Bike Commuting 101 – Part 1

So you’ve decided to change it up and start commuting to work by bike. It’s a great idea, one that more and more people are doing every day in the United States. But, if you want to make it a lasting change, you should do a little prep work before you head out. In Part One of this two-part series on bike commuting, I’ll cover the basics on route planning, bike selection, and bike commuting accessories. In Part Two, I’ll discuss your bike commuting style, in terms of the type of bike you’ve chosen, and the clothes you should wear, along with tips on hot and cold-weather cycling.

Samantha Arnold – Urban Bike Commuting Expert
Photo Credit – Martha Williams

Route and Riding Skills

Have you been riding a bike regularly? Where do you normally ride? If the only bike riding you’ve been doing has been on bike-only trails, or long road rides on deserted, low-traveled roads, you may be in for a surprise on your first morning of rush hour bike commuting. Figure out what your bike route to work will be ahead of time, drive it, and then take some planning rides during non-rush hour times. Find the route that is friendliest to bikes, and one you can be comfortable riding, in terms of traffic and personal safety. If your route is going to take you down busy streets with car traffic, be sure you know how to ride on a bike, alongside motor vehicles. The League of American Cyclists has a great run-down of the Rules of the Road, and also offers classes around the country for bike commuters on how to ride with traffic, and other cycling skills.

Bike Selection

There are a wide variety of bikes available these days, in all price ranges.  The ‘best’ bike for commuting depends on the type and length of your commute, the terrain, and your own personal style.  For the last 20 years or so, mountain bikes or hybrids have been the bike of choice in the United States. These are sturdy bikes, with wider tires than road bikes (aka ‘ten-speeds’) and position you so that you don’t lean as far forward and bent-over as on a racing bike. In the last few years though, more upright ‘city bikes’ have been becoming popular. For instance, I ride a heavy, upright Dutch bike with racks and panniers, which works great for my 4-mile commute in a very flat city (Chicago).  It would not be ideal for any commute longer than, say, 10 miles each way, or one in a city with a lot of hills. However, there are plenty of other, lighter-weight upright bikes, many with step-through styles (think ‘girls’ bike), which are great not just for women who want to ride in a skirt, but for anyone who wants to easily hop on and off a bike without having to swing a leg over the seat all the time. These types of bikes are often referred to as ‘city’ bikes or ‘urban’ bikes.

Lovely Linus – Photo Credit: Samantha Arnold


Trek Bellville – Photo Credit: Samantha Arnold
Civia Loring – Photo Credit: Samantha Arnold


Think Linus, Public, Civia, Schwin, the Trek Allant or Specialized’s line of Globe bikes.  If you’re going to be doing a longer commute, you may want to go with a hybrid-type bike from Trek, Specialized, or a brand like Marin. Some folks go a little more expensive and get a touring bike like the Surly Long Haul Trucker and outfit it for commuting with different handlebars, racks, and fenders. Obviously, if you want to get a road bike with drop handlebars and skinny tires, and feel comfortable on it, go for it.

Commuter Bike Accessories

On any of the bikes mentioned above, you’re going to want to have fenders, lights, a rack or two, some sort of bag and a helmet.


Fenders keep the rain and road grime off you and your clothes. Most city and hybrid bikes that do not come with fenders can be fitted with them at your local bike shop. Planet Bike makes a variety of fenders that can be fitted to a variety of bikes. Ask your local bike shop what fenders will work best for your bike.

Bike Lights

Lights are required in most cities for riding after dark. Light helps you to be seen as well as to help you see. Campmor carries a good selection of bike lights.

Bike Racks

A rear rack or even a front rack is ideal for carrying a bag or pannier with your work gear or clothes. Most bikes that do not come with rear racks can be fitted with one like these Blackburn racks. Many bikes can also handle a small front rack or basket as well.

