Let’s Bike!

Sometimes we seasoned bike commuters can forget what it’s like to be newbie out there or someone on the fringe considering getting on a bike again (perhaps for the first time since childhood).

This afternoon my work has asked me to do a presentation on bike basics for my fellow staff, focusing on what you need to get out and enjoy biking. It’s aptly being called “Let’s Bike!” and will include:

* Best bicycle choices for you
* How to get the best bicycle fit
* What bicycle gear you need
* What are the best routes
* Ways to stay safe

I’ll admit that I’m a bit overwhelmed… as I have so much enthusiasm for this topic and maybe too much to share. Now I’m trying to stay focused and keep this presentation cohesive.

So, I turn to you – the experts – for your tips/suggestions. What are your best “basic” tips/suggestions? Or what is best bike gear (or non-bike gear) suggestion that makes your ride that much better or more enjoyable?

Thanks to you all for your comments and helping folks everywhere make it easier to “Let’s Bike!”

(hopefully this post will help us continue with a series of more in-depth articles on basic commuter skills)


  1. Graham

    Well, if my goal is to get people interested in bicycling places, then I might apply the KISS principle with the following recommendations:

    1. Make sure your bicycle works. Nothing will crush your sense of adventure more than hopping on the bike and discovering that the tires are rotted or the shifter cable is rusted.

    2. Plan your route. It is totally worth it to have a slightly longer route that avoids fast roads if you can manage it.

    3. Go slow. Racing is fun, but if you slow down you hear the birds, see the flowers… avoid the potholes. Plus, it’s easier to gauge how hard a ride is if you avoid trying to set a record your first trip.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Chris

    For me, what made the commute do-able was a folding bike. My commute is really long, but with the folder, I can still drive, and I just keep the bike in my trunk. When I’m close enough to the office, I park and ride in. I think it’s definitely worth mentioning if you’re going to talk about the right bike.

  3. ethan

    I think one of the things people overlook is that usually “whatever you already have is probably good enough.” At least to get started. Sure, an “urban” bike may make the commute easier, but not everybody wants to go out and spend more money on more stuff, just to try something new.

    The only essential gear, imo, is a working bike. A helmet, lights, and a backpack are also very good ideas. (Again, there are hundreds of cycling specific backpacks, but any backpack will work.)

    I think prep (both the route, your gear, and your riding skills) are a lot more important than anything else. And prep isn’t really prohibitive.

  4. Dan

    Most Americans don’t have a good handle on proper riding techniques (use the right side, no sidewalks, stop at stop signs, take the lane, etc.). Sharing these best practices will help raise both rider confidence and safety.

    Good luck! Let us know how it goes.

  5. BluesCat

    I agree with Graham.

    The Number One Rule: Keep it simple.
    The Number Two Rule: Keep it FUN.

    ANY bike works for commuting as long as you’re having a blast riding it.
    ANY accessories WORK as long as it isn’t a LOT of WORK getting them prepared to ride.
    ANY route which is longer, but safer, is MUCH MORE FUN.

    Here’s an example. For YEARS I’ve used an inexpensive set of panniers which required me to move all my “stuff” from my “official” briefcase to them whenever I was changing from car-commute to bike-commute. Just two weeks ago I bought a Vaude Commuter Pannier, with a quick-release attachment, which is nothing more than a LIGHTER, nylon briefcase. The result is I’ve added one more day to bike-commute-mode because there’s less hassle!

  6. Japhy Ryder

    Just buy one thing that makes you feel a little bit badass. Whether that is a ridiculous rear blinky, panniers, a cool helmet or just some stickers on your bike. I like to feel a little swagger when I’m riding.

  7. Brian

    Make sure they realize that there are things that you NEED to commute by bike, things that you “need” to commute by bike, and then thinks you’d like to get for your bike commutes. Cycling to work can be expensive if you let it be!

    I think we turn a lot of people off if we suggest they need to drop hundreds of dollars on bikes and gear before they can do it. As others have mentioned, all they really need is a working bike, some lights, a backpack and an understanding of the rules of the road.

  8. ThatGrumpyGoat

    Assure them that they do not need to be Lycra-clad road warriors.

    Put the danger in prospective. Cite the stats about low per capita injuries and deaths compared to autos.

    Yes, cycling requires exertion, but that shouldn’t discourage them. There’s no need to speed.

    Rules of the road. What Dan said. Illustrate why taking the lane is actually safer than hugging the curb.

    Google Maps. Tell your coworkers about the built-in bike route overlay that shows cycle-friendly routes.

