Now that you know what your route will be to work, you’re probably wondering what else you might need to realize your dream of riding your bicycle to work every day.
Let’s start with the obvious: A bicycle.
You probably have a bicycle already, and you paid a lot of money for it. You ride it on the weeknight club ride and a couple of t-shirt centuries every year. It is a good bike, and very comfortable, but it may not be the right bike to ride to work.
One thing your “work” bike must have is lights. Even if you don’t plan to ride in the dark, you will eventually find yourself riding in the rain, or fog, or just through a shady road in the late afternoon. A flashing light on the rear of your bike will make you more visible to cars coming up behind you, and a decent headlight on the front will make you more visible to cars pulling out of driveways and side streets. Most people are law-abiding good folks, so if they see you they will try to avoid hitting you.
The lights don't have to be anything expensive, but they should be more than just vestigial blinkies that only show up on moonless cloudy nights. Many of the new halogen clip-on lights are fine. The Cateye EL530 is an excellent choice on the front, and the Planet Bike Superflash on the back will almost make impossible for cars not to see you.
Another good thing to have on the “work” bike is a fender on the front and either a rack or fender on the back. Again, you may not ride in the rain, but you may ride the day after a rain, when the streets are still wet. Or you may ride by a house with poorly aligned sprinklers, or a leaky water main. However you find it, you will encounter water on the road, and it will spray up onto you when you go through it. Even if you are planning to change when you get to work, the water may spray up onto the bag that holds your clothes and everything else – including your laptop computer and those marked-up papers.
Again, the fenders do not have to be permanent. You can get clip-on fenders that you keep on the bike during the week, then take off for the Kiwanis Club Century. The coverage is usually not as good as full fenders with mud flaps, but they will do the job in most weather situations.
You will also need a solid wheelset (32-spokes front and 36-spokes back) with stout tires (preferably 25c). These are not going to make you the fastest guy up Backbone Ridge on Saturday, but will have you fixing fewer flats – or broken spokes – on your morning commute. Again, you can still swap out your light-weight deep-dish wheels for the weekend club rides.
If you're going to get serious, however, your “work” bike should be simple and stout, and it's hard to combine this requirement with any kind of racing bike.
I like steel, because it’s comfortable and strong. I also like to ride fixed gear in the winter and single-speed during the summer, because I never have to worry about derailleurs or their cables, or anything else that may get gunked up riding on nasty roads or when I leave my bike outside chained to a rack in the rain. As an added benefit, simple stout steel bikes are much cheaper than super-light carbon fiber speed machines with top-of-the-line components. I would still be very upset if somebody were to come along with bolt cutters and pinch my ride while I’m at work, but I won’t have to take out a second mortgage to get a replacement.
Next, you’ll need to consider what stuff you need to bring back and forth to work, and how you’re going to carry it. For regular commuting, you really only have two options: A bag on the back of the bike, or a backpack. I’ve done both, and mounting luggage to your bike is best. It keeps the bike’s center of gravity lower and won't trap heat on your back during 95-degree days.
If you put a rack on the back of your bike, as I recommended above, you’ve not only protected your back from muddy spray when you go thru puddles, you now have a great place to put a rack-top bag. For most commuters, this is enough to carry a change of clothes – if your office is “business casual” – as well as a spare tube and tools, and maybe jam in your lunch and a jacket. The serious commuter, however, should mount a pannier on the side of the rack, which will let you carry all of the above plus your laptop and real clothes.
Arkel makes a great pannier with a laptop sleeve. I mount mine on the left (traffic) side, and it holds everything I need for a day in the office. The only time I notice the weight difference is on some of the steeper hills on my route.
However you decide to carry your things, here are some tips for what to carry:
- Work clothes: Unless your bag is at least water-resistant, put these in gallon zip-lock bags.
