Bike commuting is the best way to get in two workouts by the time you arrive home from work. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, refreshes you mentally and physically and it helps you to burn a bunch of calories. It can be a money saver too.
When you first consider the possibility of bike commuting you may be wondering if you would be able to commit to it regularly or if it’s too far for you. Anyway, what’s a reasonable distance to bike to work?
For a person of average fitness level a daily bike commute of up to 10 miles each way is doable. Over 70% of people live within this reasonable biking distance to their workplace. If your commute is longer than 10 miles and you commute five days a week you will experience fatigue by the end of the week. A 10 mile commute at a moderate pace takes about 1 hour. For a person with an exceptional fitness level 15 miles each way commute is still doable.
In reality, the question of what a reasonable distance is for you is more complex than just the number of miles. To understand whether you can commit to bike commuting, you need to take into account a few factors specific to you: your fitness level, your commute, how much time you need to spend on the bike and the gear that best suits your needs.
If you already have a bike, but you can’t guess the distance you’re riding, you can use a free app like Strava or Endomondo on your phone.
How fit are you?
If you have done a 60 mile bike tour it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to do a 30 mile round trip on a daily basis. Daily commuters of 10 miles each way usually feel the first signs of fatigue, especially in their legs, when Thursday rolls around and they’re happy to take one or two days off at the weekend.
I’m assuming that your fitness level is low or average, since you’re asking what is a reasonable distance to bike commute to work. But how do you know if you’re fit enough? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the cyclist is in the riding. The best way to find it out is by doing a test-ride from home to work. The best is to do this on a weekend day, when you don’t have any time pressure.
Don’t try to set a speed record on your bike, just try to get a feel for the route and what a comfortable pace is for you. It is recommended to do this in the same clothes you will be wearing normally. If you can do this in less than 2 hours at a comfortable pace, it means that your fitness level is good enough to do this regularly. Most people, even those who aren’t exceptionally fit, can do a 20 mile round trip within 2 hours.
If you can barely move from exhaustion after the test ride or it takes longer than 2 hours, it is probably best to look into other solutions. For instance multimodal commuting combines cycling with another mode of transportation, for example train or tram. You can also buy an electric bike.
Record your route on your GPS on a mobile application so you can take a look at it later to see how you can tweak it. Since the very beginning I have recorded my commutes on Endomondo every day, because I like keeping track of my miles and my progress, but I also like optimizing my route.
Notice how my riding distance has been reduced by over a mile, I have become much faster and my commute has become 25 minutes shorter.
Don’t worry if you aren’t very fit at the beginning or if your legs are sore. It is quite normal and it isn’t necessarily a sign that you aren’t able. When you ride on a regular basis your endurance will improve a great deal over time. You will get faster, less sore and less exhausted. Concentrate on getting through the first few weeks initially. If you can be consistent for 4 weeks solid, you are 90% more likely to form a long-term habit of bike commuting.
Distance, speed and time
After your first test-ride you will know exactly how far you live from work and how long it takes to get there. An average rider goes at a pace of between 4 and 6 minutes / mile (10-15 mph). To ride 10 miles takes 40 to 60 minutes.
If you want to learn about the average bike commuting speed, you can read this other article on Bike Commuter Hero.
The time you spend on your bike is also affected by the terrain and the weather conditions. Going uphill slows you down a great deal and it also causes you to sweat more intensely. Strong tail wind can help you be much faster, and headwind will slow you down a great deal.
In general cycling to work usually takes longer than driving a car, although in the city cyclists are faster in peak hour traffic. The good thing about bike commuting is that the travel time is very predictable and it isn’t affected too much by the traffic. My bike commute is about 40-45 minutes each way, but it is between 30-55 minutes by car. The morning rides usually take 10 minutes longer than by car, but due to traffic building up in the city by the time I come home, I can save 5-10 minutes riding.
If you compare travel times to public transportation, cycling is usually faster unless your city has an excellent metro network. Having your bike also gives you the freedom of not relying on the schedule of the bus or tram. I save 25 minutes each way compared to commuting by means of public transportation.
If you can save time compared to your current commute, or you don’t add too much time to it, you should give it a try. Since riding 15-20 miles each way would take 1.5-2 hours for an inexperienced cyclist, I think it is too far for most people. This is why I believe that any distance up to 10 miles is a reasonable distance to ride. For some people the extra time isn’t an issue, but people with a full time job and a family would struggle to fit this into their day.
Be OK with the biggest inconvenience of riding
If you ride more than 3 miles you will sweat. Fact.
3 out of 5 people tell me that they’d love to bike commute, but they are worried that they will sweat too much.
How much you will sweat depends on the distance and the intensity of your ride.
If you hate the idea of sweating, but you only have a short, 1-3 mile commute, you don’t need to worry. It’s short enough that it doesn’t take too long and you can pedal easily without putting too much effort into it. If you have a longer commute (5-10 miles) and you don’t want to sweat, an electric bike can be an excellent choice. Many people choose electric bikes for their commute precisely for the same reason.
If sweating doesn’t bother you, but you’re concerned about body odor, then I suggest you read ‘How to overcome body odor as a bike commuter?’, in which I researched the most common causes of BO and what you can do about it.
Which commuter bike fits the purpose?
A commuter bike isn’t necessarily the fastest, newest, shiniest road bike. In fact, the only two essential characteristics of every good commuter bike are comfort and reliability. Everything else you need in it depends on you, the rider.
The reasonable bike commuting distance also depends on how you feel at the end of the day when you get home. An uncomfortable bike can make you feel completely destroyed. It can give you aches and pains, not to mention that it can even be dangerous. A good bike makes you want to ride it whenever you see it, and comfort is an essential part of this experience.
Whether a bike is comfortable for you is determined by its geometry and size.
There are several factors that come into play into bike geometry. Without going into too much detail, the most important indicator that determines how comfortable a bike is, is the position of the handlebar relative to the saddle. If the handlebar is higher than the saddle and it doesn’t lean too much forward then it allows you to be more upright and it offers more comfort. Bikes with handlebars lower than the saddle and leaning forward offer a more aggressive riding position, which is less comfortable.
Generally speaking the more comfortable the bike is the slower it is. If you want to combine the best of both worlds and commute in maximum comfort and speed, a recumbent bike may be an interesting option worth considering. You can read what I’ve gathered about recumbent bikes for commuting in this post.
Since each bike model is available in different sizes, you will need to find the one that fits you. This is an important and often overlooked aspect, especially when you’re in the market for a used bike. It’s tempting to make a compromise on size because you’ve found a bike you really like.
A commuter bike should also be reliable and without needing constant adjustments. The more durable the components are and the less you need to worry about anything going wrong with it. Cheap bikes from department stores usually come low quality components which break easily, so it’s best to stay away from them. If you don’t want to spend too much money on a brand new bike, then even a used one from a well-known brand, such as Giant, Trek and Cannondale, for example, that has been kept in good condition will last much longer. You can get a reliable used commuter for 200-300 dollars.
To find out what exactly you need in your bike you need to have some experience. I suggest to start your commute on a bike that you already own or that you can borrow from someone. Ride it for a few weeks and pay attention to how you feel. In the first month you will learn a lot about your route, how your body reacts and adapts, and you will understand what your specific needs are. You may even find out that the best commuter bike is the one that you already own.
So ‘what’s a reasonable distance to bike to work?’. It really depends on you, but if you live within 10 miles of your workplace, it’s definitely worth giving it a shot.