Words of wisdom for bike commuters old and new

Today is National Bike to Work Day.* So bike to work.

Or if it’s raining, like it is in New York, consider postponing your ride. The Commute by Bike blog recently ran a very sensible slacker’s guide to bike commuting for people who aren’t trying to win the Tour de France. Among the tips:

* Skip the bike when the weather is nasty.
* Wear normal clothes. The only bits of cycling gear I wear are a helmet and strap for my pant leg, and even the latter is expendable. In a pinch, just roll up your cuff.
* Ditch the repair kit. Bring a cell phone instead.
* Use lights that run on generators. Better yet, install a REELIGHT battery-less lighting system.
* Pick the easiest –meaning flattest — route.

All good advice, because the biggest obstacles to bike riding are often psychological. Which brings me to this suggestion for long-time cyclists, also from the Commute by Bike blog: invite a coworker along for the ride, or organize a convoy. It might take you a bit out of your way, but it will pay off in camaraderie. Besides, if you can get enough people biking to your workplace, then you can lobby for goodies such as showers and secure parking.

\* BTW day was yesterday if you happen to live in San Francisco. What’s up with that?

(The photo of an actual bike commuter was taken during a recent trip to Amsterdam by friend of TerraPass and awesome photographer Dana Underwood.)

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  1. theo - May 16, 2008

    BTW day was yesterday if you happen to live in San Francisco. What�s up with that?
    The monthly Critical Mass ride is always on Friday, and they’re scared to invite trouble?

  2. AW - May 17, 2008

    I’d say that if you’re biking to work for the exercise, I’d go ahead and use the bike gear. If you’re really pushing it, having good sport wear helps prevent showing up at work drenched in sweat, and even if you are, at least it isn’t into your work clothes.

  3. Fritz in California - May 18, 2008

    A lot of people skip work on Fridays, so Thursday (or even Wednesday) makes sense for a lot of people for BTWD.

  4. Ken Shevlin - May 21, 2008

    I’d strongly suggest not using generator powered lights. The generator lights I’m familiar with turn off when the bike’s not in motion. That does you a fat lot of good when you’re stuck at a traffic light at night.

  5. mark - May 21, 2008

    What is the best bike out there – in terms of weight, tire durability, price – for a 6 – 7 mike commute? Thanks.

  6. David - May 21, 2008

    @#4 – I agree and suggest a good LED bike light if you need to ride at dawn/dusk/night
    @#5 – Get a road bike – the ones with skinny tires and curved-down handlebars. They make riding any distance much easier, faster, and more fun. Mountain bikes are great for, well, mountains.
    My tip, PLEASE don’t wear your ipod while you bike. If you must, wear only one earbud. It’s so dangerous to not be able to hear traffic, pedestrians, or other bicyclists telling you that they’re passing because you’re too into your tunes.

  7. Fritz - May 21, 2008

    Many generator lights now have a stand light capability — that’s a capacitor that keeps the light lit for a couple of minutes while you’re “standing.”
    Mark, the best bike is the bike you already have :-) Be aware there’s an inverse relationship between price and weight. Low price gets you a heavy bike, a light weight bike will have a high price. After that it’s personal preference, and for a seven mile commute anything will do the job.
    Will you ride at night or in all weather, or will this be for fair weather commutes only? Will your bike be stored in a secure place or outside locked to a parking meter? Do your tastes run to luxury or discount? You can pay anywhere from $100 to thousands for “the best bike” depending on your preferences.

  8. albert - May 21, 2008

    oh please follow the rules of the road

  9. mark - May 21, 2008

    Thanks for the replies about commute bikes.
    Have a mountain bike now, which isn’t great for this kind of purpose. Commute would be in fair weather – 6 to 7 miles – downhill in, uphill out – storage is secure at both ends.
    Is there a hybrid model out there that combines the durability of a mtn. bike with the touring capability of a road bike? Don’t need to break the bank; just want something more suitable.
    Thanks for your help!

  10. Fritz - May 21, 2008

    Mark, take a look at the Commute Bikes Database at CommuteByBikes.com. You have a dizzying array of choices. I’m a fan of singlespeed bikes and bikes with internal hub gears, and like David I generally prefer drop bars over flat handlebars. Swobo Bikes has several models at reasonable prices that are great for commuting, IMO.

