Guide to Bike Commuting 1: Get the Right Gear

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Published on August 18th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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Editor’s Note: Margaret Southern is now Cool Green Science’s green living blogger. Look for her posts on the daily struggle to live green — everything from why anyone would buy clothes made from bamboo to how to be green on a budget — in this space.

Bike commuting. I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.” Or maybe: “I live too far from the office.” Or perhaps it’s the incredibly common “I don’t feel like it.”

Believe me, I know. I had a million excuses until I finally took the plunge about four years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.

When I lived 10 miles from work, I averaged biking to work about twice a week from April to October. Then when I started working for the Conservancy, whose office was just over a mile away, I thought I’d won the commuting lottery. When it was too cold or rainy to bike, I’d just walk.

Now I have a condo a healthy 3.5 miles from the office and, since the housing market assures me that I will be living there for several more years, I’ve settled into quite the routine. I bike year-round, but will take the bus on days it calls for either heavy rain, temperatures below freezing, or the dreaded heavy rain with temperatures near freezing.

I know bike commuting can seem daunting if you haven’t tried it, but most of the time it just takes a little extra planning and a little motivation. Here are my top tips for how to get started:

Chapter 1:  Get Your Gear

Find a bike. If you don’t have a bike, it’s kind of a requirement to get one before you begin bike commuting. (Sorry.) I promise it’s worth the investment, and you don’t need to spend more than about $500 for a very decent bike. But I strongly suggest going to a small local bike shop (known to bikers as your “LBS”) where the staff can help you pick out a bike that’s right for your needs and get you fitted properly. Online, Lighter Footstep just offered a round-up of 12 bikes that are good candidates to replace your car.

I love my hybrid for commuting. It’s much lighter than a mountain bike, but has more substantial tires (read: less likely to get a flat) than a road bike does.

If you still need incentive to shell out for a bike: Depending on how much you spend on gas, parking, tolls and car maintenance, your commuting savings could be enormous. Taking the bus daily would cost $48 a month and, according to this calculator, I’d save $223 a month over driving and paying for parking and gas.

Love your bike. When you buy your bike, make sure you pick up all the tools you’ll need to take care of it: a couple of spare tubes, a tire pump, a tire lever, a multi-tool, front and rear lights and a good lock. It sounds like a lot, but this stuff lasts forever, so hopefully you’ll only have to buy most of it once. Just be sure to upgrade a little from the bargain-basement level of quality. And a small pouch mounted under your seat will allow you to carry your emergency gear but keep it out of the way.

Once you make this initial investment, bike maintenance costs are pretty minimal, and a lot of it you can learn to do yourself at home. (For instance, Bicycle Tutor offers good video tutorials on the finer points of DIY bike maintenance.) You can even take it a step further than me and learn how to change a flat!

The right gear. You don’t have to dress like 2009 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador unless you want to. A lot of people dig buying and wearing jerseys, spandex pants, orange-tinted glasses, and special shoes. But really, light workout clothes and a good helmet should work for most short commutes. In colder or rainier weather, you’ll want to make sure you have several light layers and a protective outer shell. And when it gets really cold, gloves and ear protection are a must.

Next: Margaret talks about avoiding wrinkled clothes, the war against sweat, the value of packing the night before, and her at-work shoe drawer…

(Image: Margaret Southern and her bike. Credit: Darryl Tait.)

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Comments: Guide to Bike Commuting 1: Get the Right Gear

  •  Comment from Timothy Boucher

    Great advice! As a longtime bike commuter (8 years, 13,000 miles, over $4000 saved, and 30 pounds lost!), it really is not difficult to do!
    Basically anybody who lives less than 10 miles away should try it!

    One serious note though – be very careful out there – drivers in this region just do not notice you. You have to be constantly on the look out and aware of what people are doing.

  •  Comment from John J

    This is motivating me to commute more on my bike. (the bus has me spoiled, door to door in 15 minutes)
    I definitely want to hear about wrinkle avoidance in your next post. I’ve tried my Eagle Creek Pack-It shirt folder, but I can’t seem to get it just right–still wrinkly. I’m reluctant to set up an ironing board in my storage closet, but I just might.

  •  Comment from Mickey

    I’ve been bike commuting to work for a few years now, but now I have a baby. We have a trailer for him, but he’s still too small. Do you have any suggestions on how to get him securly on my bike? I was thinking of a papoose? Are there any other methods that I can explore

  •  Comment from Margaret Southern

    Hi Mickey,

    I don’t know much about babies and bikes, so I’ll point you to the International Bicycle Fund, where they offer the pros and cons of various options. It looks like no matter what, you’ll have to wait until your baby is at least a year old.

    http://www.ibike.org/education/infant.htm

    Good luck!

