What do I need to turn my bike into a reliable form of practical transportation?
May 17, 2012 2:25 PM   Subscribe

What do I need in order to start commuting by bike? Assume that I currently have 1) a bike, 2) there is no 2.

I just moved slightly closer to school (and slightly farther away from one of my jobs) and would like to start commuting on my bike rather than in my car, for all the usual reasons: costs less, free exercise, get to be out in the open air more, better for the environment, etc. We're looking at a daily commute of about 7 miles each way on a mixture of busy and not-so-busy streets in a city with poor bike infrastructure and terrible road quality, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night.

I have a bike that I enjoy riding, though in the past I've mostly done shorter rides on it. I had a two-mile commute to work at my old place which I always did on my bike (it's now a three-mile commute which I intend to continue doing on my bike). I've also ridden it longer distances plenty of times, but not regularly.

What do I need to make this work? Good lights are critical obviously, and I'd appreciate any tips on how I can get (or make?) some good Be Seen lights on a budget. Also I have a feeling that I should carry some basic tools -- say, a patch kit, tire levers (I'm a wimp), and a hand pump plus maybe a chain-breaker and a few spare links of chain. I probably also should get my bike tuned up at my LBS because it's been a while since it's had anything but my somewhat inexpert care and could stand to be riding a bit better. My lock is pretty crap but I can bring my bike inside at home, school, and work so I'm not super worried on that front although if someone wants to tell me what the cheapest bike lock is that's actually worth a damn, I'd love to know that.

What else am I missing here? Lots, I'm sure. Mostly I just want to make sure that I can make my commute safely and peacefully and can deal with any minor mishaps that might happen along the way. I feel like I ought to be able to figure this out on my own but for some reason keep coming up against some kind of internal inertia that's prevented me from getting this together, so I'm asking you guys for advice in the hope that it will motivate me to make this happen and join the ranks of happy bicycle commuters everywhere.

Thanks so much!
posted by Scientist to Travel & Transportation around New Orleans, LA (51 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Lots of people will come here with lots of good ideas, so I'll just give you one:

Find a bike-friendly route via Google Maps (not necessarily their "bike route") by using street view and trying a few different ways. When you think you have a good route, drive it in your car during your regular commute times and keep and eye out for how it might actually be to travel it by bike. This saved me a lot of headaches and helped me find the best route for my commute(s).
posted by The Deej at 2:29 PM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I got an obnoxious yellow and Orange safety vest and I love it. Also look up the local bike laws and abide by them. You are much safer if you're where you're supposed to be.
posted by fshgrl at 2:31 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want "be seen" lights, then just about any front light from Planet Bike is alright. For rear, get the Planet Bike Superflash, or for $5 more get the Superflash Turbo (worth it).

Basic tools? Tire levers, patch kit, pump, spare tube, small multi-tool. I wouldn't bother with a chain tool or spare links. You shouldn't be breaking chains on a commute.

Put tire liners in your tires. Since doing this a few months ago, I haven't gotten a single flat since.

A rack and panniers aren't necessary, but are nice, and will go a long way towards you arriving at work and not being sweaty.

Fenders aren't necessary, but will go a long way towards you arriving at work and not being muddy on rainy days.

U-lock? Any U-lock made by Kryptonite or On Guard are worth it, and you can find models on closeout for around $25. If you're going to use a cable, use it with a U-lock. I've cut through cable locks, the thickest ones they make, in literally less than five seconds.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2012

I commute almost 4 miles each way every day and I don't think stepping it up to 7 miles would require many changes. I would scout out a route that has decent pavement, not insane traffic, and good bike lanes (if they exist).

The things you mention are all good. I don't think you need to carry a chain breaker - in my years of riding I've never needed one on the road. I generally carry a spare tube in addition to the patch kit - the tube is easier to change out than finding a puncture and changing tubes.

One addition that made a huge difference for me was getting puncture-resistant tires. I used to get flats fairly often until I switched my tires to armadillos. Then I went several years between flats.

