The Sustainable Cyclist

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A guide to using the most efficient form of transportation ever devised.

When I was asked to do a story on being a “sustainable cyclist,” my first thought was, “Ride a bike. That’s it. Boom. You’re sustainable.” But maybe it is a little more complicated.

First, to be more sustainable than a car, you have to replace car trips with a bike. If you’re commuting by bike, great! If you’re recreating on a bike without using your car, that’s great, too. If you’re driving to get to bike rides (which I do sometimes), you’re not really helping all that much, but it’s definitely better than riding an ATV or a JetSki. And any time you’re riding, you’re helping build the cycling community, so that’s good.

Let’s look at some other ways you can be a more sustainable cyclist.

The Bike

One great thing about bikes is they last a long time. My last road bike lasted 23 years, about 80,000 miles of riding. I replaced almost every part on it at least once. So, you don’t need to buy a bike very often, and there are almost always great deals available on quality used bikes.

And quality is important. I’ve worked in a bike shop, and I would always recommend someone looking for an inexpensive bike to buy a quality used bike over a crappy new one. I have made decades-old bikes ride like new, as long as they were good bikes to start with. The Pro’s Closet offers high-end bikes that are certified by their mechanics, but eBay and Facebook Marketplace are also excellent places to shop.

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If you want a new bike, that’s fine, too. Just buy a real bike from a real bike brand at a real bike shop. Don’t buy from a department store or Amazon. Those bike-shaped objects are mostly junk. They won’t be fun to ride, won’t last, and will end up in a landfill. A good bike shop will make sure your bike fits, stays in working order, and lasts. Priority Bicycles makes a wide range of basic, versatile bikes at reasonable prices.

E-bikes are the same way. If you think an e-bike will get you out there for more fun than an “analog” bike, go for it. The most sustainable bike is the one you actually ride. But buy a reputable brand of e-bike from a trusted retailer. The stakes are even higher, since a cheap e-bike could burn your house down. Safety-conscious Buzz makes e-bikes that have electrical systems meeting strict UL guidelines. Sturdy Rad Power offers bikes that can carry a lot (see our story about one of them). Velotric makes both lighter and heavier e-bikes, depending on whether you prefer a nimble, more traditionally bike-like ride, or stability, range, and versatility. Evelo offers a risk-free, 21-day trial period and has a bunch of models to choose from, including three-wheelers and folding e-bikes. Hovsco offers a line of burly e-bikes, including some mountain bike options, as well as an informative blog.

The Gear

The beauty of cycling in general is that it doesn’t require much stuff, besides a bike. But a few accessories are helpful. A good helmet is important; I mean, if an SUV driver checking their texts slams into you, a plastic hat won’t help much. But the fact is most bike accidents simply mean you hitting the ground, and that helmet can come in very handy in those cases. Good gloves help the same way: You fall, and you’re going to put your hands out, and gloves mean the difference between your hands being sore and your hands being hamburger.

I also always advise eyewear. Stylish, and keeps stuff from getting into your eyes, which is unpleasant and potentially dangerous (you don’t have to buy the crazy windshields bike racers wear). Oakley is the industry leader in cycling glasses. Look to Tifosi for quality cycling sunnies at great prices. Also great, Knockarounds start at just $35.

Once you start to ride a lot, you may find bike shorts are more comfy; you can wear them under regular shorts if you don’t want the bike-racer look (but do not wear underwear under bike shorts). Bike jerseys have pockets in the back for your phone, keys, snacks, etc. Commuting is an especially great way to add biking to your daily routine, getting exercise while reducing car trips. For commuting, you’ll need bags to carry your work gear, and clothes for different weather conditions. Pearl Izumi makes great cycling gear and emphasizes sustainability.

If you ride at night, please use lights. Battery and LED technology have made modern bike lights incredibly inexpensive, bright, and long-lasting. This reliable LED set works well in areas where there is ambient light (like in cities or towns); if you ride in really dark environments, go with this extra-bright set featuring a 900-lumen front bulb.

Lock your bike up, even if it’s in your garage. A U-lock with a cable is the best way to secure the bike and the wheels.

Shopping at a local bike shop is the best way to get advice and quality gear (I especially recommend buying a helmet in person, for best fit). But if you know what you want, Performance Bicycle is a huge online retailer with absolutely every type of cycling gear you would need. Terry makes great clothing and accessories specifically for female riders.

The Community

Once you begin moving about on two wheels, you’ll start to see the world differently. Mostly, you’ll get to know your community better since you’ll be moving slower and without the distractions of driving. But also, you’ll start to see how unpleasant cars are unless you’re in one. Most cities these days are realizing that helping residents get around on bikes or on foot has a lot of benefits (environmental, economic, and safety), and are starting to build out bike and pedestrian infrastructure, like bike lanes or multi-use paths. Surprisingly, these can be controversial to drivers used to having their travel prioritized. Support your local bike advocacy groups and support politicians who support bikes, to help create a more sustainable and bike-friendly society.

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Jim Miller
Jim Miller
Jim Miller, co-editor of Bluedot San Diego and Bluedot Santa Barbara, has been an environmental economist for over 25 years, in the private sector, academia, and the public service. He enjoys sharing his knowledge through freelance writing, and has been published in The Washington Post and Martha’s Vineyard magazine. He’s always loved nature and the outdoors, especially while on a bicycle.
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