato, we all admire the Olympic athletes. But they’re truly a breed apart – an elite that only a few of us can genuinely aspire to.

Photo: Associated Press

When the fat lady sings

Why are opera singers fat? Or, rather, why is there such an enduring stereotype of fat opera singers?

I was in the audience at Orchestra Hall Saturday night for the Sommerfest finale, a concert performance (minus the stagecraft) of Verdi’s “Aida.” Not all the singers were fat. In fact, they displayed more or less the same range of body types you’d find among the general population: tall, short, slender, average, overweight. None of them looked obese.

Like a lot of myths, the one about fat opera singers is grounded at least partially in reality. Early forms of opera were relatively small-scale productions. By the 1800s, however, composers and opera houses wanted their work to be grand, with singers capable of really belting it out. The larger the singer, or so the theory went, the greater the lung capacity and breath support to enable a show-stopping performance that could be heard all the way back to the last row, especially in an era before sound systems and acoustically designed concert halls.

Dr. Stephen Juan, an anthropologist and advice-meister from Australia, explains some of the thinking behind this belief:

There are several theories attempting to explain why opera singers are often pleasingly plump. One holds that a large amount of fatty tissue surrounding the voice box (larynx) increases its resonance capability and thus produces a more pleasing sound. The amount of this fatty tissue varies from singer to singer. It is almost impossible to have a great deal of fatty tissue around the voice box without carrying a great deal of fatty tissue elsewhere on the body.

A second theory holds that opera singers need a far more powerful diaphragm than normal to be able to project their voice above the sound of a large orchestra in a large opera house. A large chest cavity and good control of the lungs will provide a suitable mass to help drive the diaphragm to some extent. A large body mass and a large body frame to support it help even more, so there is a huge advantage in being huge.

There doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence to support any of these theories. One intriguing study, published in 2001 in the Journal of Voice, suggests that professional opera singers tend to develop a larger-than-average rib cage and hence might look fatter than they actually are.

Busy touring and rehearsal schedules also can wreak havoc with performers’ efforts to maintain a schedule that allows them to exercise and eat well.

These days, though, opera has gone on a diet. Opera companies – and audiences, for that matter – want singers who are svelte. Some singers have even been turned down for a role because they’re deemed too heavy, most famously in the case of Deborah Voigt, who ended up having bariatric surgery to help keep her career on track.

Here’s a singer who blogs about the challenge of keeping her weight down:

Even though I’m producing four operas, running an opera company, working a day job, performing, auditioning, trying to manage my weight, about to have a birthday, and trying to survive day to day, I’ve also been dealing with other outside factors that involve people I love and trying to help them with their struggles. I think I’m pretty much at my breaking point.

In other words, opera singers are up against many of the same difficulties that everyone else faces. Maybe it’s time for the old stereotypes to make their final curtain call.

Image from the U.S. Library of Congress