If you don't have one already, I would get a nice freestanding pump for home. It makes it a lot easier to keep your tires inflated.
posted by pombe at 2:38 PM on May 17, 2012

Three things I have learned cycling to work:

1. If your bike is for all weathers, not just sunny days, you will either need cycling clothes AND work clothes, or you will need GOOD waterproofs. I live in a very rainy town and I was miserable until I got proper wet-weather gear.

2. Bike maintenance is needed more frequently than you might think, especially oiling the chain, replacing brake pads and general cleanliness.

3. Develop eyes in the back of your head. The favourite trick of drivers in this town is to overtake and immediately turn across my path into a side road.
posted by fearnothing at 2:39 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Visibility is so important! Planet Bike front and rear blinkies are the brightest blinkies you can get and they're not that expensive. I would also advise reflectors EVERYWHERE if you're going to be riding at night (I have them on my pedals, on my bike shoes, on my, uh, the arms of the bike, my helmet... just everywhere). Yes handpump (and make sure it works with the type of, uh, pump release bits that are on your tires, I clearly don't know the names of many bike parts), spare tube, patch kit. I love my really bright Pearl Izumi bike jacket, it's light but rainproof and VERY, VERY bright.

I have also found that the bike tires with the kevlar in them get less flats due to road debris.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:41 PM on May 17, 2012

Response by poster: Quick note: I already have puncture-resistant tires (you need them in the French Quarter where I work where there's broken glass everywhere) and they are great. The advice you folks are giving is perfect, keep it up!
posted by Scientist at 2:43 PM on May 17, 2012

Oh! And a rearview mirror that clips onto my left handlebar has saved my bacon more than once, and IMO is vital if you have to make any left turns in traffic along your route.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:44 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't need a spare link to use a chain tool. You can just take out the broken link and close the chain back up. It's not ideal in the long run, but it'll get you home.

I carry a chain breaker/multi-tool combo, tube, pump, and tire levers. Keep it cheap and light or you won't want to carry them. I always bring a water bottle and sweater in case something unplanned happens, but I'm commuting 20km in the country with nobody to save me from disaster, it's a bit easier in urban settings.

Lastly, yeah, stay on top of maintenance and visibility. Learn to do your own basic maintenance, you don't want to be going to the shop every time your chain needs oiling.

Look though: If you don't have everything ready the first time, don't sweat it. Just go ride. It's supposed to be fun and relaxing; you're not going to want to ride if you're stressing out and hauling a garage worth of tools around with you. As you ride more you'll get more serious about it, there's no need to rush and stress.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to say exactly what fshgrl said. Get a helmet and something brightly colored to wear, especially since you'll be biking on busy streets. If drivers think you look like a dork, well, that means they see you and are much less likely to run over you. This is especially important at dusk, when fluorescent jackets illuminated by headlights are much MUCH easier to see than even your brightest blinky light.

With regard to the lock, even if you can bring your bike inside most places, sometimes you'll want to go to the store on the way home, or to your friend's house, or your building will make some stupid "no bikes inside" rule. Get a decent lock. What you need depends SO much on where you live. I had a very burly u-lock shattered open in my old city. in my new city, people use cable locks in NICE bikes without incident (though I'll probably never become that trusting.) Look at what kind of locks predominate in the places you'll be locking your bike and buy one that's stronger.

I agree with not needing a chain breaker (haven't used one in my last ~6000 miles of bike commuting) and with the recommendation for good puncture-resistant tires.

If you plan to bike in all weather, get some rain pants (don't need to be expensive) and front and back fenders. There is no such thing as good waterproof shoe-covers in my experience, but if someone here wants to disagree, I'll take their recommendation happily.

How much stuff are you going to carry? Your back will feel much sweatier after 7 miles than 2 miles, so you might find that whatever backpack you carry will start to make you miserable. Panniers can really improve your life in this regard, but aren't cheap.
posted by juliapangolin at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: Lights: Blinkeys, white on the front, red on the back. Reflective vest isn't a bat idea either.

