That title looked so cool as I was typing it out. It was like the beginning of a spy thriller or something. I’ve been obsessing over the title of this post for a while, because so many have been running through my head. “CarfreePVD vs. Johnson County”, “Overland Park: The Return” “CarfreePVD X commuterDude Limited-Edition Collabo” “Bike-to-fake-work day.” I like Project: Fake Commute. Maybe someday I’ll travel from town to town, visiting other bike bloggers and commuting with them. Wow, I really know how to dream big, don’t I?
The title refers to the fact that I have now completed a “Fake Commute” in my old home town of Overland Park, KS. Well, I started in Olathe, and ended in Overland Park but whatever. Basically, it was Johnson County Kansas, the land of my birth. The place where I learned how to ride a bike, and learned to drive and learned identify the make and model of a car from 1/4 mile away just by its headlights.
In my various wanderings of bike blog-land (I refuse to add the suffix “-osphere” to “blog.” The word “blog” is bad enough on its own), I happened upon the blog of a bike commuter in Olathe, Noah (you can find his blog at KC Bike Commuting) . I’d followed his blog for a few months and when I planned a visit to my family in Olathe, I asked him if I could tag along on his morning trip. Well, it turned out that the starting point of his trip was a little further away than I’d expected, but he suggested I talk to another local bike blogger, Keith AKA commuterDude. Keith was happy to help me in my quest to commute in my hometown. It was fortuitous, because I’d planned my trip to Kansas before I realized I would be out of town for Bike-to-work Day, and thus not able to take part in the festivities. My normal everyday bike-to-work commute is pathetic by most standards, so this would give me the chance to try a real commute on the most holiest of bike holidays.
This is the third in a series of what I’m calling “Fake Commutes” although I didn’t give the other posts that title. In January, I biked around San Francisco for a day, and although I didn’t frame the post as a fake commute, my ride was certainly an appropriate length for a commute. When I visited Portland, I specifically set out to ride like a bicycle commuter in one of America’s most bike-friendly cities. And, now the third in the Project: Fake Commute series (this post also functions as the second in my “Commuter Profile” series.)
For this ride, I borrowed my brother-in-law’s bike. It is very different from the bike I’m used to riding. It’s a full-suspension, extremely heavy mountain bike, with a rather slack geometry. The left-hand chain stay jauntily boasted that it was “shimano equipped” so at least it had that going for it. I knew that it did not have lights, so I brought mine along, but I wasn’t expecting my brother-in-law’s lack of a helmet. I have to say I felt naked without it. Here’s the view from the cockpit.
My headlight is mounted to the fork because it wouldn't fit on the handlbar
Keith likes to get to work early, and since I had plans for later in the morning, I was happy to meet him at 6:15 on a residential corner not far from my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It was a misty morning, the grass was fresh with dew, and almost no one came by as I waited for Keith.
uh oh, am I in the right place?
Keith soon rolled up on a very smart-looking, green steel road bike. It sported fenders, rear rack, waterproof panniers, and bar-end shifters on the drop handlebars. Definitely a nice set-up for commuting, or Keith’s favorite weekend activity: randonneuring. After brief introductions, we headed out. As we biked along the 11-mile route, I interviewed Keith about his experiences as a bike commuter. We were headed to the gigantic campus of Sprint World Headquarters where Keith works.
I’m not one for super-early commutes, so my first question for the Commuterdude was, why do you commute so early?
commuterDude: At first it was because I had a shift that started early in the morning. Eventually, I wasn’t required to be in by 7:30 AM, but I noticed that there was much less traffic if I came in earlier in the morning. For the most part, I take the early commute, but occasionally I log-in from home and telecommute for a couple of hours to miss the heaviest part of rush hour, and then bike in later in the day.
CFPVD: When did you start commuting by bike and why?
cD: I started commuting by bike about 10 years ago, but it’s hard to put an exact date on it since it didn’t happen all at once. The first time I biked to work was when my car broke down so I grabbed an old Jazz mountain bike I happened to have. At the time, I had a 76 Buick Regal which got about 6 MPG in town. After high school, I’d gained a few pounds, but by 2000 or so, I’d gotten back in shape. I soon saw biking to work as a good way to train for longer rides on the weekends. For those, I started out with 40-50 mile rides and after 2002 the miles started increasing as I discovered randonneuring.
commuterDude likes to be visible. I may have to get one of those triangles before my next ride across the state.
