Published on July 1st, 2009 | by Derek Markham3
How to Bicycle Commute: A Rider’s Survival Guide
One powerful action you can take to both lower your carbon footprint and to save some cash is to start commuting by bicycle. But perhaps you need to learn how to bike commute first! Once you know how to commute by bike, you can ride to work, ride to the grocery store, and you can haul your kids (or dog) around town, and you’ll probably boost your health at the same time.
If you’re already riding for recreation or fitness, you’ve probably got most of the skills and gear, but if you’re not a cyclist already, making the transition to a full-fledged bicycle commuter is not nearly as difficult as it may seem at first thought.
A Bicycle for Commuting
Obviously, the first thing you need for a bicycle commute is a set of wheels. It doesn’t have to be a top of the line carbon fiber road bike or a fancy fully-suspended mountain bike, because what you really need is ‘daily driver’ – something that fits you well and can take the dings and bumps easily without you worrying about your paint job or if your bike will still be where you parked it when you’re done with your work or errands.
A standard steel frame bike works great for most people, and the good news is that there are so many of these used bikes sitting in garages across the country that you can pick one up cheaply and still afford to have it tuned up for less than the cost of a wheel for a fancy bike.
Bike frames come in three basic styles: road bike (the classic ‘ten-speed’), mountain bike, and cruiser bike (a fourth type is the commuter or city bike, sort of a cross between the road and cruiser bike). The style you need is going to depend on how comfortable you are on a bike, the type of terrain you’ll cover, and how you like to ride (upright or leaning forward over the handlebars). Head over to a bike shop and ride the different types to get a feel for them before you make a commitment – a bike may look really cool to you, but if it’s uncomfortable to ride, it will stay parked in the garage, even with the best of intentions.
A few things to think about when choosing a bike for commuting are the existence of attachment points for front and rear racks, mounting holes for a water bottle cage (or two), and the weight of the bike itself (a heavier bike is always going to be take more effort to pedal). If you’re at the bike shop testing a few out, have a tech or salesperson point out the attachment points (called braze-ons) and water bottle cage mount so you know what to look for.
Some big bike shops carry used bikes that have been overhauled, and many cities have bike co-ops or people who rebuild bikes in their garage and sell them via Craiglist or the local paper, so check out those resources before committing to a brand new bike. You’ll be reducing the amount of new materials used while supporting a local business.
Essential Personal Gear for Bicycle Commuting
For your safety, you’ll need a helmet. Don’t go for the fanciest one in the store, simply pick a mid-quality helmet that fits well. You may want a visor that clips on if you’ll be riding directly into the sunrise or sunset, but it isn’t necessary. Make sure that you understand how to adjust the straps before you leave the store.
To keep your pants cuffs from getting chewed up by the chain, get a couple of velcro cuff straps (you only need one on the chain side, but they’re cheap, so grab a spare). Look for one with a reflector on it, to help keep you visible to cars. A water bottle and cage to hold it are very handy for long rides, or you can use a Camel-Bak type water carrier that goes in a backpack.
For visibility, a couple of LED blinkers will serve you well – mount one under your seat, facing to the rear, and clip one to your bag or helmet. For the front of your bike, LED headlights are great: you can adjust the brightness for best visibility, and the batteries last a long time. A headlight that mounts on your helmet (a camping headlight) will let you see wherever you look, rather than where the bike is pointed, and pointing it at cars will get their attention at intersections.
If you live where the possibility of rain is high, a lightweight rain jacket and pants that packs into a small bundle will save you from getting soaked when you’re caught on the road. Cycling clothing isn’t completely necessary, but can make your ride more comfortable. A light pair of gloves comes in very handy in cool climates when it rains, and stashing a plastic bag under your seat (to cover it) helps to keep your seat dry while it’s parked.
There’s nothing worse than being stranded by a flat tire or minor repair because you don’t have the tools with you. Always carry a flat repair kit, a pump (mounted to your frame), and an all-in-one bike tool with you, and know how to use them. Practice pulling off your wheel and taking the tire off the rim to get to the tube while you’re at home, so you won’t have to figure it out on the side of the road. Many bike shops have basic bike maintenance classes to get you comfortable with minor repairs.
Always carry a bike lock. A U-lock carrier can be mounted to your frame, and the lock will secure both the frame and a wheel. A more adaptable option is a cable with a padlock, so you can lock your frame and both wheels to a rack or a tree. Most modern bikes have quick release wheels, and in risky areas, an unsecured wheel can disappear quickly, so lock your wheels to your bike with a cable.
Plan Your Cycling Route Before You Leave the House
You probably don’t want to follow the same route to work or play as when you drive, due to high traffic, or too many left turns, or lack of a bicycle lane on the road. When driving your regular commute in a car, pay attention to anything that may make it difficult by bike, and look for alternate routes.
Most large cities have bike route maps which show the roads with bike lanes and dedicated bike paths, or use Google maps or Mapquest, choosing ‘walking’ as your mode of transportation for some route options.
If you live too far for a straight bike commute, riding halfway and grabbing a bus (if a bike rack is available on the bus) is an option, or finding a spot to park your car and ride somewhere along the way will cut down on gas costs.
Increase Your Bicycle’s Hauling Capacity
A backpack or messenger bag can cover your needs for most small trips, but if you want to pick up groceries or haul larger loads, you’ll want a way to carry them that won’t pull on your neck.
A rear rack can handle many small packages strapped to the top, and a front rack will double your carrying capacity. If you really want to carry loads securely (and keep them dry), then panniers are the next step. Panniers mount to your rack and hang down, redistributing the weight lower on your bike. If you have a front rack, you can carry four panniers at once.
To be able to handle large loads, a bike trailer is the way to go. If you can pick up a used kid carrier (like a Burley), you’ll be able to haul just about anything that will physically fit inside it, and because they have a cover, your stuff will stay dry. Another great choice is a cargo trailer, such as the BOB trailer, which attaches to your rear wheel and tracks right behind you as you ride. Many of them come with a dry bag to put your stuff inside, or you can find an inexpensive Rubbermaid-type container with a lid which fits inside the trailer. Bungee cords come in very handy for securing odd sized parcels to your trailer, and you can’t go wrong with a couple stashed on your rack.
Commuting by Bike with a Family
For families, getting around town by bike can really help you to save on gas money. It seems harder at first, but once you have your gear and a plan for getting out the door, it’s a snap. You will have to leave earlier and be better prepared than if you drive, and you need to break the kids into the routine, but most of them seem to enjoy riding anyway.
The cheapest option is a kid’s bike seat that fits behind yours. That method works well if your child is old enough to sit upright and you feel safe with them there. The drawback is that those seats don’t come off your bike very easily.
A ‘tag-a-long’ or trail-a-bike that attaches to the rear of your bike is excellent for older kids that are comfortable riding a two-wheeler. Quite a few models are on the market, and most attach easily to your seat post.
Kid trailers, like the Burley, will haul young kids and gear, and most have screen windows and rain protection, so your precious ones are out of the weather. While the price of a new one may seem steep, you can recoup your cost in gas savings pretty quickly. Try Craigslist or cycle shops for used ones.
People all over the world use bicycles to commute year-round, and with the proper preparation, you can use your bicycle to save money, help lower pollution and fuel consumption, and get a healthier body at the same time!