Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Transportation Cycling in Rural Areas: Some Food for Thought

The present-day culture of transportation cycling is predominantly associated with urban living. This makes sense, considering the realities of life in cities and their immediate vicinities. When commuting distances are short, motor vehicle traffic horrendous, and public transportation either overcrowded, unreliable or both, riding a bike can become an attractive option for getting around. Throw in some cycling infrastructure and perhaps a bike share system, as many cities are currently doing, and the appeal becomes greater still – especially as rising numbers of others take to the streets on two wheels, making it seem increasingly more normal and realistic.

But the desire to cycle for transportation is not limited to urbanophiles. Some rural residents may be commuting by bike already. Others may be considering it. Others still may be cyclists who currently live in a city, but are contemplating a move to the countryside. For the latter two groups a slew of questions and concerns might arise, with not a whole lot of resources out there to address them. This has become especially apparent to me since my own move to the countryside some months ago - in the course of which my email inbox has filled with questions from a surprising number of would-be rural bicycle commuters. Now that I’m feeling a bit more settled, I would like to start sharing some thoughts on the topic.

To state the obvious, there is a great deal of regional variation between rural areas. Differences in climate, terrain, distances and the availability of safe cycling routes will play a huge role in how realistic commuting by bike will be. Perhaps less obvious is that these differences can exist even within the same locale: pockets dense in amenities and pockets that are not, pockets that are hilly and pockets that are flat, pockets that offer safe routes for cycling and pockets that do not. As an example: My current house, while situated in what is generally a remote and shockingly hilly part of Northern Ireland, happens to be in a pocket that is unusually convenient and bicycle-friendly. I am just over a mile from a sort of farming hub, with several small shops selling basic provisions and local produce, and 7 bike-friendly miles from the nearest small town. Being at the base of a mountain but not on it, I have easy access to flat routes and enjoy mostly ice-free roads in winter due to warmer temperatures than neighbours who are even slightly uphill. In a pinch, I am also only a mile from a bus stop and two miles from a train station. Other parts of this very same region are far less handy for getting around by bike. This is all to say that it is essential to get to know an area thoroughly before forming an impression of what commuting by bike will be like there. Even to assume regional homogeneity would be a mistake. 

But speaking more generally, rural transportation cycling, as I see it, is not just about locations, distances and terrain. It is a categorically different kettle of fish from urban cycling. Why? Because it is fueled by a different set of motivations. Whereas in the city, cycling might be the faster, more convenient transportation option, in the countryside that is extremely unlikely to be the case. With long miles to cover, little in the way of traffic congestion and parking easy to come by, the car is clearly the more convenient choice here. So in devising ways to commute by bike in rural areas, we are doing so because we value cycling in of itself more than we value convenience. For some, this could boil down to physical fitness. Commuting by bike make take longer, but it is in fact two activities in one - commuting and keeping fit, saving time that would otherwise be spent at the gym. For others the real issue is financial. The bike costs next to nothing to run compared to the costs of a car, and for that some loss in convenience could be seen as worth it (or simply, necessary). There could be other underlying factors. Environmentalism. Or the inability, be it for legal or physical reasons, to operate a motor vehicle. But all that considered, I would venture to say - and this is just a guess really, a hunch, an intuition - that for a great portion of dedicated rural bicycle commuters in the developed world, the love of cycling for its own sake is the dominant motivating factor. It may be an irrational love. A love that goes against what's reasonable or practical. But it's a love strong enough to, however creatively, turn it into reality. Otherwise, it is just too easy to opt for other forms of transportation. And people generally do what's easy, unless they love the other option that much more. 

In the coming months, I hope to continue sharing thoughts and ideas on different aspects of rural transportation cycling. I would also like to compile a list of rural cycling blogs and post it here. My collection of links to those is pretty small so far, so if you know of any - or write one yourself - please do share!

33 comments:

  1. I only started cycling when I moved to a rural area. I hadn't owned a car for years, but realized public transit would no longer be an option when I moved away from the city. My current area is much like the one you describe above, and even though I'd never bicycled before I started doing it for transportation, I wouldn't trade it for a car if you paid me. Sometimes, due to lack of infrastructure, I don't have any choice but to ride the wrong way on a highway, which of course I hate, but most of my routes are quiet and beautiful. And like you said, I like cycling as transportation because I get the fitness benefit, the enjoyment, and the practicality of getting from one place to another.

    Thanks for writing about this!

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  2. Finally someone talking in this way. Not just the city visitor to the rural, but the rural cyclist.