Bike Bags

There are different racks and bags available, depending on the bike you have, and bags of all sorts of styles too.  Basil makes great-looking bags and baskets for city bikes that are available in most bike shops. Ortlieb makes some fabulously sturdy bags and panniers, many that double as packs. I carry Detour panniers on my bike, another brand of stylish-looking (think non-racing or hiking) panniers and bags. Po Campo makes bags that double as purses for women. And yes, I would suggest going with a bag you hang on your bike instead of a messenger-style bag you strap across your chest, or even a backpack. With a messenger-style bag you risk the sweat-line on your body, and wrinkling your clothes, not to mention over-packing and killing your back.

Bike Helmets

You don’t have to look dorky in a helmet. No need to sport an aerodynamic racing-style helmet for your commute to work. Check out Nutcase and Bern, two brands that make helmets shaped for those of us riding through traffic instead of in the Tour de France.

These are some of the basic things you need to consider when planning to commute by bike to work. In the next part of this series, I’ll cover your commuting/working style – what kind of work environment you have, what kind of clothes you wear, and how that relates to the bike you ride, and your overall commute. I’ll also cover how to dress for hot and cold-weather commuting.

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  • DANE

    One note: when you look at the image on Campmors e-mail, you see the recurring error that I see nearly every day by cyclists in this country. They pedal with the center of the foot and get very little power in their stroke and have the seat too low. Let us all educate the biking public, and certainly not use incorrect form on images like this. I grew up in Scandinavia, with cycling my familys only for of transportation, so it is second nature to me. Use the ball of the foot, raise the seat to get full leg extension, and you will get much more power out of your stroke and less fatigue.

  • I’m looking for rain gear for the bike commute – any recommendations?

    • Jo, we have some items that match what you need at on our site. Hopefully this helps.

    • Roger

      When it’s warm, you might consider using a bicycle rain cape. It’s basically a poncho and will only work with fenders for obvious reasons. This allows air to pass underneath so you won’t become wet from your own perspiration.

  • Charles

    Any insights on bags best for packing nice dress clothes (suits for me but dresses or whatever for women)? Also how about if your work place doesn’t have a shower?

    • remember…the ride to work does NOT have to be a workout. relax and enjoy yourself, look around experience the contact with the world. In the event you do get somewhat sweaty then I have found that a little sponge (like you buy for small cleaning chores) packed in a zip lock bag and a towel works fine and just a bathroom sink is fine. Also, shoot for a goal of, maybe, 50% rides to work and leave the HOT days to other transportation. Good luck. you will love commuting by bike. but be careful it is addictive.

    • Charles – I’m going to cover more about this in my next post, but I’m so glad you asked as it lets me know what details I should cover. Timothy Parks (below) also adds some great suggestions. I’ve chosen certain days to ride in previous jobs when there were no showers available, based on what I had to wear to work that day. That’s one option. There are also a wide-variety of great panniers (think Ortlieb, Jandd, Detours, Banjo Brothers) that can hold suits or other clothes w/o getting them too wrinkled. Driving or commuting 1 or 2 days a week and bringing your suits or dresses on those days can also be an option.

  • Bob

    I have a little urban bikers mantra that I tried to sell my bike riding daughters both in their mid 20s but they just roll their eyes but I think its worth sharing

  • Samantha, I’m sure some readers will find your advice useful. But I don’t understand why people have to be so spoonfed, or why it’s so important to spend piles of money to optimize the experience. My story: 33 years ago, on the second day of my (still current) job, I started commuting by bike. I had a road bike, so that’s the bike I rode. I wore a rucksack to carry my lunch. After a couple of days, I found I was more comfortable and presentable at work if I carried a change of shirt and underwear. When winter came, I added lights. Eventually I started wearing a helmet, the first one I found that was reasonably comfortable (no concern about style). I’ve since moved closer to work, but I still commute on a road bike with the same equipment or lack thereof. Ride what you’ve got, but ride! You’ll soon find out if you need to change anything.

    • i agree. but would suggest starting with a helmet and lights. if nothing else it conveys to the motorist that you are taking this seriously and so should they. other than that just ride and you will find your selection of gear(if any) will better suite a REAL problem and not a “possible” possible.

