Are you planning to start bicycle commuting? Or, have you already started but found your bicycle lacking or faced some other difficulties? This article aims to give you a head start with bike commuting. It will help you choose the optimal bicycle for your needs and provide tips for dealing with other challenges that bicycle commuters face (there are some; it’s not all sunshine and roses).
Table Of Contents (T.O.C.):
- Bicycle commuting pros and cons
- Theft risk
- Equipment and clothes
- Commuting bicycle recommendations
…4.1. Shorter routes (about 3 miles) on mostly flat terrain
…4.2. Mid-length routes (about 6 miles) or hilly terrain
…4.3. Longer routes (9 or more miles)
…4.4. Commuting bicycle buying recommendations
- Rain or cold
- Traffic and riding safely
1. Bicycle commuting pros and cons
I’ve been cycling for about four decades. For practically all those years, I’ve also used bicycles as my primary means of transport – school, work, running errands, cinema, nights out; you name it (I cycled everywhere before the hipsters came, i.e. before it was cool 🙂 ).
Also, over the past decades, with a personal example and advice, I’ve helped many people get into cycling (either “just” for recreation and fun or as a means of transport).
Bike commuting does have a lot of pros (which is why I love it), but it also has its cons. Let’s discuss those briefly.
Bicycle commuting Advantages
For me, a bicycle is the best means of transport: no traffic jams (I can always “slip through”), no time wasted to find free parking spots, waiting for the windshield to unfreeze in the winter (yes, one can cycle in the winter too, a section of this website is devoted to winter cycling), it’s recreational, meditative and fun.
In the winter, it takes a long time for a car’s cabin to heat up (and it is also cold when you are standing at a bus stop), while the “heating” on a bicycle works as soon as you start turning the pedals.
Short rides, especially in stop-go traffic jams are bad for cars (high fuel costs, plus a car that drove 100,000 miles in such traffic is in a worse condition than a car that drove 200,000 miles on open roads). So bicycle commuting can improve your health and save you money.
Bicycle commuting Disadvantages
You are exposed to the weather while exerting physical effort at the same time, so good, high-quality clothes are advised, especially when it is rainy (how to dress for bad weather cycling). Depending on one’s health condition, not everyone can ride a bicycle in all conditions (longer rides, steep climbs, hot or cold weather etc.). If there aren’t traffic jams, you get a lot faster by car, especially if you are hauling some heavy or bulky stuff or need to cover a long distance (we are all limited by time).
Your clothes, hair and makeup may get ruined.
Tips for overcoming the disadvantages
Many of the noted disadvantages can be overcome by using public transport a part of the way (and hauling the bike with you or leaving it locked at the station where you get off), good clothes, healthy food and exercise (which have many other benefits).
You can roll your work clothes (so they don’t wrinkle) and carry them in panniers, and you can do your makeup when you arrive to work (it’s not ideal, but it can work – according to women I know; I’m not that extravagant 🙂 ).
Also, you could put the bike in your car’s trunk, drive to work, and cycle home. Then, on the next day, cycle to work, and return by the car, with the bike in the trunk again. This way, your car-bicycle commute is split fifty-fifty, and you are saving some time, while still cycling to work. If your commute is very long and you have other obligations (kids, work etc.), this may be the only way, as not everyone can dedicate several hours to cycling every work day.
2. Theft risk
This is what puts off many people from bicycle commuting. “What if my bike gets stolen” or, very often (in my city at least): “I’ve already had two bikes stolen.”
The problem is that many people will install an alarm in their car, while they expect their bicycle to be secure with a $10 lock.
A well-locked bicycle, with a good, secure bicycle lock, is not likely to be stolen. Yes, you may pay about $100 for a good bicycle lock, but you’ll be buying it only once (as well as the bike if you lock it properly). Calculate this in your budget when buying a bicycle, and know that it will pay off (because of all the benefits that bicycle commuting brings).
When my work was almost 10 miles away, I commuted on a nice-looking, expensive bicycle, and it did not get stolen. I rode it for years and locked it overnight too on countless occasions.
Yes, an ugly and cheap-looking bike with a good lock is probably safer than an expensive one. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that your bike is safe with a bad lock, only because it looks ugly (both my friends and I had some very ugly, barely rideable bikes stolen when they were locked with poor-quality locks).
In other words, briefly put: it’s good if your commuter bike is not expensive, but you must always use a good (and expensive), secure lock (my secure bicycle lock recommendations).