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  3. Me again. I do post some of my cycling exploits on my blog at http://artbrulant.wordpress.com

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  4. I'm not sure why people email you to ask whether their local routes are safe or practical to ride on. I take that back, I'm pretty sure I know. The route is there, do your research and open your eyes. V in Northern Ireland has no idea what your conditions are.

    Whatever. I certainly wouldn't use a Brompton over distance.

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  5. I go "against what's reasonable or practical" everyday even though I don't live in the countryside.

    http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-commute.html

    My commute is always slower by bike than by car since I hardly hit a heavy traffic. This way my experience is more rural than urban. If I wanted a practical solution I would drive to work instead.

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    1. Knowing approximately where you live, I am surprised there is so little car traffic. That's a really nice bike commute, though.

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  6. PS Isn't this new moniker Rural Cycling just a road ride with different stuff? I mean you ride a Brompton and a road bike - how does delving into minutiae explain these two choices.

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    1. I ride the Brompton when the miles are short (<10) and I need to carry a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of "transpo" rides here are actually short distances and don't feel like road rides. Cycling to nearby shops, to see a guy about a thing, or farm-to-farm, that sort of stuff. The bike is a popular transport choice with farm boys here, and they wouldn't ride their racers.

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    2. Then your lifestyle there is exactly the same as that of Boston, so far as I can tell.

      My point is "Rural Cycling" is just another moniker to hang on the act of Riding.
      I'm pretty sure your friends there don't call it "Rural Cycling".


      Longer distances necessitate something like a touring bike, not racer per se.

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    3. Not the most popular choice, and I am not certain I would do it myself, but people do tour with Bromptons and Bike Fridays.

      Ride diaries by small wheel bike riders may not be quite as common as recumbents (and a far cry from conventional touring bikes) on Crazy Guy On a Bike, but I've noticed increasing numbers of late.

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    4. Distances are similar; other aspects of travel less so. And yes, if I had a 20 mile commute, I would ride something like a touring bike.

      Matthew - I for one would not deliberately tour on a Brompton if a roadbike was available instead. But I can see how it would work for those who prefer to tour on an upright bike, or on a bike that could double as a city/utility bike at stops along the way. Interestingly, in Austria (and possibly other continental N European countries) a "touring bike" is an upright bike with straight bars, ergo grips and super low gears, because it is assumed most customers want that kind of touring.

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    5. I'll paraphrase Austrian Tourer - bike for river and canal paths.

      In other words, a bike.

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  7. I live in an urban area and my experience with rural transportation cycling is therefore limited, but several times a year I do have to commute to week-long gigs that are fairly far away (the farthest being a 2-hr train ride followed by a 220-mi bike ride over two days with a loaded bike, each direction). While it would admittedly be more convenient on those few occasions to drive rather than to spend an entire day or two in transit each way, it is only a few times a year and even added together, it's probably still more cost-effective than owning a car for the entire year for the sake of those trips (not to mention learning to drive one....). When it snows I'm incredibly glad not to have to dig out a car or a driveway, and if I lived someplace rural and had a long driveway to clear, I'd probably be that much more likely to consider a longer bike ride to go shopping more convenient than digging out.
    Of course, the fact that I enjoy long bike rides, and my extra-long "commutes" double as enjoyable bike trips makes the cost consideration less relevant to start with.

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  8. I'm a geologist, I'm an environmentalist... maybe not a 'tree-hugger' type, but I expect people to always strive to 'do better', to pollute a bit less, to improve efficiency, etc.

    I wish I could bicycle-commute. I work in coal mine reclamation in southwestern Virginia; but I live in northeastern Tennessee... driveway to parking lot is 40 miles... If I'm riding 40 miles, I'd set aside at least a half-day for it... that won't do when I have to be at work by 7....

    Move closer to work? I don't want to live in to coalfields, even though I am working to improve them. Change jobs? I'd have to take a pay cut, and maybe more importantly, give up my retirement investment in my pension... I do carpool w/ three other fellas, so I only have to make the complete drive once a week, but still....

    FWIW....

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    1. When I lived in rural northern NH, my commute to work was close to 40 miles (each way) as well. Needless to say I did not ride a bike at the time.

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  9. Although I enjoy cycling, for me the thing that got me out on the bike in the first place and keeps me going out even on the days when it's not enjoyable, is keeping myself from being car-dependent (and the environmental aspect of it as well). As we've only got one car and my husband now has it for the whole of the working day, this has meant me not being stuck in the house most days, or dependent on a very patchy rural bus service.

