Commuting by bike - soup to nuts
August 23, 2012 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Biking to work. Don't even own a bicycle. I have a month to prepare. Please impart your wisdom on this newbie.

I am an in shape woman in my 40s but with a not-so-great back. I will be starting a job that requires me to be in the office early every M-F and I won't have time to workout. My solution - bike to work. It will be a 10-mile commute each way. I plan on taking my bike most days except when the snow won't allow for it. I'm in Arlington, VA and will be riding about 2 miles on the Capital Crescent trail but the rest will be the mean streets of DC (I'll be heading to L'Enfant Plaza area). I know nothing - less than nothing really - about (1) biking, (2) biking to work, or (3) biking to work in an urban environment. Those of you who have been there/done that, can you provide some advice or lessons learned as to what I should be doing to prepare myself for this commute over the next 4 weeks. For example, specific equipment to buy - e.g., commuter bike for folks with a bad back, lights for riding in the dark on some slightly bumpy paths, special backpacks? Do you go into the office on the weekend with all of your "work" clothes for the week? I'm not sure if I'll have easy access to a shower and I need to be rather gussied up for this job. Riding in the dark? Bike locks? Preparing myself to ride in traffic especially if just the idea makes me jumpy? I'm up for the challenge but I'd like to be as ready as possible. Thanks for the help.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 to Work & Money (27 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I'll throw out a few:

HELMET. most important.

Bike rack & pannier(s) so you don't have to carry your bag on your back. I'm a big fan of Ortlieb's products (i.e:

LIGHTS. A must. Seriously. LED front and back - blinking in the front, an irregular flashing one in the back.

Comfortable cycling clothes. I pack my work clothes in my bag and change at the office. I change back EOD, just pack a second set of underwear so I have something dry for the return trip.

If you're planning on riding in the rain & colder weather, you're going to need a good cycling jacket, and good gloves.

There will be plenty more on the thread. One benchmark - Expect that you'll probably spend $3-500 on accessories (depending on what you have now). You don't have to buy it all at once. Helmet & lights at a minimum, you can always start with a backpack. Buy better/warmer clothing as needed.

Good luck!
posted by swngnmonk at 6:46 PM on August 23, 2012

I've never biked in DC, but here are a few things I did when biking in Chicago (though I never had to be gussied up for work so I could get away with being slightly sweaty when I got in):

Pretend you're a car. Follow ALL traffic rules. Just because there's no one else at a red light/stop sign doesn't mean you get to run it.

Good LED light. I liked my Planet Bike lights a lot. These will mainly help you avoid getting hit by cars at night. The front one was bright but the back ones were just red flashy ones for motorists to see. I'm not sure how well they'll work in lighting up dark paths since streets where I biked were pretty well lit.

Start riding with traffic on streets that are less busy. Once you get used to that, start riding on roads that you'll be taking to work. Just keep in mind that cars aren't out to get you. Not that many people are hellbent on mowing down bikers on a whim. Ride the route you're planning to take a few times before you actually start commuting. There's really no other way to get over jumpiness about urban riding until you actually do it, and even then you'll still have a few OMFG I ALMOST DIED moments. Just come to terms that while for the most part it'll be pretty mundane, you will have a few absolutely terrifying moments.

I used a Kryptonite Series 2 U Lock. My bike never got stolen.

Don't bike and listen to music at the same time. Ever.

Be very aware of what's going on around you. Notice which parked cars have people in them so you won't get doored.

Just stay on the side of caution all the time. If you can't see over a car to gauge incoming traffic, don't go. Never cave in to cars honking/drivers yelling for you to go unless you're sure that you'll be able to do so safely. Just remember, you never see cars and buses in the hospital.

Bags: I used my Timbuk2 messenger and alternated with my Outlier Minimal backpack once I got it.
posted by astapasta24 at 6:50 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow that's like everything. I assume you know how to ride at least. I'm sure you'll get lots of good comments.

