So. You've decided to take the plunge. You've become wary of paying for
gas, you're uninterested in expensive car repairs, and it's become more
and more evident that you need to get a bit more exercise: So, you've made
the decision to become a full-time commuter bicyclist. Congratulations.
This writeup will focus on American commuter bicycling, as that is where I
am. Prices, traditions, &c, may be different where you are.
Your absolute first step is to determine just how much money you want
to spend. If you're thinking under $100, I'd suggest you start saving up
your nickels and dimes, because that's just not going to cut it, unless
you've inherited a nice bike already. Chances are good that you're going
to drop $300 just on the bike itself, which is not the end of your
There are a variety of good bicycle brands to choose from when
pondering what bike to get. I won't pretend to think of myself as an
authority on such things, as a brand is only as important as you make it.
The frame of the bike is your first priority. It must be sturdy, but
light. Many bicycle companies offer "comfort bikes" or "hybrid bikes"
these days, which are designed with the city-commuter bicyclist in mind.
The frames are generally the size of a mountain bike, with the same
strength and durability, but are generally made of a lighter aluminum. In
this game, you want to get as light a frame as you can without sacrificing
durability. If a comfort bike is not up your alley, then consider a
touring bike, which are very light frames, with very thin wheels, and
couldn't take a nudge from a passing Volkswagen even if they wanted
The wheels of the bike go round and round. Round and round. Round and
round. That said, you're going to want some pretty hardy wheels. Though
the first instinct is to get mountain bike-esque, knobby tires, it's
actually not in your best interests. Think of the cars out there: How many
have big, knobby tires? You want a smooth ride, so you'll want smoother
tires. They also tend to grip to the surfaces of the city much better,
which is of paramount importance when you're trying to get to where you're
going. Make sure the wheels have thorn guards between the tire and the
inner tube as well. People throw all sorts of crap out their windows (not
the least of which is glass), and you want to be able to survive such an
Many commuter bicyclists will swear to you that wearing a full suit of
neon yellow and blue Lycra will make you successful on the road. First,
Lycra makes you look incredibly stupid, no matter what physical shape
you're in. Even the lithest of the lithe will look silly in a super-hero
suit with the USPS logo all over it. Second, I've taken some great spills
in my day, and I'm much happier knowing that my upper body is covered in
my leather jacket, my head stored in a plastic bucket, and my legs in nice
denim. I'm traveling at speeds averaging around 15 miles an hour, darting
in an out of much larger objects going 35. I'll take the extra protection.
I also suggest wearing a nice pair of boots while riding. Sometimes a
bicycle's stopping distance is too long (i.e. you're about to plow into someone in a Ford Excursion talking on a cell phone), and dropping a
well-shod foot to the ground may be the difference between life and
picking your teeth out of a driver's lap. So, sturdy leather jacket,
tight-knit jeans, brain-bucket, and heavy-tread boots.
Step Two: Accessorize!
By now, you've assembled a fine bicycle and you're bedecked in sturdy
gear in case you find yourself on the street with your bike 10 feet behind
you. The rest of the stuff you'll need is in preparation for the worst,
beginning with the inconsiderate nature of drivers.
Your eyes are incredibly important. If you don't believe me...you
should. One of the first lessons I learned in my days of biking is that
people toss all sorts of crap out their windows: cigarette butts,
McDonald's wrappers, bottles, &c. You need to protect yourself from these
things. Some bikers will tell you that a good pair of biking sunglasses,
often available at bike stores, will do the trick. They tend to cover the
entire area between your temples, and from your eyebrows down to
cheekbones. For the normal enthusiast, that would be plenty. However, as a
commuter, you'll likely be going to work in the morning, when it's sunny,
and coming home after 9 hours, when it might be dark. Sunglasses aren't
the best idea then. What I suggest is to get yourself a pair of
UV-protectant clear plastic safety glasses. You can find them at
construction stores for a relatively easy price. They cover more of your
face, and will work in daytime or night, though on particularly sunny days
you may find yourself squinting a bit.
If you are commuting to school, where you'll have to carry a good deal
of stuff with you, or to work, where you may want to bring one or two
Thermoses of coffee with you (as I do), it is important to be able to
distribute the weight of these items across the bike. Enter the pannier.
Panniers are saddlebags that are mounted to the rear-wheel mounting
bracket (sold separately!) on a bike, and can range from the cheap ($30)
to the extreme ($150), depending on how much you want to carry, and what
extra gizmos you want to have access to. If rain is a problem where you
are, make sure your panniers have waterproof lining, or, like mine,
detachable ponchos that wrap around the bags--particularly if you care
whether or not the stuff you're hauling gets wet.