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  10. Folks have shared with you, many times, over the years of their cycling experiences and many have been of the rural variety. The bikes they used were different than the ones you were becoming familiar with, the clothes, too. Perhaps you now have better ears for their stories. The thing that will always be is that if one wants to get from point A to point B a bicycle will to the trick, rural or urban, some for lifestyle reasons, some for economic reasons. Many, many, many do it w/o reading blogs about bicycles, They just ride.

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  11. Nearly all places which are now inhabited were inhabited before automobiles became common. The only reason some places are no longer easy to live in without an auto is that the infernal contraption has so changed commerce that what the post calls "amenities" have been driven out of small towns. Basically autos drove something called "life" out of small towns.

    Correct me if I am wrong but I would imagine that in rural Ireland before the 1970s or perhaps even the 1980s only the gentry would have automatically possessed an auto. You are benefitting from living where autos have only had a couple decades to clear all else but autos from the horizon.

    I am not that old, born in 1952. Grew up in suburbs of Chicago. My family always had a car, not all family members of my parents generation did. Most of the previous generation lived their lives without autos, those that had them used them sparingly. I never thought of an auto as an automatic necessity and didn't trouble to own one until I was thirty. Riding a bike for everything as an adult in the 70s and 80s did not make you a trendsetter or an urban pioneer, it made you a weirdo. But there was no need to own a car in Chicago then. I drive maybe 5000 miles a year, less than I pedal the bike. I'm quite sure I never drove as much as 10,000 in a year and have way more career miles on the bike than in a car.

    I certainly remember when every small town had a full range of "amenities", that is shops and shopkeepers and craftspersons. The smallest crossroads had a tavern, usually with a kitchen, and a service station. I've had bicycle frame repair done in such a garage and the work was good. Many townspeople in the 50s 60s and 70s lived without cars. Farmers who owned cars might use them on Sundays and for annual trips to see the relatives; trips to town for supplies they used Ida. Ida was an old tractor that would be perceived as a lawnmower nowadays.

    Just talking about the USA in living memory of someone not that old I remember deep country where the lady of the house kept a pot of soup permanently on the back of the woodstove for strangers passing through. Plenty of times I was told the hotel in the next town is closed, or not what it used to be - so use the spare bedroom, sleep in the barn, or pitch the tent in this special place down by the crick. Most farms had a machine shed suitable for a lot of bike repair.

    Rural life has a lot of options without owning a car. The most obvious is a horse. If a horse is impractical or expensive there are ponies and there are donkeys. In the 1980s in Providence, RI there were still aged Italian and Portuguese women dresed all in black who went to market with donkeycarts and everyone thought that was unremarkable. Donkeys are quite easy to care for. Then there is the third world staple of the 4wheel motorcycle pulling a trailer. Trying to get acceptance for any of these expedients in modern urban America would be daunting, in the country life is still a bit simpler.

    I think the key is not so much making a decision to be car-free or to be a fulltime biker. The decision is to get on with being alive and just don't pay any attention to how other people have chosen to arrange transport. That's their problem, not yours.

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  12. " the love of cycling for its own sake is the dominant motivating factor. It may be an irrational love. A love that goes against what's reasonable or practical. But it's a love strong enough to, however creatively, turn it into reality" That's definitely the case for me! I remember when I first started commuting out to the donkey farm I used to work at. It was a 5 mile ride through beautiful rolling to mountainous countryside. I had my first adult bike - 1967 Hercules 3 speed. It took me 45 minutes, sometimes longer to make that 5 mile trip! But it was fun, and beautiful, and made for plenty of time to contemplate life. I've kept at it, even with changing jobs and still prefer cycling and living in the countryside. Another point to consider in the varying pockets of differences within rural cycling is the local attitude. I generally find around here that in areas with more farms the drivers seem friendlier. But if I'm traveling through an area that is more residential then I'm more apt to encounter a rude driver. We have several of these "McMansion" subdivision-lets that pop up here and there where older farms have been sold. I try to avoid those outright. Those people seem to have the worst attitudes, and their teenagers, oh, don't even get me started… :)

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  13. Thanks for offering yourself as a conduit for this sort of thing. I live in a small college town that is hillier than most but old enough to have been laid out on a human scale. One aspect I enjoy is finding the sweet spot between getting around with a load and a load that is pure madness. Another is the golden triangle of errands, as opposed to the out-and-back errand. I am counting on such logistical planning, on top of the exercise, to keep me both relaxed and mentally sharp into my dotage.

