By Theresa Duque
On a sunny afternoon in 2002, Warren Elliott was just minding his own business when a co-worker and fellow Alameda resident approached him and asked, “Instead of driving to work, why don’t we ride our bikes?”
Always up for a new challenge, Elliott said, “Why not? Let’s do it!” The only bike he had was an old 3-speed Schwinn Varsity—a good bike for riding to the beach, but not for climbing the hills of Berkeley. So on the morning of their bike commute, he and his co-worker rode from Alameda to Fruitvale BART where they hopped on a Berkeley-bound train. Then from Downtown Berkeley, they rode the Lab shuttle—with their bikes mounted on the shuttle’s bike racks—up Hearst to their office on the Hill.
For the commute back to Alameda, they skipped the shuttle and rode their bikes all the way home. Elliott was fit from his years of mountain climbing, but riding a bike for 14 miles straight tapped into a different type of fitness. “When I got home after that first long ride, I started up the stairs to my house, and my knees were shaking,” he recalled.
Today, at the age of 68, Elliott—a carpenter in the Facilities Division—still bikes to work, but now he rides directly to the Lab five days a week, rain or shine, without taking BART or the Lab shuttle. He has also become a competitive long-distance cyclist. He has won the California Triple Crown twice (in 2009 and 2010), where cyclists have a calendar year to finish at least three “double centuries,” 200-mile courses with elevation gains up to 19,000 ft. And just this past May, he completed his tenth double century.
In this latest edition of the Commuter Chronicles, Elliott talks about becoming a daily bike commuter and competitive long-distance cyclist in his 50s; overcoming the challenges of bike commuting year-round; and how East Bay traffic has changed since his first day of biking to work 14 years ago.
Q: How old were you when you first bike commuted to the Lab? What advice do you have for someone who’s worried about not being fit enough to bike to work?
I was 54. At the time, I wasn’t an avid cyclist; my longest bike ride was a flat 6-mile loop around Alameda’s Bay Farm Island with my sons.
When I started bike commuting, I rode my bike once a week to BART, and took the shuttle up. That’s a good option if you’re a novice bike commuter or want to avoid the hills.
After I joined a bike club and got into competitive cycling, I realized that my long rides on the weekends were much more challenging than my commute to the Lab. That’s when I decided to skip BART and the shuttle, and ride my bike straight to the Lab instead.
If you’re in your 50s, you’re not done yet. As a competitive cyclist, I did all my major rides like the Tour of the California Alps “Death Ride”—more than 100 miles of climbing crazy elevation of 15,000 feet—after I turned 60. If I can do it, anybody can.
Q: Why did you decide to commute by bike every day instead of just once a week?
It took me a year to get to the point of riding my bike to work every day. At the time, my sons were teenagers, and they all had cars. If I wanted to drive to work, I would have to move five cars to get to my car in the morning. I didn’t want to do that, so I rode my bike instead, even if it was raining. Today, I probably drive to work two to three times a year when I have errands to run. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you ride your bike.
Q: How has traffic in the East Bay changed since you started bike commuting in 2002?
Back then, I could count the number of cars I’d pass from Alameda on two hands. It’s not that way today. There’s a lot more traffic now, and going home to Alameda is crazy.
But I still really enjoy bike commuting. To avoid traffic on the way home, I take a detour through Skyline, Redwood Road, or Pinehurst. It’s great, because I’m out in nature. It’s just fun even though there are hills to be done.
Q: If I want to start riding my bike to work, what should I do to plan my commute?
Find a route without a lot of traffic. Biking is dangerous as it is, and it’s not fun mixing it up with traffic. I will go five blocks out of my way to avoid traffic. Sometimes, that means climbing some hills. You have to get used to hills around here to enjoy riding. Or if you don’t like hills, get used to traffic.
If you plan on biking in the rain, get a pair of bike fenders.
And don’t blow through intersections. I stop for stop signs and lights during my commute. I also have bright LED lights on the front and back of my bike so I’m visible at night or when it’s raining.