The Agony and Ecstasy Of A Bleeding Edge Bike Commute

This is a love story and a cautionary tale of my first bike commute on my new super-light folding bike.

It is safe to say I have a challenging bike commute: 41 miles each way; 7 miles of water to cross each way; and 300 meters of vertical to climb on the way home. Given all that, I leverage public transit all I can to ensure I don’t spend 4+ hours a day commuting. That means going over to San Francisco on BART (Bay Area Public Transportation) and down the peninsula on CalTrain or down the East Bay on BART and across the Dumbarton Bridge on bus. The first option was preferable because the CalTrain system on the peninsula has dedicated bike cars. No other system in the Bay area does.

The Challenge
Therein lies the problem. No public transit, except for CalTrain, is very keen on seeing cyclists around rush hour. BART outright bans them for each of the two rush hour periods.

The Initial Solution
Instead of crossing the bay and then heading down to work, I would head down and then cross the bay. I would take BART south to Union City and either cycle or bus across the Dumbarton Bridge.

Some Bridges Like Bikes
I was astounded and impressed to find that the Dumbarton is the one transbay bridge that has a bicycle/pedestrian lane all the way across. A heartening fact in the face of the recent Bay Bridge reconstruction’s new bicycle/pedestrian bridge from Oakland to Treasure Island, but not beyond (aka a “bridge to nowhere”).

Anyway, for the first few weeks of April, this plan worked fine. If I got up early enough, I would BART down and cycle across the Dumbarton. The whole trip took 90 minutes, but who’s counting when this includes a workout? (aka a reprieve from a gym visit).

Some Buses Like Bikes
Whenever I woke up late, I would bus across with my bike in a bus rack, and the whole trip took 70 minutes.

Neither option was super-fast, but given that a traffic jam could make a car trip last 90 minutes or more, neither wasn’t bad. Not to mention, one could fill the whole time with web-surfing or reading, instead of driving.

The Reality
Then Spring hit. It stopped raining and warmed up enough so that other cyclists started having the same idea for crossing the Dumbarton. This ensured that the Dumbarton Express bus racks were always full. I tried getting to it a little early, but no dice: still full. After all, there were only two racks.

I quickly realized that the Dumbarton bus route was not a reliable option for a cyclist given the limited capacity. This produced a real bind. I didn’t have time to cycle the bridge everyday, and I couldn’t reliably get up early enough to beat the bike crowds to the Dumbarton Express bus.

Hefty Hiatus
Right about that time, someone asked me to carpool so I took a bike-commuting-hiatus. However, this felt more restrictive than all the bicycle curfews I was avoiding. No longer could I stay late at work or run errands at lunch with my bike. Carpooling wasn’t working but, by then, I had really fallen off the wagon with early rising so it felt like I couldn’t turn back. Months passed. I gained 10 pounds. I had failed to replace the cycling with another form of exercise. This wouldn’t do.

The New Solution
After trying and failing to get BART to lift their rush hour bike curfew, I suddenly realized that BART’s curfew excluded folding bikes. I researched those and found almost all to be sorely lacking in sturdiness and speed. The one exception was a new generation of bikes coming from a company called Tern.

The Tern Verge X20 seemed like a great candidate for the kind of folding bike I would need. An incredible bike by any measure: folding (easily I might add, which is more than I can say for many); 9.3kg (that’s high end road bike territory weight-wise); SRAM Red components throughout (the very best road bike components, and a price to match of course); and 1.11 inch wide wheels (picture 23c road tire, but only 20 inches in diameter, aka minimal resistance gliders).

This bike sounded perfect, given all my constraints: 300 meters of high-speed vertical on the ride down the hill from my home; 300 meters of steep climbing on the return ride home; bike curfews; rack space constraints; and time constraints (lighter equals much shorter commute times on bikes).

With a folding bike, I could travel with impunity on any transit system. The bike wouldn’t even need a bike rack on a bus and it would circumvent the curfews on BART. Best of all, because it was ultralight and ultrafast, it would climb hills and cross flats almost as fast my road bike. “Woohoo! What a great time to be a bike commuter”, I thought.