  •  Comment from Alan Gregory

    I’m a retired Air Force Reserve officer and long-time journalist who worked for a daily newspaper in Pennsylvania for many years until an elderly woman drove her car into my bicycle just a quarter-mile from our home more than two years ago. I used to commute to work by bicycle all the time. I suffered a traumatic brain injury in that crash and was flown to a trauma center for treatment that lasted a long time. Much of Pennsylvania is simply not bicycle friendly. The polluting car rules most of the state’s roads and highways. I still do long exercise walks but the amount of traffic noise (and the noise of leaf-blowers and lawn mowers) is just incredible.

    •  Comment from Robert Lalasz

      Alan, we’re sorry to hear of your accident and difficult rehab. Bike commuting is never a riskless activity, of course, but bike trails do help enormously. Although my one-mile commute to The Nature Conservancy’s offices in Arlington, Virginia, does take me onto a busy avenue for about 1/4 mile, I almost always otherwise ride on trails. We’re fortunate in Arlington to have one of the best urban biking trail systems in the country, but the lack of proper trails (and car-driver awareness) is clearly a problem across much of the United States. Best of luck to you.

  •  Comment from Anne

    I bike to work occasionally and I use the Eagle PackIt for my shirt. I think the key is to fold the shirt pretty tightly around the black plastic rectangle, pull out the plastic, put it on top of the shirt, fold the sides up tightly and velcro. You will see two fold marks down the front of the shirt (as if it had come from the laundry in a box) but they seem to go away quickly as I wear the shirt. I wrap my pants round the PackIt so they don’t get creased.

  •  Comment from Barry

    Good to see bike commuting encouraged. I used to commute about 1.5 miles most days by bike before I retired. Never had to worry about finding a parking spot!
    There were no bike trails I could use, but in another part of the state that has a widely used bike path, I’ve noticed there is such a critical mass of bikers, and motorists that bike, that the courtesy from drivers is noticably better than in my area. So this is an argument for continued development of bike paths even for those commuters who cannot use them.

  •  Comment from Jill

    Below are my recommendations for those that are going to try to bike or walk to/from work. I’ve been fortunate to live close to work (mostly because through all the moves I’ve made I’ve specifically made it a priority to be w/i 10 miles of where I work) and I’ve made it a habit to bike or walk to work most days. These tips are from my several years of experience of daily commuting via my legs or feet: 1) Take the time to locate a place where you can take a shower or clean up prior to putting on your work clothes (ie: a near-by gym, a locker area or bathroom at work, etc) and stock the area or a desk drawer w/ toilettries so you don’t have to carry everything w/ you every day. Keep a hanger in this area too so you can hang up your work clothes while getting cleaned up… it does help get some of the wrinkles out. Now, when it is a humid day or messy weather you know you can present yourself well at work; 2) Use a local map of the area to find the least congested way of getting to/from work from your home so you can avoid heavy traffic and dangerous intersections. Spend a non-work day trying out your planned route to and from work. Until you’ve biked or walked the route, you are not likely to have noticed critical information like the big pot hole, or the fact that the bike lane disappears 20 ft before the intersection; 3) Once you’ve selected your route, time it going to and from work. Now you know how much time you need to give yourself each day before and after work so you can plan your day accordingly; 4) Buy the gear that’s been recommended in previous blogs and don’t forget to buy a reflective vest and or reflective ankle straps – SOMETHING so cars can easily see you. It’s YOUR job to be seen – remember that cars will always win if contact is made! 5) Keep all your biking/walking gear in the same place every day so you can get up and go quickly w/o forgetting it. 6) To keep my work clothes from being wrinkled messes, I pack my backpack right before walking out the door in the morning. I roll my slacks and shirts since folding seems to create more creases and wrinkles. As soon as I get to work I put my clothes on the hanger I keep in the locker room.
    Hope these tips help some you make the decision to stop driving to/from work every day. Great exercise and a good thing for the earth.

  •  Comment from sergio serrano diaz

    Señores : The Nature Conservancy.

    Soy Sergio Serrano Díaz me gustaría poder colaborar en mi región con la conservación de las fuetes hidrográficas, tengo en mente un proyecto de conservación de ríos y playas me gustaría poder contar con el apoyo de ustedes para poder llevar este proyecto y poder brindarle un poco de vida a nuestras fuentes hidrográficas y conservar un poco mas nuestro planeta.

