I started commuting by bike just after college, when I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle and worked in the Seattle Center. Any time I drove meant circling for 30 minutes to find parking within a quarter mile of my apartment, and walking the two miles home was often faster than waiting for the bus.
So I hopped on my mom’s old mountain bike, strapped on a helmet, and soared through the city streets. With its solid rubber inner tubes (my parents live on a farm with lots of tire-popping stickers), the mountain bike weighed a ton. But I happily pushed it up Seattle’s steepest hills because riding that old bike gave me more joy than any other mode of transportation I’d tried.
Few people stuck in traffic would claim that their commute is the best part of their day – but if you start polling bike commuters you’ll hear that phrase pop up over and over again.
(Especially as spring unfurls across the country, and the flowers along the bike path start to bloom.)
Curious to try it out? Here are some tips to get started.
Plan your route ahead of time
You probably won’t take the same route on your bike that you would in your car, so take time to plan before find yourself stuck trying to navigate a 5-way intersection on two wheels.
How can you find the best route?
- Ask around your office to see if other cyclists there have routing tips.
- Try Google Maps cycling directions (but check the route against maps of your city’s bike infrastructure).
- Try your city’s tourism website to find bike maps.
- Search for your city on Ride The City and MapMyRide.
- Try Googling “[Your City] cycling club” to find a local bike organization. A lot of those folks publish bike maps, and most are super excited about getting new people on bikes. If you email or call asking for route suggestions, you’re likely to get great advice.
Pre-ride your route on the weekend (take a friend and make it fun!). That way you’ll learn how long to budget come Monday morning. As a rule of thumb, most cyclists cruise at about 12 miles per hour, so that 10-mile commute will take you just under an hour. Or 35 minutes, if you’re my speed-demon husband.
For longer routes, or if you have to navigate a particularly hairy bit of traffic, try to combo up with the bus or train – most have racks for bike commuters.
The clothes issue
One of the biggest objections I hear from people is that they don’t want to arrive at work looking sweaty. There are a couple of ways around this.
First, it’s completely possible to wear normal clothes and bike at a mellow pace to avoid getting sweaty. In nice weather, I routinely bike to meetings with clients in a skirt and heels. If your commute is short, this could be a good option for you.
Second, you can freshen up once you get to work.
For several years I had a 12-mile commute, and I treated it like a training ride every morning and evening. The way I worked it was to keep some basic items like a nice pair of slacks and shoes in my desk, and then carry the rest of what I needed. Baby wipes or Action Wipes are a great way to freshen up if your office doesn’t have showers. Then just apply a quick swipe of deodorant, give your hair what-for, and you’re good to go. You can always keep toiletries, a hair dryer, and makeup in your desk.
Try bringing in a fresh change of clothes on days you drive so that when you bike you don’t have to carry as much with you.
What bike should you ride?
You don’t need a fancy bike to start riding to work. Like I said, I started on an ancient mountain bike with solid rubber inner tubes.
If you’ve got a bike in the garage, just pump up the tires and try it out! Of course, a bike that’s nicely tuned up is going to be more pleasant, so if it’s been a few years you should probably run it by your local bike shop for a tuneup.
If you’re starting from scratch, talk to your local bike shop about what to get. One caveat I’ll make is that bikes are like anything – if you spend a bit more, you’ll likely get a better quality product that will be more comfortable and last longer. If bike commuting is something you really want to do long term, you should invest in a decent bike. Brand new, that might be around $1000, but your local bike shop may also carry used bikes.
If you have a long or very hilly commute – or if you have bad knees or other physical problems – you might consider an electric assist bike. E-bikes have a motor that kicks in to help you pedal up hills. They’ve long been popular in Europe, and are starting to catch on in the US.
What other gear do I need?
- Flat fix kit. The only thing more frustrating than getting a flat tire is not knowing how to fix one. Practice changing out your inner tube once before you go out, and always carry a emergency kit with a spare tube, pump, and tire levers. Keeping your tires pumped up to the right level (you’ll see the PSI embossed on the side of the tire) will help keep you from getting flats, too.
- A helmet. Helmets aren’t always required by law, but as someone who still has her skull because a helmet saved it in a crash, I’m a big proponent.
- Lights. Make sure you have basic front and rear lights to help you be seen by other vehicles. In many places this is required by law, but in every place it’s just smart.
- A U-lock. Be sure to carry a solid U-lock (and a cable lock, too, if you live or work in a high-theft area). Some offices may even let you park your bike indoors if you ask politely.
- Good sense. Biking in traffic can be a bit scary, especially if you’re new to cycling. Bright, reflective clothes do help, but the best thing you can do when you’re first starting out is to choose safe routes and assume that cars and trucks may not see you. Make eye contact with drivers, be courteous, follow traffic laws, be predictable, and use the sidewalks if you’re not feeling comfortable on a road (but walk your bike if it’s a busy sidewalk).
May is National Bike Month, and around the country people are busy planning events for Bike to Work Week (May 11-15). You may already be hearing about bike to work events at your organization (the League of American Bicyclists has a page of resources to help people plan).
If you’ve been interested in biking to work, now is a great time to find motivation and a community to help you stay inspired.
- Bike Commuting 101 series from EcoVelo – A series of blog posts packed with good information.
- Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle), by Elly Blue. (Plus, for all you government types who like policy and planning, check out her book Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. It’s a fascinating read.)
- Commuting 101 on Commute By Bike – Lots of good resources, including The Slacker’s Guide to Bike Commuting.