For me the trickiest part was just the logistics of planning the cloths, and I'm not in a dress up environment at all. Find a shower.

Identify bike shops that can do emergency repairs at both ends, if a tire blows at work, you can patch it but a quick fix can do wonders for your attitude.

I try to take routes that already have heavy bike traffic, all other defensive riding is important but my thought is that if there is an awareness of bikes the odds improve.

As with all new exercise, start slow, maybe twice a week, or just one way. Have good, non-bike commute options.

Learn about defensive riding, perhaps there are classes you can find. Really there are times to "take the lane" and parts of the road to not be at (when a car could be there).

Good luck and when the weather is right and you're in the groove it is just fantastic.
posted by sammyo at 6:50 PM on August 23, 2012

Don't bike and listen to music at the same time. Ever.

Oh yes, double this. When biking it's not the time to think about that project or the date or anything else. Total awareness is the key.

I also have slow routes that I take when I can't deal with traffic.
posted by sammyo at 6:55 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll speak to cleaning/gussying up without shower access. 2 or 3 times a week I take an exercise class in a park near my office, which doesn't afford me time to get home and shower, and I have a pretty good system for faking it worked out.

I pack the clothes I want to wear the next day (including jewelry, etc) the night before in a small workout bag. The most important part: when I wake up, I shower. The pre-sweating shower may seem weird, but it means that later when you clean up you're wiping off fresh sweat that's a most an hour old rather than the collected grime of the past 24 hours. You can wash your hair or not, depending on length and how often you go between shampoos, but either way I french braid my hair midway down and then twist it into a knot secured by the hairtie - messy is fine, it's just to keep it off your neck. I usually bring dry shampoo as a backup, too.

Bike to work and then head into the office bathroom. I wipe down first my top and then my bottom half with 2-3 moist towelettes containing alcohol (Purell makes a cheap, decent one), paying particular attention to the delicate, fragrant zones of the armpits, crotch, and butt. Alcohol will zap the sweat-loving bacteria that contribute to body odor, so it's key for me as a shower substitute. When followed by deodorant, a change of underwear (very important!) and then clothes for the day, I feel basically normal. You can then do makeup, if you wear any, and let down your hair if it's long, either rocking beachy waves or smoothing it back into a more refined ponytail or bun.

Enjoy your commute!
posted by superfluousm at 7:02 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Everything that's come already--helmet helmet helmet lights lights lights--plus:

1. If possible, before you start, bike on some much smaller streets and practice throwing glances back over your left shoulder at traffic behind you. A lot. The more comfortable you get with looking back while moving forward, the better you'll be at keeping a sense of where cars are at all times and who's coming up behind you. It's a habit I learned cycling and retained for driving, and it's incredibly helpful in both contexts.

2. Especially early on, plan to allow enough time to bike really slowly. Going slowly can help calm a lot of your traffic fears, plus it gives you just that much more time to react if the situation suddenly changes.

3. Don't hesitate to choose a slightly longer route if it means you get off big, busy streets sometimes. It's worth it. And where possible, choose routes that already see a lot of bike traffic. Drivers will be much more likely to see you if they're used to seeing bikes.

4. If you're biking alongside parked cars, do your best to pay attention to them, too. As you roll up on them, look to see if there are brake lights, or if there are people inside. If not, roll on; if so, watch out for doors to suddenly open. It's amazing how well you can hear--and react to--the quiet click of a door unlatching if you're prepared for it.

5. Assume at all times that no one in a car sees you. They probably do, but you're better off assuming they don't. Assume as you approach an intersection--even if you have the right of way--that the cars pulling up to it aren't going to stop, so you should be prepared to. Try to make eye contact with drivers in those situations; once you do that, you usually will be able to tell that it's okay to proceed.

6. Claim your space, but don't stand on your rights. Expressways aside, you should take up as much of the far right lane as you feel you need to in order to keep yourself safe from parked cars--you have as much right to be there as any cars behind you. But at the same time, you should always remember that bicycling isn't a right worth dying for--if a driver is being pushy or troubling, just back off and let them go. You'll still get where you're going, and they'll still be assholes.