  11. Adam Stein - May 21, 2008

    Mark — you might also want to check out the “Bikes for the rest of us” blog at http://bikesfortherestofus.blogspot.com/
    I would suggest that a road bike is very likely not what you want to commute on. Personal preference comes into play, of course, but there’s a great diversity of bikes now that fit exactly your description of a hybrid model. I personally ride a touring bike, which I love, but the price is a bit higher because it’s a more specialized piece of equipment. If you really just need a commuter, you may want something with a more upright riding position, internally geared hubs, etc. Weight should really not be an overriding concern, I shouldn’t think.
    Ken — the Reelight LEDs that TerraPass sells stay lit even when you stop. And they don’t require a generator or batteries, which is pretty cool.

  12. haulbybike - May 21, 2008

    What happened to WEAR A HELMET?!

  13. Monty - May 21, 2008

    “Wear normal clothes”?
    Perhaps if your commute is less than a few miles, but if you are riding more than five miles, and/or have hills you need to travel over, that just is not realistic.

  14. Phoenix Woman - May 21, 2008

    Mark: What type of mountain bike? You might not need to replace the whole bike, just a few bits on it, to make a commuting marvel.
    If it’s a hardtail (that is, just the one shock up front), that’s close to an ideal setup for bike commuting, especially if the roads you ride are crumbly in this day and age of crumbling infrastructure thanks to starved local and state governments. If your tires are knobby, swap them out for more road-friendly models, like Continental 1.75s; you’ll find you’ll be going a lot faster. If you plan to ride in winter, do get studded tires – Nokian Hakkapellitas are my brand of choice. They will slow you down a touch, but they handle icy pavement flawlessly. Just remember to swap them for your narrower 1.75″ tires in the spring.
    Next, check the grips. Ergon grips rule for people using mountain bike or other upright-style bars. Most decent bike shops carry them.
    As for pedals: Skip the clipless designs and the special shoes. Forget the toeclipped designs, too. Instead, get chunky BMX platform pedals such as Grip Kings: They will hold your feet just fine and you won’t risk breaking your ankles or worse when you have to come to a sudden stop and can’t get your feet free of the clipless pedals or the toeclips.
    Another thing: If you have metal brake levers, wrap them in cloth/rubber surgical tape. They’ll feel less chilly/hot when it’s cold/hot outside.
    Oh, and wear bike clothes. Keep your work clothes in a bag or pannier. You don’t want to be sweating into your work clothes. Do dress in layers, especially for winter riding.
    Have fun!

  15. Anonymous - May 22, 2008

    Bike commuting is great but, your picture has a lot of bad practices. You should wear a helmet, keep things off your handlebars for stability (panniers on the bike rack carry a lot, safely) and just like driving a car, no cell phone use, causing distractions.

  16. 2wheeler - May 22, 2008

    Re: #3, my city had Bike To Work Week all that week (not just the day on Friday). It was fun.
    Re: #4, Try the REELIGHT, a batteryless LED light powered by frictionless magnets. There is a version that stays lit for 2 minutes after you stop pedaling. It mounts down near the wheel axles… I also use a battery powered Blackburn LED headlight that mounts on the handlebars, in the fall and spring when daylight hours have waned.
    Re:#5 the best bike is one that fits you well, has good air in its tires (not knobbies) and that can accomodate fenders so you don’t have a stripe up your back if you encounter a puddle. You don’t need many gears… more important is picking a route that feels safe and gets you there.
    I agree the photo leaves a lot to be desired. Big bag looped over the handlebars is a recipe for disaster, as is the dialing while riding, and the lack of helmet. This looks like some photo model conception of bike commuting, not reality.
    I bought a jacket for my bike commuting that keeps the wind out in front, and the back is sort of mesh like for ventilation. It also reflects car lights (look for the term Illuminite describing the fabric). The need to wear layers is crucial to success. Plan on shedding a few when you get to work. In summer I wear shorts and change when I arrive at the office, but fall and spring I don’t. Another useful item is one of those 6 inch electric fans on the swivel clamp, to put by your desk and run for about 10 minutes after arriving. That’s been great to help cool down as I’m getting settled.
    Not necessary for bike commuting: hot coffee. Water is nicer, and you wake up better from the exercise with no need for caffeine.
    I do use toe clips and ride in street shoes with flat soles. Docksiders work well as do several other types of shoes. My commute is 4.5 miles each direction. In the AM it is generally cool enough I am not too sweaty when I get to work. When I ride home, it is warmer and I always change out of the work clothes afterwards anyway. My workplace is dress casual (khakis and shirt with collar) and this works for me.