If you ride in the rain at all, fenders with mudflaps. Or you can wear the rooster tail with pride.

A cupholder.

Ghetto anti-theft skewers: Pipe clamps over your quick-releases on your front and rear wheels and your seat stay. Keep a 1" washer filed-down to fit the pipe-clamp screwhead on your keychain to undo the pipe clamps if necessary.
posted by bonehead at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2012

Weather gear! Especially in the south, jeez, I can't imagine doing 7 miles each way and being anything other than a sweaty, gross mess. (But you work in a lab, right, so you can wear shorts?)

I have a cool weather and a warm weather rain jacket for biking, plus two cashmere knit hats, a thick and a thin, to wear on rainy days - cotton just gets soaked, and I need to arrive at work with as dry hair as possible. My warm weather jacket is just a nylon pullover shell, and I carry it with me a lot of the time. I also have a really good weatherproof bag.

I carry a leatherman pocket dealy and a couple of bandanas - the bandanas are for wiping my face and neck when it's hot and I'm sweaty, and for drying my face and neck and ankles and hair when it's rainy and I'm a mess.
posted by Frowner at 2:47 PM on May 17, 2012

The first thing that I found out (and LOVED) about bike commuting was that it doesn't cost a lot of time to ride on the smaller side streets where possible. Highly recommended--I have a very specific ride I do nowadays (not really a commute) but I go a slightly different way every time. Makes it much more fun. About 13 miles round trip.
posted by circular at 2:47 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing researching your route ahead of time.

Get a great, comfortable helmet; if it's more than fifty dollars, you're crazy.

Get one of those ridiculous orange or neon green construction-worker-or-longshoreman vests that glow in the dark.

An LED light for the front (white, preferably blinking function) and LED for the rear (red, also preferably blinking), and possibly a headlight if you need to see at night and ambient light won't work. The lights I mentioned are just for being seen. You can also get some helmets that have blinky-light attachments. You want visibility-enhancing lights to be at drivers' eye level. Street level's okay, but eye-level is best.

I don't know about a mirror, but really do practice looking over your shoulder when you're riding with traffic. So scary.

They way I think about it? The more safety things I do, the less of a contributory negligence argument the other guy has when my family's suing his ass off. :)
posted by resurrexit at 2:47 PM on May 17, 2012

I read your post, and want to stress that again.

I feel like I ought to be able to figure this out on my own but for some reason keep coming up against some kind of internal inertia that's prevented me from getting this together, so I'm asking you guys for advice in the hope that it will motivate me to make this happen and join the ranks of happy bicycle commuters everywhere.

Just go ride and have fun.

It's not about tools, they're not what's keeping you off the bike. Tons of people have great bike equipment collecting dust in their garage, you don't want to be them.

Be safe. have fun.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:48 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I bought fluorescent stickers and put them all over my helmet.
posted by resurrexit at 2:49 PM on May 17, 2012

Response by poster: As far as fenders, is it enough to get those half-fenders that just kind of stick out straight in the front and back or do I need to go all-out with big full fenders that go down toward the ground? Note that if it gets super wet out I'll probably just drive, though I'm OK driving in light rain or if there's water on the ground or if it's raining and I just happen to need to get home.
posted by Scientist at 2:51 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: You get spray from the back of the tire, both front and rear. Half-fenders tend not to block the full amount of spray in my experience. They work a bit, you still get dirty, a bit.
posted by bonehead at 2:54 PM on May 17, 2012

juliapangolin: Here are some awesome rain booties, I've worn them through wet, wet Portland winters and they really help.

That said, if you do arrive at work with wet shoes, stuff them with newspaper and they'll be (mostly) dry by the time your evening commute rolls around.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:54 PM on May 17, 2012

One of the best things to find is one you can't buy: a local community. Here in Pittsburgh, our local advocacy organization has a pretty fantastic message board where people coordinate rides, share experiences, and ask advice.

