A few days ago I had to go to work by car instead of by bike. I had completely forgotten how frustrating it was to sit in a car stuck in a traffic jam. When I caught a cyclist passing by in the corner of my eye I was ready to smash the steering wheel. The rider made his way through the traffic and disappeared in no time. I was standing still in the same place for another 2-3 minutes, which felt like an eternity. I thought to myself: how much I hate commuting by car and love my bike commutes Pedalling and leave all the traffic behind makes you feel like you’re the only free man among prisoners. If you feel the same frustration in your commutes, but you don’t know how to begin bike commuting, this article is for you. We will go through the basic steps of being set free from the prison of your car.
How to become a bike commuter?
To set yourself up to become a successful long term bike commuter you need to have a few key things in place: mindset, gear, habits, skills. It’s quite easy to think that the proper gear is all you need, but in reality, while usable gear is important, having the other elements in place is just as crucial.
Like with other things in life that you get excited about, it’s easy to get enthusiastic about bike commuting, but in order to persist when going gets tough, you need to have the proper mindset and have formed firm habits.
The first is a shift in mindset, and it’s really simple. It’s nearly silly to say, but it’s important. You need to decide that you want to commute by bike. That’s it! Start thinking about yourself not only as someone that entertains the idea of bike commuting but as a bike commuter. This will change your attitude in every other aspect of the process.
A good thing about bike commuting is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can do it as much as you enjoy it. Initially, you may do a day or two a week, gradually building up towards more days. Maybe you’ll never want to do it 5 days a week, but maybe you will be riding every single day after the first month of trying. As you ease yourself into this new habit, you will fall in love with it more and more, and you may change your mind down the line. You don’t need to put extra pressure on yourself; it’s about having fun first and foremost, getting in two extra workouts a day for free and during a time you’d spend commuting anyway, if your budget is tight, then saving some money and doing your bit for reducing your carbon footprint.
Real diehards will bike commute whatever the weather, come rain or snow. But if you feel uncomfortable with that, feel free to skip those days. You can still call yourself a bike commuter because you have the habit of commuting in certain conditions. More on what you need for cold, wet and muddy rides later.
When you first set your goal, be realistic about what you can do. It is reasonable to bike commute up to 12 miles each way every day, but 20 miles or more is stretching it too much. If your commute is 20+ miles and you’ve never done it before, you should look into multimodal commuting, which means that you combine riding with some other form of transportation, be it public transport or car.
Having seen the proper mindset, let’s jump into the next most important thing: your gear.
Bike and gear
A commuter bike needs to be reliable, durable and practical. Reliability and durability mean that you can get on it every morning without having to worry that something will go wrong with it, and it can withstand anything that your journey may throw at it (potholes, mud, rain, shifting etc). A bike that isn’t reliable or durable doesn’t shift or brake properly after a few days, you hear clicking noises from the chain. These can put you off very quickly from bike commuting.
Make sure you have at least a good entry-level bike that can serve you and makes riding enjoyable. If you already own a bike that’s decent enough, try it out for your first commute, but if you buy new, don’t purchase a cheap department store bike that was designed for occasional recreational use. It’s too heavy, chunky and handles very imprecisely. After a few weeks, it will cause more frustration than fun. There are some decent entry-level bikes starting from 500 dollars that can perfectly serve you.
If you only want to dip your toe into the bike commuting pond initially and you’ve never bought a bike before I would suggest borrowing one for the first couple of weeks. As you use the bike you will realize what is important for you and for your commute, what you like and what you dislike about it. The distance, terrain and traffic conditions will also influence your choice a great deal. After the first couple of weeks, you will be able to form a pretty clear idea of what you want and need. In this previous post, I wrote about how much you should spend on a commuter bike. If you are looking for some clear and simple to use guidelines to pick a good commuter bike you can check out the post here.
To make your bike as practical and commuter-friendly as possible you will need to add a few pieces of gear to it.
A good set of lights should be one of your first purchases for your bike. It helps you to stay as visible as possible in traffic on dull and darker days as well as on bright ones, and in some countries, it is also a legal requirement for cyclists. I recommend a Cateye Volt 800 light at the front and a Cateye Rapid X2 at the rear. After buying three other cheaper lights I can say that they are truly the best, and they’re worth every penny. Here’s a link to the front light and another one to the rear light on Amazon. They offer great visibility and will keep you safe on the road. They have saved my life on at least two occasions. They are easy to charge from any USB port and have ample battery life even for longer commutes.
Fenders or mudguards will keep the water and muck away from your bottom and belly. If you fail to get one you will realize how important they are at your first wet commute.
Some commuters use a backpack to carry their stuff, but panniers are a much more convenient way to carry your belongings, as they allow air ventilation to your back, leaving you less sweaty. The gold standard of waterproof panniers are Ortlieb. They aren’t the cheapest, but they are very durable and offer good protection to your laptop, clothes and other whatnots. Sometimes you can grab a good deal on Amazon.
