Robert Brigance: Transitioning from Bike Commuter to Bike Traveler

Robert Brigance commutes in Utah County. Photo courtesy Robert Brigance.
Robert Brigance commutes in Utah County. Photo courtesy Robert Brigance.

By Lou Melini

Commuting by bike to school and work has been a big part of Robert’s life. With his recent retirement, he is now focusing on a new use for his bike, riding across the U.S.

Cycling Utah: Tell me a little about yourself.

Robert Brigance: I am originally from the East Coast—Maryland to be exact. I have been living in Utah since 1991. My lovely wife Linda and I have been married 43 years. We have two awesome sons, both married with kids. Our oldest son lives in Sandy. Our younger son lives in Basel, Switzerland. I attended the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned my M. Ed at Utah State. My career has been varied: early on I spent time in the Army involved in Veterinary Research, many years in the private sector as an Instructional Designer and most recently at UVU as a Career and Academic Counselor. I will retire in February 2014.

C.U.: How long have bicycles been a part of your life?

R.B.: As long as I can remember—so about 50+ years! We all rode bikes as a kid and I certainly did. I got my first bike in grade school and boy did I like the freedom to go explore! I also had my first and only crash resulting in turf rash, along with my pride being hurt. I face planted after hitting a tree stump on a small hill in my neighborhood in the fading light of a summer night. I wore a big scab on my right cheek for weeks!

I continued two wheel adventures collecting pop bottles for money, riding all over my neighborhood and nearby communities. I even had a paper route that I serviced by bike. Now, I ride because I can, it has become a lifestyle choice, and I stay fit doing something I love.

C.U.: Tell me about your bike commuting.

R.B.: As an under grad college student I commuted to the University of Maryland on my Schwinn Varsity circa 1971 for about a year. My wife also had a Schwinn Varsity, but was more of a recreational rider. My commute was about 5 miles as I remember over some horrible roads with next to no shoulders. No helmet either!!! After college, I also commuted to my job at Ft. Detrick, Maryland while in the Army for a year. I experienced another crash during this time, but it was uneventful.

We relocated to Utah from Maryland in 1991. As an aside, during these early years in Utah, I participated in about a dozen MS Utah Best Dam century rides. A highlight was a week-long ride of the Southern Utah Parks back 2005. I used to ride with a group out of Cottonwood Heights Rec center until I moved south in 2008. Now, when my schedule permits, I ride with the Boat Doc Bandits, a subset of the Utah Velo Club. Without this roadie history, I am not sure I would be commuting full-time. I am planning a self-supported Trans-America ride in 2014.

My introduction to commuting along the Wasatch Front started in 1999.I was working for a computer-based training firm in South Salt Lake. The commute was about 16 miles round-trip that I did once a week. I must add I had access to a shower. This worked well until the company relocated to Park City! So, that ended my commuting, until the next opportunity presented itself. Let me say that I did have more opportunities after this time, but the best opportunity was with Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), Redwood Campus starting in 2006. The bait was, a part-time job with access to a locker room and shower. To a commuter, it doesn’t get much better. My commute was, gosh, maybe 20 miles RT, using the road and the Jordan River Parkway. It was a dream commute.

Let me just say at this point, I commute because I am just at home on a bike. It is part of me and I like the health benefits, along with helping the planet. During this time at SLCC, I also owned a vintage ‘89 Saab Turbo. Commuting saved wear and tear, and gas money. Now, I own only one car, a motorcycle, and 5 bicycles.