Alternately, you may be more interested in wearing a backpack or
courier's bag of some variety to carry your stuff. It depends solely on
how much you're carrying (as mentioned, I carry 2 Thermoses of coffee, as
well as books, papers, &c) and how far. If it's a short distance and very little is needed, a courier's bag will do nicely. For the longer haul,
panniers are the way to go. Tailor it to your situation.
Whether type of bag(s) you have, you'll need to carry some tools for
emergency bike maintenance. A patch kit is a must, as is an extra inner
tube, portable bicycle pump, and hexagonal bike screwdrivers, in 5mm, 4mm,
3mm, and 2mm varieties. As for the pump, it's best to get one that can
mount to your frame, and most bike stores have multi tools for sale to
cover your hexagonal screwdriver needs. (You may also want to practice
replacing an inner tube a few times before you commit to doing it in the
middle of a hailstorm).
Finally, you'll need a bike lock. I recommend a U-lock (U-shaped locks) for best security, but if you're not too worried about where you're going, a wire coil lock will do just fine (avoid combination locks altogether). Keep the lock on your bike at all times you're not on it. It's like locking the doors to your car--if it's your mode of transport, there's no worse feeling than coming out after a long day to find you have to scrounge up bus money or call a friend.
Step Three: Your First Run
You're ready. You're primed. You're psyched to get on your bike and arrive to work, fit and healthy, covered in sweat and road grime, exhausted, out of breath, and ready for a nap. Before you can commit to a deadline (as the beginning of a shift is always a deadline), you need to figure out just how long it is going to take. So, pick a day on which you want to start commuting. Figure for every 10 miles you need to go, you should give yourself an hour. Assume you're out of shape for this particular sort of exercise, because you probably are, unless you bike for long periods of time normally. Just trust me on this.
In your panniers, make sure you have everything you're going to need for the day at work, packed tightly and distributed evenly to both sides of the bike. In the case of my Thermoses of coffee, I put one on each side, naturally, so I don't pull to the left or right because of the extra weight. Make sure you have a bottle of water for refreshment on the bike and once you arrive at your destination. For my purposes, I always make the water hot. By the time I take my first sip, it's generally warmish, and I have convinced myself that I hydrate more efficiently with hot water.
Get your route planned in your head. I don't suggest on the first run taking the same route you'd take in your car. Sidewalks, when in your car, look quaint and smooth, but once you get on them, you find they're twisted, jumbled paths to Hell, with the roots of oak trees pushing them up in the center, and shattered bottles spread around like salt. Being in the thick of things gives you a different perspective.
Most important of all on your first run is making sure you take it at an easy pace. You don't want to overtax yourself first off--and remember, you're probably not in shape for this sort of activity. Take hills in low gears, build up some speed when it's enjoyable to do so, and look around you. Enjoy the smells of flowers blooming on trees, and freshly cut lawns. You're doing this to enjoy your commute, away from the stresses of traffic, so take advantage of it.
Appendix A: Etiquette on the Road
Other bikers on the road/path
Like other cars on the road to you in your SUV, it's important to remember why there are other bikers there. They're not competing with you. Chances are they're out for exercise, or for the very same purpose as you--to get to work safely, soundly.
Like a car, it is sound to travel on the right side of whatever it is you're riding on; street, bike path, sidewalk, &c. Whether you're on the road, or on a path, when you've decided you're planning on passing someone, it is very polite to proclaim loudly, "ON YOUR LEFT!" and then pass (on the left, please). Remember that, as you might have earphones in, so might that guy in front of you. If the person cannot hear you, wait a moment, yell it again. After twice, you might as well just pass. Remember to return to the right side of the path after completing the pass.
Cars. SUVs. Trucks.
If it is not completely obvious to you, you're not the only thing on the road. There are these large, metal-encased, four (and more)-wheeled monsters tearing through the roads with abandon. Those are automobiles. And when they hit you, you're the one who gets hurt.
Give these behemoths a wide berth. Most will overcompensate anyway, giving you huge chunks of the road. There are some (especially when traveling through college campuses and high school neighborhoods) that will forget you exist. Remember that in a battle, they will win. Always. End of story. If you have to make a decision on a moment's notice, yield.
Stoplights & Stop Signs
While you're still getting your biking legs working properly, it's probably best to adhere to the rules of the road (i.e. stop signs, stop lights, yield signs, &c). It's safer.
