I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike.
July 21, 2011 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Commuting by bike - expert tips needed.

I recently moved within 1.5 miles of my workplace and don't have a car. I'm trying to work it out so that I don't need to buy a car. I have a bike.

All you bike commuters, how do you do it? I've tried biking in my work clothes (bad idea)... Today, I biked in casual clothes, then changed once I got to work (better idea). Today, I ate breakfast before I biked to work, then ended up feeling sick and sweaty once I arrived (I know it's only 1.5 miles, but it's hot here, ok?).

Questions are as follows:
1) How do you handle the clothing issue?
2) Do you eat before you bike or once you've arrived at your destination?
3) Any other tips or tricks for the bike commuter?

Further complicating issues - I'm a young-twenties female working at a middle school and would prefer for the students to NOT see me rolling into work in short shorts. I'm going to try to mitigate this issue by getting to school pretty early.
posted by brynna to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
1) I wear workout clothes on the way in, change in the bathroom, and splash water on my face and neck to cool down/not feel too scuzzy.

2)I eat breakfast in the morning, but bring my coffee in a travel mug to have once I make it to work (too much coffee before I excersize gives me a sour stomach).

3) Do you have panniers? They are amazingly useful, because you won't have to carry all of your clothes/lunch/crap on your back. It makes things feel a lot smoother.

Also: I'm a routine guy, so once I got in the habit of my commute, knowing exactly which gearing I am in on which part of the route, exactly which turns I take, etc., things began to feel a lot more like a regular commute.
posted by Think_Long at 8:20 AM on July 21, 2011

Quick thoughts: Panniers and a rack instead of a backpack. FENDERS; you don't need them now, but will when the weather turns bad. I don't eat before I bike, but if I did, I'd give it fifteen minutes to settle first. I bike in my work clothes, but that's because I wear a polo and jeans and generally ride fast enough to get a good breeze. (Sweating doesn't become a problem until I get OFF my bike.)

More advanced: Depending on your biking speed/comfort level, a pair of clipless shoes and pedals may make your ride even faster, given that you're changing clothes (and shoes, I assume) once you arrive.
posted by supercres at 8:20 AM on July 21, 2011

I eat when I get there.

I don't commute to work daily - it's 20 miles for me - I only do it about once a week at most, and it's been a while since I've done that. But, I bring clothes to work in advance. Every other week or so I'll bring a pair of pants and a few shirts and take home what I have.

I eat when I get there - at most at home I will have a handful of nuts or something

Except in the worst heat, like now, 1.5 mi is short enough to do without breaking toooo much of a sweat, during normal parts of the year you can probably weak work clothes to work, if you are careful not to get them dirty (does your bike have fenders? If not every time it's a little wet or muddy you will get a line of mud on your back)
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:22 AM on July 21, 2011

Small breakfast, cycle to work (in cycling gear), shower at work and change into work clothes, more breakfast at work.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:27 AM on July 21, 2011

1) This depends a little on the weather. Sometimes I just bike in regular clothes and clean up a bit when I get in, sometimes I do like Think_Long, and lately I've been wearing workout clothes and showering once I get in.

2) Sometimes I eat something small at home, but mostly I eat when I get to work.

Fenders are necessary. I got way happier with my commute once I added a basket (rack/panniers would do the same thing). I also got happier when I figured out a route that didn't have very much traffic.

I dunno what transportation is like where you are, but I worked up to biking every day pretty slowly. For a long time, I took my bike on the bus in the morning and then biked home, which let me get in better shape and avoid showing up to work sweaty.
posted by Vibrissa at 8:29 AM on July 21, 2011

1.5 miles isn't far. If you bike at a leisurely pace you will not sweat and the breeze would make it more comfortable than if you walked to school. Yes it will take longer but you won't have to worry about feeling sick if you have breakfast or having to change/refresh at work.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:34 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I bike in my work clothes except on the worst of the worst days - even then I usually just change my shirt, and my commute is 2.5 miles each way. I used to change and shower and all that, but even my boss that bikes 8 miles each way doesn't usually bother to shower anymore because it takes too much time (he does change).