You need a good, sturdy rear rack for your bike to put the panniers on. Some dedicated commuter bikes come equipped with a rear rack, but if yours doesn’t, you can choose either a permanent solution like the Ibera Bike Rack, or if your bike doesn’t come with mounting holes (or you prefer to be able to take it off easily), you can go for the comingfit adjustable bike rack, which can be easily mounted and dismounted.
What to wear for your bike commute? You can either dress for the ride or dress for the destination. The easiest solution is to ride your bike in the clothes you will be wearing for work. This is only practical if you have a short commute, but if it’s longer than 3 miles (about 5 km) then you can expect to sweat and you’re better off getting changed for the ride.
If you dress for your destination, it’s best to choose clothes that are not too tight. Slim fit jeans are not a good idea, because they can make your ride very uncomfortable, even if it’s a very short one. They’re also bad at drying when they get wet, so they’re best avoided.
Dressing for the commute has two main benefits: it’s more comfortable, and it can get dirty, messy and sweaty without having to worry about how you look at your workplace. Your dedicated commuting clothes don’t need to be lycra, but clothing that allows for ventilation in the summer and keeps you warm without making you sweat too much in the winter.
It’s a little bit of an art to getting the amount of clothing right, but once you get used to it you will have no problem deciding what you’ll be wearing just by looking at the weather forecast or the thermometer.
I usually think in terms of three temperature ranges, and dress accordingly. Your body probably tolerates these temperatures differently, but you can prepare at least a mental table, which will help you decide what you will wear without having to think too much. You will figure it out after a few rides.
- 59F+ (15C+) – Top: short sleeve running or cycling jersey. Bottom: running or MTB shorts. Sandals or runners.
- 41-58F (5-14C) – Top: short or long sleeve running jersey with a light cycling jacket. Bottom: thermal underwear and running shorts. Thin cycling gloves. Runners with socks.
- 40F (4C) or less – Top: short or long sleeve running jersey with windproof warm cycling top. Bottom: long, warm, windproof cycling trousers. One or two pairs of socks, wind, and waterproof hiking shoes.
For safety I always make sure that the outermost layer is bright and reflective so you can be spotted when visibility is poor.
Rain doesn’t bother me too much on warm days, so if it’s not too intense, I just get wet, because I know that it will dry quickly. If it rains heavily then I use a rain jacket.
Rain on cold days is completely different. It’s ok to be wet, it’s ok to be cold, but it’s not ok to be wet and cold at the same time. It leads to sickness. In wintertime, I always make sure that I have a rain jacket (and waterproof pants) with me.
Route. Which way to go?
Of course, you know where you work. Of course, you can get there. But can you get there in the safest, most efficient, shortest and quickest way? Sometimes those can’t all be combined in one route, and you need to find a good balance of distance, speed, safety. Doubts can arise in you about the route when riding your bike.
The best route for you as a bike commuter is most probably very different than the best route to take when you drive to work. You can take certain shortcuts that you can’t drive on, some way streets allow bikes to go both directions, and some roads are just too dangerous or even illegal to ride the bike on.
It’s good to have a route in mind for your first ride. It is even better to ride it on a quiet day so you understand it in practice. You will find out if there is any major issue with what you planned. You can make other changes as you get used to bike commuting. Distance isn’t the only factor that determines how fast you can get to work or home. The number of lights you need to cross, how they are synchronized, the quality of the roads, shared paths with pedestrians, climbs and descents all come into play. Also, you may find out that the quickest way is not the one you enjoy most. After over a year of commuting to my current job, every now and then I still find ways to improve the route.
You can use Endomondo or Strava on your phone to check the route you took and to compare it to other possible routes. Komoot is another cyclist specific application, which allows you to plan out your commute ahead of time.
After seeing your route on the map you can compare it with other possible routes. Having direct riding experience helps you decide if it’s worth trying another way.
For example, my commute used to be 25 miles (both ways) initially and I was able to shorten it to 18 miles. Not only was it 7 miles longer, but it was full of traffic lights and busy pedestrian areas, and it took me 2 hours to get there and back. Today my commute is only 1 hour and 15 minutes in total.
In short: know the way, but don’t be overconfident that you know the best route. Ever since I started bike commuting I keep improving my route and make little changes. Obviously the changes you make at the beginning are greater than the ones you make after a year.
Take care of your bike
To maintain your bike in good working order and to keep it running smoothly for a long time, you should have some tools at home.
Here’s a short maintenance checklist:
- Check the tire pressure twice a month. It’s normal for the tires to lose pressure. If your bike has thin tires running at high PSI then this is very important in order to avoid pinch flats.