Can't immediately tell if Bike Easy has such a thing, but if there isn't one directly on their site, there may be somewhere else for your area...
posted by FlyingMonkey at 2:56 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: There are lots of great multitools out there, probably just as good as mine, but I wanted to mention that I have been car-free and commuting everywhere by bike for 3 years and nothing has ever happened that I could not repair on the side of the road with that tool, a pump, and a patch kit or spare tube. Get those and ride, you'll be fine, and your future needs will reveal themselves as minor inconveniences along the way.
posted by makeitso at 2:57 PM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up in New Orleans and biked all around with a little more fender coverage than those straight ones you're talking about - they were a little longer, as they curved down along the wheel, but they probably caught about as much when I went through a puddle.

Stuff I wouldn't bike without:
- functioning u-lock, get a long one if possible
- water bottle (in cage attached to the frame)
- rear cargo rack (not a big one), keep some bungee cords on this and store your lock there when not in use
- helmet
- front/back lights
- bell

(Note: the rear cargo rack will make it pretty much impossible to install a rear fender. But it'll also function as one.)

Stuff I like to have at home:
- tire pump
- patch kit

Biking through the Quarter is SUPER AWESOME if you do it during rush hour, because you get to giggle to yourself as you zoom past all the cars slowly crawling through the streets.

You might want to consider throwing some sunblock on before hopping on the bike, too, what with it being the middle of summer. And on that note MAKE SURE YOU HAVE WATER, the air there may be about as water-laden as it can get without you having to swim through it but you can't extract that and use it to replace what you're sweating out.

Aaaaalso try riding your school route on a weekend or something, on a day when you don't have class. So you can get lost on the way and not be DOOMED.

But mostly just get your ass on the bike!
posted by egypturnash at 3:09 PM on May 17, 2012

Response by poster: OK, I think I'm getting a pretty good handle on what I need to get (both immediately and eventually). I'm looking at: spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, hand pump, multitool. Front & back blinkenlights, reflective jacket. Fenders, raingear. U-lock, water bottle holder, cargo rack. Also I should scout my route so that I know whether it's rideable and how long it takes.

Not all of that will need to be purchased immediately, but I'll probably want all of that eventually. If anybody has good suggestions on specific models to buy or places to look (planet bike seems great... can anybody vouch for the quality/lack thereof in their stuff?) in order to find stuff, I'd love to hear about it.

I think I'll hit up my LBS for a few of the need-it-right-now items and then take a ride this coming Saturday to see what it's like. Fun weekend project! Thanks so much for all the advice!
posted by Scientist at 3:19 PM on May 17, 2012

Nthing the helmeting... it will make you more confident to ride out into traffic.

I'm also a huge fan of making eye contact with drivers, especially drivers coming up from behind me on my left. I feel much more secure once we've both acknowledged our mutual existence.
posted by eyesontheroad at 3:21 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

These spoke lights are inexpensive, widely available, and greatly enhance your visibility.
posted by Danf at 3:23 PM on May 17, 2012

is it enough to get those half-fenders

They're better'n nothing.

But the best thing? A rack, to strap your gear onto (using bungee cords). Nothing would make me more miserable on my commute than wearing a backpack while cycling. And yet there seems to be strong reluctance at retail bike shops to promote sales and use of this vital accessory.
posted by Rash at 3:25 PM on May 17, 2012

I like these fenders.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:26 PM on May 17, 2012

For my recent foray into bike commuting I zip-tied a plastic milk crate to my rear rack and it has been WONDERFUL for encouraging me to just toss all my crap in and get going with minimal fuss.

I have a Specialized helmet that probably cost way too much money but it's comfortable, breathable, looks way fine and gives a minimum of helmet hair- all things that encourage me to wear it! Get something you like that is comfortable and easily adjustable.

I also have been seeing people out recently with headlights on their helmets for visibility at night, and also mirrors and visors (haven't seen any yet with all at once though!) Things like that might be fun to try at some point.