CFPVD: Is the bike your main mode of transportation?
cD: Up until about a year ago, my wife and I had two cars between us. Then my mother-in-law had mechanical problems with her car (which ended up being terminal) so she needed a car. I initially let her borrow my car, which was in the driveway most days anyways, and eventually she took over the payments. While at first it was hard to adjust to only having one car, now we don’t really miss it.
CFPVD: Really, never? Even with having kids?
cD: The only time it would be nice would be to get to the starts of long group rides, but I’m examining things like renting a car for the weekend, or borrowing from someone, or car-pooling.
As we biked along, I let commuterDude take the lead. With his well-tuned road bike (and his experience riding it), he was able to keep a steady pace, in fact it seemed like he hardly ever shifted gears! Meanwhile, I was trying to keep up with him and working through everything the genuine “shimano equipped” drivetrain had to offer. Another great thing about the lack of traffic is that many times we could ride next to each other. I always kept an eye out for approaching cars, and I’d slip behind Keith when one came up behind us. This meant that I was often drafting behind him, but I never got to return the favor by taking the lead. This would generally be considered rude of me to do on a multi-person ride, but I figured it was better to let him set the steady pace and I’d catch up as needed. Plus, the roads were a little damp, and it would not be pleasant for anyone to ride behind me when I didn’t have any fenders. Eventually, we came to a stretch of 143rd street that is just two lanes, and the farms on either side have yet to be swallowed up by development.
Quasi-country road, take me home, to the place I belong. Johnson County, suburban homeland. Take me home, quasi-country road.
cD: This is one of my favorite parts of the ride. For a couple of blocks, it’s almost like you are riding out in the country. They are planning on building it out to 4 lanes soon. Right now, a lot of people take it as an alternate to 135th or 151st, even more will come through once they widen it to 4 lanes.
CFPVD: Are they planning to include bike lanes when they build it out? (a few streets in the area have bike lanes).
cD: No, I don’t think so.
Somewhere around the “country road” section we crossed the border between Olathe and Overland Park. I mentioned that I grew up in Overland Park and Keith said that he had as well. It turns out we grew up about 1/2 mile from each other, but went to different schools because of where the dividing lines were. While I attended the more honorable Shawnee Mission West, Keith went to the more decadent Shawnee Mission South. Somehow, he seems to have turned out all right, so I won’t hold it against him.
The roads in Johnson County are laid out in a pattern I call “grid with squiggles.” That is, there’s a grid system for the major streets: basically a major 4 lane road every mile. Between these 1-mile roads, the subdivision developers laid out streets that loop around, have cul-de-sacs, and generally just feed residents onto the 1-mile roads. There are a few more-or-less straight roads at the 1/2 mile level, but not in every square on the grid. For my Fake Commute, we traveled on a variety of roads. A few of the 1-mile roads, but mostly the 1/2 mile roads that wind through subdivisions. We also went through a few commercial/retail areas. Every car that we encountered gave us plenty of room, and no one gave off a particularly aggressive vibe. Keith picked a great route – another reason that I’m glad he was leading the way.
Our route. 1-mile roads in yellow.
There were a couple of serious looking roadies who gave us a wave as they passed in the other direction (they seemed a little perplexed by our totally mis-matched bikes). Aside from that, on our way in, the only other cyclists we saw were a few people riding on the sidewalks. This ride was one of the longest I’ve taken without breaking any laws. Generally, I’m a law-abiding cyclist, but I do run the occasional stop light when there are no cars present and the light is not going to change because it doesn’t know I’m there. During our ride, we had to go through a few controlled intersections, but it seemed like the traffic light gods were on our side, and we hardly waited at all.
Sprint World Headquarters
Finally, the mammoth construction that is Sprint World Headquarters loomed in the distance. Sprint takes up the area of several city blocks, and has many 8-12 story buildings plus several parking structures. Keith and I pulled into one of the many parking garages and he locked up to a bike rack right next to the entrance.
commuterDude enjoying some bike parking dignity
cD: They put the racks in about 3 years ago. Before that, people were locking up to railings, pipes and conduit.
