There's no doubt that regular bike commutes are good for your health. Improved muscle tone and the loss of a few pounds will be the most apparent benefits. After regular biking for about a month, you'll also notice your speed and pedaling strength will greatly improve. I am sure there are other cardiovascular benefits as well.
In terms of health problems associated with bike commuters, I have read reports that some men experience sexual dysfunction. The experts think its because of the way the seat presses on a nerves in your groin. Seat manufacturers have taken notice, and now produce gel-filled seats, or seats with split designs that relieve pressure in this area.
death at 15 mph
Another health/safety issue you should keep in mind is a bicyclist traveling 15 miles per hour will be far more likely to experience injury in an accident than someone traveling the same speed in a car. For this reason, wearing a helmet, having functioning brakes, and obeying traffic laws are absolutely essential.
Unbelievably, some cyclists who really should know better don't get it. a small minority of hard-core touring bicyclists insist on the "freedom" of riding without a helmet, and in urban areas you'll find a few younger riders and couriers riding stripped-down bikes with no brakes or gears - they claim they have more control over their bikes and don't need brakes.
dealing with cars
But the most common safety violations - which can suddenly and unexpectedly impact your health - are the incorrect assumptions that bicyclists have more rights on the road ("I have the right of way because I'm smaller!"), or it's OK to flout traffic laws ("red lights are only for motor vehicles"), or bikes can behave like cars in certain situations ("It's OK for me to cut across three lanes of traffic to make a left turn").
While it may be true that a car driver is more likely to be the loser in a court case involving a bicyclist, the cost of proving this point - injury or death - simply isn't worth it. Keep these facts in mind when dealing with cars, busses and trucks:
- Regardless of what the law says, you cannot physically win a game of chicken with a car. At the very least you will be shaken and scraped up, and at the very most, you will die. The car driver will likely walk away from the accident with no physical injuries, and only slight damage to the car.
- Don't assume that cars or trucks will pay attention to your safety, particularly on busy or fast roads.
- Busses make frequent stops. In some areas they run on electricity, which means you can't hear them coming up behind you.
- Give cars the space they need on fast roads. If there is no space or shoulder, you probably shouldn't be on that road.
- Use clear hand signals (not the finger!) to let drivers know what you want to do.
- Pay attention to their signals
- Pay attention to their lack of signals. Motorists slowing down may be getting ready to turn right, but may not use their signals. Furthermore, idiots who hold cell phones while driving can't use their indicators.
other safety tips
Water is bad for cyclists. It slickens the roads, rusts moving parts, and reduces visibility for both you and motorists. Riding in a lightning storm can be extremely dangerous. One of my basic rules of thumbs about cycling in the rain is, don't. If you can't avoid it (weatherman screws up, or it's a sudden storm) try to get home/to the office before it gets really wet, or in the case of lightning storms, wait under an awning or tree until it passes.
Stay hydrated! You will need at least a bottle of water over the course of an hour-long ride. If you are in a really hot place, plan on bringing an extra bottle for the commute, or stop along the way to get some juice or electrolyte drink.
Hot weather itself does not bother me. The summers can get very hot and humid, but in general the early mornings and late afternoons (the times when I commute) are a few degrees cooler than the height of the day, and the wind generated by speed also helps me stay cool. I have also not gotten sunburned while commuting, thanks to the low angle of the sun and the many trees which line the route.
However, heat may be a factor for you. If you are more sensitive to heat, or live in an exceptionally hot place, get advice from other commuters about this issue and pay attention to official heat warnings.
One other heat issue I have come across is the phenomenon of exploding tires. When I was traveling in a desert area abroad, local people warned me not to park my bike in the direct sun, or leave it standing on the hot pavement for extended periods. This isn't a problem where I live, but people in the southwest might want to keep this in mind.
Buying a bell is the best $10 investment you can make. Sure, it's hokey, but a couple clear rings are probably the most effective (and most polite) way of letting people know you are coming up behind them. Adult pedestrians usually move to the side of the path when they hear a bell, while kids will freeze and look around. Dogs don't always pay attention, but at least their owners will call them or try to grab their collars as you pass. Joggers may not hear you, because half of the time they are plugged into an iPod, but at least most of them know to stay to one side of the path. Slower bicyclists usually know to get to the right of the path. Cars won't hear you unless the window is rolled down.
The alternative to using a bell is saying (or shouting) "passing on your left" but that can get mighty tiring in the course of a morning commute.
Sidewalks are meant for walkers, not riders. Sometimes bike commuters will be forced to ride on the sidewalk owing to the design of a roadway or intersection, or some other reason, but keep in mind that most pedestrians aren't expecting you to be speeding down their space. Some of the bad bike/pedestrian accidents reported in the papers are caused by bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, and striking someone strolling out of a doorway. Don't be one of them!
Drivers opening their doors into the path of a bicyclist cause a lot of accidents, many of them fatal. Besides the danger of striking the car door and flipping over the handlebars, there is also the risk of swerving to avoid the car door, and being hit by another motor vehicle. Remember that all the special bike lanes and ordinances in the world won't save you from some idiot who opens his door without looking.
Gas-guzzling road hogs, unsafe monsters, stupid urban vehicles - call them what you will, SUVs are unfortunately here to stay. They persist, even though 95% of the urbanites and suburbanites who own SUVs don't know how to drive them, and don't even need them to travel to the local mall.
Their increased presence only makes the bike safety situation worse. I've observed that SUV drivers tend to be more arrogant about sharing the road with bicyclists. SUVs are wide, so they don't leave as much space in the lane, and SUV drivers are often unaware that they are forcing you into the curb. When they park on the street, a combination of extra vehicle width and poor parking skills usually means they jut out into the road an extra foot or two. And if you get hit by one, your chances of death or serious injury are much greater than being hit by an ordinary car.