I use my basket as my backpack-holder so it doesn't make my back as sweaty. Helmet, fenders, good night lights and winter gear - and you're good to go! Best commute ever!
posted by ldthomps at 8:35 AM on July 21, 2011

I live three miles from my workplace and bike to work on flat streets. But when the weather's excessively hot I take public transportation. Is that option available where you live, since your main goal is to stay carless?

I second the panniers-and-rack instead of backpack. That will keep your back from getting sweaty. There are panniers that are made for carrying work clothes, and while when I bike I do so in a long skirt (I have a folding stepthrough bike) my coworkers who bike often carry a few days' worth of clothes with them.

We also have a shower. Is there one available to teachers at your school? If so, you could simply throw on your biking clothes (e.g., yoga pants and a t-shirt) early in the morning, and shower, dress, and breakfast when you get there.

I keep milk in our refrigerator and a box of cereal, bowl, and spoon in my office, but I also find that a banana and a glass of water give me enough energy to get me there and keep me hydrated in the meantime.
posted by tully_monster at 8:36 AM on July 21, 2011

Slow down! I know I always have a subconscious urge to "catch up" with passing cars or someone else who's riding just a little faster than me, but when I ride like I'm in the Tour de France I end up sweaty and achy by the time I get to work. If I leave five minutes earlier and go at an easy pace, I end up a lot more comfortable -- on cooler days I sometimes don't even have to change my shirt.

1.5 miles is nothing -- if you're riding hard enough to get sweaty on a ride, you're going too fast (unless it's one of those days when you'd be drenched in sweat just sitting outside for five minutes). Relax and enjoy yourself.
posted by theodolite at 8:37 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

few tips of my own:

a) if you don't do any regular cardio right now, that 1.5 mile commute will feel like an odyssey. It gets better and you will sweat and stink less as your body learns how to exercise over that distance.

b) breathable fabrics with patterns should be a mainstay. Breathability will keep you cool on your ride and the patterns (flowers, plaid, etc.) can also help mask some sweat patches until everything dries.

c) i'll have toast and OJ before going out, then coffee and fruit when I arrive (but my commute is 7 miles, so most of the toast is used by the time I finish)

as others have said, find a way to carry your stuff on your back rather than on your person (either basket or panniers or milk crate bungeed to the rear rack)
posted by bl1nk at 8:38 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yay, bike commuting!

Clothing: I bike in work clothes when the temperature allows for it, and sometimes I bike slower than I can to make sure that I do not get sweaty. But, sometimes that's not possible: Right now it is summer in DC and I feel drenched in sweat if I even set foot outside. How I've been handling that (in situations where, yes, I will change, but also don't want to risk the chance of people seeing me in short shorts) is wearing a flowy sundress over some moisture-wicking sports shorts (I think I got them at Target for $15ish). It looks better than shorts + tank top, but has the same effect.

Eating: I have a morning routine. I wake up a bit early, take a shower and blow dry my hair (helps prevent helmet hair), eat a simple small/medium-sized breakfast and drink tea/coffee, and then check my email and read the news for about 20 minutes before I have to leave. If I was not able to consistently wake up early enough to do all of that, I'd probably eat upon arrival.

Other tips: Carry a mini-sized deodorant and some sort of hair mist with you to freshen up if you sweat a lot and/or decide to go on longer rides. If you bike at night, get some sort of flashy lights. You don't need clipless pedals/shoes, and can bike perfectly well in heels/flats/sandals (at least I do!). Fenders + either a rear rack or a front basket are wonderful -- I have a front basket and throw my handbag in there with a change of clothes (also, it is perfect for grocery shopping). If you choose to wear a helmet, it doesn't have to be ugly. Figure out what you will do if it is raining (walk? bike with a rain jacket? bring a change of shoes!).