3. Equipment and clothes
Even if your commute is long, start with shorter rides and see, over time, what works for you. For example, I ride in “civilian” clothes that are just a bit less formal (e.g. jeans instead of a suit, because it’s more convenient for the bike).
In other words, don’t let the lack of “cycling apparel” put you off, nor invest too much upfront for the bibs and other expensive stuff. I gave some general clothing tips in the article about clothes for winter cycling (and bad weather cycling in general).
I mustn’t forget to mention my favourite cycling glasses. 🙂
Puncture-resistant tyres are not puncture-proof, just more resistant, and even tubeless tyres can be punctured.
Related to bicycle equipment – read the chapter “Additional equipment” in my trekking bicycle buying guide. Briefly: a kickstand, mudguards, luggage rack, and a dynamo hub are all very, very practical. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s definitely not obligatory, but I would strongly recommend that you choose frames with mounts for mudguards and a rack (and later decide whether you will mount them).
4. Commuting bicycle recommendations
There are many different types of bicycles, but any bicycle in good riding condition can be used for commuting. Here, I will give some general recommendations but if you, for example, want to make a two-mile city commute on a mountain bike, that’s perfectly fine (it does boil down to what you like and choose).
When you are using a bicycle as a means of transport, robustness and reliability are very important. It can be problematic if your bicycle breaks down often or if it has some “exotic” parts that you have to order and wait for a month or two to arrive (and be without the means of transport in the meantime).
I prefer bikes that let me quickly and easily remove wheels to patch or replace punctured tubes (that’s more difficult to do with bicycles that have rear gear hubs). I also love friction shifters and rim brakes (brake discs can easily bend when I park the bike in a crowded bike parking with a lot of other bicycles).
If you already have a bicycle, you could give it a go for commuting and see how you like it. There is no special “commuting bicycle” type. However, if you are an avid cyclist with an expensive bicycle, you may want to consider getting another commuter bike which is easy to fix and source parts for (if your “main” bike has some “exotic” expensive parts).
Below, I will recommend bicycle types based on the type of commute. For a list of particular bicycle models, see chapter “4.4. Commuting bicycle buying recommendations.”
4.1. Shorter routes (about 3 miles) on mostly flat terrain
For this use, you could do well with a city bicycle or with a hybrid/trekking bicycle if you prefer more spirited (faster) riding. Speeds (different gear ratios) are less important for this use – a single-speed bicycle will do fine.
City bikes’ more upright sitting position is less efficient, but it lets the air cool you better so you’ll sweat less in the summer. It also gives you the best view of the traffic (higher and more upright head position).
Flat handlebars are more practical for parking the bike in crowded bike parking spots, as they will not get entangled with other handlebars – unlike the road (drop) handlebars. Flat bars are also more practical if you are hauling some stuff in one hand while cycling.
It usually takes about 10 to 20 minutes to travel 3 or so miles on a bicycle. You are not exposed to elements for long periods, so you may not even build up a sweat in the summer (unless there are some long, steep climbs).
4.2. Mid-length routes (about 6 miles) or hilly terrain
For this use, it helps if the bicycle has several different gear ratios (“speeds”).
Hybrid/trekking bicycles are a pretty good choice here. A bit more “sporty/aggressive” sitting position, a wide range of gear ratios, good handling and brakes can help to negotiate 6-mile distances (one-way) from day to day.
Of course, if the roads you are travelling on are not paved, it is worth considering a mountain bike, though it’s fairly difficult to mount good mudguards on mountain bikes.
If there aren’t any long steep climbs, you may not sweat much on a 6-mile ride, and there is also little risk of getting frost bites in the winter (it goes without saying that you will dress accordingly). So, depending on your particular route, traffic, and fitness level, you may not need to change clothes (or shower) when you get to work.
4.3. Longer routes (9 or more miles)
For this use, it is worth considering bicycles with road (“drop”) handlebars. They will provide you with several different grip positions (either more upright or more aerodynamic), which is quite practical on longer rides. I.e. in this case, drop bar advantages outweigh their impracticality when “parking” the bicycle is concerned.
Unfortunately, mudguards or racks are difficult to mount on most road bicycles. That’s why touring bicycles (with drop bars) or “gravel bikes” (a mixture between a road bike and an MTB) can be a great choice.
Good hybrid/trekking bikes are also worth considering, but, as I said, drop bars can be more comfortable on longer rides.