  17. Sean Benward - May 22, 2008

    As to choice of bicycle, road bikes are rigid and unforgiving when it comes to anything but new paved streets and offer zero diversity if you want to do anything off road. Off road doesn’t have to mean single track in the rockies either. Just try riding a road bike across a grassy field and you will know what I mean. Most important in my opinion is your tires. I use a mountain bike for all my needs (Cannondale Rush), I commute daily in San Francisco. My tire of choice is Continentals travel contact 26X1.75. This tire allow for a higher air pressure (80psi) thus a firmer tire for smoother/efficient roll. It is wide enough tire for most cracks in the road and better to hop pot holes or curbs when the need arises. I love the diversity of rides that these tire afford me. I have front and rear suspension so these tires work great for my needs and equipment. For those without suspension, the fatter the tire the softer the more forgiven the ride.

  18. Sean Benward - May 22, 2008

    The picture above is great if you add the caption “Long of looks. Short on life expectancy.

  19. Adam Stein - May 22, 2008

    Hi folks —
    I’m actually going to stick up for the picture here, even though I don’t recommend riding like this. The photo is a picture of a real bicycle commuter in Amsterdam. Reading these comments, I get the sense that Americans just don’t realize what a strong bicycle commuting culture looks like: tons and tons of people in everyday clothes, riding everyday bikes (often fairly slowly), in segregated bike lanes that don’t mingle with cars. No one in Copenhagen or Amsterdam wears helmets, so far as I’m aware.
    Have you ever seen what bicycle commuting looks like in China? Tons and tons of single speed bikes. Old ladies on bikes. Men in business suits and ties. People with dogs in their baskets. People on cell phones. A complete lack of helmets. Etc.
    American cyclists obviously don’t have the biking infrastructure or the safety in numbers that make such practices possible (and really under no circumstances is checking your cell phone a good idea). But the basic attitude underlying a lot of the criticism of the photo strikes me as misguided. This is a real guy on a real bike in Amsterdam, and obviously his routine is working for him. Be smart, and do what works for you.

  20. Adam Stein - May 22, 2008

    Oh, and one other thing: I second the recommendation for the REELIGHT battery-less lights, particularly if you buy them from our store:
    I can’t wait to install the ones I just bought.

  21. Sean 8enward - May 22, 2008

    Good point, shouldn’t have been so quick to make judgement without all the facts

  22. Brian - May 24, 2008

    One simple thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet: good baskets make all the difference in carrying your stuff to work. I’m a big fan of the Wald folding steel baskets that go on the rear rack — you can throw a briefcase in them, or a full paper bag of groceries, or just about anything, really, and they fold up to take up less space when you store your bike (or put it on a bus). Much better than pannier bags.

  23. Charalampos Pavlopoulos - January 19, 2009

    I commute daily in Athens Greece, the most unfriendly city for bikes in the world. I am a superhero!!! Only dressing like a policeman in fluo jacket, riding aggressively like a NYC courrier and been lit up with LEDs at EVERY part of my body keeps me alive!! I have a dream,one day Athens will be a clean city again with commuters everywhere.

  24. Adam Stein - January 19, 2009

    Charalampos, you are a superhero! Your story reminded me of Ian Hibell, a legendary world traveler who traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on his bicycle. He was hit by a car while riding last summer near Athens, killed at age 74.

  25. michael LEE - June 21, 2009

    always-on light is a must for commuters, particular at night time, you need a headlamp good enought to see the road, I found the Magtenlight is great idea,a 15 Lux front lamp plus rear light, powered by a friction-free, contact-free generator, the generator is not a hub dynamo, but a detachable type of dynamo, driven by a pair of magnetic gear …
    , check it out at http://www.magtenlight.com