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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.