Finally--this was said above, but it never hurts to reiterate it: act like a car. Behave predictably. If you're going to make a turn, change lanes, shift direction, stop, or do anything differently from what you're doing at any given moment, look all around you and also give a hand signal. Obey all traffic laws as if you were driving. (I'll admit to blowing stop signs--but only if there are no cars in sight, and even then I'm always, always ready to stop on a dime if need be--but I never blow stoplights, even if it means waiting in solitude at 5 AM in the dark.) Rules are rules, and the more cyclists obey them, the better for everyone riding.

Despite all the details and warnings in everyone's recommendations, don't be intimidated. Every urban cyclist has to start sometime, and the reward can be a real joy in riding and a city that is opened up to you in a wholly new, human-scale way. You can do this--good luck!
posted by Levi Stahl at 7:10 PM on August 23, 2012

DC-specific answer: Depending on where you are in Arlington, the best route for you may avoid a lot of city streets, which would be great for starting out. I am not 100% familiar with the Capitol Crescent trail, but f you can take the over to Georgetown, then continue along the waterfront area and then on to the multi-purpose paths on the national mall, that will basically take you to L'Enfant.

I prefer biking in the street (streets get less weird during off weather), and my preferred route when I needed to commute from Arlington (specifically, to a building near the Courthouse metro station) to Columbia Heights was to take Clarendon Blvd down the hill, then turn left on Lynn St and go over the bridge, and then bike on M until I was out of Georgetown. Though M St may seem craaaazy, the cars are actually usually too gridlocked to go quickly so it feels a bit safer. Don't be afraid to take the lane! Pretend you are a car (except follow pedestrian walk & don't walk signs usually...otherwise the weird turn signals will get you)!

With regard to a bike for a bad back: I am not a doctor, but intuitively, I would get a bike that is a more upright frame (though not too upright!) with mustache handlebars, rather than a roadbike with dropbars. If you're going the craigslist route, look for mixtes or Raligh Sports. If you want a new bike, look at Public bikes, Linus bikes, or the Trek Belleville (if you can afford to pay more, look at early posts on for recommendations and reviews, though now she is more into roadbikes)

Get good lights, a helmet, a bell and make sure the bike has fenders and a chain guard (you do not want to arrive at work with mud on you! and this helps with being able to wear more diverse clothing), and storage (a basket or a set of panniers on a rear rack. (for the latter, I asked this for a friend, and it got good answers) because you'll want to carry things.

I started bike commuting 3.5 miles each way right after I got a bike in DC. It was more difficult at first, but is easier now. However, I have been biking for 1.5 years here, and I still feel a bit overworked if I don't take a day off from biking once a week (but I live at the top of a hill so that might have something to do with it. if you live in the Rosslyn part of Arlington, your commute is going to be wonderful.) I usually either bike in business clothes (though my route is only 5 miles each way right now) OR I wear casual clothes and bring business clothes to change into in the bathroom at work.

Anyway, biking is awesome. If you ever feel frustrated about biking, read this comic:
posted by aaanastasia at 7:11 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Big subject.

People in here will offer little pet nuggets of specific advice that you may or may not find helpful. By far the best thing you can do for your own competence and confidence is to befriend other regular, experienced bike commuters and quietly study them. Maybe they work where you do, or follow similar routes. Maybe there's a local bike coop or biking advocacy group - they sometimes run bike-buddy schemes for new commuters. Maybe someone in here with local knowledge can help with that.
Cherry-pick what works for you. There's very little that's completely right or wrong, despite the absolutist tone adopted by some bike commuting fundamentalists.

Anyhow, here's a suggestion for a little reading to get you started.
posted by normy at 7:12 PM on August 23, 2012

Figuring out routes with less traffic (and using them) is extremely helpful.