However, when you become more acclimated to how cars act on the road, how your brakes work, how your wheels handle bumps, and all the rest of stuff that you will eventually think about naturally with your sixth sense, it's a bit easier to allow for those impediments to be ignored. Many drivers will find it annoying when you do that, but as a bicyclist your engine is a medley of your sore calves, burning lungs, and seat-shaped-bruise covered ass. Those drivers on their heated seats with warm air blowing in their faces can eat your dust.
Appendix B: Your First Wreck
It's going to happen. There's no way around it. Your first wreck is going to piss you off, but remember that it is meant as a learning process--a painful, bloody, bruising learning process.
The first thing to remember when you find yourself lying on the ground after moments before being mounted on your bike is to recognize your surroundings. Pick your head up. Quickly. Look around. Are cars coming? If so, get yourself, and anything you can grab of your bike out of the street. Otherwise, stand up, dust yourself off, and look for injuries.
First, you'll know if you've broken a bone. If that is the case, call for an ambulance. It sounds absurd to do that, but you're possibly half an hour from home or from work, and you have a broken bone. You're not going anywhere. If it's your wrist, you might be able to, at least, ride one-handed back home. Sound like a good idea? I didn't think so.
If you hit your head on the ground, then your helmet is now useless. They're designed with one purpose: To protect your head for one and only one impact. From then on out, if it didn't split in half from the impact anyway, you should toss it out and get a new one.
If you find yourself able to get up and go anyway, the next step will be to get your bike up and running. Do a run-through on all the systems of the bike. Are the tires firm? If not, replace the weakest with your spare inner tube. Your pedals are still firmly attached to your axle? How about the rims, are they bent in any way? The handlebars--are they firmly attached to the frame, and fully control the front wheel? Most of these are show-stoppers if they cannot be remedied with tools on-hand. If that's the case, call your work, get a ride home, nurse wounds. Tomorrow's a new day. Get the bike fixed as soon as possible.
Appendix C: Keeping Your Commute Interesting
As with driving to work, it is easy to become totally and utterly bored doing the same thing every morning and every evening. It is important to keep it interesting, because, as with driving, a wandering mind can lead to a potentially slow and painful death. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to keep the ride interesting.
MP3 players are a marvelous way to keep your mind engaged while the wind is breezing through your hair. I recommend them over CD players because the size of a normal Discman is generally too much to strap to your arm, or stuff in a coat pocket. It's an extra amount of cash, but it is easy enough to find a decent player with decent storage for under $100. A radio would be equally useful. Just something to keep the noise of the road down a bit and your mind active.
Addendum: Various people have commented to me that headphones can be hazardous to your health on a bike, as you are less likely to be able to hear honking horns, people screaming at you to get off their legs, and other sundry. A valid point is made, as it is of absolute importance to keep your wits about you. In fact, in some states, wearing headphones is illegal while on a bike. And I can see the point. Nonetheless, I still travel about with light classical filtering through the noise into my skull, but it bears noting that it is a dangerous activity, and maybe you shouldn't listen to my ideas.
Trying out different routes can also help sharpen your interest. I don't recommend switching from an easy, back-road route to the most direct one involving busy roads and highway traffic--that's a deathtrap. But mixing it up, particularly on a longer commute, to travel through different neighborhoods can make the ride more enjoyable. Remember why you're doing it. During election seasons, this can be particularly fun. I recall during the 2004 Election going through several different neighborhoods, changing my route every other day. Neighbors occasionally talk to each other through signs, and dipping into those conversations can be a delight.
If it is possible at your workplace, see if you can't convince other people to join you on your commute. Biking with people you know can be a wonderful activity, both for keeping everyone in the group aware of the traffic around, but also for the creation of camaraderie in the workplace. It also gives you something to do on lunch breaks, if you have other people to go out with for a 30 minute refresher to help digest your sandwich.
Appendix D: The Road Hierarchy
Like any human organization, there exists a hierarchy on the road. Below is a table I've created to sum up the organization for you. Whatever class(es) of commuter is below your chosen craft, it is to them that you yield the right of way.
Car/Truck Lord of the road: big, lumbering machines.
Motorcycle Smaller than a car, less armored.
Bicyclist Fragile. Easy to kill.
Pedestrian Headphone-wearing, center-of-the-sidewalk-walking, soft beings.
As a bicyclist, note that you do, indeed, yield to pedestrians. They will yell at you either way, but do it. If you are on the sidewalk when you encounter one, hop off the sidewalk into the street, or just go slowly behind them. But, hey, better to have more pedestrians than more cars, no?