Bike Commuting 101: The Bare Necessities

New bike commuters tell us they have a hard time locating the basic information they need to get started among the more advanced and esoteric material on EcoVelo. I can’t imagine why; the site only contains 1,997 posts and 17,425 comments as of this morning… LOL.

All kidding aside, we take your feedback seriously. To address this issue, we’ll be doing an ongoing “Bike Commuting 101″ series that’ll consist of articles geared toward first time commuters. We’ll cover topics such as “Hot to Get Started”, “How to Carry Stuff”, “How to Fix a Flat”, “Maintenance Basics”, and so on and so forth. All of the articles will fall under the new “Bike Commuting 101″ category so they can be filtered and located quickly and easily. The articles will be short and sweet to leave room for input from our awesome community of regulars. So, without further ado…

Following is a list of the bare necessities required to get started bike commuting:

  • A bicycle. Any reliable bike will do, so long as it’s appropriately geared for the terrain. Puncture proof tires (or tire liners) are a good idea.
  • Lights. A set of small, modern LED lights is sufficient.
  • A repair kit. It’s good to carry a small multi-tool, a patch kit, a small pump, and a spare tube for those inevitable roadside repairs. It’s a good idea to practice a couple of flat repairs at home prior to hitting the road.
  • A lock. A high-quality U-lock is a must. Even if a person has secure bike parking, it’s good to carry a lock for shopping, meetings, etc.
  • A way to carry things. This could be as simple as a small backpack or as elaborate as a set of touring panniers. My favorite for everyday use is a simple grocery pannier.
  • Motivation. The most important element is the desire to get out of the car and do a good thing for oneself and the planet.

That’s about it. Of course, a person can get much more elaborate if they so choose, but the fact is, bike commuting is a simple activity that doesn’t require much in the way of specialized equipment or training.

Bike Commuting 101: Route Planning

It’s not unusual for beginning bike commuters to make the mistake of hopping on their new bike and riding the same routes they were taking by car. Major automobile commute routes are often the most dangerous and least enjoyable routes for bicyclists, so it behooves bike commuters to identify bike-friendly routes that bypass busy automobile traffic patterns.

Do Your Research
If you’re already riding for fitness or pleasure, take advantage of those rides to scope out possible commute routes. If possible, try to fit in some rides during the approximate time of day you expect to make your commute so that you get a true sense of traffic patterns.

If you work in a large office, ask around to see if there are any experienced bike commuters riding in from your area. Fellow commuters can provide a wealth of information regarding safe routes and secret short cuts.

While not foolproof, the Google Maps “biking directions” site can be a powerful tool. Run a few queries and see what it delivers, but be sure to verify the suggested routes by pre-riding before your first commute.

Take the Long Way Home
Don’t hesitate to choose a longer route to avoid heavy automobile traffic. Circuitous routes that take full advantage of quiet backstreets and bike paths may take more time, but they can also greatly improve the quality of a commute.

The Dry Run
Once you’ve settled on a route, take a dry run on the weekend prior to your first commute. This will allow you to check the route without the pressure of getting to work on time. And if you don’t like the route, a dry run will give you an opportunity to make changes before the big day.

Leave Plenty of Time
Schedule in an extra 10 minutes for contingencies. There’s nothing that will spoil a pleasant commute faster than walking out the door late. One of the greatest benefits of bike commuting is starting your day with a relaxing bike ride; don’t ruin it by turning your commute into a race against the clock.

Mix It Up
Once you’ve established a good route and you’ve settled into a groove, don’t hesitate to mix it up now and then. Occasionally changing your route will help keep your commute fresh and interesting.

The most important thing to remember is that the route you’ve been taking by car is unlikely to be the best route on your bicycle. Taking the time to identify a bike-friendly route will make your commute safer and more enjoyable.

Bike Commuting 101: Locking Strategies

Bike commuters must often leave their bikes unattended for extended periods during the workday, providing ample opportunity for bike thieves to do their work. Storing your bike within a secure area is always best, but when a bike must be locked outside for the day, the following locking strategies will help ensure it will still be there when you return for the evening commute.

Invest in a Quality Lock – A high quality U-lock is your best defense against professional thieves; cheaper U-locks are easily defeated with a crow bar. A good one will run $75-$100. Cable locks are versatile and convenient, but most are easily defeated with a small bolt cutter. Bike-specific chains offer the reach and versatility of cables, while providing protection similar to the best U-locks, but they’re heavy and expensive.

Use it Wisely – Be sure your lock is threaded through one of the triangles in the frame, or if possible, through the rear wheel within the rear triangle (the rear wheel cannot be pulled through the rear triangle, and it’s extremely difficult to cut through a built rim). Locking the rear wheel in this way secures both the wheel and the frame.

Double Lock – It takes a pry bar to break a U-lock, and a bolt cutter to get through a heavy cable, so double locking is an effective deterrent against thieves who aren’t carrying both.

Quick Releases Make Quick Work – Bike thieves love quick releases. Wheels can be worth 25%-50% of the value of an entire bike, and if they’re held on with quick release skewers they can be removed in seconds. Use a heavy duty cable to lock the wheels to the frame, or even better, consider replacing all of the quick releases on your bike with Pitlocks or other similar locking devices.