In terms of basic equipment: Hybrid bikes make good commuting bikes. Fenders are useful, too. Avoid knobby tires, as they can make the ride significantly less comfortable. Also, everything that's been said (panniers, helmet, and lights) and helmet-mounted mirrors for times when someone's intent on mowing you down (or not). Oh, and seconding gloves! Riding in the cold without gloves is much more uncomfortable than just walking.

Also, remember that you're legally allowed to take up a whole lane if you believe your safety demands it (even if the police think otherwise). Don't leave room for cars to squish you to the side of the road -- especially if there's no bike lane. It's not safe! Biking on the sidewalk is unsafe, too. Don't do it.
posted by retypepassword at 7:12 PM on August 23, 2012

In addition to all the good advice you're getting above about equipment and routes, it's also important to be mentally prepared. Watch what other cyclists do, study the local law, and read one of the many commuting guides on the internet. The point is to be confident in the correctness of your own behavior, so that you aren't flustered when motorists honk, curse, spit, or throw things at you.

Unless you're doing something really dumb, and you'll know when that happens, it's usually not your fault. His specific statements notwithstanding, the real danger is not that the guy behind you is going to run you over in cold blood. The real danger is that the incident will distract you and cause you to ride inattentively afterward. So just shrug it off and keep riding. I like to think of something happy and smile back when this happens; the facial feedback hypothesis says happy expressions actually make people feel happier.

Of course, if you do something really dumb, and you realize it, you should acknowledge the mistake and apologize. It happens to everyone. Don't feed the stereotype of the asshole cyclist any more than you have to.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:33 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Google maps now has a (beta) biking option when working out a route. I don't know how it is in DC, but in Montreal it was amazing, managed to get me from A to B in an unfamiliar part of town on 99% bike paths.
Here's what google maps has for Arlington VA to L'Enfant Plaza by bike.

Also, for advice on bikes for us middle-aged ladies, you can check out my question a few months ago. I'm very happy with my second-hand 8-speed. The first few weeks I allowed a lot of time to get to work, and used the easiest gears, and later on found myself in much harder gears and doing a much faster commute!
Bring a couple of washcloths with you - one to soak with cold water for a quick freshen-up and cooldown, and the other to dry yourself with.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:37 PM on August 23, 2012

Not that many people are hellbent on mowing down bikers on a whim.

Agreed. But that number is non-zero.

Also, not that many people are hellbent on mowing down bikers on principle. But that number is also non-zero.

Biking is awesome. Identify the crazies and give them space. Be safe.

"Identify the crazies and give them space." General purpose advice in a lot of contexts, I suppose.
posted by GPF at 7:49 PM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to ride 15 miles each way to work. I still commute daily but not quite that far.

For that distance you will definitely want to wear "bike clothes" (riding shorts at minimum). That will wick sweat away and be a lot more comfortable. Carrying a backpack that far kind of sucks and makes your back sweatier, get a rack and some sort of panniers or bag or whatever to carry your stuff.

It is well worth it to take a quieter route that's a little longer rather than going through bike unfriendly streets. Try different routes until you figure out what's best, or what other cyclists in the area do.

I personally would ride a road bike, not a hybrid, for doing 20 miles a day. It will be faster and more comfortable. Don't rule it out, ride both and see what makes sense.

I always just wiped down with non-scented baby wipes and then changed into work clothes. Many of my coworkers were shocked that I never smelled.
posted by bradbane at 7:52 PM on August 23, 2012

Check out the Washington Area Bicycle Association.
posted by postel's law at 7:52 PM on August 23, 2012

If you have your own office, rather than a cube, you could store a couple of days worth of outfits, rather than have to pack in fresh clothes every day. You can always store a pair of dressy shoes or boots, change of underwear, makeup etc.. I'd also have a carpool or ride share backup plan in cae of sudden rain when you're not prepared for it.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:57 PM on August 23, 2012


learn how to change a tire, and practice it a few times.

