Bike Commuting for Beginners: 19 Tips for Long-Term SUCCESS


PIGGYBACKING OFF OTHERS’ EXPERIENCE = INCREASING YOUR CHANCES OF SUCCEEDING

Getting into cycling to work is exciting, but if you are an aspiring bike commuter with limited or no prior experience, it may seem like a daunting task. 

If you’re able to get through the first month of cycling to work, you are 80% more likely to be still doing it a year later, but only 2 out of 5 people who start bike commuting will get to the end of week 1. Whether or not you will be a long-term bike commuter doesn’t depend on your fitness level but on your preparation and how you manage your expectations.

If you’re completely unsure of what you can expect and how to prepare for cycling to work, don’t worry. I have spent thousands of miles on my bike thinking about the best tips, and several hours putting my experience in writing. 

Here are 19 of my best bike commuting tips if you want to start cycling to work, which have kept me safe on the road.

Always put safety first

As a cyclist, you are always the most vulnerable road user. 

Trucks, cars and even motorbikes are stronger than you. 

Your number one priority should always be your safety. Keep this in mind when you need to make decisions about doubtful situations.

Obey traffic laws

You can’t control how other road users drive and ride, but obeying traffic laws is something that you can always control

In my experience, close to 80% of bike commuters don’t stop at red lights and stop signs and don’t yield to pedestrians at the crossings. 

It’s tempting to not slow down to keep momentum and save energy, but accidents happen in intersections, and often it is the fault of the cyclist.

Learn to own the lane

You have a right to be on the road just as much as any other vehicle (except where cyclists are not permitted). 

Whether you ride in the gutter or in the middle of the lane doesn’t make a difference to cars, but it makes a huge difference to you!

Owning the lane and controlling traffic behind you is a daunting task initially, but it’s quite easy to learn and get good at with just a little practice. 

When you start, you need to be OK with feeling that there may be traffic building up behind you and feeling a little uncomfortable about it. 

Be predictable

We all hate unpredictable drivers. They are dangerous to others and to themselves. 

Since you have much to lose as a cyclist, predictability guards your life. 

Predictability means not doing anything unexpected and letting others know about your intentions, especially your intention to turn. Use your hands to signal your intent to turn, change lane or direction. 

Predictability is also important when riding on a dedicated cycle path. I’ve had a few near misses when other cyclists in front of me failed to signal their intent to take a turn.

Know your route and the road

Knowing the route can be underestimated at first, but it’s a huge advantage when you commute. 

If you know your route you will know which turns to take, and which lane to be in. This means that you won’t end up where you don’t want to go or make unnecessary detours. 

I came to newly appreciate the importance of knowing the route recently when I had to ride to a part of the city, which I didn’t know. I completely underestimated the distance, and I had no clear route, except I knew which general direction I had to go. Needless to say, I was late for my appointment.

Knowing your route is only the first step though, and it’s quite easy to figure out with Google Maps or a cycling dedicated route planning app like Komoot ( https://www.komoot.com/ ).

Here are some things you will get good at over time and will make you feel like you own your entire commute:

  • Anticipating major potholes
  • Knowing where you can expect pedestrians,
  • Figuring out if there’s an alternative road with less traffic, (maybe even bike lanes)
  • Knowing where you need to ring the bell because others may not see you coming, 
  • Knowing if it’s worth pursuing a green in the distance, (or take it easy because you’re wasting effort just to catch a red light)

This understanding and knowledge of the road comes with experience and time. The first step is knowing the route, and you can do it before your first commute. 

The most direct route is not always the safest or even the fastest one. 

Use a helmet

If pros wear helmets, so should commuters. In a crash, a helmet can save your life

Some accidents can be prevented by riding carefully, but others are beyond your control. 

Sure, wearing a helmet is a bit of a pain in the neck, but so is a wheelchair, or God forbid, something even worse.

Bike handling skills

There are four basic bike handling skills that are more complicated than getting on and off your bike, but which are very important and will boost your confidence on the road a great deal.

