Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bike to Work Week 2011: Practical Knowledge for the Reluctant Commuter

So it's Bike to Work Week. The League of American Bicyclists is the national sponsor and their site has a number of useful links, including ways you can ride comfortably and safely in May (national bike month).

But for Bike to Work Week 2011, I've found very little practical information about what riding a bike to work actually means for people who aren't even entertaining the thought of riding a bike to work. We can all talk about how good cycling is for the environment or make a statement about cycling and gas prices with a clever photograph that gets published in the Stamford Advocate or even talk about the health benefits of riding but a lot of non-cyclists just drift away when we hit upon those topics. When they go to work, they think about the little benefits for themselves that driving to work gives them. So if we want to introduce Bike to Work Week to these good people, we have to talk about the little things that are really big things.

Things like coffee.

Stay with me: a lot of people drive to work and enjoy stopping off somewhere for a cup of coffee or they fill a commuter mug at home with their favorite blend. They carry it to the car. They put it in a cupholder. They sip it while keeping an eye on the road. It sounds like a little thing, but to a lot of people (including me) it's a tangible benefit of taking a car to work.

So, in order to get that benefit to carry over to cycling we have to present the Coffee Lover with this:

This is a handlebar cup holder. You have to visit your local bike shop to find one and most of them look like this. This is the very cup holder I use when I take my Dahon Matrix to visit my in-laws in New Jersey. I tiptoe downstairs. I ride to Dunkin' Donuts. I buy a cup and I pedal slowly but happily back to the house. The cup holder and the Matrix together are very powerful.

Now that endorsement may not work for most people. They might have more questions about how well a cup holder will work on their bike which may not ride as smoothly as a Matrix. They may also say they get their coffee elsewhere and aren't sure whether their experience will be as comfortable.

To answer some of these questions (and I do hope you send this post to the coffee lover who isn't biking to work this week) I decided to conduct a simple test: take a full cup of coffee from a variety of locations, ride exactly one mile and record the results.

Aware that I couldn't possibly do a real controlled experiment with a bike that had full suspension (and aware some Reluctant Commuter may not have a smooth riding bike and would balk at my research) I decided not to use the Matrix for the test. Instead, I used the least comfortable bike I own: the DiamondSchwinn. Since the bike has been molar-looseningly stiff since I welded the frame, I figured that would assure any Reluctant Commuter that any experience they'd have on their bikes with a cup holder would be better.

To measure my results, I created a special collar to go around the cup holder made of foam board. I then cut pieces of card stock to shape so that any coffee placed in the cup holder would be surrounded by a pristine white surface.

As you can see, the first cup I tested came from McDonald's, which has come a long way in the flavor department with their coffee. Their black coffee used to taste like black. The color. Now it actually tastes pretty good.

The cup photographed came from a McDonald's in New Jersey while my wife and I were capping a road trip to Philadelphia. It was empty by the time we got home and I decided to use it for my test. Lucky for me I had not emptied my coffee pot days earlier, so I poured it into the cup and filled it to about 1/4 inch from the top (No, I wasn't planning to drink any of the coffee in the tests).

I had high hopes for the McDonald's cup. Just check out that lid.

Though the arrows suggest you pry back the little plastic thing I didn't do that. Instead, I pushed it in and let it hang there, letting my lip push the plastic cap into the coffee cup each time I took a sip.

Refilled, I set it in the cup holder on the DiamondSchwinn and set the odometer on my Garmin bike GPS. When I hit the start button I began pedaling. The frame let me know every time I ran over an ant on the road, but the welds still held.

I headed down Shippan Avenue and onto Magee, and just as I expected the McDonald's lid was doing well even though the road was getting bumpier. Before I knew it I was passing by Level 3 Communications and closing in on the one-mile mark.


In a true testament to the rough condition of Stamford's roads, the McDonald's cup (completely filled) leaped out of the cup holder as the bike hit a bump and made a quick trip to the pavement, spilling three-day-old coffee in the street. I turned around to get a shot of the cup in the road before I picked up the litter and put it in the better bike box.

Then I realized something: I had data. Though the road was bad enough to bounce the cup nearly a foot into the air, I hardly spilled any on the card stock. Very carefully, I blotted the coffee stain and replaced the card stock with a new one.

Next, I rode on to the Stamford train station. The DiamondSchwinn got stared at as I pushed it past the ticket counter, but I confidently stepped up to Dunkin' Donuts and ordered a medium black coffee and asked for an extra small cup with a lid.

The latter went into the bike box. The former, which had a different sort of lid than the McDonald's cup, took its place in the cup holder.

Before I began the test, I lifted the 'lift' tab and locked it into place, leaving a small opening in the lid through which I could see my coffee. Even though that left a place for coffee to escape, I wondered if the foam cup would have better dampening abilities than the McDonald's cup.

I reset the odometer and set off. Nearly immediately, I could tell the medium Dunkin' Donuts cup wasn't going to find itself in the winner's circle. Less than a half mile from the station I was at the government center and snapped a quick picture at a red light.

