Plan for a better cycling commute
This year, I began cycling to work. I biked to work years ago at a previous job, but after being out of the cycling game for so long, my new commute has brought its own challenges and learning experiences.
In researching other bike commuters, I’ve found plenty of resources for competitive riders, but few accounts of everyday urban cycling. I’m not training for the Tour de France—or looking to appear in a fashion-show equivalent. This post won’t help you win any awards, but it might help you get to work comfortably and on time.
If you haven’t cycled for a while, there are a few things to think about before jumping into the saddle. Bike commuting is different than leisure riding. For one, the weather can shift while you’re at work, leaving you with a soggy ride home. You also won’t win any praise from co-workers if you’re late due to a flat tire. So, how to get started?
1. Get a bike
Gloves increase grip when braking or shifting
You don’t need a high-end road bike, or even a new bike, to ride to work. You need something safe, comfortable, and appropriate for your circumstances. Feel free to dust off an old mountain bike from the garage, or hunt through some classifieds. But, if you find something old or used, it might be worth having a bike mechanic give it a quick tune.
I bought my bike a few years ago. It’s a flat-bar hybrid with lots of gears. I didn’t bother investing in a superlight frame, as my lunch and clothes—plus fenders, lights, paniers, etc.—weighs me down anyway. The result is a hearty bike that’s comfortable, carries all my gear and rides well on any city road.
2. Dress for the weather
It’s easy to ride in fair weather, but most people are hesitant to take their bike out into near freezing temperatures and icy rain. Believe it or not, a winter commuter can emerge warm and dry – with the right equipment.
When it’s cold, a pair of long underwear under some light pants make for better temperature control, and a shirt with a high neck helps protect vulnerable skin from sharp winds. A light hood also fits beneath my helmet when it’s cold and tucks into my collar when it’s warm.
Gloves are highly recommended to help with grip when braking or shifting—especially when it’s freezing or wet outside. I also keep a light rain jacket handy, and make sure to pack it when the forecast calls for wet weather. It’s light and breathable and keeps me from getting soaked to the bone. To make sure my clothes, lunch and anything else I bring to work doesn’t get wet, I ride with waterproof paniers. They’re a bit more pricy, but if you live in a place where it rains a lot, well worth the money.
I always assume I’ll arrive at work either doused in mud or bogged down in sweat. To avoid a hypothermic day at the office, I bring a full change of clothes and a towel. I also keep a spare set of shoes and all my hygiene supplies at my work desk.
3. See and be seen
Being (or not being) visible is my biggest concern on the road. I always pack at least two lights—one front, one rear—in my bag for riding in the dark.
When I first bought them, the guy at the shop asked me, “Do you need to see or be seen?” At the time, it was obvious: I needed both. In hindsight, seeing has not been an issue when it’s dark. I typically ride on city streets, where there are plenty of streetlights, vehicle headlights, storefronts and other public lighting. It would be much different riding dark trails or rural roads at night—and if this describes your situation, I recommend using several lights for a wider field of vision.
Eye protection was something I never considered when I first started biking to work. I’ve since come to value wearing glasses in the city, and especially during dry dusty summers. They’re a huge help in keeping dust and dirt particles out of the eyes—and avoiding red itchiness that can last for days. Eye protection can also keep the rain from flying in your eyes when it’s wet. Normal sun glasses or prescription glasses offer moderate protection, but wrap-around glasses are useful in especially rainy or dusty conditions.
4. Embrace discovery
Bike defensively: obey all traffic laws and anticipate the drivers around you
There’s something liberating about pedaling two wheels that you don’t get as a motorist or a pedestrian. You can go places cars can’t, and you can get around much quicker than by foot.
The first few days, maybe even weeks of cycling are a time for discovery. Main roads can be the fastest, but they often require dodging heavy traffic. City pathways and side streets (especially those dedicated to cyclists) are much safer—but while they can be more scenic, they may also involve significant detouring and/or unsteady grades. When riding pathways, it’s important to watch for pedestrians. Riding with pedestrians may be fine (in some cities), but you should be prepared to travel at a much slower pace.