Good luck with bike commuting. It is a good way to start the day! Next week I will start a new job that will make my commute 6 miles each way, and I'm a bit terrified of that in the summer but I know that it will be a hundred times better than sitting in a packed metro car.
posted by aaanastasia at 8:38 AM on July 21, 2011

nthing the change clothes and breakfast at work advice. i am a fan of yogurt + cereal + fruit for post-bike breakfast in the hot season.

nthing fenders.

also, how are you going to be maintaining your bike? even if you take it to a shop for maintenance, make sure you know how to perform minor repairs to your bike in the field, because every now and then a chain will break or a tire will go flat.

non-obvious but helpful for me was going to my stylist and asking for a haircut that looks good when subjected to constant helmet head, also.
posted by beefetish at 8:39 AM on July 21, 2011

If the weather is mild, I wear my work clothes. If the weather is cold, I wear my work clothes plus coat/gloves/etc. If the weather is hot, I wear shorts and t-shirt, and change when I get to work. (Others may disagree, but I see no need for special "cycling clothes" for such a short commute. Anything that keeps you cool will do.)

As for eating, sometimes I eat before, sometimes after, depending on if I'm feeling hungry before I leave. So far I haven't had an issue feeling sick, but I pedal at a fairly relaxed pace. At 1.5 miles, you could easily go at a slow pace too, so that may help prevent feeling sweaty or sick. You may want to consider eating right when you get up, then letting it digest for a bit while you get dressed, do your hair, etc. Or maybe just have something small like a banana beforehand, and something more substantial when you arrive.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 8:39 AM on July 21, 2011

My commute is a two miles.

First of all, don't assume that it's always going to be as bad as it is now. It took me a few weeks to acclimate. I sweat waaaay less now than I did when I was first starting.

I bike in my work clothes most of the time, but when it's really hot I bike in workout clothes and then change. If you don't want to bike to work in short shorts, go to Target and get some longer workout shorts. I recently switched from cotton t-shirts to some sort of high-tech wicking fabric t-shirts, and I definitely arrive at work feeling less sticky. I joined a gym right near work, and when it's really hot I go there before work and take a shower. Is that possible? My gym is super-cheap, and you may not have access to a super-cheap gym, but for me it ends up costing a lot less than parking would (much less buying a car.)

I definitely agree about getting a rack and not wearing a back-pack. Panniers are nice, but I just bungied a milk-crate to my back rack and put my bag in that.

I eat before I leave, but if that's not working for you, pack breakfast and eat once you get there.
posted by craichead at 8:42 AM on July 21, 2011

I commute in London about 5 Kms each way. These days I just take it easy ride in my work clothes and keeping at a pace that I don't get up a sweat it takes about 25mins.

I used to cycle in Sydney 10kms each way and would definately need a shower after each ride. due to the heat and well at 10km you just have to go faster or its taking too long. I'd leave a suit at work and take ina new shirt each day that i'd carefully foldeded and slipped in a bag of thick cardboard that then went in a backpack. I'd shower at work and eat at work.

For 1.5miles ~ 2km you should be able to ride in your work gear even on a hot day and not get too sweaty. or just cycle in a T-Shirt then change that when you arrive.

If it rains a lot then yeah I'd also recommend Mudguards / Fenders. they are GREAT in London.
posted by mary8nne at 8:47 AM on July 21, 2011

Agreeing with others... for 1.5 miles I would wear my work clothes and go at a leisurely pace. If it's really hot, maybe just swap shirts. Any time you gain by riding fast enough to sweat is lost by having to change clothes at work.

When I was consistently biking to work, it was about 5 miles, and I could wear my work clothes (casual) for the ride in, since the mornings are cool. I changed to shorts and a tank top for the ride home in the heat.
posted by The Deej at 8:48 AM on July 21, 2011

And I second not needing special cycle gear for commuting. Can't you just wear normal shorts (not short shorts). My girlfriend will cycle 5 miles across London for an evening out in a nice skirt /dress and Heels and not think anything odd of it. (either would the majority of the population of the Netherlands).
posted by mary8nne at 8:51 AM on July 21, 2011

Seconding (thirding?) getting things off your back, if they're there, and fenders.