      • Timothy, that’s excellent advice in a present-day context. I’ll just point out that 33 years ago very few riders wore helmets, and we weren’t far past the days when it was considered adequate for cyclists to wear white at night. (Remember the Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”?)

    • lin

      agree. I use my 11 year old touring bike (co-motion americano) or my 20 year old Cannondale. Both are heavy but heavy only matters for initial acceleration and I find it worked (I’ve since retired) fine for a 5 mile commute or climbing the rockies. I did make two concessions. I bought an Arkel laptop bag to hang off my front rack. And I switch rear racks when not traveling to a lighter topeak rack that I can use a trunk bag with.

      As for roads, I would advise novice commuters to think about whether a narrow side street with a 25mph limit is really safer than a highway with a 50mph limit that has a nice wide shoulder. I prefer the latter. Also consider timing. Try to ride those scary roads when traffic is lighter if possible.

      • Great observations on the bags and bikes. Most of the 50 mph highways that I’ve been on didn’t always have a nice shoulder, so I can’t share your preference for that over a 25mph street. I will stay that city streets with traffic that moves faster than 25mph are not ones I choose to ride on though.

    • Max –
      I agree that you don’t ‘have’ to spend a lot of money to start bike commuting. However, not everyone has a bike to start with, and those that do, many not have lights (required for nighttime riding in many cities) or any type of bags – and al ot of people have laptops, notebooks, lunches, and other types of stuff they want to carry back-and-forth to work everyday. You were obviously more comfortable just getting out there and riding than many people I’ve encountered.

  • BikinHowd

    Not all road bikes have ‘skinny’ tires, though one might want to consider tires in the range from 28 to 38 mm wide, like ones you can get for a Trek 520, which I’ve found to be a great commuter bike for my 15 mile ride into work. BTW, lights to see by should be greater than 200 lumens generally, (normally in the $80-$150 price range) and one might want one mounted on the handlebars as well as one on your helmet. If you have just one, I suggest helmet-mounted because it’s hard to see around corners with one fixed on the handlebars. And Planet Bike has some of the best taillights going, pick up a couple… And, if there’s ever a possibility of riding in wetness, toe clips and straps, or something to hold one’s feet on the pedals would be a good idea. And I’d also recommend biking gloves to better hold the bars from slipping when your hands get sweaty & slippery, and in case of accidents… There are two main reasons why I’ve switched from backpacks to panniers over the 10 years I’ve commuted: first, you want to keep the weight lower for better stability and handling of the bike; second, not having a pack on your back or side or wherever it ends up allows your body to move freely about without worrying or straining to move with a pack on, which could also shift about causing control issues.

    • Yep, you’re right about tires, lights, and bags. I carried messenger-style bags for years, but never without a waist-strap. Switching to panniers though was a game-changer for me.

      • BikinHowd

        Another idea (that I learned from a fellow commuter friend in Plano, TX) is to put a flashing red light in the back of one’s helmet… usually the light’s clip will fit over a band at the back of the helmet or is otherwise positional at the rear of the helmet. This is going to be more at the eye level of motorists and helps one to be seen. Another idea is to get a double kickstand for the bike so that loading and unloading is not so much a balancing act.

  • Todd Nelson

    Samantha, in addition to the League of American Bicyclists’ classes for learning traffic cycling skills, there is a program called CyclingSavvy, It is very focused on teaching safety, skill and confidence in traffic cycling in a fast-paced, 9 1/2 hour, two day course. It’s in the Chicago area and 14 other U.S. metro areas and growing fast.

    • Thanks for the tip Todd! I just looked up the program online, and it’s got a really nice selection of classes, and yes, some upcoming ones in the Chicago area. Looks like a useful resource for anyone would feels like they need a few tips on riding in traffic, across different sorts of roads, etc.

  • FDK

    Agreed. Not many posts online include trikes in choosing a bike. I’m saving for a Schwinn Meridian and adding Surly tires and a nice sized aluminum lockbox welded to the back for travelling around.