When finding a route, Google Maps is a great resource for sussing out dedicated bike paths and lanes, but it’s not perfect. A route that looks good on screen may be anything but in real life. Routes that appear disconnected may have convenient connectors hidden from Google’s sentry vehicles. Also, keep in mind, not all bike lanes are created equal. Some are narrow and/or lay next to parking lanes where a door could open blindly without notice. Other lanes may be in poor condition, riddled with heavy cracks and potholes, which can make for an uncomfortable ride.
5. Learn to cycle with traffic
I ride alongside traffic during my commute, mostly in a bike lane but also on single-lane roads. Spend any amount of time reading about bike commuting online and you’ll come across loads of horror stories. There are poor drivers out there—and the stakes are definitely high when riding with massive, high-velocity vehicles—however that risk can be mitigated with careful, defensive cycling. When cycling with traffic, you should be prepared to obey all road laws and be able to anticipate the drivers around you.
When riding with traffic, a key strategy for cyclists is to “claim the lane”—that is, to occupy as much road-space as possible. This discourages drivers from making risky or unsafe passing maneuvers and prevents cyclists from having to ride in gutters where there may be hazardous debris or other obstacles to deal with. Claiming the lane is a great strategy for riding, but so is knowing when to move aside to let vehicles pass.
A huge help in recent weeks was the addition of a small mirror on the side of my handlebars. I’ve always been a copious shoulder-checker, but it’s easy for a fast-moving vehicle to approach without you knowing—especially when climbing hills at a slow pace. I also rely on being able to hear vehicles approach from behind, but this is a more reactive way of observing. Once you hear a vehicle, all you can do is move out of the way.
6. Maintain your bike
If you ride enough, you’ll need to invest in some basic maintenance. When I first started cycling regularly, I caught a sliver of glass in one of my tire treads—nearly invisible to inspection. It was so difficult to see and barely penetrated the tread that it took several weeks of riding and many punctured tubes until I finally found it. In that short time, I got really good at changing a tire. I also found extra tubes more useful than a patch kit. Tubes are more bulky, but I’ve never been able to find a leak without a sink full of water. Patches can also be awkward to apply in certain road situations—say, on the side of a busy highway in the rain.
Aside from changing the odd tire, it can be valuable and rewarding to learn a few other basic maintenance tasks. Proper chain maintenance—cleaning and lubricating—is a quick and easy exercise that will keep your bike in working order for longer. Be sure to also keep your tires full of air. A good foot pump with a gauge (in addition to the hand pump you ride with) is the best way to keep them filled. Hard tires may be less cushiony over road bumps, but they reduce rolling resistance and increase the efficiency of each pedal stroke.
You may also consider learning how to adjust your brake tension and/or align your derailleurs—although, if you have any reservations, there’s nothing wrong with having your local bike mechanic do this for you. A light tune can be as cheap as $50.
7. Work on fitness
Cycling, for me, is all about fitting exercise into my day. Working in an office doesn’t give me much opportunity to move around, and the sedentary lifestyle has never been a great fit for me. It leaves me stiff and generally unpleasant.
Something I was very quick to learn after even just a few weeks of cycling was that it gets easier the more you do it. Consistency, eating well and getting rest when you need it are all key to getting stronger and more efficient at cycling—making it easier to tackle a morning/afternoon commute.
8. Support changes in your city
After only a few weeks cycling my new route, I’ve come to value small road improvements, which can have huge impacts on my riding experience. I’ve already mentioned the fact that some bike lanes are better than others, but connections between bike routes are another issue. Some streets feature intermittent bike lanes that appear and disappear randomly. A quick scan of bike-friendly roads via Google Maps shows a mess of disconnected and haphazard bike lanes. Cyclists who engage with city planners can bring focus to the issue, leading to the long term development of more cohesive routes.
After completing your commute, you need a safe and secure place to park your bike. Some offices have enough indoor space to accommodate a bike, but that isn’t always the case. The best solution is a secure outdoor bike rack. If your workplace doesn’t already have some installed, point out the benefits – the bike parking planning guide is a great primer.
I like to believe that with enough voices—whether through tweets, phone calls or emails—things will get better down the road, making it easier for others to take to their bikes for their daily commutes.