GT: Bike Commuting Basics
May is Bike Month! Throughout May you will be seeing more content from us about biking and all the ways we'll be celebrating to #BikeThere during National Bike Month. To get started with a few important dates Bike to Work Week 2022 will take place May 16-22, 2022, and Bike to Work Day is on Friday, May 20! In 2022.
If you’ve been curious about bike commuting but aren’t quite sure where to start, read on for a few things to keep in mind during your journeys, whether you’re riding several miles to work or just taking a quick trip to pick up groceries (or beer, or donuts, or…)
Chances are, you’ve heard the term “road rage”. It’s the disproportionate agitation people experience while sitting in little metal boxes, surrounded by other people in other little metal boxes—most of them on their way to sit in bigger concrete boxes to work jobs they don’t even like. When you think about it that way, there’s no wonder people stuck in traffic during their daily drive are all too ready to lose their cool at the drop of a hat (or the change of a lane.)
But what if there was a better way? What if, instead of sitting motionless inside a little metal box, you could feel the wind on your face, stimulate your brain, and invigorate your body? There is a better way, friends, and it’s called bike commuting. And since May is Bike Month, now’s the perfect time to start.
Bike commuting isn’t just for the fitness-obsessed, or the overly frugal, or those interested in breaking our generations-long dependence on dead-dinosaur-powered means of propulsion (though those are all fantastic reasons to ride a bike.) Bike commuting is for anyone who wants to improve their physical and mental health, save a little cash on gas and other car-related costs, and simply enjoy the experience of riding a bike more often in their daily life.
Perhaps the most important step:
CHOOSE YOUR BIKE
Do you have a bike? Do you have somewhere to be? Congratulations, you’ve got yourself a commuter bike!
You’ll see people commuting on just about every type of bike you can imagine—from hybrids to fixies to road bikes to old mountain bikes to fat-tire E-bikes. If it gets you where you’re going reliably and safely, it’ll work just fine.
Many people prefer the riding position on their commuter bike to be a little more upright and comfort-focused than the more aggressive riding position you’ll take on a drop-bar road bike. (After all, who’s in that big of a hurry to get to work?)
You may also consider riding an older bike that won’t cause you heartburn if it gets scratched up leaning against a rack, for example—this has the added bonus of making your steed a less-appealing target for bike thieves.
CARRY YOUR STUFF
Whether you’re carrying a laptop and change of clothes or a load of groceries, you’ll need a way to secure cargo while riding. Many people use backpacks or messenger bags—there are some pretty slick options out there made specifically with bike commuting in mind that include features like U-lock storage, waterproof fabrics, and other thoughtful touches commuters find handy.
For sweat-prone people who would rather carry cargo on their bike instead of their body, racks and panniers are a popular choice. Many frames have mounting points to secure cargo racks, and panniers put the weight of your cargo near the center of your wheels, which can minimize some of the weird handling that comes with strapping a bunch of weight to your bike.
Baskets can also be attached to a cargo rack or directly to your handlebars, and give you the option to carry bulkier or odd-shaped items. (A milk crate zip-tied in place is the classic low-budget solution.) Just make sure to properly secure any cargo in an open-topped basket by tying it down or covering it with a stretchy cargo net.
It takes a pretty dedicated commuter to keep riding when the weather is obviously going to be bad, but sudden showers happen—as do puddles, surprise sprinkler-system activations… you get the idea. If you’re carrying expensive electronics, make sure you’ve got them in a waterproof backpack, messenger bag, or panniers, and consider packing a rain shell or waterproof jacket along on your rides.
If it’s regularly wet where you live, you may also want to consider fitting your bike with fenders. Not only do they prevent you from getting a not-so-fashionable skunk-stripe of road spray up your back, they can help minimize wear on your drivetrain and other components.
While picking a good route will help you avoid having to ride in too much traffic, at some point you’ll likely need to share space with other vehicles on the road. And because drivers tend to look for other cars first and foremost, having a good set of lights attached to your bike is a great way to get noticed—which is exactly what you want when you’re riding in traffic.
Similarly, choosing clothing that’s bright or reflective can ensure you’re more easily seen by motorists. If you’re too attached to your goth aesthetic to wear bright colors, at least make sure you’ve got some kind of reflective doodad attached to your bike or your person.
You don’t need to haul around an entire bike shop’s worth of tools, but at minimum, you should be ready to fix a flat and to tighten any loose bolts on your bike. Commute long enough, and you’ll eventually see all kinds of stuff lurking in bike lanes—broken glass, pieces of rusty scrap metal, and the infamous goathead thorns that singlehandedly keep the inner-tube and patch-kit industries afloat.
If you’re having consistent problems with flats on your route, you may consider going tubeless, or picking up some bike tires with flat-prevention features. Some tires aimed at commuters include a puncture-protecting layer that can stop many flats from ever happening.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
A great commuting experience starts with choosing the right route. If the bike infrastructure in your area includes protected bike lanes or paved multi-use paths, try to prioritize those for a more enjoyable ride with fewer angry drivers around. But when those aren’t available, try to take a route that goes through neighborhoods or less-busy streets. Many cities do a pretty decent job of placing bike lanes on less-trafficked roads, but don’t be afraid to divert from the bike lanes if you find another route that feels more safe or enjoyable. Avoid riding on the sidewalk if at all possible—it can put you at risk from cars entering and exiting driveways, and it’s technically illegal in a lot of places.
If you’re planning on riding to work, try to test-ride your commute ahead of time, so you can get a feel for what traffic patterns are like and how long it’ll take you to make the trip.
LOCK YOUR BIKE
Unfortunately, bike theft is a problem in many major metro areas, but it’s usually a crime of opportunity—meaning if your bike is more of a pain in the ass to steal than the next one on the rack, you’ll usually be safe. Make sure you’re using a quality U-lock, as nearly all cable locks can be cut nearly instantaneously by tin snips or bolt cutters concealed in a jacket. Run the lock through your frame and rear wheel if possible, and around a secure surface that’s not easily cut or moved. Remember, your lock is only as strong as whatever it’s wrapped around.
Of course, when it’s possible, the safest place to store your bike is inside your home, office, or workplace. Even the best bike lock can be defeated by a determined thief with power tools and sufficient time. But if you’re locking up properly in a well-lit, well-trafficked location, you’ll likely be OK.
Some commuters prefer to dress up in their cycling kit, while others just wear regular old clothes. (Take a trip to The Netherlands, and you’ll see people riding around town in heels, skirts, and suits.) However, if you usually get sweaty on your commute, you’ll likely want to at least pack a change of socks and underwear, and a little toiletry kit so you can freshen up.
If you’re lucky enough to work in an office environment with showers available, then you can ride as fast and hard as you want on your way to work, and still get cleaned up and presentable (if your boss/coworkers care about such things.) However, if there’s no shower on-site, you can still freshen up with the help of a towel, some baby wipes, and a fresh coat of deodorant. And remember, if you’re getting really sweaty, you can always just ride a little slower!
Whether you’re riding to work, to run errands, or just to enjoy a picnic in your local park, replacing even a few car trips a week with pedal power can add up to a pretty noticeable difference in your budget, your health, and your overall quality of life. You might be pleasantly surprised to find your trips don’t actually take that much more time than they would driving by car. And they’ll certainly be a lot better for the planet, and for your soul.
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TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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