Essential gear when riding to work.
May 22, 2006 2:17 AM   Subscribe

What's the essential gear for bike commuting?

Bike Commuter-filter: I'll be commuting to work by bike, and I'd like to know what's considered the essential gear, especially clothes. I live in Vancouver, and it rains here. I plan to leave most of my office clothes at work, but what products can people recommend to stay dry on the road?

Finally, what else is indispensable on your ride to work?
posted by awenner to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I live in Tasmania, Australia, and just started riding to work today.

Winter is coming, and today was freezing. I thought my hands were going to fall off. One thing I know I'm going to buy are arm warmers and some full finger gloves.
posted by a. at 2:40 AM on May 22, 2006

Fenders. Americans seem to think that they are bike racers, even if they'll never pin a number on or toe a starting line. Bike racers don't use fenders, so nobody uses them in the states. It's silly. Get a mudflap, too. Make two of them from an old water bottle or some random piece of plastic, have them reach almost to the ground. The front one will keep your feet dry, the rear one will keep your back dry. Lights. See and be seen. Reflective clothing, like a highway worker vest.
posted by fixedgear at 2:51 AM on May 22, 2006

Staying dry:
Depends a bit on budget. Despite what the ads say, there's no perfect solution. If it's not cold, get wet, then change at work/home. Wool is a good top layer if it's cool, because it stays warmer when wet. In a major downpour, or if it's cold, you'll probably want a jacket. There's no miracle material that breathes enough if you're working hard. Best to slow down a bit and generate less heat and sweat. Waterproof, 'breathable' jackets with armpit vents are best. Waterproof pants are far too hot and stuffy unless conditions are arctic. Shorts if it's not cold, or tights if it is. Wool, again, is best in the wet, or cold. Unfortunately, good wool cycling jerseys and tights aren't cheap, and a bit of a pain to wash and dry, but they're very comfy, work for an incredibly wide range of temperatures, and last a long time. For hands, thin wool or fleece gloves for the cold, worn under regular cycling mitts. If it's really cold, waterproof outer-gloves.

Tools and spares:
The usual bits that you should always have if you don't want to walk home. A couple of spare tubes and 3 or 4 tire levers, and the knowledge to use them properly. Hex keys, small wrenches, a screwdriver - whatever fits your bike's parts for any adjustments you might want to make. Substitute a multi-tool if you like them. A habit of keeping your bike regularly maintained will avoid any on-the-road surprises.

There's lots of choices these days. For front, LED rechargeable systems are pretty good nowadays and eat fewer batteries. If you've money to burn, some of the newer hub generators and lamps are very tasty. For rear, one blinking and one constant LED battery lamps. Lights are not optional and even in lit areas, the brighter the better. Remember spare batteries. Think about reflection, as well. Velcro reflective bands for around your ankles are very effective. A few reflective stickers on your frame and the back and sides of your helmet, if you use one.

A lock if you need to leave your bike somewhere public.
A cellphone for emergencies.
A bag to put it all in. Different folks have different preferences, but whatever you use, something a little bigger than you think you'll need usually works out for the best. Not filling a bigger bag is always more preferable than stuffing and crushing stuff into a smaller one.

If you want to stay dry and don't have full-length fenders fitted to your bike, you'll soon want some. The amount of (dirty) water thrown over you by the tires is pretty incredible without them. They make a huge difference to how wet you get. That fenders are such a pain to fit to many modern bikes is one of the greatest sins of the bicycle industry.
posted by normy at 2:58 AM on May 22, 2006

I used to have a a bicycle cape for when the rain got bad.
posted by Orb2069 at 3:21 AM on May 22, 2006

Ditto on fenders; without them you'll get soaked from below and behind. The League of American Bicyclists has lots of bike commute info here, including rain riding gear and tips.
posted by mediareport at 3:31 AM on May 22, 2006

A plastic shopping bag to cover up your seat if it is wet.
posted by grouse at 4:08 AM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: Fenders, thirded.

Tires. In particular, bigger ones. Not kobby mountain tires, you want siped road tires, or better yet, slicks -- but the more volume, the more shock absorbtion, and the easier it is to get enough air into the tire to prevent snakebite flats -- easy to do when you load up. If you're riding 700C wheels, I swear by the Bontrager Race-Lite slicks, in either 700Cx28, or 700Cx32, for commuting and road touring, and Ghugle Bless Kieth Botranger for making real slicks in big sizes. I'm a big guy, with a load, it's hard to pump 700Cx25 tires up enough to avoid pinch flats, esp. on the road -- I needed to get them to 135psi, which made them rock hard, and harsh. I've never pinched these tires, and I run them at 75psi on the 28s. Great tires.

