This is the second of three installments about riding to work, which I hope will get you excited and inspired about getting out of the car and into the fresh air. Join the two wheeled ranks for all or some of your commute to work, school or any place you have to get to on a regular basis when a car isn’t really necessary. If you missed the first post and want to get caught up, you can find it here. Today I wanted to talk about logistics and bike selection, since they are lots of bicycles out there and even more ways to get to work which combine cycling, running, walking, public transportation, and cars. I’ve broken down the information so you can use what you find useful and skip sections that aren’t.
Multi-modal commuting can be the best of both worlds. If you’re fortunate enough to have a bike friendly public transportation system, there are lots of different ways to combine trains, buses, bikes, and your feet in your daily commute. Here in the Boston area, we are allowed to commute with folding bikes on most trains. In addition, many of the T stations have bike lockers or ‘mass bike parking’ racks so that if you’d like to avoid the most urban part of the bicycle commute and you have a sturdy lock, you stand a good chance of having a reliable place to park your bike if you ride to a T shop. But that’s far from the only combination worth considering in a multi modal commute. In fact if you live so far from work that some part of your commute has to be driven, it can be much more time efficient to get on the bike for the terminal end of a commute into a big city. Finding the best route (see installment one) is the key. If you are trying to save money and you like running, but running alone makes for just too much mileage, try combining public transportation, the car, or carpooling with a run that is the length that works for you. It’s important if you’re carrying gear or your lunch to have a way to keep your load fairly tight fitting to your body, so a large waist pack or a lower profile back-pack may be a worthwhile investment. Also consider that you probably need to carry some water, or navigate to strategically located water fountains at very least. The beauty of multimodal commuting is that you can try different lengths of segments and adjust to what you find works best for you. So if you’re intimidated by riding your whole commute every day, consider taking it in parts until you feel ready to take on the whole thing on the bike or on foot.
Not every day needs to be the same. Now that you may have to carry lots of clothes, stuff for showering, or your lunch, remember that not every day needs to be the same, even if that’s your goal. The truth is if you want to ride the whole way every day, there’s always a way to make it happen, but that might seem daunting at first. So there may be days when you have an opportunity to stage some extra clothes, underwear, deodorant, snack bars, or a large bag of salted roasted cashews at your workplace, and the key is remembering that those days are an opportunity to get your workplace supplies squared away for the days when you want to ride without a bag. I always like to bring food from home for lunch, since it’s healthier and the right portion size, so on most days, that plus water is the minimum I’ll carry. Every day’s commuting mode choice does not have to be the same, and morning and evening on any one day do not have to be the same. If you have easy overnight parking available at work, you can try driving in with your bike in the morning, leaving the car at work and riding home. Then ride back in the next morning and drive home some night later in the week. Remember to bring enough clothing for however many days you need on the first day when you have lots of room in the car. If you have to dress really nicely every day, consider having a dry cleaning service pick-up and deliver back to you at work. You might find that other people in your office want to do that too. If your planning hits a wall due to no way to clean up before you put your work clothes on, keep in mind that you will stay fairly clean if you shower before leaving the house, and may be able to get by with a washcloth wipe down or baby wipes, and deodorant if you were all clean only an hour before. Sweat mostly only smells bad if it’s left on, so some people can even just towel the sweat off and reapply deodorant. And finally, a nearby gym to your workplace may offer a ‘shower only’ membership with some negotiation. Or you might find a gym that’s so cheap it will be worthwhile to join anyway. After all that riding you will be doing, a yoga or stretching class every so often will do wonders and give you that necessary down time you miss during a long work day. If you really get addicted to riding to work, you’re probably going to get in a rhythm that is the same from day to day and will need to carry your whole day’s worth of stuff on the bike. Depending on the dress code at your destination, and to some extent the season, that could mean a day’s worth of clothes is packable into a fairly tight space, or it may take up a whole bag. Some clothes just aren’t packable if you need to meet a high standard of dress at work. For those who have to really dress up, leaving a set of outfits at work really makes the most sense. If you can dress casually every day, or dress lightly in summer, you’ll have an easier time in getting your work clothes to work with you. In some seasons, and if you have ultimate flexibility in what you look like at work, there are actually pieces now available that you could ride to work in, stay in at work, and ride home in, depending on your hygiene situation, length of your ride, and the weather. In the next installment, we’ll talk about gear that works for riding and at work, but if you do some research you might see there are products specifically for this.