CFPVD: Do they have a shower facility for bike commuters?
cD: There’s a fitness center here that has a shower, but you have to pay for a membership. Since I’m a contractor and not a Sprint employee, I think it’s even more expensive for me than for regular Sprint employees. I don’t need a fitness center membership, and Sprint won’t allow access to just the showers. Instead, I keep a relatively slow pace on the way in (so I don’t get too sweaty) and I clean up a little in a private bathroom and bring a change of clothes. It’s a business-casual environment, so I don’t have to worry about a suit or pressed shirt. I haven’t had any co-workers complain over the years.
undignified old parking place
CFPVD: How do you handle the winters?
cD: If the roads are passable, I’ll ride no matter what the temperature is. There are some times when we get snow and ice that makes the roads dangerous. In that case I walk or ride to a bus stop and take that in.
CFPVD: Do you see many other bike commuters at Sprint?
cD: No, just a few. In fact, there’s a beige Honda that I’ve seen a few times, that I’m pretty sure is driving from an apartment complex across the street. It couldn’t be more than a half mile away. It’s possible that he’s picking someone up from there or something, I don’t know.
CFPVD: I was looking at a map of Springfield MO recently and discovered that I used to drive 0.8 miles
to work every day. It’s hard to get out of that driving mindset. And by the way, a beige Honda? That’s got to be one of the most common cars in Johnson County. How do you know it’s the same one?
cD: Well, when you ride the same way every day, you get to recognize certain cars.
We chatted a bit more, then I had to hit the road so Spouse and I could check out a local yoga studio. A 20 mile bike ride in the morning, plus 1.5 hours of yoga with some new-agey looking teacher
I’ve never met? Hey why not?
I took the Tomahawk trail for part of way home. I thought it might be a quicker route seeing as how it goes on more of a diagonal than the route that Keith and I took. However, it dips, swerves and weaves all over the place, following the Tomahawk creek. There had been a thunderstorm the night before, and the trail was still wet. Not only that, it was completely covered in mud at points (maybe it was good to have those knobby MTB tires after all?) There were times where the trail was quite nice. It can be a very pretty ride through the woods and along the stream.
so serene, and so muddy
Earlier, Keith had mentioned one downside to the trail. Because it’s there, some people expect you to ride on it all the time (and not on the streets). They don’t realize that it’s not always the best route due to rain, mud, distance, etc. I saw 2-3 more bike commuters on my way home, but it was a disappointing number for the official “bike-to-work” day. Eventually, I got tired of the constant up and down of the bike trail. There was an iron fence along the trail, but a gate led to a subdivision and checking my map, I could see that it led back to a major street. But first, I had to brave: McMansionLand!
A typical example of the Johnson County McMansion. Note the little sign "discreetly" informing you of the security system.
I made it back to my sister & brother-in-law’s place a little sweaty, a little muddy, and with a new respect for the people who commute by bike in Johnson County. In a way, I’m a little jealous. Keith gets in a real ride before and after work every day, and I only get to ride for a mile and a half. I wonder if I would have ever made the transition to car-free (or even car-light) if I’d stayed in Johnson County.
After returning to Providence, I emailed Keith to confirm a few details and ask my standard question: What are the 3-5 reasons you commute by bike?
1 – Physical: I love what the bike has done for me, and it’s created a level of enjoyment that I never tire of
2 – Mental: I’m a better person upon arriving home by bike – as opposed to the kind of person driving in suburban traffic creates – I’m less stressed, more relaxed, easier-going
3 – Financial: While I’ve never done the math beyond conjecture, the financial savings are pretty significant. I don’t buy gas – since my wife drives our only car primarily – so I go months without operating a gas pump. I have no idea how much gas costs these days, and I kinda like that. Further, I get a workout every day, and aside from the cost of bike parts, it costs me very little. People usually join and drive to a gym – and I don’t need to
4 – Nature: riding a bike puts me closer to what many people in the area have learned to ignore: the subtleties of changing seasons, birds, squirrels, beaver, rabbits, snakes, deer – even a bobcat once – things the average motorist wouldn’t even imagine they’d see on a commute home
Thanks again Keith!