What is your opinion on backpacks while riding? I hate them, so I have a rear rack and panniers to haul stuff in.

Road repair -- the best patch is another tube. You check the inside of the tire for whatever cut your tire. A small piece of gauze is perfect, you wipe it along the inside of a tire, and it'll snag on anything poking through -- using fingers can result in cuts, be careful. Once you're sure the wire/glass/whatever isn't still in the tire, put in the new tube, inflate, ride home, and patch the old one in the comfort of your own shop.1

You can, if you wish, carry a tire boot in case you put a larger hole in the tire, but I find that in a pinch, tire boots cost $1, US, Canadian or Australian. They're really expensive in Europe, though. Yes, a dollar bil works very well to boot a tire. If you're really worried, you can carry a spare tire and tube -- kevlar beaded slicks don't weigh much.

Lights: If there is *any* chance of your riding after dark, you need lights. Not reflectors, lights -- though one effective reflector is the old pedal reflectors (the motion of the pedals draws the eyes.) Reflectors only reflect in a certain angle, so you need lights forward and aft.

In urban areas, there'll will probably be enough light to ride by, so LED lights work well for saying "here I am". In rural areas, where you really need to provide you're own light, the current gold standard are HID (High Intensity Discharge) lamps, using a battery that slips into a water bottle cage. Amazing amounts of light, nice runtimes, NOT CHEAP.

You can hack together halogen lighting systems cheaply.

Reflectors. Bad to rely on as your sole source of light, but good otherwise. The plastic ones that hang in your spokes suck if you go fast. Lose them. The front and rear ones get replaced by lights. If you ride with clipless pedals, the pedal reflectors go away.

So, you either wear a reflective vest, or you get reflective tape. Or better, both.

My brother had a deep rim on his bike, he put small strips of reflective tape along the rim, under the braking surface. Very effective from the side. Bands of tape on the tubes work well.

Tools: The basics, really -- you want to get home and do the real work there. Tire change kit, patch kit (in case you flat your spare tube), a pump, and a folding set to match your bike's more important fasteners. I'm torn on carrying a chain tool on short haul commuters -- chains just don't break that often, but I did break one a good five miles from home once.

If you have to park outside, locks, two. One U-bar, as small as you can get that will tie the frame to something hard. One cable, to tie the frame and wheels to something hard. Finally, something to go over at least the seat, if not the whole bike, in case it rains during the day. Squishy-butt is really annoying, and it isn't good for saddles.

If you get a rack, a rack trunk is a much easier place to carry all this gear.

Helmet, one, sweatband, one, if you have trouble with sweat in your eyes, gloves, on pair.

Finally, a pack towel and a small bar of soap, in case you have something splash you, or you fall, or whatnot. Five minutes with a sink, soap and a towel can make you vastly more presentable.

1] The worst flat I ever had was when I hit a screw just so. It went through the tire, through the tube, and through the backside of the tube. This deflated the tire so fast that it collapsed and cause two pinch holes.

One screw. Four houls. Two patches. One spare tube. I rode home.
posted by eriko at 4:25 AM on May 22, 2006 [3 favorites]

Not to sound condescending, but a helmet is a necessity whether it's the law or not.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:27 AM on May 22, 2006

Fenders, a rack and panniers.

In the rain, I wear a waterproof-breathable jacket and pants with venting zippers. I don't find them too hot if I open the zippers enough. Also a helmet cover, clear cycling glasses, gloves and over-booties. Wicking polyester long/short undergarmets make a good base layer in any weather.

MEC will sell you most of this gear.
posted by blue grama at 4:53 AM on May 22, 2006

The above is excellent advice. I wear neoprene booties over my shoes when it's raining. Look here

I prefer panniers over a bag that touches my body (backpack, shoulder bag), because it gets hot in the summer.

