“It’s better than coffee,” said Holly Strain, registered nurse and transplant coordinator at UCHealth Metro Denver, about commuting to work on her bicycle.
Strain bikes the six and a half miles to University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora several times a week. It’s her way of getting the exercise she needs.
“I enjoy riding my bike but have trouble fitting in rides during the week with my busy schedule,” she said. “I find that on the days I ride, I arrive at my job more awake and ready to take on the day.”
There are many benefits to riding your bicycle to work, from keeping your body and your pocketbook healthy to saving the environment and promoting safe-cycling community infrastructure. It also can be fun, simplify life and provide a sense of freedom.
The average bike commuter loses 13 pounds their first year, according to the League of American Bicyclists. And for women, a 30-minute daily commute can cut heart failure risks in half and lower the rate for breast cancer.
But despite the benefits, only 1.4 percent of Colorado’s working residents choose to cycle commute.
“It is recommended that a person get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, and biking to work is a great way to reach this goal,” said Julie Homann, nurse practitioner with UCHealth Family Medicine in Windsor. “Finding time to fit in exercise is hard for most people, but if you work within 5 miles of your house, a 20-minute ride to and from work will easily accomplish this. Biking will help burn extra calories and build muscle strength too.”
In June 2015, UCHealth challenged employees to commute to work as part of the May through September National Bike Challenge. Combined, employees rode 38,733 miles.
“The health benefits tell part of the story: more than 2 million calories burned and 21,884 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions avoided,” said John Drigot, sustainability coordinator for UCHealth.
The bicycling community also took notice. In 2015, Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins achieved Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Business status, part of the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly America program.
Vehicular cycling: Safety in numbers
Cyclists fare best when they act as though they are drivers of vehicles and, thus, are treated as such.
“Lots of people are afraid to commute because they’re afraid to ride in the road,” Strain said. “Look up a route that takes quiet streets or streets with bike lanes, even if it’s not the most direct route and take the plunge. Bike to Work Day (June 22) is coming up, so that’s a good opportunity to ride on a day when there will be a lot of extra riders out and support stations along the way.”
Legally, bicyclists must follow the same rules as motor vehicle drivers. When that does not happen, accidents do. Almost 40 percent of bike crashes involve a bicyclist who is riding against traffic and conflicting with cross-street vehicles.
For safety, bicyclists should:
- Use designated bike lanes, but when bike lanes are not available, or safe road conditions do not allow, take over the traffic lane and, use visible and audible directional signals.
- Wear bright clothing, use bike lights and do not weave through parked vehicles. Instead, maintain your lane position. Be predictable for others on the roadway. Be assertive and confident but also alert and cautious, as if driving behind the wheel of a vehicle.
“There is safety in numbers,” said Dr. Terri Marty, an acute care and trauma surgeon with UCHealth in northern Colorado. “Data shows there is an inverse relationship between the number of riders and accidents. Denmark and Netherlands bike the most miles per person per year and have the lowest fatality and accident rates. That’s because there is a respect for each other [between cyclists and drivers].”
It’s a no-brainer
Marty, who has been compiling bike-injury data for UCHealth’s Trauma Research and Education department, can’t stress enough the importance of safety.
Between 2006 and 2015, there were 10 cyclist fatalities in the Fort Collins/Loveland area, according to data from Poudre Valley Hospital and Medical Center of the Rockies. Of those deaths, eight were vehicle-bike events.
“Cars need to respect bikes more, and bikes need to respect cars more,” Marty said.
In addition to following the rules of the road, a helmet is another must for riders.
Brain injury is the number one cause of death and long-term disabilities for cyclists, Marty said. And when a brain injury is the result of a crash, the person is 20 times more likely to die. Studies show that a helmet can reduce that risk of injury up to 88 percent — yet less than a third of riders wear one.
Many programs throughout Colorado provide helmets either for free or for a minimal donation, including Safe Kids at 970.495.7504 in northern Colorado.
There are many options in bikes — from a road or mountain bike to the cruisers that New Belgium’s Fat Tire made so popular.
No matter which bike a rider chooses, it should be comfortable, functional and visible.
“Get yourself a good solid U-lock so you don’t worry about your bike during the day and a helmet that’s comfortable enough — and let’s be honest, cute enough — that you’ll actually wear it,” Strain said.
A properly fitted bike is important for safety and health. A poor fit can cause injuries, as well as create dangerous issues caused by improper operation of the bicycle.
Changes can be made to brakes, handlebars and the seat, and many bike shops will help adjust these things to fit your physical frame.
Before hopping on the bike, a bicyclist should do the ABC Quick Check:
- Air: Are the tires properly inflated? Is there a portable bike pump and/or patch kit on board?
- Brakes: Do they work?
- Cranks, Chain, Cassette: Depending on the type of bike, make sure the “guts” are working properly and are well maintained.
On short rides, carry a helmet and bike lock. On longer rides, grab the patch and tool kit.