Advice: if you park your bike outside/in public, lock your front wheel to your bike frame and the bike rack with a sturdy U-lock. Lots of my friends have had wheels stolen when they have forgotten to do this even just once, and you generally want to avoid your ride becoming one of the sad wheel-less bike carcasses you see locked to various sidewalk locations.

you may also want sunglasses!
posted by ghostbikes at 3:30 PM on May 17, 2012

Best answer: Since you live in New Orleans, check out Bike Easy for local-specific biking information.
posted by radioamy at 3:30 PM on May 17, 2012

Get one of those ridiculous orange or neon green construction-worker-or-longshoreman vests that glow in the dark
If you live somewhere warm these jackets can be a bit ... warm so you might consider a reflective Sam Browne belt which gives you much of the visibility and much more ventilation.

Fenders/mud-guards ? If you're going to be cycling in the rain I can't imagine why you wouldn't have them.
posted by southof40 at 3:37 PM on May 17, 2012

Maybe this is kind of irresponsible, but I bike commute without carrying any tools or supplies. I figure hauling a bunch of crap around will make me less prone to actually get on my bike and go. I'm willing to deal with the occasional crisis as it comes up, and I'm slow enough with repairs that if I get a flat on my commute, I'm going to be late to work whether I can patch it up then and there or not.
posted by threeants at 3:51 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the very best purchases I have ever made regarding my bike was to buy a rear rack and panniers to haul things. It is an amazing feeling to bike to the store and haul your groceries back on your bike. Also it is good to avoid hot and sweaty backs on long bike rides. I have these panniers: Ortlieb Classic Panniers and I love them so much.
posted by ruhroh at 4:07 PM on May 17, 2012

Bags, either on the bike (panniers, trunk bag...), or rider (backpack, messenger bag...). I use a messenger bag that's black but reflective for my 5.5 mile commute. A lot of people seem to not like backpacks in the heat (they get sweaty). Messenger bags are better to not get sweaty. Bags mounted on the bike (assuming the bike has the correct mounting points for a rack) tend to be preferred if the trip is longer, for varying definitions of the term.

You don't need many tools. Mine fit in a little pouch, and then I have a spare tube and pump. No biggie.

I would strongly recommend a brighter light than the ones that most seem to be recommending. I use one similar to this that I bought from the same retailer (which has extremely slow shipping but is otherwise alright). You'll also need a handlebar mount for the flashlight, a few lithium-ion 18650 batteries (slightly longer/fatter than AAs), and a charger. These kinds of flashlights are the best value in lighting right now, I think.

You can find specialized bike lights that work great, too. The advantage of the flashlight is that it's easy to take off when you lock up; the bike lights tend to have the batteries mounted elsewhere and connected by a cable. This makes the light head smaller and allows bigger battery packs, but it's one more thing to pull off the bike.

Good, cheap bright rear blinkies include the RadBot 1000 and the Planet Bike Superflash, both available in various places.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 4:12 PM on May 17, 2012

gloves. minor mishaps can often shread your hands, and proper ulnar nerve padding can prevent hand fatigue. plus, it is sometimes nice to keep your hands clean when you have to lean on something or press a grotty crossing button. there are gloves for every season and you should definitely try before you buy.
posted by paradroid at 4:33 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're riding on less well lit roads, it's worth getting a decent front light as well as a front blinky. I bought one after hitting a pothole I didn't see at 50km/hr - it hurt!

Actually, if you're going to be doing a lot of night riding, spare lights are a good idea anyway, as batteries will always go flat at the most inconvenient time.
posted by kjs4 at 4:45 PM on May 17, 2012

My commuting experience is limited. But I would buy extra tubes and not mess with a patch kit. I could never get them to work properly. I'd always end up with another flat a short time later. YMMV.
Nth lights. Get yourself a reflective vest. Get some good sunglasses too.
posted by hot_monster at 5:07 PM on May 17, 2012

I currently have an 11-mile commute (one way) in NYC, and carry only a tube and lever and frame pump in my rear pannier. I don't bother with anything else, and keep a set of tools at the office in the event of some sort of mechanical issue. For anything more difficult than a set of allen keys, there's the local bike shop. (Such as the day recently when my seat clamp bolt broke and I rode to work without a saddle--whee!)