On cool days, a balaclava or headband for your ears & head, of course worn under your helmet.
posted by cahlers at 5:07 AM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks a lot for the responses everybody. Beyond raingear, what else do you think is essential for commuting?
posted by awenner at 5:39 AM on May 22, 2006

I found this to be a godsend to have when I was bike commuting. I was doing a lot of my own maintenance, and having the bike up on a stand was a must.
While you're there, get one of these, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:04 AM on May 22, 2006

I consider a good mirror indispensable for commuting via city streets.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:18 AM on May 22, 2006

Definitely make that a helmet-mounted mirror, rather than the kind that mounts to the handlebar. No more craning your neck around, losing your balance, etc.
posted by intermod at 6:48 AM on May 22, 2006

I think you’ll grow out of a need for a mirror quickly enough. You might want to check (unaffiliated with me even though I run the Icebike mailing list) for some very well-tested advice on winter cycling, of which rainbiking is a subset. (It is actually true that +3° and rainy can feel colder than –5° and dry.)

The Mountain Equipment Co-op tights with Gore-Tex equivalent on the top and Lycra on the back are quite good except in really astonishing rainfall. You'll want a couple of weights of gloves; Louis Garneau has an infeasibly warm but light set of lobster gloves (black) that I like, though I have gloves a couple of levels above those, too.

Long johns over bike shorts and long-sleeved undershirts. (Also essential in those cold +3° rainy days.)

I’ve found it’s worth it to wear shades, even with clear lenses, all the time while riding. Too much debris in the eyes otherwise.

Nobody has mentioned the combination of confidence and conservatism you need to ride in an urban setting. It emerges only with time, and everyone has a different level. I am sometimes passed on the road by middle-aged women and occasionally by old Chinese guys on bikes they seem to have brought over from the mainland, but that’s how I ride and I am OK with it.
posted by joeclark at 7:29 AM on May 22, 2006

Well-covered in eriko's post, but I will also suggest kevlar-belted (or otherwise-belted), flat-resistant tires. I have about 2500-3000 miles on my current pair, and have had one flat, which was from a nasty screw/nail sort of thing that I stood no chance against. Despite my best efforts, I ride through broken glass daily. It presents no problem. My specific pair are Panaracer Paselas, and they're great, but I'm sure all the others are too. (I'm an average sized male and ride 35mm ones - wider than most would choose, but awfully comfy and very pinchflat-resistant)
posted by pinespree at 8:31 AM on May 22, 2006

Can I put in a word for carrying a spare chain and chainbreak tool? Both available at MEC and other sensible bike shops. Also pack a spare derailleur and brake cable.

Bitter experience: broke a chain last fall in the middle of a busy intersection with a city bus hot on my tail.

Would your workplace have a shower on site? I carry my workday clothes in my pack, so even on messy rainy days (which Edmonton is not exactly renowned for) I don't worry about keeping dry while riding.
posted by hangashore at 9:30 AM on May 22, 2006

What is your opinion on backpacks while riding?

Necessary, but then I carry a lot of crap around. One thing that has always mystified me is how so many people can ride with messenger bags (with one long strap thrown around the neck and one shoulder), since they always seem to slide around to my front and get in the way when I've tried to wear one.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:40 AM on May 22, 2006

I commute 8 miles round trip daily, by bicycle, in the bay area. Here's a list of things I recommend for a commute that includes bike paths, bike lanes, and stretches of mixing with traffic in city streets.

Bike Components:

1. Fenders
2. Mirror (I began using one a year ago after years of commuting without. I love my handlebar mounted mirror.)
3. Horn (i.e. Airzound II). Sometimes you need to get the attention of motorists.
4. Bell (Pedestrians tend not to respond, or respond unfavorably to the horn. A bell is nice for notifying them when you're riding on mixed-use paths.)
5. Fenders. I know I already said Fenders. There really is nothing else that will improve the quality of your commute as much as a good set of fenders.
6. Rack & Panniers. I use open top "Grocery getter" panniers for most of my commuting trips. I keep basic tools and a patch kit inside one of the pockets of these panniers.
7. Lighting. If you're on the road at night, there's nothing like an HID lamp for getting the attention of motorists.



1. Spend more on a rain jacket than on rain pants. In fact, there's really no subsitute, IMHO, for a nice, Gore-Tex rain jacket. I have cheap rain pants, they work great.

2. Get a good pair of cycling specific, rain proof gloves.
posted by u2604ab at 10:41 AM on May 22, 2006

The key to not having a messenger bag swing around the front is actually hiking up the strap pretty high, and using the stabilizing cross-strap thing, if your bag has one. Ideally, it should actually fit sort of like a one-strap backpack, only comfier and closer to your back.

I heartily reccomend Timbuk2 messenger bags; they're waterproof and are a great deal for the quality of the bag.
posted by rossination at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2006

Can I put in a word for carrying a spare chain and chainbreak tool?