Your bike shop can show you how.

And then pack a tire kit with you - 2 CO2 cartridges, an adapter, and either a patch kit or a spare innertube.

Why? Because your local bike shop may only be a mile or two away, but it sucks to have to push your bike the whole way if you get a flat.

Changing a tire is really easy if you know how, and you'll feel a lot more comfortable riding with that fear removed.
posted by swngnmonk at 7:59 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed that a longer, less busy route is definitely preferable. I would also suggest a bell for your stint on the bike trail to warn pedestrians and other, slower cyclists of your approach. Keep in mind that they themselves may be wearing earphones and therefore completely oblivious, and older people out for a morning constitutional might have hearing problems, so give them plenty of advance warning. (I always smile and wish people a good morning as I pass them.)

Biking on sidewalks is often not only unsafe (and hard on one's bike) but may also be illegal. Get to know the bicycle laws of DC and Virginia well.

There are lots of great "slow bicycling" blogs out there, many of them written by cycling commuters in urban areas: Let's Go Ride a Bike (Chicago), Lovely Bicycle! (Boston), Biking in Heels (Cambridge, MA) are some of my favorites (Velouria of Lovely Bicycle! has a lot of good, very detailed information on buying a good commuting bike). And here's a more or less comprehensive list of female bike bloggers, although I think it also includes female time trial cyclists. And yes, they wear skirts! (And there is lots of gorgeous bicycle porn, because most of these bloggers are all about aesthetics as much as practicalities.) Bike Snob NYC mostly snarks on biking excess these days, but he also rants righteously about the hazardous lack of respect city governments, police, and drivers have for urban commuter cyclists (partly resulting from the proliferation of asshole cyclists with way too much money and attitude and and too few clues).

You'll want a pannier that keeps your laptop more or less stable, I think. You could try a backpack, but they do tend to make one more sweaty, even in cooler weather. Mine is this Arkell bag, because I have a folding Dahon with 20" wheels that don't provide a lot of heel clearance, but you can get something more conventional.

If you have not yet decided on a bicycle, perhaps you might consider a folding bicycle? Mine is an earlier version of this one. I wear long skirts to bicycle in and the step-through design is great for this. But more importantly, I can fold it up very quickly and take it up to my office, where it stays behind my door in its shoulder bag, and therefore I never have to worry about theft. I can also carry it on public transportation easily (where bicycles are permitted) or put it in the back of my car. And it always--always--gets admiring comments from bystanders of all ages, who just think it's the coolest, most awesome bike they've ever seen. And it is a very sweet ride, as are most Dahons (and their more upscale relatives, the Bromptons). I had some serious back problems a couple years ago, but when I was feeling good enough to start riding again, it was pretty comfortable, especially since I didn't have to lift and swing my leg over the crossbar.

However, if you're not into folders and plan to lock your bike outside, you should probably buy a beater, at least at first--or at least not a really desirable, sexy bicycle like a Pashley. A good U-lock is a deterrent, but most can still be destroyed quickly, and bikes locked outside in urban areas are especially vulnerable.

Lastly, Terry supposedly makes a lot of good bicycles, cycling components, and accessories for women of various shapes and sizes and ages, and some are designed for people with hip and back problems. Their seats are intended to avoid compressing one's ladybits, which a regular unisex seat will often do on a long ride. I'm merely speculating, because they are pricey, and I haven't tried one yet.

Your first rides are going to be the hardest, but don't get frustrated and give up--by the end of your first week it will get easier as you build up endurance. Maybe try some practice runs on weekends when you're not dealing with rush hour traffic to get a feel for it and scope out both your intended route and some alternates.

Have fun--I haven't been riding at all this summer because the Central Illinois heat and humidity has mostly been unbearable and I would arrive at work looking like a drowned rat, but I really look forward to cooler September weather, because I've noticed that on days when I do ride to work, I am happier and more productive all day long than when I go by bus or car--must be the endorphins.
posted by tully_monster at 8:28 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Puncture-resistant tyres changed my life. I ride almost every day and I haven't had a single flat since I got a pair of these more than 2 years ago.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:59 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Paniers instead of backpack. Makes a big difference in comfort and sweatiness.

