Published: July 2, 2020

Why I Ride My Bike 30 Miles to Work

It started as a challenge and turned into a way of life. Plus, how you can get started with bike basics.

Photo: Ryan gets creative in counting his 20th ride to the museum.

I became a cyclist 14 years ago. It's not a coincidence that I started working for the Field Museum 14 years ago as well. Shortly after joining the exhibitions department, I moved to the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago from Northwest Indiana. I began using the mountain bike that I had originally bought for my paper route as my commuter bike. At that time I couldn't have told you the names of half of the parts of a bike, much less how to fix them if something went wrong—but I was in the right place to learn.

The Field is known for being a place where the public can come to learn about an array of topics dealing with the sciences and humanities, directly from the scientists who study these topics and from the exhibits they inform. Behind the scenes as a staff member, I get to interact with these same scientists, as well as the artists who build the exhibits. They all share a common trait: they are hands-on people. It shouldn't surprise you that a lot of the hobbies they enjoy are hands-on as well, and none more so than bicycling.

I don't know how far back the bike culture at the museum goes, but it seemed to be gaining momentum when I arrived in 2006. The average price for a gallon of gas had just passed the $2.00 mark nationwide (gasp) and there was a push to switch to alternatives to driving. Due to the ideal location along the Lakefront Trail, on a sunny day during the warmer months of the year nearly 10% of the staff would commute via bicycle. That percentage would increase further during the Commuter Challenge put on by the Active Transportation Alliance, which pitted similar institutions against each other to see which would earn bragging rights for logging the most miles and total commutes. The Field Museum has a history of success in this event.

With so many people to ask questions about bike repair, how best to navigate in traffic, and which routes were best, I had a working knowledge of urban cycling fairly quickly. Soon my two mile commute didn't seem long enough. I began exploring and going on longer rides of around 20 miles with coworkers. It became obvious that if I wanted to keep up or ride farther that I'd have to upgrade, so (with advice from those coworkers) I set aside my mountain bike and bought a road bike. A lot of life has happened since that purchase, and a lot of life has happened on that bike. I rode across the US one summer and from Chicago to New York another. I rode 270 miles in a day and attempted an Ironman. I even took that bike with me when I moved to Alaska.

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I returned to the museum in 2016 and moved back to Northwest Indiana in 2017. The bike culture that had infected me when I first started was still alive. The Commuter Challenge was still happening, too, and I felt obligated to help continue our victorious tradition.

I researched bike maps and discovered a lot of bicycle infrastructure has been built in both Illinois and Indiana in the last decade. There now exists a 30-mile route that I can take from my house, which is almost entirely on trails or dedicated bike lanes. Additionally, the South Shore Line started allowing bikes on specific trains in 2016, so I wouldn't have to complete the entire distance in both directions. 

City of Chicago Bike Map

Northwest Indiana Bike Map

The first time I rode that route was for bragging rights, but I found that it was possible to commute a long distance without adding to my environmental impact. My total commute time by bike is actually less than the amount of time it would take for my regular commute plus a half-hour workout at a gym, and I save half the train fare and the gym membership fee. I obviously can't ride my bike every day like I could when I lived in the city due to the distance and the weather, but I've stayed committed to preserving and encouraging the bike culture that has given me so much. After 3 years, I've done the long bike commute 114 times and I feel like I've just scratched the surface. 

At the time of writing, the Field Museum cyclists have won the bike challenge 13 of the last 14 years.

Tips to get you started riding

Before getting on your bike for the first ride of the year, do a quick inspection. Remember ABC:


Bike tires deflate over time, so if you haven’t ridden in a while inflate the tires to the recommended pressure, which should be written on the sidewall of your tire. If that information has worn off your tire or you see other signs of wear it might be time to replace the tire. Keeping tires inflated allows your bike to roll with less effort.


Squeeze the brakes to make sure they have enough tension in the cables to slow you down. If you can squeeze them all the way to your handlebars, it’s time to bring your bike to the shop or watch a YouTube video to figure out how to fix the problem. Since this affects your safety, I generally recommend taking it in.


All of the effort you put into pushing the pedals is transferred through the chain to turn the wheel. If the chain isn’t lubricated, your effort increases and you have to listen to a high-pitched squeak for the duration of your ride.

After checking your ABCs, make sure your bike seat is at the right height and tightened. Seat height is recommended so that when your butt is on the seat your toes can touch the ground with a small gap between your heel and the ground.

When you are on your bike, follow these two safety guidelines: Be Visible and Be Predictable. To be visible wear bright, fluorescent and/or reflective clothing on your outermost layer. I wear a backpack when I ride so I have attached a reflective vest to it. If you are commuting around the time of sunrise or sunset, make sure to have a red light on the back of your bike and a white light on the front. If you are riding on the roadway, try to make eye contact with drivers when you come to an intersection to make sure you are seen. 

Being predictable is about trying to allow others using the same route as you the ability to safely pass. If you are on a bike on a road, you will not be faster than most other vehicles. By riding in a straight path at a consistent pace, you let other vehicles judge the best time to get by you. Similarly, on a narrow bike path, it is easier to safely get by a slower cyclist riding in a straight line than one who is veering back and forth.

My final piece of advice for those trying to start commuting to work by bicycle is to try out your chosen route on an off day. If the first time you try your route is a workday and you find there is road construction or a stopped train, you might need extra time to find a suitable alternate route. A practice run lets you figure this out without the added pressure of getting to work on time.

Summer in Chicago has always been a great time to enjoy the outdoors, and you can use these tips for commuting or simply joyriding as you explore your local bike paths. Happy pedaling!