After an interminable wait and after gaining even more weight, the bike finally arrived on the market and I bought the first one I found. It is here where this story really begins. The first day of bike commuting with this bleeding edge commuter bike was both fantastic and horrific (no fault of the bike’s, by the way).

The Ecstasy
The first moments were ecstasy. The bike was very stable while I reached 35 kph going down 300 meters of vertical. I only added about 2 minutes to the first leg of my commute. Not bad!

Better still, I walked onto the BART train for San Francisco with no fear of punishment even though the sign flashed “no bikes”.

Once across the bay, I discovered I had 10 minutes to get to the CalTrain station 2km away. This was a job for the super fast Verge X20. Again, it performed magnificently, I found the small wheels of the folding bike much more nimble at dodging pedestrians and weaving through cars amidst the morning gridlock of downtown San Francisco.

Likewise, the bike cruised along at a respectable 25 kph on the flat, long blocks. All my waiting, planning, and spending on this new cutting-edge commute tool had paid off. I was leaving all the other heavy and slow commuter bikes in the dust.

Beginner’s Unluck
Then fate turned on me. It started when I arrived at the CalTrain station just as the doors closed on my train’s gate. That cost a 15 minute delay. No matter, I thought. The bike was fast, I could still make up time on the last leg in Menlo Park.

The Agony
I hit the ground running in Menlo Park, I got off the train and on the bike in seconds. I charged ahead on one of Menlo Park’s beautiful bike lanes to make up some lost time. Then, 100 yards out, I ran over something weird only to feel that unmistakable rumble from my rear tire. Ugh!!!!!!!! A flat.

One thing I am pretty good at is being prepared for these mishaps. The day before, I had made a special trip to the bike store for spare inner tubes for just such an occasion as this. I had also inquired about extra tires, but all the shop had were unfoldables so I skipped those. I figured I would order them soon.

Not soon enough–the flat was from a cut to the sidewall. That’s death for any kind of tire. So there I was: rendered a pedestrian by a tiny piece of metal with a new foldable bike in tow. I went back and gave the jagged metal a good kick to vent frustration and spare someone else the same fate.

Extraordinary Bikes Require Extraordinary Bike Stores
My fate was just getting warmed up. I’ve been without a tire or tube before. It’s a long walk but eventually you get to a bike store and you are on your way. But this wasn’t just any bike so I couldn’t use just any bike store. I needed a 20″ diameter, 1.1″ wide, tire. That’s Greek to most standard bike shops, and folding shops for that matter.

My mind raced: Where had I seen foldable bike dealers in this area? Only 2 shops out of a dozen came to mind. Also, is the shop open? I am late to work, but it is only 9 a.m. How will I get to the shop in my bike shoes without trashing my ankles? After making a few calls, I discovered the 2 folding bike shops were open. However, the bike was so new that none of the staff had heard of it, much less knew which parts would fix it. Still, after a LOT of explaining, I established that one shop had a tire I could use. Naturally, that was the most distant shop.

Googling for public transit solutions only embellished the need for a working bicycle in times like these. No buses were nearby and no bus would take me anywhere near the shop. Ironically, CalTrain delivered me the closest to the shop, so I walked back to the station, waited a quarter hour, and caught the next train.

The next hour was filled with lots of super-fun walking in bike shoes and having the rare cab swiped from me by a business man while I folded my bike. But I finally got to the shop, got the tire and rode to work. Only 2.5 hours late. Woohoo!

The moral of the story for me is this: like any bleeding edge solution, be prepared to provide your own technological support. The newer the solution, the fewer resources to help when things go wrong. After my ordeal, I even discovered that the shop that sold me the bike had sold me the wrong size of inner tubes. When you are on the bleeding edge, you are really on your own.

Nevertheless, despite my initial lack of supplies and abundance of bad luck, I have no regrets. The ability of this type of bicycle to negotiate both the capricious bike policies of regional transit systems and the capricious streets of downtown rush hours, should ensure these bikes become increasingly popular. That should mean more stores will carry them soon and, in turn, will mean I will have less far to walk for parts.

Regardless, I now stock a new tube and tire on my back for this bike as I do for all my full-sized bikes. I gambled and lost this time, but I won’t again, especially with such a wonderful new type of bike.