I was able to start by just biking one way every day for a few weeks since I can take my bike on the bus in my city. If you're not used to biking 20 miles a day don't expect to be able to do it right away everyday, especially on a new bike. Ease into it.

Read the traffic bylaws in your city. People say that bikes are the same as cars, but this is not true -- in lots of cities bikes have additional responsibilities on top of the regular traffic by-laws. Know the rules so you know which ones to break (rolling through 4 way stops when no cars are coming) and which ones not to break (never, ever ride on the sidewalk)*.

Sheldon Brown's website is a great resource. It's not just for buffs, lots of good material in there for beginners too. I particularly suggest the section on using your front brake. It's made me a much more confident urban cyclist.

TAKE THE LANE. Not always, and not necessarily the full lane, but don't let cars push you to the curb. I generally ride about a third of the way into the lane from the curb. Cars can easily pass me when there's room, but they don't try to squeeze past me like when I'm riding directly against the curb. Especially don't get squeezed against a line of parked cars, doors are probably my biggest fear on the road. When you go through an intersection or around a curve take the full lane.

Pedestrians can't hear you coming. You'll be amazed how much people rely on being able to hear cars when they're crossing the street between intersections. Having a bell is good, but keeping an eye out and assuming the every pedestrian is about to run into the street is better.

*some people are in favour of bikes behaving exactly like cars, and this is generally what the laws say and in general it's a good idea. But bikes aren't cars, and the traffic laws weren't written with bikes in mind. Sometimes it's going to be safer for you to not follow the letter of the law. Just remember the cardinal rules: be visible and predictable to drivers, and don't assume that any driver can see you unless you're making eye contact with them.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:47 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

One piece of practical advice to add to all the good stuff above; learn how to adjust your brakes. You'll be riding along quite happily in the dry, thinking your brakes are fine and as soon as you get caught out in a shower they turn to crap. A simple twist of a screw (on canti brakes at least) and they'll be back to saving your life again.

One piece of not so practical advice; enjoy the ride! Cycling is supposed to be fun, it shouldn't become a chore. Work out a bunch of different routes along different types of road so you can go for a gentle winding ride if you fancy it, or an all out blast if you want one of those. If you wake up one morning and don't want to ride, don't. One journey back into the hell of car or public transport commuting and you'll be gagging to get back on your bike the following day, I promise you.
posted by fatfrank at 2:53 AM on August 24, 2012

Have a plan for gradually ramping up to commuting every day. 10 miles each way x 5 days is a week is a nice round 100 miles per week, which is a significant chunk of road if you're not used to it. Don't be tempted to just jump on your bike on day one and start cycling every day, you will not enjoy it. Start with one day a week, then two, etc. It is surprisingly difficult to avoid the temptation to push yourself to ride faster, especially when in traffic, so you will have to watch out for that.

It is well worth planning a slightly longer route that avoids busy roads, etc.

If you can find a bike buddy to commute with for the first few times I strongly recommend it.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:18 AM on August 24, 2012

Response by poster: These are just great! Thank you everyone! I especially appreciate the notes on defensive riding and how to make it work without a shower but everything written has been very helpful
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 4:44 AM on August 24, 2012

One philosophical point on riding on city streets: you are not working out; you are commuting.

