Intro to Bike Commuting, Part II

Photo by red5standingby. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do in getting ready for a bicycle commute is a reality check. There are two questions that need answering — are you healthy enough to undertake a bicycle commute? And, is the distance to the office something you can realistically ride?

The first question is something you should discuss during a consultation with a doctor. I am not a physician, and thus not qualified to provide life-or-death medical advice in this series of articles (or anywhere else in my blog). Should you be healthy enough to make a weekly commute, by all means move on to the next question.

Is the distance something you can realistically ride? If your daily commute is under 15 miles, then it’s a fairly simple proposition. If it’s over 20 miles, it’s possible, but not necessarily realistic — but that depends on your riding history. For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that you are somewhat new to cycling, with little experience.

Once those two questions are answered, your next steps are to ensure you have the equipment, infrastructure, route, and strategy.

Commuting Equipment

You’ll need a bike, a bag, a helmet, lights, and some basic tools. Those are the absolute basics.

In the case of the bike, a department store special from Wal-Mart or Target is not going to hack it. And the length and conditions of your ride are going to have an influence on your final decision. In the case of a short commute (less than 5 miles), a hybrid bike, such as the Trek 7200 or the Specialized Sirrus, will be sufficient. A hybrid combines the narrower tires of a road bike with the gearing, geometry, and upright position of a mountain bike — as a hybrid, it excels at neither function. However, many of them include mounting points for racks and fenders, and that should keep them in consideration.

For longer commutes, where you’ll be traversing nothing but pavement, a road bike is more in-order. Again, look for something with mounting points for fenders and racks. For even more versatility, a cyclocross-oriented frame will have better clearance inside the frame, allowing for better clearance of snow and mud, should you be riding in those conditions. In the pure-road bike category, consider something like the Salsa Casseroll, or the Trek Portland. Should you be inclined toward the cyclocross idea, a Surly Cross-Check makes a great commuter bike (and will be what I’m riding this year).

When buying a bike, it is of the utmost importance that the bike fit you properly — and this is more than just “standover height”. Standover height tells you nothing about the actual fit of the bike, which is a topic outside the scope of this series.

The bag is the next important consideration. This is where you’ll haul your paperwork, possibly a change of clothes (more on that later), tools, and other necessities. Really, in this case, there are two options: a messenger bag, or a rack with panniers. From personal experience, I would advise against using a backpack, as they tend to shift around a great deal and cause back and neck issues.

For any bag, you want to look for something that has enough volume to hold everything you’re going to carry and is going to be durable and weather-resistant (particularly in regards to moisture).

Messenger bags are great for shorter rides — they are designed to distribute the load across your shoulder and lower back, and offer a compression strap to secure the bag around your torso, preventing it from sliding around like a backpack. In addition, messenger bag straps are a great place to secure extra items like a cellphone. Timbuk2 makes some high-quality, durable, and trendy messenger bags (and associated accessories), and are highly customizable. If you’re looking for the more the fixie-scene/messenger-look, bags from Chrome or Bailey Works (no relation) are both good choices.

For longer commutes, I would recommend going with a rack with panniers (think “saddlebags”). These remove the load from your upper body altogether, and will actually make you more stable as they move the center of gravity lower. Look for one (or a pair) that are waterproof, made from rip-stop nylon, and that are fairly easy to put on and take off of your rack. Banjo Brothers are well-regarded, and I’m intrigued by the Trek Interchange system, which has a novel locking system to attach the panniers to the rack (and offers a grocery bag-sized open pannier as an option).

If you’ll be carrying a laptop, there are several companies that make protective sleeves for them. Timbuk2, mentioned above, is one of these. For extra protection from moisture/rain, you may want to consider wrapping the sleeve in a plastic bag, or a waterproof bag purchased from a camping store like REI. That Apple logo looks great on a laptop, but is really sad on a paperweight.

Helmets. I’m sure that some of you reading this will be very resistant to the idea. There are two primary arguments that are put up against helmets, and I’ll respond to them both here:

  1. “They look dorky!”
  2. Really? Do they look as dorky as being a drooling, bed-ridden vegetable would? I mean, really, do you want to be Terry Shiavo someday? No.