  • Looking behind you whilst riding
  • Lifting the front wheel to get onto curbs
  • Riding with one hand on the handlebar (or no-handed)
  • Emergency stop (coming to a full stop in the shortest possible distance)

Eyes on the road and scan the road ahead

When you walk you’re naturally aware of where you’re stepping because you’ve been getting used to it since you were a toddler.

Scanning the road ahead of you when riding isn’t an innate skill, but it’s easy to learn and it can become second nature with a little practice.

It is different from watching your steps because you’re going at a faster speed and the way you react to obstacles is different. Instead of using your feet to change direction, you use your hands.

The trick is to keep your eyes on the road ahead as much as you travel in 2-3 seconds, occasionally lifting your eyes and looking further out. 

2-3 seconds is enough to react to obstacles, such as potholes and looking further ahead helps you spot people, vehicles, traffic lights etc.

It’s almost needless to say, but let’s state the obvious: don’t get distracted by using your phone when riding, and don’t shift your attention to anything other than riding. Initially, it’s not even a good idea to use a headset to receive incoming calls, because you’re learning something new. 

Visibility = good

If you have to choose between a helmet and lights, choose both.

A helmet helps save your life in a crash.

Lights and reflective details prevent accidents from happening.

You may feel like a Christmas tree, but it’s always better to feel that everyone is staring at you than to be run over. Here is what can make you visible:

  • Reflective details (tapes and spoke cover) on your bike. These are not battery operated and can’t fail you unlike your bike lights.
  • Lights. Running lights at night is a must. Running them in the daytime is strongly recommended (and in some jurisdictions a legal requirement too). Blinking lights attract attention, so I recommend at least blinking rear lights. My Cateye Volt sends out short bursts even when in constant mode. Here’s an article I wrote about lights for bike commuting.
  • Bright clothing with reflective details. It’s much easier to spot you at dusk if you wear bright clothes. 

Here’s a brief comparison video of visibility at dusk and complete darkness.

Give them a bell

I underestimated how important a bell was at the beginning. So much so that I didn’t mount one on my bike.

I thought it was useless.

It’s tiny.

I felt it looked dorkish.

Unlike a car’s horn, it’s not very loud.

It turned out I was wrong.

One day a guy who cut a corner didn’t see me coming crashed into me.

It was totally preventable had I had used a bell before approaching that corner.

Now I know that there are two spots on my commute where I must always ring the bell.

I have met many people who cut corners, but nobody has crashed into me ever since.

It comes in very handy when cyclists and pedestrians share the sidewalk, or when approaching corners without being able to see oncoming traffic.

It’s like black pepper: a tiny detail with a strong bite.

Locking up your bike

To know that your bike is safe and you will find it where you left it, you will need a bike lock. 

Not all bike locks are made equal, however. The more valuable your bike is and the less secure the area where you leave it, the safer a bike lock you need.

While no lock is unbreakable or unpickable, a good lock can help you in two ways:

  • It will buy you time
  • It will ‘encourage’ thieves to steal someone else’s bike instead

Here’s a good summary of the basics you need to know about bike locks:

How to carry stuff

Depending on personal preference you can choose a backpack, messenger bag or panniers to carry your stuff.

Here are the pros and cons of each to consider:

Backpack:

+ You’re ready to hit the road as soon as you get to your bike
+ You don’t need a rear rack (useful for MTBers)
+ You can carry your stuff when you’re not on the bike without being spotted as a cyclist

– Makes your back sweat (even the ones designed for cycling don’t allow for enough airflow)
– It gets uncomfortable to carry heavy things in a backpack

Messenger bag:

+ All the advantages of a backpack
+ Belongings are easily accessible without taking it off

– Uncomfortable to carry heavy items
– Sweating is an issue

Panniers:

+ No issues with airflow, less sweaty back
+ Even heavy items are easy to carry

– Some panniers are not comfortable to carry when walking
– You need a rear rack to mount it on, which not all bikes accommodate…

… but if you want to put a rack on a bike that has no mounts, you should check out this option.