For routes that are longer than 9 miles, time becomes an important factor. Depending on the terrain (hilly or flat), traffic, and your fitness level, you may spend over an hour cycling one way. Summer heat, winter cold, and rain will have enough time to exert their full effect on you. So expect to be changing clothes (or taking a shower) upon arrival, and invest in high-quality clothes (good, breathable, water and windproof clothes are very helpful – and quite expensive).
4.4. Commuting bicycle buying recommendations
If you need to buy a commuting bicycle, depending on the bicycle type, you can see my bicycle buying guides, with recommendations of particular models. I did not copy/paste any recommendations into this article, as they are already published in their own separate articles, for each bicycle type:
- Road bicycle buying guide
- Mountain bicycle (MTB) buying guide
- Trekking bicycle buying guide
- City bicycle buying guide
- BONUS: Is it better to buy a new or a used bicycle?
Unless you combine training with your commute (with a shower and a full change of clothes upon arrival), it is better if you reduce sweating. How?
Dress in layers, so you can remove (or add) them as needed.
The body creates a lot of heat when you pedal. Start your ride under-dressed, so that you feel a bit cold. If you start the ride dressed to be cosy, you will sweat in no time (after a mile or two). Of course, don’t overdo it. If it is windy, you can wear your wind-breaker top jacket but remove layers beneath (sweatshirts, long sleeves etc.).
Pedal a bit slower. Yes, optimal cadence is over 80 revs per minute, but for a short commute, you can use a bit higher gear ratio and pedal a bit slower (use common sense and don’t push too hard to avoid any knee injuries or problems). For long commutes, or for hilly terrain, this is not advised – except for the last mile or so: see the next paragraph.
When you stop, the air cooling gets reduced drastically. That is when you can start sweating drastically and rapidly (especially if you stop abruptly after riding hard). So, ease off the pace for the last mile.
When you are sitting more upright on a bicycle, you will go slower for the same effort (compared to a more aggressive, more aero position), but the air will cool you a lot more and you will sweat less.
Of course, if the ride is long enough or if it is hot enough (especially if there are climbs), you will sweat. Electric motor-assisted bikes can help if you have no way of changing clothes (you know your situation at school/work better than I do).
If all else fails: baby wipes, a towel, and a dry shirt can do wonders! 🙂
6. Rain or cold
How to cycle commute in the rain, without having to change your clothes and take a shower upon arrival? Here are some tips.
Ordinary plastic/nylon raincoats don’t “breathe,” so you may be dry from rain, but wet from sweat upon arrival (especially on long commutes or when it’s warm outside). There are some better options.
Mudguards. They help a lot. Even if it’s not raining, the pavement may be wet, and you will be too if your bike doesn’t have decent mudguards (or “fenders” for you living on the wrong side of the Atlantic 🙂 ). The alternative is to ride very, very slowly.
Good shoes help a lot. There are waterproof shoe covers for bike shoes with cleats (if clipping into pedals is your thing).
Rain capes for bicycles are long enough at the front to attach to the handlebars, but open underneath, so you will not sweat in them – but they are problematic in strong winds.
A baseball cap is great at keeping the rain off your eyes or glasses (there are also cycling caps with a shorter visor and thin fabric so you can wear them under a helmet if you like).
Goretex trousers and wind jackets are great because they are breathable but waterproof.
An umbrella is highly impractical – it occupies one hand and is easily pulled by a gust of wind.
When it comes to winter and low temperatures, read the article: How to dress for winter cycling?
7. Traffic and riding safely
The basics for safe cycling in traffic are: knowing the traffic rules, caution, common sense, good brakes, and lights. Ride so that you are visible, noticeable, and predictable.
In separate articles, I explained why “visible” and “noticeable” aren’t the same, with many other safe riding tips:
- Sorry, I didn’t see you – cyclist traffic safety
how the human eye works and how to get drivers’ attention
- Bicycle lane positioning and riding in traffic
how to avoid drivers’ “blind spots”
- Bicycle lights, and the difference between “visible” and “noticeable”
why they are important, and how to properly “light” a bicycle
- Typical risky situations when cycling in traffic
9 scenarios you should be prepared for in advance
My video tutorial on how to avoid risky situations and ride safely in traffic:
If I had to summarize this whole article in a couple of sentences, here is what they would sound like:
Start commuting by any bicycle, in any clothes that you have. Try it, you might like it. 🙂
– Just make sure to get a good, secure bicycle lock.
The guides and tips provided in this article are the results of my decades of experience, but they are not rules or laws. The idea was to help you get started, and then you will see, through your own experience, what exactly works best for you, on your commute.