By the time I had gone a mile, things didn't look good for the Dunkin' Donuts cup. Throughout the trip coffee would dribble out of the opening and pool onto the cap until it would slosh onto the card stock. All in all, a disappointing performance. Reluctant cyclists: you've been warned.

 There was another disappointment to come: it was time to test the small cup, which, as you can see, has a different type of lid than medium and large sized cups.

Like I did with the McDonald's cup, I blotted the card stock dry. Then I carefully poured the hot Dunkin' Donuts coffee into the small cup. I pulled up on the tab and locked it into place. Once I placed it in the cup holder I wasn't feeling very hopeful.

A test is a test, so I reset the odometer and pushed off as carefully as I could. I avoided as many bumps as I could safely avoid. I came to smooth stops at every red light and rode the bike as gently as I could.


The coffee did not want to stay in the cup. There's no other way to put it. I also got a lot of it on my legs which rules out the small Dunkin' Donuts cup for anyone who wants to arrive at work presentable.

The coffee had sloshed over most of the front of the bike, too.

When I took off the lid, I discovered about 2/3 of a cup of coffee had escaped over the course of one carefully ridden mile. On paper, this meant that if I were to ride all the way to work, I'd have negative 1 and 1/3 cups of coffee remaining upon arrival.

Still, it was a result. I blotted the paper dry and put it away with the others. Before setting off I stopped to admire the Stamford Art Association building. 

Next, I headed to the Starbucks attached to the grand Ferguson Library. This testament to learning and literacy is having a fundraising benefit this Thursday (May 19th) called Eat Play Read that I will be attending. You can call 203-351-8295 or visit their site for reservations.

I went to Starbucks and asked for a medium black coffee. When the young woman behind the counter gave it to me, she included a little cardboard sleeve so I wouldn't burn my hands on the cup.

This hadn't happened at Dunkin' Donuts (nor did it occur at McDonald's that morning) and for a moment I was stumped, but then I decided to leave the sleeve on. This was a true to life test, and if the barista gives a cardboard sleeve, then that is how the coffee goes into the cup holder.

On the red light, I pushed the bike across the street and waited to start pedaling down Broad Street. Nothing had spilled, and I wondered if the cardboard sleeve would dampen the bumps.

It didn't.

Only one quarter of one mile and this is what I was dealing with.

There could be an entire episode of Mythbusters about this subject, but the shape of the lid really makes a difference in terms of trajectory. The medium cup of Dunkin' Donuts was messy but the coffee didn't shoot up high into the air like that of the Starbucks cup.

Also: there's a reason the barista provides a little cardboard sleeve. The coffee is hot. Noticeably hotter than the Dunkin' Donuts coffee. One little bump and the coffee would spurt skywards...and often land on me. That was the whole ride, really.







The coffee was so hot I wondered it if would loosen the welds on the frame and make the bike collapse in a heap of burnt coffee and molten metal.

When a large spurt actually hit my cycling glasses, I stopped to clean it happens in front of a new bike shop in Stamford, Danny's Cycles.

I also realized just how I would look (and just how much height/air time the flying spurts of Starbucks coffee got) if I had actually ridden all the way to work.

As annoyed as I was, I continued riding until I had logged one mile. Then I took a look at the data.

Of course, the card stock tells part of the story. My shirt, pants, bike frame and cycling glasses tell the rest of the tale. It's also important to note that all three of the previous cups give you the option of not opening the lid before you get to work. The lid on the Starbucks cup, a very popular design (I had seen it at Cosi and other places) doesn't give you that choice.

Once I recorded the result, I dried off and applied another dry card stock to the cup holder surround as I realized there was one more place I could test on the way home: Donut Delight. They thoughtfully redesigned their store not too long ago so it has a drive through.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to place an order no matter how many times I shouted "hello!" into the speaker. So I headed home to look at all of my findings and make a verdict.

So, for all reluctant cyclists: I know you aren't keen on giving up on the little comforts that come with driving a car to work, but be assured on Bike to Work Week: a cup holder will allow you to take coffee with you. Try to use a local shop whenever possible, but if you do a chain try to make it McDonald's (if you can keep the cup from skittering out of the cup holder en route). Now that you have the right bike, the right cup holder and the right cup, you have one less excuse for not riding to work this week.

Also: you can skip the coffee altogether and get something iced with a straw. But that's another test.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)


  1. HI!
    nice Blog...Great to know...
    garmin astro 220 tracking system is an excellent discovery of its kind!!

  2. This is the FUNNNIEST thing I have ever seen. Love your posts.

  3. I certainly appreciate the effort that went into this whole experiment, as it's the same process that I went through (without the scientific method) on my way to using a sealable (keeps my coffee drinkable and myself presentable) and REUSABLE (saves the planet, saves me money at most coffee shops) travel mug.

    Once you do go that route, I'd recommend a few rubber bands around the middle for some added grip into your coffee mug holder.