Secure Those Accessories – If at all possible, it’s best to take your bags and accessories into work with you, but if you can’t, a lightweight “accessory” cable and lock will help protect the small items left on your bike.

Location, Location, Location – Be sure to lock up to something that’s immovable and at least as strong as a U-lock. Lock your bike in a high traffic area in plain view, and never leave your bike locked up outside overnight.

The reality is that no bike locked on the street is 100% protected from professional bike thieves, but taking the above precautionary measures will do much to thwart their efforts.

Bike Commuting 101: Lights

California vehicle code mandates that any bike operated in darkness is required to have a front headlight that emits a white beam visible from 300 feet and a red rear reflector that’s visible from 500 feet when illuminated by motor vehicle high beams. The law also mandates reflectors on both pedals or the rider’s ankles, and side reflectors or tires with reflective sidewalls. The headlight can be attached to either the bicycle or the rider. Check the vehicle code for the jurisdiction in which you ride to be sure you’re meeting at least the minimum requirements.

A normal part of year-round commuting is riding in the dark. Beginners tend to be nervous about night riding, but with a little preparation, many people quickly grow to enjoy the experience. Roads tend to be less trafficked after dark, off street paths are often deserted, and, assuming you have a good lighting system, motorists give you a much wider berth than they do during daylight hours.

We’re currently in the golden age of bicycle lights, due mostly to the incredible efficiency of LED emitters (aka bulbs). In recent years, bike lights have become brighter, lighter, and cheaper, while offering longer run-times and a wider variety of mounting options. There’s a wide selection of bike lights on the market and new models are coming out all the time, so instead of getting into specific models (which would date this article), I’m going to touch on a couple of basic approaches and point you to your local bike shop to discuss current offerings.

Simple, Effective, and Inexpensive
The simplest and least expensive lighting set-up is a white LED headlight on the front, and a red blinking LED on the back. Small, but surprisingly powerful, AA- and AAA-powered lights are available for under $50 each. Mount the headlight on your handlebar, and either mount the red blinkie on your seat post or rack, or clip it on your back, and you’re good to go. I highly recommend rechargeable batteries and a battery charger as part of the system.

Dedicated and Convenient
For those who ride in the dark regularly, a dynamo lighting system provides battery-free lighting that’s always available at the flip of a switch. Power is provided by either a bottle or hub dynamo. Bottle dynamos mount on the bicycle frame and have a small roller that rotates against the tire to generate current. Hub dynamos (aka generator hubs) have the generator built right into the hub. In recent years, hub dynamos have far surpassed bottle dynamos in efficiency and popularity. Dynamo lighting systems are more expensive than small battery-powered systems, and unless they come pre-installed from the factory on a commuting bike, they also require a more involved installation process. If you’re interested in a dynamo system, contact your local bike shop or one of the dealers on the internet who specialize in dynamo systems.

The Sky’s the Limit
I’ve just barely scratched the surface on bike lighting possibilities. From fully-integrated systems wired right into the bike frame, to high-powered flood lights designed for 24-hour mountain bike racing, there’s practically no limit to how deeply you can get into lighting. The good news is that a basic set-up to get you back-and-forth to work safely can be picked up at any well-stocked bike shop and installed in just a few minutes.

Bike Commuting 101: A Basic Tool Kit

Bicycles are remarkably reliable vehicles that require very little in the way of maintenance. They rarely break down at the roadside, and even in the unlikely event of a mechanical failure, they can often be repaired in a few minutes with a few basic tools.

Following is the short list of items we carry in our tool kits:

  • Bicyclist’s Multi-tool (at minimum, 2-8mm allen wrenches, 8/9/10mm box wrenches, phillips and flat head screwdrivers)
  • Small Pliers
  • Tire Levers
  • Mini Pump
  • Spare Tube
  • Patch Kit
  • Rag or Wet Wipes
  • Cell Phone (the ultimate roadside bailout tool)

As you can see, most of what we carry relates to tire punctures. If you’d rather not repair flat tires, you can remove everything from the list other than the multi-tool, pliers, and cell phone. If your bike has nutted axles, you either need to be sure your multi-tool includes a 15mm wrench, or carry a separate wrench just for the axle nuts. We’ll follow-up with a flat repair how-to in an upcoming installment of this series.

You can carry your tool kit in its own bag (typically a small under-saddle bag or tool roll), or in a side pocket in your existing commuter pannier or messenger bag — it matters not. The important thing is to have a dedicated spot for the tool kit so it doesn’t get left at home.

And finally, if you’d rather not do any roadside repairs at all, be sure to carry a cell phone with you and have a plan in place for someone to pick-up you and your bike in the event of a breakdown (assuming a commute that’s beyond walking distance).

Bike Commuting 101: Rain Riding

It’s inevitable that year-round bike commuters will have to deal with rain at some point. The good news is that riding in the rain doesn’t have to be a miserable experience, and with a little preparation and the right attitude, it can actually be quite enjoyable.