I have a pair of rechargeable Blackburn Flea front blinkies and one rear blinkie, with chargers both at home and at the office for easy recharging. The panniers have large reflecting strips. I consider the front lights much more important now than I did several years ago. Friends also use the blinkies that insert into your bar ends (best for drop handlebars).

(Important note on the usage of a front light: if you are riding on a path or section of road not highly frequented by cars, do not aim your front light directly into the eyes of oncoming cyclists and pedestrians. Angle it slightly downward. We do not want to be blinded by your headlight. Thank you.)

A brimmed cycling cap is more effective at keeping the sun out the eyes, in my experience, especially for those of us whose commuting direction takes us into the sun at the beginning and end of the day. It will also keep the rain out of your eyes, where sunglasses will just get splattered and fog up.

As far as your route, treat it like an experiment. Try out one set of roads, then mix it up as you go. My commuting route to my current job has evolved over the years, and varies on the day, the traffic, and my mood.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:19 PM on May 17, 2012

I commute 13 miles each way. These are some of the things that have made my commute the best part of the working day, in order of impact:

1- Fat tires for bad roads. Low pressure fat tires makes the ride smooth and relaxing. They act as suspension and are less prone to punctures. I run 2.15" Schwalbe tires at 40 PSI. Get the fattest tires your bike can take while allowing for fenders.

2- Rack and panniers. It makes it super easy to carry tools, books, laptops and a change of clothes. Backpacks make your back sweaty and your shoulders and back tired. You will be amazed at how much weight you can carry in the panniers without feeling that much of a difference.

3- Weather appropriate clothing. It took me many tries, but now I have light sunny day pants and long sleeve shirts with SPF 50, and waterproof pants, jacket and show covers for rainy days. I am lucky to have a gym at work, but it takes me 3 minutes to change into work clothes in a bathroom stall.

4- Full coverage fenders. That way you don't have to wear all your waterproof stuff when it is not raining but the road is wet or you expect puddles. It also lowers bike maintenance, less splash into the drivetrain and headset.

5- Very bright lights. I have enough lights to be seen, but during the winter it is dark out and I go through some badly trails. I went the expensive way and got a generator hub and German lights, but I have seen several co-workers using cheap Chinese high intensity LED flashlights taped to their handlebars. You can get a super bright flashlight for under $20 from ebay, and keep a battery charger at work.

All the tools I carry are a few loose allen wrenches (easier to use in tight spaces or in tandem than a multitool), tire levers, spare tubes and small pump. Patch kits are too much hassle.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 5:31 PM on May 17, 2012

Some things I recommend:

- Keep (or install) the sunvisor on the helmet - during commuting hours the sun is often low, and can be in your eyes. Furthermore, at night, if there are not streetlights, oncoming traffic will blind you. The visor let's you tilt your head forward and shade your eyes.

- Photochromatic safety glasses. During the day, they keep bugs out of your eyes, and darken to act as sunglasses, during the night they keep the now-nearly-invisible tips of tree branches out of your eyes, and become completely transparent so as not to impede night vision.

- Consider always wearing gloves and long sleeves, even when it's hot. Your hands are your livelyhood, and even a thin bit of cloth on your forearms can be the difference between a scrape and bloody road-rashed mess. It'll also save you from sunburn. If it's often hot, perhaps get a shirt/top in white to help stay cool while covering up.

- Bike rack: much better than wearing a bag, keeps you cool, also catches any spray the mudguards miss. I have a set of thin raingear I just leave in the bike's bag always, so I never have to worry about being caught out by weather changes after work. I also find it quicker and easier to get a coiled bike lock out of a bag pocket than to uncoil it from around the seat stem.