    Know how to lock up your bike!

    Maybe organize a casual ride for interested coworkers with rental bikes?

  9. elise

    I live in Seattle and the hills were one of the big things that kept me from bike commuting for so long. The bike + bus combo was what really helped me get started. The way in to work is all downhill, easy. But if I was nervous about the hill going back home, I just threw my bike on the bus until I got to the flats. Eventually, I worked up the courage and stamina to ride all the way home.

    Also, I think some others have said it… but you don’t need to spend tons of $$ to just try it out. Use whatever bike you have, or borrow a bike (I rode my mom’s bike, which was gathering dust in her garage, for a month before buying my own). I rode slow, because I wanted to wear my normal clothes and not need a shower when arriving at work. I didn’t want to look like I was biking in, I wanted to look like me.

    I’ve been riding to work and most other places I need go for almost a year now. Sometimes I still use the bus when it’s pouring or I’m hungry/tired/cranky at the end of the day. At first I felt like a failure when I didn’t ride. But I realized that I wasn’t going to be doing myself any favors to force myself into it every day all the time. Don’t go too hardcore, because you might overdo it and begin to see riding as a chore. Now, though, driving has become the dreaded chore for me.

  10. tricker

    In Manhattan my commuting priority is safety.

    1) Route choices: Use bike lanes and avoid the major artery roads at all costs (Houston, Delancey, 14th Street, and any avenue without designated bike lanes). Lower speed auto traffic is your friends.
    2) Use hand signals for lane changes, when that fails YELL LOUDLY.
    3) Use front and rear lights and wear bright colored clothing.
    4) Keep pace with traffic when possible.
    5) Try to give yourself enough padding from being “doored”. Hint: Biking on the side of the street where you are next to the passenger’s door lowers the odds, since not all cars have passengers.

    Non-safety related issues include how to manage bike commuting with formal dress environments, and of course where/how to lock up your bike on the street. Use NY chain, cable through opposite wheel and seat post. Never leave a bike locked up outside overnight if you really care about losing it. During office hours tends to be much safer.

  11. daisy

    Definitely keep it simple at first. After folks commute by bike for a few months, they’ll have a much better idea of what they want and need for their bike. I’d avoid going out and buying a bike for commuting and instead start riding on whatever old bike they have.

    The biggest hurdles for me when I started commuting were related to logistics: where would I put my bike; would I ride in work clothes or, if not, where would I change; how could I clean up a little bit at work if there wasn’t a shower available; learning to keep a couple of pairs of shoes and an extra bra and pair of underwear in my office just in case I forgot something.

    A woman at work recently asked me if it was hard to pick up my bike and put it on the bike hooks we have for bike storage. I might have wondered the same thing a year ago. So make it okay for people to ask questions that might feel stupid to them.

    Other good things to know: it’s okay if you are slow and people pass you. What’s important is that you’re on your bike.

  12. Brian

    My #1 suggestion is to sit down with somebody who rides regularly in your town and figure out the most pleasant route to your destination. Not the fastest route, necessarily, but the most pleasant. Google Maps will help a lot (and if your city has a bike route map, that’ll help too), but there’s no substitute for real-world knowledge.

    Then, if possible, have that person accompany you on your first trip — ideally on a weekend, or some other time when you’re not under pressure to get to work on time, etc. Make it fun.

    Finally, do learn the basics of vehicular cycling. You can take an official course, or you can read the chapter on lane positioning in John Forester’s _Effective Cycling_ (note that I wouldn’t recommend listening to anything else he says, but that chapter is golden), or (recommended) you can just tag along with somebody who knows what he/she is doing. Not a racer, but just somebody who knows how to take the lane. A lot of beginning cyclists don’t know that they can take the lane, and so they get squeezed of the road, and then they hate cycling. That’s completely avoidable.

    As for bikes and gear: I wouldn’t put a lot of money into new stuff, at first. As you bike more, you’ll figure out what you really want or need. The main thing is that you feel comfortable and confident on the road.

  13. JohnnyK

    Once you have decided on a route to take to work or where ever you need to be. Ride that route on a day that you don’t have anywhere to be like a week-end and try it out. That way if there is something you need to avoid you will know about it before the big day when you really have to be there. You will know things like big hills or bridges that you have to over come so you will know better what it will take to get you there. I found that doing this took a lot of stress out of my first ride to work because I already knew I could do it and I knew what it was like. Also make sure you have plenty of water with you even if you are not going very far or fast.