Bike Set-up
Any bike that will be ridden in the rain on a regular basis needs fenders. Long, full coverage fenders are best, but if they’re not available, mud flaps increase the effectiveness of short fenders. Unlike the rain falling from the sky, water coming off of the road is oily and dirty, so complete fender coverage is a must, particularly for commuters riding in work clothes.

Visibility is dramatically diminished in the rain, so it’s a good idea to run lights even during a daylight downpour. Fortunately, most lights today are water-resistant, if not completely waterproof, so a standard nighttime commuting set-up is usually sufficient for riding in the rain (read more about lights for commuting here).

Most commuting bikes come standard with tires that are appropriate for rain riding. Just about any touring or city tire at least 28mm in diameter with a bit of tread will work fine. It probably goes without saying that small diameter racing slicks are not ideal for commuting in the rain.

Clothing Strategies
For short commutes in light rain, it’s possible to keep dry using a cape over street clothes. Capes are nice because they allow air flow underneath and they’re easy to take on and off. The downside is that they may not keep you completely dry in a heavy downpour, and they can act like a sail in a crosswind. Chaps are sometimes used as additional protection in conjunction with a cape.

Longer commutes in heavy rain call for full rain suits made from waterproof, breathable fabrics. Cycling-specific rain suits aren’t necessary, though they provide a better fit on the the bike than standard, all-purpose rain suits. To get the most from any breathable rain suit, layer underneath with wicking garments made from wool or modern technical fabrics.

For footwear, I’ve had good luck with lightweight, waterproof hiking/walking shoes. I like the fact that they can be worn all day, eliminating the need to carry an extra pair of shoes. For those who ride in clipless cycling shoes, various neoprene and Gore-Tex booties are available.

Carrying Stuff
Most good quality, bike-specific panniers and bags are either waterproof, water-resistant, or come supplied with rain covers. In the case of simple nylon bags and panniers that provide no protection from water, delicate items can be placed inside ziplock bags before placing into your bike bag.

Riding Strategies
It’s important to reduce speeds while riding in the rain to compensate for slick roads and reduced visibility. Brake early, accelerate slowly, and corner gingerly. Keep a particular eye out for paint stripes, grates, manhole covers, and leaves, all of which are extremely slick when wet. It’s best to avoid riding through large puddles, but if you must, slow to nearly walking speed since there’s no way to know their depth or what lurks under the surface.

Bike Maintenance
There are two opposing approaches to maintaining a rain bike. One is to set-up a rain-specific “beater” bike that’s only given minimal attention, the other is to carefully maintain a nicer bike to keep the water exposure from causing damage. I’ve used both approaches and I can’t say one is necessarily better than the other.

The frequency and depth of maintenance required varies depending upon the bike and the person’s approach. At a bare minimum, the chain should be lubed well enough that it doesn’t rust and squeak. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for rust on other areas of the bike. If rust shows up, a little oil or grease will keep it from turning into something major.

Rain accelerates wear on brakes, and water has a way of working itself into bearings, so it’s a good idea to check a rain bike’s brakes and bearings on a regular schedule. If you don’t maintain your own bike, it’s a good idea to drop by your local bike shop mid-season for a quick once-over.

Wiping down a bike with an old bath towel after a rain ride will help stop corrosion before it starts. A quick rinse with fresh water before towel drying and lubing provides even more protection. Waxing the frame also helps repel water and road grime. This full-on approach certainly isn’t necessary, but it’ll help keep a nice bike in good condition.*

Snow and Ice
I live in a place where the weather is mild most of the year, so I’m going to ask the members of our community who live in cold, harsh climates to help us out with advice on how to deal with snow and ice. If you regularly ride in frozen conditions, please share your experience in the comments below.

Have Some Fun
Wet, winter bike commuting isn’t necessarily for everyone, but if you like the idea of riding year-round, rain-or-shine, you should definitely give it a try. Just a few adjustments to your regular routine can turn what could be an unpleasant ordeal into a fun adventure that adds another dimension to your bike commuting experience.

*I rode an expensive, handmade bike year-round when I lived in Seattle. I had a quick routine in which I rinsed the bike and wiped it down before rolling it into my basement for storage. It took less than 5 minutes per day and helped keep the bike in excellent condition for many years.

Bicycle Commuter Profile: Tomio

Bicycle Commuter Profile

Name: Tomio
Location: Seattle, WA
Started bike commuting: 2009
Commute distance (one way): 4.5 miles

Describe your commute: Mostly flat on an multi-use path.

Describe your bike and accessories: Gunnar Sport with Ultegra components, bar end shifters, brooks saddle, VO aluminum fenders, and 700×28 panaracer paselas. I usually don’t carry much to work, so I don’t use a rack and panniers.

What bit of advice would you like to share with new bike commuters?: Ease into it. Start off with commuting 1-2 times per week and driving the rest. As you adapt, increase your frequency until commuting becomes habitual rather than a task. Reward yourself every once in a while by driving. Watch out for drivers. You may have the right of way, but your safety comes before that.


 
© 2011 EcoVelo™