commuting · Cycling · exercise · Life

How to Start Bike Commuting

You’ve toyed with the idea of commuting by bike, but continuously come up with 100 reasons not to. Cars will run me over. I’m not in good enough shape. It might rain. I’m just too afraid. This should help belay your fears and get you started.

See if it’s possible
Plan a potential route with Google Maps’ bike feature. If you ask Google Maps for directions, there are icons in the upper left that let you change the mode of transportation from car to bike, walk, even mass transit. GM will then tell you the approximate journey time based on a bike doing an average speed of 19 KPH (12 MPH). If it’s doable in a reasonable time, what have you got to lose except some weight? Well, truthfully, a little sleep, too. You’ll need to get up earlier. GM may find cut-thrus you don’t know about, too. Zoom in. Use street-view to check out the route.

I also use an Under Armor app called MapMyWalk/Ride/Fitness/Run. It comes under a lot of names, but any will do because you can change the activity it logs. If you turn off “follow streets” in the route planner, you can customize your map to go off road, take advantage of a cut-thru, parking lot, or even jump a curb. In any event, you’ll want a decent tracking app that will follow you, give directions, and keep score.

Choose your steed
Finding the right bike for your needs is paramount. This topic is a whole, separate article, but here are some things to consider:

  • Storage: will you need a rack, bags, and/or backpack?
  • Fenders: essentially a must for a commuter.
  • Paper or plastic: will a regular bike do or do you need an e-bike?
  • Style: cruiser, mountain, step-thru…so many to choose from.
  • Tires: narrow, wide, fat? Will any of your commute take you off the asphalt?
  • Lights: even if your bike comes with one, get more.

Basically, make a list of your needs and start matching those up with various models. For example, one of my primary concerns was showing up for work as a hot, sweaty ball so ultimately, I went with an e-bike to mitigate the sweat factor. It wasn’t until I actually tried my first bike commute that I discovered a necessary connection Google Maps had suggested was a gravel path. Thank goodness the bike I bought had 2.4″ tires and not skinny road bike wheels.

Get dressed.
Riding equals wind so it’s colder than you think. Prepare to layer up or buy some cycling-specific clothing. At the very least, you need:

  • Helmet: No one rides without one! A helmet can turn a brain-injuring fall into a few bumps and bruises. Just wear it.
  • Gloves: Fingerless for warmer weather, full gloves for colder times.
  • Knit cap: There are cycling-specific beanies, but something over your ears is very necessary in cold weather.
  • Sunglasses: Not only for glare, but to keep the wind and dirt out of your eyes. Remember, commuting usually means being on the road when the sun is low and in your eyes.
  • Sunblock: Just because you’re on a bike doesn’t mean you can’t get burned.
  • Lip balm: Your lips are going to dry out. It’s just a proven, wind-related fact.
  • Reflective Vest: Let your mantra be “See and be seen.”
  • Comb: Dude, you have helmet hair.

You’re going to be a bike commuter. Look the part. You’ll find you get a lot more respect from other road users if you’re not a spandex jockey on a joy ride. Note, the non-bike costs add up. You can easily spend $300-$500 on new gear.

Do some test runs of your route. If you can, throw your bike in your car, drive halfway, find a parking lot (Walmart, grocery store, etc), and finish the commute on your bike. This not only helps you learn the route, but can give you a confidence boost, too.

Was your park-n-ride successful? Good. Now do it again, only this time drive less and cycle more. Adjust your route as you discover new things. Then start committing all the potholes to memory. Soon you’ll find yourself avoiding the standing obstacles without a second thought.

Gain confidence
The only way to conquer your fear of mixing with traffic is to get into traffic and ride. Youtube is a wealth of knowledge, not just how-to videos, but the close-call videos. You’ll learn the warning signs like watching a car’s tires for cues on which way it’s going at an intersection or a driver’s eyes to see if they really see you. Study the laws in your area. For example, in my State, it is strictly forbidden for a bike to ride on the sidewalk, but if a cycle lane is available, the cyclist must use the cycle lane. There is one sidewalk along my commute that is mostly asphalt and looks very much like it should be a cycle path. I had to email the city engineer to find out that it is indeed a pedestrian-only sidewalk.

Learn how to blend with traffic. Know when to filter to the front and know when to wait your turn. For example, my morning commute includes an intersection where a short, left-turn lane tries to accommodate a kilometer-long line of cars. Few cars go straight at that intersection because almost everyone going that way wants to get to the same place which is left. Those wanting to go straight have to wait in the same line anyway since the left turners have the through lane blocked. In those situations, I have no qualms about taking to the right or even the grass shoulder to make my way forward. However, on the way home, I go through an intersection where the shoulder leading up to it is essentially a ditch and the light cycle is pretty quick, so I take my place in the queue and wait my turn with all the cars.

And for God’s sake, signal. Failure to signal is one of the biggest complaints people have about drivers. Signalling is even more important on a bike. Drivers are always looking for a way to pass a bike because they assume (often incorrectly) that the bike is slow. Signalling a lane change may just keep that driver from attempting to pass you in that same lane. Communicate with your fellow traffic muppets. Make eye contact. Be sure you’re being seen. It never hurts to ask, either. Often, when I’m first at the line of an intersection, I’ll ask the driver behind which way they’re going. I’ll then invite them to take the lead. They think I’m the most polite cyclist ever, when I really want them on the traffic light sensor so we’ll get a green light. But it never hurts to have a chat with the cars around you so everyone is on the same page. “Yeah, I know I barged up to the front of the line, but when we turn left, I’m going to swing wide and take the shoulder/cycle-lane, so no worries; won’t be in your way. Have a good day and be safe.” Never has that conversation not gone well.

There’s no better time than now to start conquering your fears. Get out there and chase the odd, little happy on a bicycle.


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