I repeat this mantra to myself to keep from pushing it too hard and trying to get a good workout in rather than getting to work safely. Don't sprint to catch a yellow light, don't roll through stop signs without checking first, and be ready to brake at all times.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:59 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to bike to a professional job in DC. My biggest concern was about being hot and sweaty in the morning, so I did a few things to minimize that.
- I left early so I could go slower and so, upon arrival, I could cool down for a little while before having to change into work clothes.
- I left my suits in my office and took them to a dry cleaner nearby so I never had to worry about riding in while wearing a suit. I also biked in on Monday with a messenger bag full of shirts, underwear, and socks and left them in a drawer, then brought them home on Friday to wash. I also left my dress shoes, ties, and belts at work.
- I didn't wear my bag on my back, I attached it to my bike. This was huge. Your back will get really sweaty really fast if you have a backpack or bag on.
- I brought a water bottle to drink during the ride, and when I got to work I would fill it up and drink it again before changing so I could cool down and rehydrate.

I was biking from Brookland to Capitol Hill via the Met Branch Trail, so I don't have any good advice about navigating Arlington, but I think this applies to biking anywhere in DC: there are a lot of terrible drivers in DC, and you need to be very careful. Particularly where you'll be biking, you'll be sharing the road with a lot of tourists who are pointing at the Lincoln Memorial or the Tidal Basin or trying to figure out the complicated alphanumeric street system that DC uses, and they will not be watching out for you. You'll also be competing with insane cab drivers, tour buses with limited visibility, and the generally aggressive DMV drivers. It'll be scary at first but you'll get more comfortable with it after a while. Just be alert. Definitely don't listen to music, or talk on the phone, or text while you're biking. Wear a helmet, get lights for the front and back, and I think DC requires that you have a bell or horn for your bike. For what it's worth, I always find Independence to be an easier ride than Constitution, although there are probably better streets. Maybe Jefferson?

Oh also, I bought my bike from Capitol Hill Bikes on 8th Street SE and they've always been helpful and quick on repairs or tune-ups.
posted by jalexc at 9:02 AM on August 24, 2012

I just want to mention something in relation to your back issues. I have back problems, too (arthritis plus a herniated disk and sciatica), so I asked my physical therapist for some advice before I went bike shopping. He said to get a bike that would put me in an upright position (I believe this is primarily because of the herniated disk issue) and I definitely felt that the more upright my posture on the bikes I tried, the less strain and pain in my back. The bike I got was a step-through, so no need to strain to get my leg up that high, plus it was a small size frame; even though a medium would have fit me, the bike shop recommended a small frame so that it would keep me even more upright (the small frame wasn't as long as the medium one).

Definitely try several bikes (and different types of bikes) and let the bike shop know you have back problems; I found one that felt really comfortable to ride and I love it (though it's been less than two weeks and I'm still pretty klutzy on it).
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:23 PM on August 24, 2012

DC biker here.

Given what you state, I highly recommend that you form a good relationship with your local bike shop. The nice folks at BicycleSpace DC are pretty commuter-savvy and can really help you get outfitted with a bike and the accessories you need (lock, lights, helmet, etc.) Their selection of bikes isn't as good as other shops in the city, but they really, really care about bikes and the community.

They have a free maintenance class on Tuesdays nights and a free flat repair class on Thursdays.

What everyone said about vigilance on the road is true, though I've found that because of the traffic, DC is considerably easier to bike in than other cities. Cabs can be aggressive, sure, but there are SO MANY bikers here that people are pretty used to it.

Congratulations on this decision - I highly recommend that you do some social riding as well. DC is a really great city in general, and touring it on a bicycle is a fantastic way to spend your time. You will quickly find that often a bicycle is THE FASTEST WAY to get anywhere in town. Even the Metro.
posted by Thistledown at 2:57 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband was like you-- in April this year he just up and decided to bike commute. He had no bike, hadn't ridden in years, etc. I think the advice he'd give has already been posted, but I would add, be prepared to spend. I kind of imagined bike+helmet and he'd be ready, but's it's amazing how much his equipment needs change as the seasons, weather, and light changes. Cars come preloaded for all-seasons, and you can wear whatever you want in them, but the gear you need when you bike changes all the time, and it's not always cheap.

That said, it has absolutely been worth it for us, and I hope you really enjoy it!
posted by that's how you get ants at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2012

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