Bike Commuting 101 – Part 2 – What to Wear

So you’ve decided to change it up and start commuting to work by bike. Great! In Part I of my Bike Commuting 101 Series, I discussed how to get started on commuting by bike to work; what types of bikes to consider as well as basic gear like helmets, lights, and panniers. Here in Part II, we’ll talk about where you’re riding and what type of bike you’re riding, and a few tips and tricks for handling commuting by bike, in hot or cold weather.

Can I wear my “normal” clothes when I commute by bike?

Samantha and Grid Chicago writer Steve Vance at the Chicago Bike To Work Rally

The whole question of what to wear comes down to the type of bike you’re riding, and the kind of bike commute you have. Many of us have a short (think 4-8 miles) commute, and it’s probably on city streets, maybe some bike lanes, perhaps even some bike paths. For that kind of commute, you can ride a more upright bike with flat pedals, fenders, chain guards etc., meaning that you can certainly wear more everyday clothes when you ride to work. Then there are those of you who have a longer commute and see your daily ride as a workout. In that case, you’ll probably be riding a hybrid or road bike, you may have clipless pedals or toe-clips, and will probably be wearing something made of Lycra® spandex, and have a change of clothes in your panniers. Either style works. It just depends how you want to ride.

Bike Riding Cowboy Boots

If you’re part of the city-bike crowd, then ride in your work clothes. Some folks swap out their shoes, or save the jacket or sweater for the office in warmer weather, but still ride in the same clothes they’ll walk into the office wearing, keeping in mind some basic tips:

  • You will always sweat – some days more than others.
  • Pack some body/baby wipes for a quick touch up, and you’re good to go.
  • Allow yourself time to cool down before you run into your first morning meeting.
  • Most shoes work fine with flat pedals, but the stiffer the sole the easier it is to ride.
  • Boots and heels are fine to ride in, but you don’t always get as much control or power.
  • Tuck your tie into your shirt – it keeps it from blowing around.

For women: try bike or yoga shorts under shorter dresses or skirts, or dresses/skirts that are made of very lightweight, billowy material. I have some skirts that are great to ride in, and others that I’ll grab an old pair of bike shorts to wear underneath, then remove when I get to work.

What if there are no showers at my office?

This is a question that seems to come up often. I’m all about smelling good, but really, a little sweat never hurt anyone. Longer ride but no showers? Take a shower before you leave, don’t forget the deodorant, pack a change of clothes, pack some body wipes, allow yourself some time to cool down, and you’re good to go. Keep in mind that you don’t ‘have’ to shower just because you rode your bike to work. If you take public transportation, you probably do some walking, and if you’re walking to work, my guess is you get sweaty some days, and it’s not the end of the world. In Chicago, a lot of people ride 4-8 miles to work every morning. They may ride a slower bike, but they don’t change clothes; they just take a shower before they leave the house. They allow time to cool off, maybe wipe down a bit with body wipes, and that’s about it. And these are not all 20-somethings with “creative” jobs either. If you’ve got client meetings, or don’t want to stuff your suit into a pannier, consider riding only a few days a week, or even bringing your clothes for the week on one day, and ride on the others. In a previous job where there were no showers, but was a 12 mile commute through the city and a couple of forest preserves, I chose certain days to ride. On those days, I showered before I left, rode in bike-friendly shorts or tights, cleaned up and changed clothes in the bathroom.

Hot Weather Riding

Leather Bike Grips

I do have access to showers at the Millennium Park Bike Station which I’ve taken advantage of on a few really hot and humid summer days. Otherwise, I wipe down with some body wipes, and allow time to cool off. I don’t commute in summer sandals, so I’ll carry those and ride in something else that covers my toes. And as it gets warmer, if I’m wearing pants or a skirt, I might commute wearing a different shirt and change at the bike station. I don’t wear jackets much until it really starts getting cooler. One other tip for hot weather riding – consider gloves or good grips. I used to wear gloves on my hybrid, not only to relieve wrist pain, but also to absorb sweat in the summer time. On my upright bike, I switched out my grips with leather ones because they absorb the sweat better than the hard plastic grips my bike came with.

Cold Weather Riding

The key to cold-weather riding is layers. Whether you’re riding slow or fast, you’re going to get your core warmed up, so you don’t want to pile on a heavy outer coat that you can’t remove.