- Lunch: It’s often a hassle to jump on your bike and ride somewhere for lunch. If your office has a cafeteria or someplace good within walking distance, or you have a regular group that goes out together for lunch, there's no problem. Otherwise, pack something.
What to Wear
Depending upon the distance of your commute and what you can wear at work, you may be able to bike in wearing work clothes. For long pants, you should either roll up your right pants leg or put on a reflective strap to keep it from getting snagged in the chain. And, of course, helmet and glasses are mandatory.
If your commute is five miles or longer, take a few extra minutes on mornings when you bike in to check the day’s weather forecast. Consider what the weather will be like for your ride in, and what the weather will be like for the ride home.
For bicycle commuting – as with ultra-distance cycling – layers and spares are best. It may be 60 now, but it’s going to be 90 degrees during your ride home, so wear knee warmers and a light jacket as you head out. On the way home, you can roll them up tight and they will take up the space that you needed for your lunch this morning. That light jacket may also come in handy this afternoon, since 90 degree afternoons are rife with rain showers.
Probably the most common mistake that experienced cyclists make when they first start commuting by bike is that they do not dress warmly enough. A spirited group ride in the country is very different from the stop-and-go travel of a weekly commute. When in doubt, wear a short-sleeve jersey and a long-sleeve jersey in the morning – you will be much more comfortable waiting at the red light.
Along with dressing for comfort, dress for success – which, in this case, means being visible. Bright yellow is almost always good, especially with reflective patches and/or piping. During the fall, of course, if all of the foliage on your ride is yellow, you may want to use another color. Many manufacturers of cycling clothes use illumiNITE, which lights up like 100 mirrors when caught by a car’s headlights. You can also get reflective patches to stick on your bike, or various reflective things to put on the spokes of your wheels. Putting the reflective items on the legs and/or wheels is best, since the motion will also catch the attention of passing motorists.
Speaking of mirrors, bike commuting is more about efficiency than style, so get one of those mirrors that hooks onto your helmet, glasses, or the end of your handlebars. The more you can see, the better off you are.
What to Leave at Home
What shouldn’t you wear when bike commuting? I do not recommend your fancy team kit. For one, you don’t want to get it dirty with road spew, but more importantly I believe it sends the wrong message to cars. You do not want them to think that you are out there training, but that you are instead just trying to get to work like they are. One study in England showed that the more you look like a pro rider, the more comfortable drivers are with your ability to hold that line on the edge of the road – even if the edge of the road is crumbling. If you look like some Fred – complete with reflective yellow jacket and helmet mirror – that might move left into the lane without a moment’s notice, a driver will give you a wider berth.
And, finally, one other thing that you should never wear when bike commuting: Headphones. If you have to listen to music in traffic, drive a car. When biking on crowded streets, you need every sense tuned in to what’s going on around you.
- Once a week, drive to work and bring a couple of changes of clothes. You’re going to need to do grocery shopping on the way home, anyway, so your carbon footprint is not all that different. You can still commute in with clothing, but having a spare set there is handy on days when you are in a hurry or it rains too hard for those clip-on fenders.
- If your employer is really cool, they will let you bring your bike inside during the day. If your employer is slightly cool, they will have a bike rack. If your employer is not cool, you will need to attach your bike to a street post, fence, or something. If you need to chain your bike up at all, get a good bike chain and leave it at work. The strongest ones are heavy, and if you need to chain your bike up at home, too, just buy another chain.
- If your employer is really cool, they will have shower facilities at work so you can get cleaned up and change clothes. If your employer is slightly cool, they will have a gym nearby for this. If your employer is not cool, you will need to bring in at least a wash cloth and small towel and clean up as best you can in the bathroom. When all else fails, keep a container of sanitary wipes at your desk.
- On hot days, when you get to work your riding clothes may be very sweaty. Find a closet or cabinet, and keep a couple of suit hangers (the ones with the clips for the pants) inside. Given sufficient air flow, your bike clothes will be dry when you are ready for the ride home.