One recommendation I have is taking some time on the weekends to do some much longer rides at high speed and get your riding fitness level up. With a little practice, 1.5 miles won't even be a proper warm up.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:52 AM on July 21, 2011

Also, and this is just a dumb thing that you're probably already aware of, but make sure your tubes are properly pumped. Half-full tires will make that 1.5 miles feel twice as far.
posted by theodolite at 9:03 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Getting fenders will indeed keep some of the grimy water out of the way when it pours, but they'll do very little to keep the rain off your back. I've had a lot of success using Marmot's Precip gear in bad weather (pants too!). It's ultra-lightweight and will roll down to nothing so it's not an inconvenience to transport if the storm isn't expected until the evening. It breathes well and I've never gotten wet in it.

Pro tip: Put your helmet on over the hood to keep you head dry.

That said, I have yet to find a good way to keep my feet dry on my bike in the rain. Has anyone solved that problem?
posted by lllama at 9:04 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend will cycle 5 miles across London for an evening out in a nice skirt /dress and Heels and not think anything odd of it. (either would the majority of the population of the Netherlands).

It's gonna be 103 degrees tomorrow here in DC (40 deg C), and so humid you could swim through it. There's really no way not to get sweaty! And, ahem, some of us are sweatier than others as a matter of course.

My solution to the shorts issue -- I wear capri-length exercise pants and roll them up.

Also, ride really slowly. It's safer, and you'll get to work more relaxed and less sweaty. For stop and go urban traffic, get a bike with a hub gear rather than a sprocket gear. The hub gear lets you shift when stationary, so it will be easy to get started again after you stop at a stop light or stop sign.
posted by yarly at 9:11 AM on July 21, 2011

Lots of good advice here. But I'd recommend not making some elaborate plan so much as simply giving yourself pleeenty of time for a while, and eventually you'll pick up what you like/prefer for your particular routine.

Give yourself extra time and go slow. You can figure out all the little details after that.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2011

I'm fortunate enough to have a gym where I work, so I change and shower at work. I'm guessing you could do this at a school, but you'd have to be there really early if you're quicked out at the prospect of students seeing you less than prepared.

I love my Nashbar commuter pannier bag, as it allows me to bring suits and dresses which would otherwise get all wrinkly on my bike. It's also quick waterproof.

I always have breakfast at my desk, after the ride, but take a lattle in my water bottle holder to sip at traffic lights when I'm stopped. It might not be easy to eat at work with students around but if you're there early, you might have time to eat breakfast will doing prep work before the students show up....
posted by Kurichina at 9:19 AM on July 21, 2011

My commute is ~3 miles each way with stoplights and cars and hills, oh my. I started out a year ago riding in work clothes with a backpack.

1) Clothing: I sweat when I even think about exercise. I ride in generic exercise clothing--knee length shorts/capris and a light t-shirt, with a light jacket if it's cool. I change into normal clothes at work. I started out commuting in work pants and just changing my shirt, but pants pockets occasionally caught on the seat when I was hopping on/off and that scared me into pocketless pants.

2) Breakfast: I drink a couple of glasses of water before I leave, and have yogurt and almonds or mini-frittatas (made in a muffin tin for portability) and coffee when I get to work.

3) Other: As others have said, ditch the backpack and get a basket or rack and panniers--your back and shoulders will thank you, and you will be less sweaty. The rack blocks some splashing, and I don't mind being damp since I ride in exercise clothes so I do not have fenders. Check your tires weekly. Get your bike tuned up if you haven't ridden in a while--just had mine cleaned and checked and it feels like new. Put in some extra miles on the weekends or take the scenic route home and your commute will feel easier.
posted by esoterrica at 9:20 AM on July 21, 2011

Also, if you've got a mountain bike, switching to smooth tires (slicks) will make the ride go much easier.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:36 AM on July 21, 2011