Most people swear by lightweight, thin wool layers, as wool breathes better than cotton. You want inner layers that don’t leave you soaking wet and cold so avoid cotton clothing. Most important is to always keep your toes and feet warm. I ride in whatever winter boots or shoes I have. I had a pair of non-stylish, lug-sole boots for about 5 years that kept my feet super-warm, and were easy to ride in. If you are using a bike with clips, you may want to get a bike overshoe like Pearl Izumi ELITE Barrier Road Cycling Shoe Cover. Warm boots, layers, good use of tights or leggings generally keep me very comfortable in the cold and snow of Chicago. As for my hands, I wear two layers of gloves in really cold weather; an inner layer of a lightweight glove, either bike/tech or cheapo knit glove, and an outer water-proof, wind-proof layer. This is one place to spend some money if you plan to ride all winter. I bought some split-finger ‘lobster-claw’-style gloves two years ago, and they have worked very well. For more tips, you might want to check out one of my most popular posts, which is about cold-weather biking gear.

That’s about it. There were a lot of great comments on my last post, so I’m eager to hear what you wear in warm weather and cold, when you commute by bike to work. Leave your favorite biking gear (warm weather and cold weather) in the comments below.

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  • jmfugett

    I have been biking to work for a couple of years in Anchorage Alaska, but am attempting winter riding for the first time this year. It has been down to 20 degrees so far this fall and I have been glad for my Smartwool long johns, but frankly anything warmer than about 20 they are too much. Windbreaker and wind pants essential on windy/precipitation days though.

    • I’m impressed – I bet it will get pretty cold up there on your winter rides! You’re right though about the smartwool – you need some cold days for that. Below 20 is when I really layer and need the extra gear. I have to say I don’t ride below -5 (Farenheit) though. I bet you’ll have some colder days than that!

  • I’ve been commuting to my job in Upstate NY for several years and I can tell you that it is definitely doable. No showers at work? I keep a towel and a washcloth at my desk. I wet the washcloth and soap up one end and do the ‘stinky bits’, then use the clean wet side to rinse off and then I dry off with the towel and hang things in my locker. Every couple of uses, I take them home for laundry. I wear knickers or long pants to ride. In the winter, I’ve ridden with temps as low as 15 degrees F – the problem at that point is wearing too much, frankly, and having to unzip my windbreaker to cool down a bit. In that sort of weather, though, fleece-lined tights and wind-proof mits are a must.

    • The Bone Lady

      Do you wear a breathable face mask to keep the cold air out of your lungs? Last year was the first year I rode all year round – mainly because we had no snow – and got a cold because I blasted my lungs with frigid air – any recommendations?

      • I added a very thin Balaclava to my collection of cold-weather gear. I don’t like the full-face styles, but covering my neck, chin and mouth are good. I breathe through it initially but don’t always need it once I get going. What have you found Toby?

  • FranRN

    Since a picture is worth 1000 words, please have your bikers wearing helmets in your ads. I’ve biked to work for 13 years and 6 months ago I was struck by an auto. My broken leg is healing but my helmet saved my life! The wind shield of the auto was shattered but the helmet did its job and I did not have a head injury. Before the bike, get the helmet!

    • That’s me standing in the photo. Why would I wear a helmet walking around a plaza?

    • Sorry about that, I usually take my helmet off for photos, though you’ll note in my avatar here <—— that I am wearing my helmet.

    • agreed! Helmets save lives.

  • Broian

    These have been great. I have been commuting for almost two years in Florida. Very hot weather and rain are a constant problem. A couple tips I have learned: I wear polyester workout clothes to ride in, if I am on my way home I soak the shirt in water before leaving at 5PM and it’s like having a build in A/C. You are going to get rained on, just make sure your cover for your gear is quickly accessible. I don’t worry about a raincoat as I mentioned I wear workout clothes and change when I get where I am going. I am lucky enough to work at a University so I ride to the gym, workout, shower and a quick 2 minute ride to my building. Always wear your helmet!

    • I can imagine the heat and rain are an issue in Florida. I like your home-grown A/C solution – makes sense!

  • bobw

    i bike commute in maine.. one thing not mentioned is tires.. in snow (like in the picture) your steering and traction on both wheels can be pretty scarey …having studded tires is a little tougher going, but much more stable.. i’ve even used chains for riding the snowmobile trails in the winter, they would not be usefull for commutin on road

    • The Bone Lady

      I ride a mountain bike on the roads all year round. The roads are a mess what with springs, tree roots, city maintenance – seems like they’re constantly digging up the streets to check sewers, et cetera. I like having the extra bumps and they don’t impede my speed at all.