- Dry socks, medication, spare housekey, bungie cords, fresh batteries, etc are also lightweight useful things I just leave in the bike's pack always, against the day I might need them.

- Ree Lights (in addition to bike lights): Expensive, but once installed, they run without batteries, and they don't require that you switch them on, so they will always be there to tide you over when the lights fail (eg if you left a bike light on all day and come back to discover the battery is dead)

- Retro-reflective tape: stick it on your bike, your helmet, your bag, etc. If you like, do it in stylish ways that give your gear a custom, matching look.

- Don't bother with a cycle computer unless you want to kill yourself racing yourself and arrive at work sweaty :-)

- Keep the tire pressure high (reduces chances of flats), and always put the plastic screw-top caps back on the valves when done. (This keeps dust out of the valves, which means you won't have to pump them up as often, and also prevents the infuriating "slow leak")

- presta-to-car-valve converters. Buy a bunch of them, and leave them permanently on the valves (with a car-valve plastic cap on of course). This lets you use gas station air, footpumps, electric pumps, etc. If your rims support tire tubes that come with car valves out of the box, then nevermind :)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:41 PM on May 17, 2012

Not always practicable or possible, but leaving some work clothes at work (pants are a good candidate--I wear black jeans at work, and as a fat bastard they take up a lot of room in a backpack).
posted by Decimask at 6:57 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just piping in about planet bike. There are probably a half-dozen superflashes around the house and attached to bikes and bags, and three or four blazes. We have a bunch of fenders and other stuff too. Their stuff is typically quite well made, and they also sell spare parts you you can just replace the broken clip instead of the whole light. Genius.

I ride every day (12 miles each way) and my planet bike stuff has been a total champ.
posted by rockindata at 7:07 PM on May 17, 2012

Portland Design Works makes some really high end, stable lighting for bikes. My rear light cost me around $30 last year and looks like a siren, as far as brightness goes.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:59 PM on May 17, 2012

I lived for a year in New Orleans car-free, pre-Katrina. I made do with a three speed beach cruiser - it was awesome.

Headlight, tail-light, and a name-brand, stout U-Lock are essential. Nice-to-haves are fenders, toolkit (with self-stick patches), puncture-proof bike tires and a rear rack. My rack was a set of Wald steel panniers in the long size - fixed, not folding - and I could schlep unbelievable amounts of stuff in them with a few bungie cords. A weeks' worth of groceries; my camera bag, tripod, jacket and a lunch cooler; computer bag and a bunch of books.

NoLa is flat, flat, flat, and the streets are generally wide enough to share with traffic with no real problems. I had no hassle, even when riding through the "bad" parts of town after dark, but I was a big guy with a biker beard, so YMMV.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:46 AM on May 18, 2012

Oh! As for the cheapest good brand of bike lock - the On-Guard Bulldog Mini Long-Shackle is your best bet. I used one when I was bike commuting to a high-crime area in Providence with no issues. (I parked it for 10 hours a day at the train station, where the Amtrack cops just don't care what happens at the bike racks.)

Do not mistake for the cheap department-store or Amazon On-Guard lock models, which are also confusingly named Bulldog. Go to a bike store, and get the one with the bicycle loss coverage offer - they'll replace up to $1500 worth of bicycle if one is stolen while you were using their locks.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:57 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bike to work most days, about 10 miles round trip. Here is my advice.

Is your bike fit to your size? I thought my old bike fit me just fine, but unbeknownst to me it was rather too small, and I eventually pulled some muscles in my back and spent a weekend in bed wit IcyHot and heating pads, unable to move without extreme pain. After that I went to a bike shop and got fitted for a bike, and my current, bigger, bike is much, much more comfy. So that's first and foremost.

Avoid busy streets. They are more dangerous, more difficult to navigate, the exhaust is a billion times worse because you're exercising and really breathing in the air. I feel pretty nauseated if I stay on a busy road long enough. If at all possible, take less congested roads even if that means a longer commute. I've been doing my (very urban) route for about two years now, and I still will discover new routes to go. It's a combination of studying Google Maps plus just simply turning down this road or that road and seeing where it takes me.