In 2007, I changed jobs and started work at Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem. My commute from my home in Cottonwood Heights to the UTA Trax/bus depot in Sandy became about 21 miles round-trip. I rode mostly in the Spring, Summer and Fall about three days a week. Upon relocating to Springville in 2008, I began commuting daily from early Spring to late Fall, to the UTA bus, until darkness, snow, and ice became an issue. When I did not ride, I walked. During this time, I had a choice of a quick 10-minute commute (this was really great when running behind) or a more enjoyable 30-minute ride. In 2011, I began riding full – time. In 2013, we had a bus stop change and my connection became the Provo FrontRunner Station. This was great news – a longer ride via the backroads of Utah County! It also gave me the option of riding all the way to campus in the cool spring and summer mornings and taking the bus or not, back home in the evenings. I have been on the bike in snow, sleet, rain and pitch black darkness. I rode three days a week to start and then moved to everyday after a year.

C.U.: Tell me about your bike, accessories and what else you use the bike for.

R.B.: I ride an old Schwinn Highlander MTB that was my older son’s bike. This is my dedicated commuter ride. Talk about recycling. I added some Planet Bike fenders, head lights (Bell and Cyclolite Metro 300), rear light (Planet Bike Super Flash) and rear rack for combo bag with fold out panniers (Top Peak Quick Trax MTX). I also wear Jogalite Reflective straps on both ankles to more visibility. In the dead of winter when it is pitch dark, I add my reflective vest (a.k.a. DOT gear) to my riderobe. I ride to the store for groceries, library and to play tennis.

C.U.: What is your commute like to UVU?

R.B.: My commute is 24 miles RT from Springville to UVU. If I ride to campus it takes about an hour one way. Since I ride with my work clothes on, I ride both ways more in late Spring, early Summer and Fall months. I have access to showers, but it’s more of a bother these days. When it gets really hot during the summer months, I will ride to Provo Station (6 miles), load my bike on the bus and ride home from campus. So I get an 18-mile ride.

Most of the time, I ride to Provo Station and pick up the UTA to the UVU campus. That’s 12 miles RT. Once I leave my community, the highlight is taking roads through farm fields with sheep, horses and cattle. In the winter sometimes I will ride through a fog-bank , but I know the road well. I take Kuhni Road north to the Provo Frontrunner Depot. It parallels the Union Pacific tracks with next to no traffic. So, the best part of the commute is to FrontRunner and home. I like hills, so enjoy the brief hill climb at 800 North when I ride to campus.

The only bugger is sometimes the freight trains get in my way riding North in the morning. It’s stressful not knowing whether I will get caught at the crossing, causing me to miss my bus connection. When this happens, I can catch the later bus and just be late to work. I am the only person in my office that commutes.

On the whole, it’s a great ride. If I ride all the way to campus, I pick up Freedom Blvd. from FrontRunner and follow it to 100 N in Provo. I then head west to 800 W. I turn north at this point to 800 N. I go east to the traffic circle and up a short 4% grade to Grand Ave to 1460 N. I take a left to Sandhill Lane off 2100 W in Orem right to Walmart. At McDonald’s, I cross under University Parkway using two tunnels and I am just about on campus. One short quad burner up Campus Drive north brings me to the stream side parking lot. Now, I am on-campus.

C.U.: Is there a fairly robust number of students that commute by bike on the campus? Is there adequate bike parking?

R.B.: You know, I really do not see many students on bikes. I am starting see more and more bikes locked up in wayward places. I see a lot of one speed “fixie”retro bikes around. Not the best commuter bikes. One of the professors who rides my bus does commute. I have seen only a handful of bikes with panniers, etc . UVU is built in such away that you never need to go out into the weather unless you want to … most campus buildings are interconnected. Quite the design! No riding needed once on campus. There are bike racks around campus, but not all over.

Utah County is waking up to bike commuting and most folks are still getting used to spandex and flashy jerseys. I believe there is still a cowboy mentality down here and I have experienced some full birds, along with diesel smoke screens. I just take it in stride.

C.U.: Are there any campus wide bike organizations?

R.B.: UVU has a vibrant cycling club, mostly racing types. Here is the blog link:

C.U.: What is it like to ride in your area?