There's a lot of good advice here on getting to work clean and dry, but you also need to make sure you're getting to work safely. Don't ride on the sidewalk or too far on the right-hand edge of the lane - here's a fantastic animated video about why it's safest for you and everyone else on the road for you to ride like a car.
posted by brozek at 9:51 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am a daily cycle-commuter (and cycle-everything else; my bike is practically attached to me when the weather is good enough) who rides a daily distance similar to yours. I also ride in work (and daily life, when my destination is not work) clothes, often with a few additions or subtractions depending on what I am wearing for the day (ie: a pair of leggings if I'm wearing a skirt or removing a jacket if it's warm out) and the weather. I also keep some alternate clothing at the office just in case something doesn't work out - blazers, pants, etc.

I only wear "special" clothing when it's raining, as I don't have fenders, and even then, I only dress for rain if it's raining hard in the morning or if I have plans away from home after work; I don't mind getting wet when I am just heading home or when it's only sprinkling outside.

I eat my breakfast at the office, usually about half an hour after I get here. I drink coffee in the morning before leaving home. I find the morning cycle helps me to work up an appetite (and usually puts me in an awesome and awake mood to start the day).

You can always throw a skirt over those shorts and conceal them from the students. A seller on Etsy makes these super cool/smart skirt garters especially for keeping your skirt from riding up while biking.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:10 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My commute is a little over 8.5 miles each way, if I had a shorter commute like yours I'd likely just wear my work clothes unless it was going to be an incredibly hot or wet day.

For my commute I generally wear normal (non-biking) workout clothes+whatever waterproof bits and bobs are needed based on the time of year. When I get in I shower if needed (my work encourages biking, and we have full shower facilities available) and change into work clothes. I eat and get some coffee after getting ready; I drink water as needed on my ride in. I ride with a messenger bag as my current bike has disc brakes and as far as I can tell my choices were either fenders (110% necessary in the Pacific Northwest) or a rack. In the past I used rack+panniers, and I don't know that I really miss them much. I tend to bike home in my work clothes unless the weather is especially miserable.

To echo whatever else was likely said above... Definitely swap out knobby tires for slicks and keep them well inflated. Fenders are a must unless you live in some sort of desert, they really do help to keep the water off of you. Buy some good lights (front and rear) for the darker months, these in my mind are more important than a helmet (which I think you should get too). I keep both deodorant and an extra set of socks, boxers, and shoes at work, just in case I'm miserably wet and/or sweaty. It takes me a couple of weeks after my usual there's-no-fucking-way-I'm-getting-up-at-5am-to-bike-to-work-in-the-dark-when-it's-35-and-raining winter layoff to get back into shape, the first few years of doing it probably took a bit more than a few weeks as I hadn't exercised in years.

As a carrot to the whole thing I've probably lost 50 pounds just by switching my commute from a car, which I hated, to a bike, which I love. I probably started eating just a bit better somewhere along the way, but it's crazy what just a little exercise can do.
posted by togdon at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2011

I find that getting my bike professionally tuned twice a year makes a huge difference. Daily commuting will definitely cause wear and tear on your bike.

Does it snow where you live? I switch to studded tires for snow and ice in the winter.
posted by medusa at 11:52 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

This was totally my very first askme, 1.5 miles and all!

Once you figure out what you're comfortable wearing, everything else is just getting used to the biking. Eat a little bit earlier, bike at a more leisurely pace, you'll be all right!

Just make sure you don't immediately change into your work clothes once you get there, or you'll still be a mess - your body needs time to cool off before you'll actually stop sweating.
posted by soma lkzx at 11:52 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came in to recommend the same bag as Kurichina; my husband uses it to carry his work clothes to work and back and wears lightweight but LONG pants and a LONG shirt (keeps the sun off and helps prevent road rash in a crash).

Baby wipes, deodorant, and baby powder at work in a desk drawer so he can go clean up in the bathroom if he is sweaty when he arrives. (I don't think he uses the baby powder, but I sent it with anyway.)