Rainy days suck. Cold is not really a problem if you have good gloves. The hot days you can put your suit in a bag and ride with shorts and a t-shirt. But rain, it's the worst. Put on a rainsuit (which sucks when it's hot) and waterproof your stuff with covers. Once you get to work, you then have to deal with all your dripping rain gear; shitty for those days you're running late. No real advice here, just know that rain sucks.

On hot days, you will get to work sweaty and stinky. Can you take a shower? Got a locker room? Keep a rotating set of clothes you can change into at work. Give yourself a cooling off period.

Any shoulder or messenger bag will suck when it's hot. Look into panniers, or rig a way to hang your bag from a rack or the handlebars.
posted by zardoz at 6:20 AM on May 18, 2012

A handy way to figure out if you have everything you need is to compare your bicycle set-up to a car. A car needs lights. Do you have lights? A car has storage. Does your bicycle? A car has a horn. Can your bicycle make noise? A car needs fuel. Are you well-fed and watered? A car has a seat belt and an airbag. Do you wear your helmet and sunscreen? Driving a car requires a driver's license. Do you know how to be a predictable bicyclist? Et cetera.

If you find yourself falling madly in love with bicycling, having a bicycle trailer handy is also eventually a must. A bike without a bike trailer is like a car without carrying capacity. If you find yourself falling madly in love with bicycling, you might also want to consider having a guest bicycle on hand. A bicycle without a guest bicycle is like a car with carrying capacity for one person.

It looks like there are a couple community bike collectives in New Orleans: Plan B and Rubarb. They have bike tools available and volunteers if you need help learning how to use them.
posted by aniola at 9:59 AM on May 18, 2012

I haven't tried it myself, but I've heard it's pretty easy to DIY yourself some fenders if you don't have the cash (or attachment points) for the storebought kinds. From the Pittsburgh bike community, a pair of suggestions:
- "tape a Thomas English Muffin box to [your] down tube"
- "My back fender is a small paint tray, ziptied to my milk crate."

Happy Bike To Work Day!
posted by FlyingMonkey at 11:10 AM on May 18, 2012

A seven mile ride will probably leave you sweating at work. The few times I bike commuted, I tried two approaches; shower before leaving the house, shower at work. Showering at work seemed to take too much time. But when I showered at home, and got to work sweaty (9 mike ride), I'd clean up with wet-wipes, and was fine (well, never had any complaints!).

And I packed my work clothes in paniers. Worked fine (an occasional wrinkle), since we're casual dress. But I learned to bag them, despite being in "weather-proof" panniers. Wind and rain can work their way in.

Good luck!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 12:11 PM on May 18, 2012

Response by poster: By the way I do know how to do basic maintenance on my bike and I know how to ride in traffic, having been doing both for the last five years. My main thing was just that I've mostly been doing short rides and I wanted to know what I'd need to buy in order for my bike to be more reliable/comfortable on longer rides (which y'all have been crazy helpful with). I realize that it's probably a little late for all that, now. I appreciate the well-meaning advice on how to ride in a city but I'm already on board with all of that.
posted by Scientist at 12:33 PM on May 18, 2012

We have people who have been riding bikes for decades use our bike collective for its tools. You don't need to learn basic bike maintenance to use the tools at a bike collective.

Recumbents are strange-looking beasts, but for longer rides, once you're used to a recumbent there's no going back.

About that patch kit: be sure to check the glue every once in a blue moon to make sure it hasn't gone dry.

Bells and trailers. Trailers and bells.
posted by aniola at 3:50 PM on May 18, 2012

You don't need to learn basic bike maintenance to use the tools at a bike collective.

What I mean to say is that even if you already know how to use the tools, you're still welcome to drop by and use them.
posted by aniola at 3:52 PM on May 18, 2012

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