R.B: I actually feel blessed to live here in Springville. We have a tremendous amount of opportunity to ride for any purpose—racing, touring and for recreation. The benches provide hill work and flats for putting the hammer down if you want. On Kuhni Road, in the mornings and afternoons, I see a handful of commuters going and coming, just like me.

The roads are for the most part quite good, with adequate shoulders. Bikes lanes are provided in and around city center, but not consistent. Main Street has wide shoulders, but lots of traffic.

I would say cars are considerate, but as always expect the unexpected.

C.U.: Do you have any tips, words of advice to offer commuters in general or near UVU in particular?

R.B.: Ride defensively and be visible. Short of being neon, it’s a crap shoot on whether you’ll be the next auto-cyclist accident we read/hear about. Always expect the unexpected. Wear a helmet at all times. Practice patience at intersections and get eye contact with drivers if you can. Pay attention, which means leave the music stashed. Keep your bike maintained. Obey the rules of the road, i.e. stop at stop signs, red lights and signal turns. For example, I have had times when my riding group has by-passed a red light by turning right and hanging a left U-TURN to catch a green light to keep from having to unclip! Ride single file where necessary; we will never earn the respect of motorists if we keep breaking the laws; it all starts with each of us!

C.U.: So as you retire and do less commuting and more travel on your bike, what skills have you acquired from commuting to help with long distance travel?

R.B.: Being a full-time commuter has taught me many things. To start, be comfortable on your bike and keep it good working order. Practice preventative maintenance. As a commuter, I’ve become self-sufficient, independent to a point, and a problem solver. So having basic bike maintenance skills is a must, especially when you are solo. With commuting, I have become a master tire mechanic.

Next, there have been times when I just didn’t feel up to commuting due to the weather, a bad night’s sleep or not feeling myself. There will be times when I will want to forgo getting on the bike; that’s OK. Touring is not about chewing up the miles hammer down, unless you have a tight schedule.

Furthermore, both physical and mental toughness is required when challenges hit. For example, the weather may turn bad 10 or 20 miles from a destination. Deal with this by breaking down that last 20 miles into increments of 5-mile blocks when the weather hits. When riding all day in the wind, it is just one pedal stroke over and over. Ten-miles and a break. Do this 5 times and you covered 50 miles. Breaking down the challenge into manageable pieces works. The same goes for being wet. When you’re wet, you’re wet. As long as you’re not hypothermic, keep peddling if you’re staying warm. Good reason to carry a space blanket to wrap up in. I have been able to use and evaluate gear for all sorts of weather, so that I may be comfortable for the ride. I know what equipment and accessories are worthwhile, even simple things like fenders.

I’ve learned through repetition to follow safe riding principles yet being able to adjust when it is necessary. Sometimes one may have to be flexible and take alternative routes and be creative to get from point A to B. It is OK, to just take a break to regroup. It might even mean hanging out for a day.

Overall, bike commuting will help with a long distance tour depending on the extent of ones travel goals. I will be doing a self-supported trip, so the commuting experience will definitely help. In addition, my many years of road riding and numerous centuries give me a road reality. At the same time, I have some trepidation. My fear of the unknown has been softened by those who have gone before me, by researching routes, itineraries and packing necessary equipment. For me the chance to travel long distance on a bike is a personal challenge. It is also a time to live a more simplified life, if only for a short time. As I prepare for my tour, I am giving thought to riding for Alpha-1 (an inherited disorder that may cause lung disease and liver disease) and to celebrate my life by experiencing the back roads of America through a Trans-America crossing.

C.U.: What other trips have you thought about?

R.B. My wife and I experienced a bike adventure to Provence back in 2009 which was fantastic. I do plan on more bike trips in the future after this Trans-America ride. I want to ride Nova Scotia, the Pacific Coast and it very likely few more international trips. We hope to take advantage of having a son living in Switzerland.

C.U.: Have you ever been commuting to work and dreamed of just riding on and on?

R.B.: Depending on the time of the year, YES!


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