    Atte.
    Sergio Serrano Diaz
    C.C. 7.629.977 de Manta Marta-Colombia.
    Contador Publico.
    Especialista En Logística del Transporte Internacional de Mercancías.

  •  Comment from NeHi

    I commuted to work for 20 years mid-60 thru mid-80 and enjoyed it but had to do it my way as I don’t like to filter garbage out of the air thru my lungs.
    I could smell where the cars went when running but not so much when biking. I’m still not breathing right.
    So, be careful where you bike and how hard you work; we probably appreciate your depositing the gunk from the air into your lungs more than you will.
    I didn’t mean for that to come out so strongly but, that is how I feel. Be careful out there!

  •  Comment from Tanya

    My commute is (only) about three miles and I’ve never been in better shape as I am not a gym person.

    Because I breathe everyone else’s (car) fumes, I’m much less interested now in driving a car myself (I’m a car-sharing member) and contributing to those fumes.

    I bought myself a folding bike (Brompton) so it wouldn’t dominate my little row house, and I think it was worth the investment. Now, if it starts raining when I’m out, I can fold up my bike and put it on the bus or train, even a cab if that’s the best way home.

  •  Comment from KT

    I’m unemployed at the moment so no commuting, but I do errands on my bike and I have to say that, at least here in Brooklyn, the other bikers are worse than the cars because at least with the cars I can reasonably believe that they will stop at a stoplight. I have almost been crashed into several times by bikers cruising through red lights. I know that one of the fun things about riding is that we can go right on a red light (even if it is prohibited like it is here in NYC) or scooch up to the front of the line of cars, but I was taught that bikers had to obey pretty much the same rules as cars and I really wish other bikers would use some common sense and not go the wrong direction on a one-way street or breeze through stoplights. That being said returning library books and doing other errands has never been so much fun or rewarding as when done on a bike.

  •  Comment from Francesca

    I also bike everywhere because I don’t own a car. It is worth the extra time, because it forces me to prioritize my schedule better and only take what I need with me. I live several miles from town and my college and workplaces, so planning is a must. I feel much stronger, healther, and my patience has grown.

  •  Comment from Blair Bigelow

    For almost 40 years I bike-commuted 8 miles urban round trip in all kinds of weather, even snow, on a 3-speed Raleigh. Regular rain gear is too hot; rain chaps and rain cape (try Campmore) plus Tingley overshoes worked just fine. On cold winter days, my hands would start off cold and numb and be warm as toast in 10 minutes Now retired & living in the country, I find rural biking terrifying and gave it up: cars zoom by, whereas in the city no one can drive fast and traffic lights interrupt traffic flow.So I’ve taken up in-door rowing on a rowing machine, very boring unlike biking.

  •  Comment from hesti

    i really want to try bike commuting, but here it’s quiet dangerous to ride a bike. there’s no special lane for biking and when crossing the street, people tend to speed up instead of slow down their car/motorcycle :(

  •  Comment from Aaron Hutchins

    My goal is 1000 miles this year. Sounds like a lot but I only need to ride 1 or 2 days a week and I’ll surpass that easily. I’ve got a 30 mile round trip. I work for TNC in the Virgin Islands. Our roads are rough and hilly. I ride with minimal gear on a cyclecross bike. The cyclecross set up works great as its a bit more rugged than a road bike but still light ~20 lbs. and can take bigger tires to smooth out the rough pavement. I’ll ride rain or shine. The high heat/humudity days are the hardest. Some days it take me an hour to stop sweating after a cold shower at the office. Having a shower at work is key!

  •  Comment from Brenda Hansen

    Hi Margaret, Everyone should ride bikes. maybe our world would be a much better place to live.I have been riding for almost 10years,@ I feel great, I used to have depression long time ago, but when i began riding i did not want to stop kinda like forset gump running all over, its a great work out.if people that dont ride, then they should start on a old bike, an learn like alot of us have. I wouldnt give it up for the world.I have ridden in some great rides, like the tour de tucson. do i one day if you can its the best… I have lost all the weight i needed an experiance has paid off. meet alot of great people on the rode. saw Lance Armstrong in Silvercity New mexico this year, it was great. going next year.godbless you see you on the road

  •  Comment from Deb Harriss

    Getting the correct gear is important but people who carry young children when cycling also need to consider whether the equipment they’re using is also up to scratch. The number of times I’ve seen children in poorly fitted seats with little regard to a correctly fitted harness scares the living daylights out of me.

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