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  14. As I have commented in the past, I have been commuting in a rural area for years. It's more like suburban rural in parts, there are a few towns, but it is definitely different and not as i had imagined, or not quite the location I'd like. For me there is more highway riding than anything and it is not pleasant. The main road stretching up a long coast line is a highway, nasty two lane twisty thing, one gets here by ferry which also creates impatient drivers. Distances between my rural area and the nearest town and village is 15 minutes riding minimum, while a bigger town is a bit of a slog. There are very big hills!! I live up a steep dirt road that is hard to bike because of it's poor condition. Also very variable climate. Real live keystone predators that may cross the road as you go by etc..
    I still haven't taken my own advice, but a road or touring type rando etc bike is best for long rural distances. Fenders, racks, panniers. You really need a bike that can really go and has the gears for hills etc.. Lack of stop signs, lights etc means you can get a good ride, hills and climbing challenges for epic moments and long long stretches with nothing in the way of services. I am currently stuck with only working bike and it is not ideal. A heavy british roadster!
    Also, darkness will be an issue. I really do not enjoy biking in the dark along the highway alone. I did it for years and hated it, but my current job is even further away and have to go through some fairly wild parkland that may have big animals, or else I feel vulnerable as a woman alone.
    My ideal rural area for cycling has some villages or town with services in doable distance. A network of quiet roads to get to work and stuff safely, and places to go for rides without being stuck on only one road as I currently am.
    The most annoying thing is that people are overly impressed that I bike as if it is some impossible feat. I have always biked, it's not so different. When I lived in cities I often biked even further distances with no fanfare.

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    1. "When I lived in cities I often biked even further distances with no fanfare."

      Same for me. There is a lot of sprawl around Boston, and trips of 10 or so miles (each way) were not uncommon for me. That's pretty much my maximum here as well. The landscape and the rhythm of the ride are different here, but not the distances in of themselves.

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  15. My experience with rural areas is limited to riding brevets, but I dream of moving to the country after retirement.Like yourself, I am willing to put up with some loss of convenience. My priority is road safety. With some luck by the time I am ready to move I will find a bike friendly oasis much like you did! I will bookmark these posts.

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  16. http://www.bikelightsuk.com

    Though fate has been such I've spent most of my life in cities and suburbs.I actually have continuously been drawn to rural areas .Still, I dream of riding cycle on long country roads, of creaky farm homes enclosed by unruly gardens, of moody seascapes with not a development visible , and of miles of dense forest stretching as way because the eye will see. This is often most likely what drives my interest in cycling.

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    1. With current population growth trends as they are, realizing this dream may require joining the expedition to Mars.

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  17. With the exception of my final job in downtown Boston, my commutes have always been suburban - from a home in the burbs to a job in the burbs, typically about 15 miles each way. What this really meant in practical terms was *no public transit alternative*. So if something went wrong with the bike, or the weather, I had to fix it or tough it out to get home. With a non-driving spouse, I also didn't have the option of phoning for rescue. So for these reasons, my commuting bike was designed to eliminate the potential of me being stuck miles from home. Reliability was paramount.This meant a higher quality bike and parts than one might use for shorter commutes in the city. You might not think about bottom bracket quality much until one fails on you miles from home. Since I rode year round in suburban Boston, the parts were regularly exposed to salt and water (both liquid and solid variety). Despite the hilly commute, I opted for a fixed gear to eliminate issues with frozen shift cables and worn out drivetrains in the winter. I'd just replace the rusty chain once a year. Of course the commuter had fenders, like any proper commuting bike should. It also had clearance for fat/studded tires to survive the inevitable ice that forms on the roads at night after snow from the side of the road melts and runs across the road and freezes. Being suburbia, street lights were almost non-existent, so proper lights were also critical. With a commute of over an hour each way, dynamo hubs were a god-send. Nothing like having a battery die in the frigid temperatures or realizing too late that you forgot to charge the battery. An hour+ commute in frigid temps also meant warm hands and feet were critical. One can put up with cold fingers and toes for a shorter commute, but as you approach an hour or more, it becomes essential to keep warm. For all these reasons, my commuter bike was no hack bike. I was lucky and always found employment where I could keep the bike in a secure place. But when I took a job downtown w/o secured parking, I had to look at alternatives, since I was unwilling to leave such a nice bike locked up outside - downtown. So I ended up with a different downtown commuter than my suburban commuter. With the public transit option, I chose a folder - so I could take the bus home should I get caught out in a snowstorm. I also looked at various non-quick release lockable bolts and such. With lots of streetlights, I didn't have to worry so much about a high-power headlight, but I also didn't want anything easily swiped from the bike - or wanted them easy enough to remove for ME to take them each time. There are different things to think about for a bike that's locked up outside in a high theft area vs a bike for riding long distances through suburbia.

