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Drive? No Way--Not This Biker : Using His Two-Wheeler, He Stays in Shape, Communes With Nature, Saves Money and Gets to Work on Time

February 21, 1995|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The reaction is usually the same. First comes the incredulous facial expression, then words to the effect of, "Gee, how interesting. Are you nuts?"

I marvel at how nearly everyone I know seems to regard riding a bike to work as the equivalent of an out-of-body experience. There are more bicycles (about 120 million) than cars in this country, yet few commuters would contemplate the prospect of abandoning their beloved four-wheel behemoths.

My scenic ride each morning along a secluded, tree-lined path between the Potomac River and the historic C & O Canal is nothing less than inspiring. The 45-minute trek brings me close to graceful great blue heron, geese paddling in perfect formation, squirrels dashing for cover, an occasional deer in the woods and turtles basking in warm sunlight.

I see people too. Couples on a peaceful morning stroll. Out-of-town visitors sightseeing. Fishermen wetting their lines. And avid joggers--such as Tipper Gore leading an entourage of Secret Service agents and her black Labrador sans leash.

But where are the cyclists?

The only regulars I have encountered after nearly three years of riding to work are grungy office couriers, which makes me wonder where the estimated 4.3 million Americans currently commuting by bike are .

In Southern California, land of year-round balmy weather and nightmarish traffic conditions, the story is just as bleak. A 1991 survey found that only two of 500 commuters in Los Angeles County relied primarily on bicycles to get to work. The City of Los Angeles officials report that about 1% of city residents ride two-wheelers to work.

The resistance is understandable. For more than a decade, I wanted to commute by bicycle while tied up in traffic hell on highways in San Jose, San Diego and Los Angeles, but I always had excuses. Too inconvenient, no room for my briefcase and there must be some reason why no one else is doing it.

Now I'm so hooked that the mere thought of sitting behind the wheel of a car in gridlock is unfathomable; I'll take a ride in 100-degree heat or subzero wind chill any day. I've even come to enjoy cycling in rain and snow. Now only icy streets keep me out of the saddle and behind the wheel of my '62 Plymouth Valiant.

So why not dust off your old Schwinn. Not only will you burn extra calories and lose weight, but you'll save hundreds of dollars each year in gasoline, auto insurance and repair costs; arrive at work relaxed rather than stressed; contribute to a cleaner environment, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Moreover, many large companies offer their employees financial incentives to get out of cars, and municipalities are becoming bicycle-friendly. Los Angeles plans to double its existing 300 miles of bike paths over the next decade. One project in the works consists of a 50-mile bike path along the Los Angeles River from the Sepulveda Basin to Long Beach with lights, telephones and water fountains installed in some sections.

At this point, you're probably thinking that there's no room in your hectic schedule for bike commuting. Besides, it's too dangerous and inconvenient, right? Well, think again. In Los Angeles--where the No. 1 cycling enthusiast resides in the mayor's office--biking to work can be a snap. Here are tips to help get started.

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* Map out a route.

The most important preparation before heading out the driveway is meticulously planning a safe trip. Avoid busy thoroughfares whenever possible, even those marked as bicycle lanes. You'll grow tired real fast of getting flats from riding on broken glass, competing with traffic and sucking exhaust fumes. But with a little experience, you'll get comfortable riding on less congested city streets.

"People are afraid to ride in the street because they think they are going to get hit by a car," says Alex Baum, longtime chairman of the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee. "We have to educate the American public. In Europe it is done. Look at Japan. Thousands and thousands of people use the bike to get to work."

To find the best route, you will need to get creative. Don't necessarily follow the most direct line from home to work. Biking is supposed to be fun and challenging too. Instead, try to take advantage of a nearby cycling path that cuts through remote areas.

My daily route extends 12 miles and consists of four legs: hilly neighborhood side streets, a straight dirt path along the Potomac, an asphalt stretch of abandoned railway and several blocks of heavy downtown traffic. The paved path allows me to hit speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour and get a good aerobic workout.

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* Get the proper equipment.

The bike needn't be new or expensive. But make sure it's in good working order with tires inflated, chains lubricated and seat properly adjusted. A bike shop should perform a tune-up for less than $50.

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