How to manage a whole day’s worth of stuff on a bike.So what’s the best way to carry what you need on your commute? Of course that depends on many things, such as how much you will carry, how far you are going to go, and whether or not your bike has a bike rack to attach bags to. The most reliable and versatile option is not the most comfortable, but a backpack is a great first investment for any cyclist. When selecting a backpack, make your commute safer by making sure it’s maximally reflective, and has attachment points for blinkies. There are actually bags made out of 100% reflective materials now, and you’d be surprised how bright they appear in the presence of headlights when it’s dark out. There are a few brands that work exclusively in that material, which are a great choice. If you don’t want something on your back, which can make you hotter on a hot day, other bag options include panniers (which typically hang off the sides of a rear rack), or other frame mounted bags which have been developed for ‘bikepacking’, the latest trend in lightweight adventure riding. Check the internet for some of those terms and explore on your own. Keep in mind all bags do not fit on all bikes, so the best place to make sure you are buying something you can use is your local bike shop. They will be a key partner if you’re starting to bike commute, since you may need expert and efficient help on short notice, so stop in often and please try to shop local as much as possible. The more you go into a bike shop, the more comfortable and familiar it will be.
What bike is the best for you? What style of bars you select actually does matter. You will see plenty of riders on ‘drop bars’ which come stock on most road bikes, but since you need to keep your head up and be able to look behind yourself to check for anything that poses a threat from behind, flat bars or rise bars make much more sense. Drop bars are mostly beneficial to road racers due to the aerodynamics of your body when you are crouched over, but at less than 15 MPH with hazards coming at you from all directions, you will be much better off in a more upright position.
The chances of your having to lock up somewhere during your commuting day means that a bike that has any apparent value is going to be more likely to be stolen or vandalized while it awaits your return. Vandals watch for patterns. Anyone who really wants your bike may find a way to get to it when few people are around, so my best advice on avoiding becoming a victim is to spend more than $35 on a lock, lock in a way that makes it hard for someone to seal the frame and wheels, and make sure you’re not riding a bike that costs more than $500. I’m not saying don’t spend more than $500 on a bike, but it’s important not to have your brand new bike look too good and catch the attention of the wrong person. When you buy your lock, ask the local bike shop person to show you how to lock in a way that makes it hard to steal either wheel, and if necessary also carry a cable so you can secure the wheels. You might not want to carry your lock setup. That’s Ok because you can leave it at work and it will always be there for you.
Finally I wanted to mention electric assist bikes, folding bikes, and fat bikes. Like I said earlier, when you are starting out on a commute to work program, almost any bike is a good starter bike. These newer options on the market have their share of pros and cons and if you’re speaking to a salesperson, you might not get the whole story before you find yourself walking out of the store with something you’re not 100% is going to serve you.
- Electric bikes: pros are they will get you there quickly, you might not be as sweaty as someone on a regular bike, and if you are worried about not having the energy or motivation to ride that should not be an issue on an e-bike. Cons are: they are heavier than non-motorized bikes, you won’t get as much exercise or burn as many calories, and you may not be as satisfied or exercised once you’re home on the couch looking back on the day.
- Folding bikes: pros are you can take them on the train and easily pack them in a car trunk, they are lightweight and easy to carry up stairs, and you can probably take it all the way to your desk or office any alleviate the risk of locking up and losing your bike. Cons are they don’t always fit all riders well, the smaller wheels usually transmit ground impact up to your hands and butt more than normal wheels, and if you want one bike that does it all, you might not find that you want to ride it on the weekends since sometimes they are not as comfortable as a normal wheeled bike.
- Cargo bikes: This category is almost so inclusive that it’s meaningless. A cargo bike by definition historically has the flexibility to carry cargo, sometimes up to 50 pounds, but some carry the load in front and/or the rear, some are super long wheel based (almost like a tandem length), and some either come ready to or can be fit to carry kids on the back or in front. The category itself is really a great idea, but they may be cost prohibitive if you also want a bike to ride with your friends on the weekend.
In the next installment, I’ll cover clothes you can wear all day, how to perform a safety check on your bike, and what do to if your bike stops working. If you have questions, please post them!
Why am I writing this? I’m a passionate veteran ‘ride (walk or run) every day’ commuter. I’ve been avoiding cars as often as possible and getting around almost exclusively on a bike since moving to Boston in the 80s. People ask me all the time: is it safe? I think safety is a matter of preparedness and understanding defensive bicycle riding. It’s not a race. Sometimes you have to slow down just to stay safe. Some intersections are just unsafe, and then there’s distracted driving, which is sadly everywhere, everyday. But if you give it a try you might find it’s life changing. -Jane Hayes