- Clean and lube your chain as often as necessary or at least every month (depending on the lubricant you use and the riding conditions – read more about it here).
- Change the chain every 2000-2500 miles and the cassette when it shows signs of wear (usually at every other chain replacement).
- Check your brake pads and replace them when they’re worn.
- If you ride your bike in all weather conditions, replace the cables once a year.
- Lube the bearings every year
You don’t need to do all the maintenance at home. You can take your bike to your local bike shop for the chain, cassette, cable replacement and lubing of the bearings. However, simple tasks, such as tire pressure, chain cleaning can be done at home even if you live in an apartment.
Keep a decent floor pump at home with a pressure gauge. Pay attention that your pump is compatible with your valve. The most common valve types are Presta and Schrader. Road bike and most hybrid bikes use Presta valves, while MTBs, city bikes and some hybrids use Schrader. I recommend using a twin head pump, which allows you to inflate tires with Presta or Schrader valves without having to use an adapter, change the head or use any trick. It’s also very practical if you have more than one bike at home with different valves. The BV Bicycle Ergonomic Bike Floor Pump ticks all the boxes and it is both an inexpensive and reliable choice available on Amazon.
To keep your chain clean and well lubed, you will need at least a brush, degreaser, a few pieces of cloth and chain lube, but if you don’t like making too much mess, a chain cleaning device, such as the Park Tool Chain cleaner is recommended. It does a great job at cleaning your chain fast and it keeps most of the gunk contained in its body, leaving less for you to clean up.
Prepare for the commute
Besides bike maintenance, you should prepare the things you will need for the ride the night before. It is very hard to get your mind to focus on the things you need in the morning, especially if you are in a hurry and there are other things on your mind. I learned this the hard way, after repeatedly leaving socks, gloves and even my helmet at home on one occasion. Now I have a mental checklist of the items I prepare every night before I go to sleep. Everything is in front of me when I wake up in the morning, and no brain processing power is needed to make sure that I remember everything.
Prepare for the weather
One of the items on the night-before checklist is checking the forecast and preparing the clothes for the next day. The summer and winter are quite predictable, but the temperature changes very much from one day to the next in spring and fall.
On the ride
If you learned to ride the bike as a child you’re probably familiar with some basic bike handling skills. These need to be second nature, especially when bike commuting in traffic.
Riding with one hand off the handlebar: this is needed to signal to turn intent, fix helmet, reach for a water bottle, just to name a few. It can be daunting at first if you don’t know how to do it yet, but with a little bit of practice, it’s very easy to get the hang of it. When signaling, give enough time for those coming behind you to take notice of you and to slow down if necessary.
Shifting weight front and back: standing out of the saddle and having all your weight on the pedals allows you to shift your weight when riding on roads with potholes, crossing train or tram tracks, riding on cobblestones or getting on and off curbs. You can ride without this skill, but mastering it gives you a huge boost of confidence and introduces you to an entirely new dimension.
Shifting gear: know your bike and know how it works, especially how it shifts. This doesn’t only mean that you know where the shifters are, but how to get into higher and lower gears, when to shift and how to shift without destroying your bike. There is a whole article about this on Bike Commuter Hero. If you’re a beginner cyclist, it’s well worth checking out.
Scan the route ahead for vehicles, cyclists, and potholes. It is more a habit than a skill, but it’s essential in order to make good decisions ahead of time. Being aware of your surroundings, including traffic coming from behind you ensures your safety.
Pace yourself, especially if you have a long ride. It requires a conscious effort to spend your energy wisely and not be destroyed by the time you arrive at the office. This takes some trial and error, and you’ll get used to it after a few weeks.
Enjoy, relax and have fun. One of the benefits of bike commuting I noticed in my own life is being less stressed when I get to work and especially when I get home. The 40 minutes I spend on the bike is a winding downtime, which allows me to leave all the worries of the job behind me. If you concentrate on wanting to beat every speed record or worry about how other cyclists perceive you because of your gear, size or speed, you take the fun away.
Refuel the engine
As a bike commuter, you’re not only the rider, but you’re the engine too. You cannot bike commute on a completely full stomach and most people cannot ride on an empty one either.
You need to fuel your body the right way. You will experience a spike in your appetite in the first few days. It’s completely normal, given that you’re using more energy than before, and this energy needs to be replaced. Know yourself and plan your meals in such a way that it supports your activity. I recently wrote extensively on the topic of riding after eating as well as the weight loss and nutrition aspect of bike commuting.
To become a bike commuter takes some investment if you don’t have the proper gear but more importantly it takes some mental preparation. For someone living an inactive lifestyle, it’s literally going from zero to hero. I encourage you to take the plunge. You will be so proud of yourself in a year that you can’t even imagine it now. Take it one step at a time and try to have fun every step of the way.