Know why you’re doing it

There will come a time when going gets tough. For most people, there is an initial hump after week 1.

You will experience some fatigue and tiredness, and the initial enthusiasm will wane as the novelty wears off. This usually lasts only a week or two until your body gets used to your new routine.

Plus there will be cold days… and rainy days… and days that you just don’t feel like doing it.

It’s good to remember why you started it in the first place. It’ll get you through those rough patches.

Personally, it is my primary source of exercise, and as a competitive guy,it makes me feel proud and accomplished when I do something challenging. 

Know your strengths and limitations

It’s quite common to underestimate the commuting distance, overestimate your average speed and think that you can do even 150 miles per week without any prior experience. 

When it comes to distance and speed, these are realistic expectations, at least initially:

When starting off, you can ride to work one or two days a week and add another day after 2-3 weeks. This way you’re easing yourself into the world of bike commuting, and you’ll get to enjoy it without getting too fatigued and frustrated.

Checklist

This could be just a personality issue, but unless I make something part of my routine or have a very specific checklist, I will forget things.

Like this guy:

It’s good to keep a checklist (written or mental) and routine of the things you need to prepare or do so you keep your gear in good running order and you always have everything you need ready. 

Here is my checklist/routine.

Night before:

  • Check forecast
  • Prepare cycling clothes depending on weather: trousers, shoes, helmet, gloves, glasses, rain gear etc.
  • Leave pannier ready for morning
  • Leave bike ready for the morning

Before leaving:

  • Quick weather check
  • Get dressed accordingly
  • Put pannier on bike

Weekly:

  • Check tire pressure
  • Charge bike lights
  • Clean chain and lube it (in Summertime only every 2-3 weeks)

Sweating/clothes

If your commute is 3 miles or more expect to sweat. You can control how much you sweat to some extent, but you need a plan.

  • If you sweat during your commute, you should get changed for cycling, and you need a change of clothes for work. 

Pro tip: you don’t need to wear a full cycling kit, but don’t wear a cotton t-shirt either. 

  • In cold weather don’t dress for departure, but for the 10th minute of your ride. You will generate enough heat so you won’t feel cold. If you’re overdressed, you will sweat like crazy after 5 minutes. 

Just note that sweating itself isn’t the problem for most people, but the fear of body odor is. Check out this article on how to overcome body odor as a bike commuter.

Carry a tool kit, a spare tube, and a pump

According to Murphy’s law, what can go wrong will go wrong at some point. Every now and then you have to tighten a loose bolt or fix a flat. 

For example, having a multi-tool handy means that you can go from something really painful like this…

… to something comfortable like this…

As for a spare tube or a patch kit, you don’t want to be left stranded with a flat tire on the road. 

And these things usually at the worst moment. 

For example, after nearly a year and a half without a single flat, I recently had to fix one whilst out riding with the family. Thankfully I was prepared and we were able to complete the journey.

Have tools for basic maintenance at home

You can start bike commuting without a full toolkit at home, but it’s good gradually build up a small collection to tackle the most common maintenance issues, such as:

  • bike cleaning
  • checking tire pressure and inflating tires
  • chain cleaning and lubing (read my article about it here).

As for yearly routine maintenance, such as changing your chain, regular tune-ups, you can take your bike to your local bike shop. 

Don’t jump to conclusions too early

Starting bike commuting is a big change, and you need time to get used to it.

Many complete beginners have a stressful first experience and quit before they actually learn what bike commuting is like. It is worth sticking with it for a few weeks before you can start to appreciate your new way of transportation. 

It will get easier over time, and even if it’s stressful initially, cycling to work can quickly become the highlight of your day.

Happy Riding!

Bike Commuter Hero

When it comes to Cycling to Work, SAM IS THE MAN because he doesn't just talk the talk, but he also walks the walk - or rides the ride, to be more precise... Come, pedal with me and be a HERO!

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