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Seven Life Lessons from 12 Years of Bike Commuting

Just starting out with bike commuting? Here are some of the lessons I've learned over a dozen years of bike commuting in Barcelona, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Lesson #1: Keep Moving Forward

It's a basic premise of biking that you need to keep moving or you will fall over. The actual act of moving keeps you balanced. Most days I enjoy bike commuting. However, there have been times when I didn't want to get on my bike and ride to work. I'm not talking about situations with exceptionally poor weather conditions when it was more prudent not to ride. Rather, I'm mean the times when I just didn't feel like it. We all have those kinds of days. What is amazing to me however is that I have rarely regretted a commute once I got started. In fact, just the opposite happened. Once I got moving I was glad and thankful that I persevered, This is true of many things in life: jobs, relationships, doing homework, you name it. Moving forward is essential.

Lesson #2: Ride at Your Own Pace

As Rebecca, the biking mom I interviewed said, "there's a lot more humanity in biking than driving." Perhaps its the human scale of biking, or the shared experience, but over the years I've had many chance discussions with fellow commuters.

--- Former Keefers Restaurant--- Photo courtesy Top Restaurant

As an example, for years there was always a guy riding northbound along Lake Michigan as I was peddling southbound to work each morning. We got to the point where we would nod or even wave to each other as we passed by each day. One morning, I was running behind schedule and he ended up riding southbound alongside me. We talked during the ride and I discovered he ran a restaurant (Keefers) two blocks from my office. Who knew! Turns out, he took an early train into work from the suburbs and jumped on his bike for a workout before setting up the restaurant. After our discussion, I never missed a chance to go to his restaurant for special occasions. In retrospect, the opportunity to connect was always there, I just needed to act.

Lesson #2: Take the Opportunity to Connect

When I first starting bike commuting along the lakefront in Chicago, I thought riding was all about speed. How fast could I do the commute? And could I keep up with the faster riders? As a result, I rode hard to stay on someone's tail when they passed me. The commute turned into an intense workout as I struggled to keep up, eventually arriving at work drenched in sweat. I'd recall little of the ride except the wheel in front of me. In retrospect, it was not enjoyable and my behavior was dangerous to other people along the lakefront trail. Riding fast was also a factor in my bike accident several years ago.

Today, I ride at my own pace. If the weather is great and I feel good and the coast is clear, I'll push hard, Other days, I'll take my time. Either way, just because I am passed does not mean I need to respond. As a result it's a better experience.

​So much energy in life is spent keeping up with others - house, car, job, fashion - you name it. Why? It's so much better finding your own speed.

Lesson #4: Ride for Another Day

As my friend Annie says,"ride your bike like you can ride it tomorrow." Her point is to ride safely and bike nice, which really leads to two lessons. As a bike commuter you are vulnerable - cars (or buses or taxis) will always win, not to mention potholes or other road hazards.

It's an odd thing to say, but knowing ones vulnerability provides a measure of humility and motivates me to ride defensively. This behavior is partly out of survival, which leads to the life lesson, take the long-term view. Whatever the road hazard, it will eventually pass.

Lesson #5: Share the Road

In addition to survival, riding defensively helps me to coexist on the road. Usually we think of the need for cars to share the road. But the same holds true for cyclists. I don't like it any better when a biker cuts me off instead of a car. Whether biking or driving, who wants to be the jerk on the road? The better approach is to share the road. It's the same with life. We can go through life heedless of the impact we have on others, or take stock of our actions and try to be less selfish in our behavior. ​

Lesson #6: Enjoy the View

I've seen some amazing things just from bike commuting to work; moon-rise over Lake Michigan, waves crashing over the seawall, or the sun reflecting off the water like shimmering diamonds. There's also unusual sights like people going for a dip in the lake on a cold December morning, or a biker hauling compost on a city street. One day I witnessed a photo-shoot of a bikini-clad model using the lake as backdrop. Traveling on a bike made it easier to enjoy all of these views. I just needed to look up and pay attention to what was happening around me. And isn't that true of life? We just need to look up to see and enjoy the view around us. 

Lesson #7: Try Something New

IESE graduate business school at the University of Navarra

I first started bike commuting as a graduate student in Barcelona. Initially, I was apprehensive. How would I navigate the streets in Spain? Where would I park? Would my bike get stolen? The first day was difficult, After I arrived at school there were dozens of bikes and no place to lock it. When I came out from classes, someone had stolen my tool bag attached to the seat post. Who steals an inner-tube and bike tools? I remember being angry and cursing my classmates. And it was clear to everyone I was an American since I was the only person wearing a bike helmet.

​Eventually however, it turned out having the bike was great. It gave me the freedom to ride outside of the city on the weekends and it was a much quicker way to get to school than the public bus or walking. Riding in a foreign country gave me the skills and confidence I needed to become a committed bike commuter. So, despite my misgivings, I've very glad I tried something new, which is definitely a life lesson.

What are your lessons from riding?

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