    • I almost brought that up -but my post was getting long already. Good point though! I do have studded tires for my bike, and they do give you more traction.. slow you down to have more control in any skids on ice. They are noisy on city cement though.

    • bikeMpls

      Studded tires are nice but really only help with ice. I’ve used them but don’t anymore. I”m in Minneapolis and ride without them all year now. There are some messenger tires that are a little softer rubber so you have better traction. I use the pannracer pasela, it still has good puncture resistance but has more traction than road tires. I get between 4-5000 miles on a set. Sure there are one or two times a year when I take a spill but sans 1 time last year, I always fall when going slow, more funny than painful, I’m still young though so it isn’t as big of a deal for me.

      • Yep, you’re right that studded tires are good for ice, don’t offer as much help in snow/slush. Ice is the scariest thing for as a cyclist though.

  • The Bone Lady

    I bike commute in upstate New York. I sprinkle baking soda in my underwear – it’s a great deodorizer.

    • wait a sec.. seriously!?

      • It’s kitty litter for feet. It really works if you don’t have gold bond foot powder. Seriously!

  • My NYC bike messenger days “Combo-Armour” against the cold as a low fat skinny person consists of Underarmour cold wear, an Icebreaker merino shirt, a Descent polyamide windproof shirt with a mesh back for breathability, a Cannondale Polartech moisture-wicking jersey, a Chrome merino hoodie and an windproof Adidas cycling jacket. A vinyl cycling jacket for downpours is always in my bag, too. I can wear this every day from October to March and never freeze or overheat. For 6 layers, I still have full range of motion without being too bulky. Usually 3 or 4 inner layers would suffice. Mid-weight tights are great for layering with cargo shorts or cycling knickers from Chrome work well and heavyweight tights for the aero-fit for long (over an hour) commutes. For the brutal NYC winters, (no longer anymore), the best footwear besides standard clip-in boots are just lugged and, preferably, gusseted boots for wet days. Seal any cracks with Shoe Goo or some dependable sealant. Fenders area must, too. The key is to keep your feet DRY, so a tip I’ve learned from a Mexican bike mechanic is to use an underarm anti-perspirant on your feet in addition to a wicking sock layer and wool socks. It works like you wouldn’t believe. Such a simple solution! Goretex socks are great, too, but they wear out after two years of a daily riding in cold environments. You’ll be surprised how your feet can endure a twenty-degree drop dry, (but not moist for a five-degree shift.) Failing that, I would pack extra socks and chemical hand & foot warmers for winter hell. Not everyone has the luxury of a locker & shower, so bring extra clothes in a backpack, basket, rack, trunk, or pannier if necessary. Be ready!

  • For hot days, wear anything that wicks, and carry a change of clothes and perhaps baby wipes, as recommended above. I prefer non-cotton tanks, underarmour heat wear, breathable shorts, low-cut wicking socks, or sandals. Short-cut running shorts are the best for ventilation on muggy heatwave days. Always have fenders on wet days, hot or cold. It’s all about keeping your feet and crotch/butt comfortable.

  • I love that step through frame in the snow. So comfortable!

    • Thanks! I’m a convert -absolutely love riding that bike in a big flat city like Chicago. And yes, it’s great in the snow too.

  • Thom

    Some good tips here on bike commuting. I have been bike commuting off and on for about 52 years. I must say the photo in your e-mail announcement of the blog bothered me. They are all dressed in dark “bike ninja” outfits, which is just a bad idea, based on my experience. I found even with all the good lights and reflective legbands, drivers were still complaining about not seeing me, until I started dressing for my commute, as someone put it….like a colorblind superhero. Dress bright and light.
    I do need to look into the lobster gloves, as mentioned. Heat packs help but my hands are a limiting factor in the winter…that and toes.

    • hmmm.. i’m not sure what photo you’re referring to?. I do wear some black almost every day – hard not to when dressed for work. However, I have multiple lights on my bike, very reflective tires, extra reflectors, a white helmet, neon lightweight gloves, reflectors on my panniers..etc. I agree that cyclists need to be visible .

  • João

    Thanks, very good to dispute the sweat theory that get´s a lot of people away from cycling.

  • Beth

    I want to start commuting this fall. I’ve tried off and on with my mountain bike (that’s all I had), but I just got a fixer-uper cruiser style so I could ride more casually around town and to work and back. Thanks for all your helpful information in this post!