  14. Mir.I.Am

    @elsie – yes! Seattle commuting up the hills… I was so intimidated with the thought of getting from downtown to cap hill that I used to take the bus too! But, since there is a no bike on/off at certain areas at downtown, I eventually took the longer route but less steep, and it is SO doable.

    My tip to beginner cyclist: have a buddy! Even if it’s not someone who will ride with you on your first day, just having someone to be your champion is always good – asking questions and celebrating my first successful round trip made it FUN, simple, and WAY less scary.

  15. karen

    Purchase bike bags and panniers that are going to make your commute and arrival at your destination easy. My first panniers were boxy and awkward to carry around at work and at stops I made on the way home. Leaving them on my bike was simply not an option. Unfortunately, I always felt like I stood out as “that women who rides a bike.” When we first purchased them we did so because we didn’t know we commit to bike commuting and they were cheap. About a year later I purchased an attractive pannier that I could carry upon arrival as a bag, either as a tote bag or should bag using an accompanying long strap. It was pricier but good looking, sturdy, roomy and easy to transport off-bike into the office, a restaurant or boutique.

    Many people, particularly women, worry about safety on the road. Besides just learning the rules of the road, visibility is really important. I use higher end lightening that not only make it easier for me to see at night but make me more visible during the day (NiteRider). You don’t need 15 lights attached to your bike but a good headlight and red blinky light on the back are essential.

  16. Chris

    Find a good local bike shop.

    Having any working bike is better than no bike, but if people want to upgrade from the rustbucket that’s been in their garage for fifteen years, they should be strongly encouraged to visit a good shop rather than buying something at a garage sale or online.

    Most important is finding a salesperson that will pay attention to you. Even if you’re there to buy a $300 commuter rather than a $2000 race bike, having someone who will make sure you’ve got a bike that fits and meets your needs is going to make everything much, much easier down the line.

  17. Don

    The bike should fit. The rider’s position should be comfortable, with the center of gravity in the right place and the seat high enough to make pedaling worthwhile. There should be a safe way to carry stuff. The brakes should work quietly and predictably. That’s all I got.

  18. Andy

    Agree with the keep-it-simple approach. The bike you have already is probably good enough if you like riding it, but make sure it works and will continue to work. Apart from essential safety items like helmet, lights and bright clothes, if you ride in a city the best investment (which you can do for virtually any bike) is to invest is a set of high quality puncture-resistent tires, the wider the better IMHO. This depends on your street environs, but here in Chicago for instance the streets can be rough (especially on the South and West Sides) and littered with chunks of glass. It’s those tiny bits of glass that you really have to protect yourself against. They are hard to avoid and easily get mixed in with other gunk on the street, Get a tire that that can absorb those little chunks without compromising the tube. Take 10 minutes each weekend with a pair of tweezers and pull out the glass bits. Put a drop of superglue in the hole. Not to plug a brand, but I have had great luck putting 1000s of miles on Vittoria Randonneurs, Conti TravelContacts and, of course, Schwalbe Marathons.

  19. John h

    Haven’t noticed anyone mentioning eye protection. Nothing will end a nice ride like getting something in your eyes, even if its just the wind. Motor vehicles have sealed temperature controlled comfort zones, bikes not so much. Sunglasses or clear goggles depending on the situation. Protect the peepers!!! =)

  20. Girls Biking to Work

    I started bike commuting a little less than a year ago. For me the biggest thing that got me from 10 block trips to the grocery store to biking to work every day was experienced cyclists who took the time to ride part of the route with me (in this case, it was my roommates). They helped me feel comfortable with the traffic and route by SHOWING me. Group rides for beginners would be a great place to start.

    That, and I would advise anyone ready to make the jump to ride the commute once on a Saturday or another time the traffic isn’t as intense. That way they can get comfortable with the route and see how long it takes.

  21. BG

    Ride defensively. But don’t assume cars can’t see you. Assume cars CAN see you and are intent on KILLING YOU! With that in mind, I also will literally “go the extra mile” to avoid heavy traffic and find lightly travelled, scenic alternatives. One mile takes only 4 minutes at 15mph, 5 minutes at 12.5 mph. Also, I’m a 20 year user of the AIRZOUND air horn that you pump up with your bike pump! I keep extra jackets, coats, shoes and toiletries at the office to make my backpack lighter. And in the dark, winter months, you cannot have enough lights and reflectors. My goal is health and fitness, so slowing down at cross streets and crossing busy street at intersections with traffic control lights, and heeding them, is how I roll.

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