  3. “They’re too hot/heavy!”
  4. Okay, here’s the deal dude. It’s not 1978 and you’re not wearing the Bell Cranium Bucket. Go to a bike shop and there are plenty of extremely-well ventilated, lightweight helmets that will pass the ASTM safety standards and can be had for as little as $35.

This author, whose brains have been saved from scrambling more than once by a helmet, highly recommends you go to a bike shop and invest in one. While you’re there, learn to wear it properly — canted back on your head does nothing to protect your forebrain (the part you think with), and on backwards (you’d be surprised how often this happens) is even worse.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a helmet, as it will be something you need to replace about every three years (sunlight breaks down the foam in the helmet). This author has a fondness for Giro helmets, but anything you buy at a bike store will be up to the task.

Lights are another important safety feature. Depending on how well-lit your route is, you may not need a large (and expensive) headlight. For situations that don’t require a large headlight beam, look for a set of smaller, LED-based head and taillights. These are to provide visibility, allowing drivers to see you from a long distance. Most bike shops will carry these and they cost anywhere from $15 to $45 for a set, and have long battery lives.

The last piece of equipment you’ll need to consider is tools. The bottom line is that you’re going to have the occasional technical problems, most likely a flat tire. You’ll want to carry a bike-specific multi-tool (go to a bike shop, spend about $35), which will have allen wrenches, screwdrivers, and possibly smaller wrenches. Tire levers (for removing the tire from the rim) and a small pump are both necessities as well. When riding, you’ll want to carry a spare innertube, as it is faster and easier to deal with than a patch kit while sitting on the side of the road.

Bike maintenance is something best learned via a book or class. There are plenty of books available on the subject, and many bike shops will show you how to do the basics, like the proper way to change a flat tire.

Infrastructure. If you’re going to ride to work, you need to have supporting infrastructure where you work. A place to store your bike (either your cubicle/office, or bike parking), a place to change into work clothes, showers, and a place to store your work and riding clothes.

Route. When selecting a route, try to establish one that will provide you the safest route to and from the office. Bear in mind that you’ll be riding during rush hours and that traffic will be fairly heavy wherever you go. Use a map to plot out your course well in advance, and ride the route on a weekend to ensure that you know where all the little snags are. This will also allow you to get an idea of how long it will take you to get there.

Strategy. When starting out, you need a strategy to ease the commute process. You’ll want to get to work early so that your post-ride clean-up doesn’t interfere with your work schedule. It’s a good idea to store spare clothing in your cube/office so that you don’t have to drag it with you on the ride. If you plan to ride one day per week, bring your work clothes in with you before that date, and take them home on a later date. Leave a spare tube at the office, too, so if you have to use one on your way in, you have a spare for your ride home.

Think about the whole experience as a process. Have “outs” in case anything goes wrong, and backups in-place.

5 thoughts on “Intro to Bike Commuting, Part II

  1. Really great article, and I look forward to the future ones. As you might know, over at Greentime, we’ve made a commitment to bicycle commuting, and I’ve done so much that it’s now basically my only mode of transport. In fact, I’ve attacked very long trips now, including the 30 mile one-way trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami.

    I wanted to toss out a bike suggestion for those who can’t shell out for a Portland or a Cross-Check, though, if I might. My family, not knowing any better, bought me a Trek 7200 for Christmas. I returned it and spent a little bit more to get a Trek 7.3, which retails for $350-$400 or so. While it’s technically a hybrid, it has a slightly more aggressive frame geometry. I added a $20 pair of bar ends and can get the lowered body position you’d expect from drop handlebars.

    With a pair of clipless pedals, I have reached a top speed of 25 MPH on a flat road and can sustain speeds over 20 MPH without effort. I really think the Trek 7.3 is a bargain for those who can’t afford more expensive road bikes.

  2. I have a Trek hybrid myself and love it for commuting, but I wouldn’t completely slam the door on people just starting out with a box store/Wal-Mart bike. I agree that long term a quality brand bike purchased with the help of a LBS is the way to go, but I would rather see people give bike commuting a try with whatever they may have first.

  3. ” I wouldn’t completely slam the door on people just starting out with a box store/Wal-Mart bike.”

    Me neither! My first was a $75 mountain bike from a WalMart. i did 22 miles a day for a year on it with no more maintenance needed than any other bike.

    The only thing that caused me to buy from a bike store when i retired Mr. Clunky was the promise of free service due to a purchase there.

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