The Secret Benefits of Cycling
By Cam Mather
Last year I bought an electric bike, and I love it. It is unbelievably cool to charge it with my solar panels and then “drive” it to town and back, a 26 km (16 mile) round trip. But I also really love just riding any bike. I have a mountain bike and a road bike. The mountain bike is a good bike to use on the “California Road” and some of the trails around my house, but when I ride to town I take my road bike.
Riding a bike is the most efficient form of transportation. When you factor in all the variables – fuel source, efficiencies, heat loss, etc. riding a bike comes out way ahead. In William Kemp’s book “The Zero-Carbon Car” he notes that an internal combustion engine in your car uses only 1% of the fuel energy it consumes in actually moving the driver. A vehicle that weighs 2,500 pounds with a 15% energy conversion rate moves a 160-pound driver at less than 1% total conversion efficiency. Think about it. An internal combustion engine is only 15% efficient. Most of the energy is wasted as heat.
If we convert the amount of energy contained in a gallon of gasoline into food calories, you could cycle 400 miles (644 km). What does a car get, 30 miles per gallon? Cars are insanely inefficient and bikes are insanely efficient.
As soon as I get out on the road I can feel this. I can feel the granola I had for breakfast being converted to forward movement through my legs peddling. It’s like wind surfing where you can feel the energy from the wind being transferred through your arms that are holding the sail up, to forward movement of the board. And with a road bike this is even more pronounced.
Trains are exceptionally efficient because they use electric engines to pull cars that have steel wheels on steel rails. With steel on steel there is very little friction. Cars on the other hand have rubber fires on asphalt so lots of friction is built up reducing their efficiency. A mountain bike has thick tires which are great for stability, but the thin tires on a road bike have a minimum of rubber hitting the road. All those gears are transferring your food energy into movement and with road tires you are minimizing your losses from friction.
We had a package to ship so I rode the 13 km (8 miles) in to town (where the Post Office is) on my road bike. My cousin Dave gave me this bike after he toured Europe in his youth. So it’s an old bike and I want to dispel any misconception you might have that I’m one of those elitist bike riders (not that there’s anything wrong with them). I wore a pair of jeans that I bought by accident at Value Village that have a high spandex content. I thought spandex was what David Lee Roth wore in the 1980s, but on a cool day when I don’t feel like wearing track pants in to town, they’re not bad for riding. I also wore a white gardening shirt with lots of dirt stains. I wore a fluorescent orange vest like what the flag people wear on highway construction. I want to be seen regardless of how nerdy I look. In the past year vehicles have plowed into two groups of cyclists in Ottawa and Quebec killing some of them. I love life too much to be taken out by some drunk driver or sleep-deprived shift worker.
It was supposed to rain the day of my bike ride, but the rain kept holding off so I finally said “Dam the torpedoes” and I went for it. I set a mental “past the point of no return” spot and decided that if it wasn’t raining hard by the time I hit that spot I’d keep going. Needless to say it was just spitting until shortly after that magic spot when it really started raining.
But you know, once you’re wet it really doesn’t matter anymore. I will say I am very aware of the fact that those thin tires on a wet pavement make for bad stability, so I was cautious and didn’t set any speed records. But unlike the Wicked Witch of the West I wasn’t melting in the rain.
There is just something magic about taking a bike on a trip you usually take in a car. You can smell the air and it’s cleaner than it would be if you drove. You can see the scenery. And when you want to motor you get into the rhythm of riding. Two hard down strokes with your legs for every breath you’re sucking in. I made the mistake of breathing in through my open mouth, which isn’t a smart idea with the number of large airborne insects at this time of year. But when I was trying to make time I was sucking in all the air I could and I could feel my body converting the oxygen to movement through my muscles. It’s quite a rush.
There is nothing like the high you get after a long bike ride. While in town I bought sub buns and for dinner I made sub sandwiches loaded up with lettuce from the garden and I even ate some potato chips with it. I had a slice of chocolate cream pie from the freezer, ‘cuz I earned it baby! Sure you can ride your bike to save the planet. Or to get in to shape. I ride so that I can justify eating hollow empty fattening calories!. Let the pie eating begin!