    As for your question of WHY? I have to think back 30 years to when I started. It was as you surmise - a way to get a bike ride in midweek. While it did take longer than driving, it wasn't that much longer, and let me tell you, riding a bike with studded tires 30 miles a day is a lot harder than any gym workout! Then once I'd started commuting, I had the equipment and clothes and attitude, so I didn't even think about using a car to get to work.

    I'm not commuting these days, but do have some commuting advice on the website - all tailored to the suburban commuter. This is a reminder to me to update that article....
    http://www.blayleys.com/articles/commuting/index.htm

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  18. What you say about regional variation and ultra-local conditions, is very true. If I were to work at either of the other two towns within cycling distance of my home, I'd be dodging HGVs and agricultural vehicles on single-track lanes with six-foot ditches on each side.

    As it is, I get a nice 24 mile ride along disused railway lines, next to a river. The biggest benefit to me is the improvement to my mental, rather than physical, health.

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  19. Enjoyed your post.

    I live rurally and ride constantly but not for transportation. I have a choice of two high speed highways (60mph) and the hilly gravel roads. Riding with groceries or other items wouldn't be safe.

    I had to change from a road bike to a cross bike and even bought a fat bike to compensate for the terrain. Walking 3 miles home because you blew out a tire on a skinny road bike sucks. I soon learned how to change a tire after that. Love both of my bikes but my fat bike gives me the most joy.

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  20. I used to live in a small town about 15km outside of the city I live in now. My door to door commute for one of my jobs was 30km on the button in each direction. I used to bike in all the time. It took 58minutes (no kidding, and no variation either!) to get to work, and 1hr 20min to get home. I had the wind with me on the way in you see...

    I rode in my usual "going on a bike ride" clothing. Lycra shorts, a jersey, race shoes, etc. My bike was a simple cyclocross bike with a rack on the back and weather proof panniers containing a change of clothing and lunch.

    I had no problem doing this ride and really enjoyed it, but would not do it in the winter. I do ride in the winter now, but not outside of the city. It simply is not safe riding rural Ontario in the winter if there is any snow about, especially along the edge of the snowbelt off of Lake Huron.

    Here is why! http://www.flickr.com/photos/95983560@N08/12142940494/

    That is on one of the roads I would take to work mid winter. While I will cycle in a full blown knock down drag 'em out blizzard and call it fun, being out in winds that produce car swallowing drifts at -40 windchills in a rural area where it if hits the fan you are in real trouble is not going to happen :)

    In fact, it was a desire to spend less time in cars that ultimately drove us out of the small town and back into the city. We are much happier now as driving has gone from 25 to 30 000km a year to less than 10 000, with a lot of, if not most of, our short hops being done by bicycle now.

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  21. Hi I really liked this post as a lot of comment on commuting or utility riding in the UK is urban in nature, I live in Cumbria famed for lakes and mountains (you can't ride on lakes which only leaves one choice). Riding my bike to work means a 1 hour 15 min ride each way of about 20 miles. If I take the car its only 14 miles and I can do it in 20mins. A pocket of no cycle provision means one of the rivers can only be crossed by a 6 mile detour or by riding on the M6 which would be dangerous as well as illegal. My decision of how to get to work unless its one of the days when I have to carry tools comes down to:
    1 I really like riding my bike even if it adds nearly 2 hours to my daily commute time.
    2 I really like seeing my kids in the evenings and helping with the homework which I can't do as much of if I don't get back until nearly 7pm.
    In every way the car is more convenient but something sees me throwing my leg over that bike a couple of times a week, I think its mainly a selfish desire to carve out some me time.

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  22. It has been a long time since I have taken the time to look at your blog. In the past, I have often made comments that were more negative. Maybe it is because I am thinking about cycling from a rural perspective vs. an urban perpsective. The urban one always seems to centre on style and identity and it always seems so over-indulgent that it turns me off. However, I do want to thank you for identifying some of the rural perspective here. Those mornings that are hard to face getting on the bike are made harder because driving is so much easier, I have no traffic to face and some killer hills to ride over. I do ride much of the time, and everytime I do, I love it. However, as Vultan said, it is about carving out time for yourself and loving everything about the bike. Thanks for the post and I hope to read more of your rural experiences and observations on cycling.

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  23. Hi. Thank you. Exactly! For example, I live in one small city and work in a nearby one; in between are farms. There's a bus (free with my employee ID), but I seldom need it. When colleagues ask, I tell them my cycling commute is "my mental health hour", and they nod. The direct route is 11 miles via a 5-lane road. but mine is 15 miles via back roads through fields. Hazards? One night I almost collided with a skunk, and I've received a couple of mild bee stings when the clover and meadowfoam are in bloom. Best part of my workdays? Oh Yes!

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