Go to work early before it gets too hot (on hot days) and ride slow; save the ironman biking for the ride home. And if you haven't already, attach a water bottle holder to your frame so you can hydrate on the road.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:28 PM on July 21, 2011

My vote is to pack a change of shirt and breakfast for the first week. You'll sweat a lot less once you get used to it. Once you get used to it, you'll probably be able to eat beforehand and you won't sweat much.
posted by zug at 2:03 PM on July 21, 2011

My bike commute is a little over a mile each way, and in Washington DC (heat index: currently 117° F). I've been commuting by bike for about a year and a half, every single day, rain, snow, shine, or hellish inferno. Honestly, I don't even think about it much anymore.

Coincidentally, I got *way* sweatier walking 5 or 6 blocks to lunch yesterday than I did during my commute. Biking creates its own breeze that helps mitigate the heat.

I've only needed to change shirts after biking once or twice. (Pants, for whatever reason, are usually fine.) 1.5 miles really shouldn't be enough to make you feel ill, or break too much of a sweat at a reasonable pace. That said, I do usually eat at work once I'm at my desk, because I have a job that affords me the luxury of being able to do that.

Check the air in your tires. If you've got mountain bike tires, go to your bike shop and buy a new set of wheels with smoother/skinnier tires. Trust me on this one.

Buy a fender. Most are very easy to detach for days when it is not raining. I only have a rear one, and it's more or less sufficient.

There are plenty of other athletic clothing options for women that are not short-shorts. Rearranging your entire daily schedule so that your students don't see you in athletic clothing is frankly a bit nutty.
posted by schmod at 2:20 PM on July 21, 2011

Best rear light.
Best front light.

Before you brush your teeth in the morning, throw some oatmeal, milk/water/hempmilk, blueberries, agave syrup, and a pinch of salt in a rice cooker for 10 minutes. Pack it up in a sealed container, and it will still be warm when you get to work.
posted by erikvan at 3:10 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I commute by bike, which is not as often as I'd like, it's 12 miles and flat.
I generally eat nonfat yogurt with blueberries and Kashi Go-Lean ceral mixed into it, and I have a bottle of water or Gatorade G2 on the bike. All of this is pretty easy on my stomach. Save the coffee for later.

I sweat a lot. A LOT. So what I used to do was to ride in, go train BJJ for an hour, and shower at the academy. When I can't do that, I have a very cheap membership to the city rec centers where I can take a shower. A cold shower will stop my sweating and get my temperature back to normal. I bring clothes on the bike. There are ways of rolling/folding stuff so it doesn't get completely wrinkled, but I have a very casual office, so I don't worry about that too much.

I use panniers instead of a backpack, and it's good for everything, except I still worry about my laptop. I wear cycling shorts/jersey for the ride, and hang 'em on my bike to dry for the ride home.

My only other tip would be that having a bunch of plastic bags tucked away on the bike can be really useful - for wet clothes, padding/protecting phones, etc.
posted by bashos_frog at 3:30 PM on July 21, 2011

A regular trip of mine is the same distance. It takes me 15 minutes or less, and I ride at a leisurely pace. (For a distance like that, why would you do anything else?) I ride in regular clothes (which are usually pretty casual), and often eat right before riding.

If this is meant to be a long-term alternative to a car, then it may be worth investing in a bike that makes it easy to make such trips. Upright bike geometry, step-through frame, internal gearing, fenders, a full chain guard, and a skirt guard make it easy to commute in regular clothes without having your bike encouraging you to ride aggressively. Large panniers and a basket or crate make it easy to get the bike to do any necessary hauling instead of you.

Long story short, a European-style city bike with a large box adapts the bicycle to my needs instead of vice versa.
posted by parudox at 9:41 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you!

Because of your amazing advice, I went to the bike shop and picked up a rack and paniers. I also left some work clothes at work, thanks to your advice, so I can change once I arrive.

You also helped me realize that I was riding WAY too fast and in the wrong gear. I kept thinking to myself "Slooooow it down!" and it made for a much more comfortable ride.

Thanks to y'all, I'm ready to bike to work for the rest of my life!
posted by brynna at 4:27 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

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