I carry a chainbreaker and a spare link. Unless you have a catastrophic failure where every link breaks or bends (not at all likely), you don't need to lug a spare chain. Just remove the offending link and replace it. Hell, you can even limp home with a chain that's missing a link; the deraileur will compensate for the shorter chain (this of course doesn't apply to fixies).
posted by Avogadro at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2006

I second the stabilizing cross-strap if you are going with a messenger bag. But I also like a rear rack for lashing down the occasional Larger Object.
posted by mikepop at 10:45 AM on May 22, 2006

In urban areas, there'll will probably be enough light to ride by, so LED lights work well for saying "here I am". In rural areas, where you really need to provide you're own light, the current gold standard are HID (High Intensity Discharge) lamps

Newer 1 Watt+ white LED battery or rechargeable headlamps are actually very adequate. I use one for nighttime distance riding in the desert with no streetlamps. Illuminates up 50 yards or so, good enough for 30 mph descents. LED lamps have come a long way in the last few years. Have a look at the Cateye EL-500, Planet Bike Super Spot, or NiteHawk Emitter (my current favorite).

These headlamps are all less expensive, give very adequate light (especially the NiteHawk), easy to fit and remove and need recharging much less often than more expensive halogen or HID rechargeable systems and, in a pinch, if you're caught without fresh batteries you can get four alkalines at the nearest convenience store.

HID lamps are great for off-road downhilling at night, but a bad choice for commuting. They require very frequent recharging in comparison to LED lamps and are a thief-magnet because they're so expensive and removing and mounting them is a palaver compared to lamps that take AAs. The batteries are also heavy for lugging around in a bag off the bike. If you've that kind of money, a hub generator is a much better way to spend it for commuting.

small strips of reflective tape along the rim

Works great at first, but because it's so close to the ground gets covered in road grime after only a couple of wet trips, drastically reducing its effectiveness. In general it's best to mount lights and reflectors as high as you can, both to avoid the muck and for better conspicuity. An extra small red blinky on a band at the back of your helmet works well. This Cateye is a clever little item that weighs next to nothing and can be attached to almost anything.
posted by normy at 11:12 AM on May 22, 2006

kittyprecious: One thing that has always mystified me is how so many people can ride with messenger bags (with one long strap thrown around the neck and one shoulder), since they always seem to slide around to my front and get in the way when I've tried to wear one.

If you get a proper messenger bag from chrome, reload, timbuk2, etc, you should get a stabilizer strap, which runs from the bag under your arm to the front strap. This keeps the bag from swinging around. Also keep the strap tight. Wearing a backpack is awful in comparison since they swing back and forth all the time, while a messenger bag rarely moves.
posted by beerbajay at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2006

beaten to it!
posted by beerbajay at 11:26 AM on May 22, 2006

A word on bags: Backpacks are ok if you're not carrying a lot of heavy stuff, but a well-adjusted messenger bag is more comfortable and convenient, in my experience. Well-adjusted means with the shoulder strap as short as you can make it while it's still comfortable. You want the weight high, near the top of your back. That way it doesn't move so easily and the weight is spread over more of your back and shoulders. Backpacks are generally trickier to adjust to get them high like that, need to be much tighter, and you have to completely remove them to get at things inside.

Another trick with messenger bags is to put dense and heavy things, like your toolkit and spare batteries say, in the lowest corner of the bag. If you've the strap over your left shoulder, then put the heaviest items in the bottom-right corner of the bag. The weight there will help prevent the bag from sliding around.

I'm generally on the rack and pannier side of things, however. You can carry more weight more comfortably with them. If you regularly need to carry books, stacks of paperwork, or like to pick up a few groceries on the way home, a pannier makes more sense. The most comfortable bag for your body is no bag. Also something to consider is that, heaven forbid, in the unlikely event you fall or are knocked off you bike, a backpack or messenger bag can make rolling out of harms way much more difficult.

A rack also gives you an excellent place to mount rear lamps.
posted by normy at 11:46 AM on May 22, 2006

I've never broken the spoke mounted plastic reflectors and I think they are the most efficient side visibility reflectors you can have. Even if you break one, bike shops often give them away for free because they are uncool they take them off new bikes, and becase they may break off-road they take them off mountain bikes.

Before you load yourself down with a lot of the stuff mentioned above, since you are just starting, get the fenders, get the raingear, maybe get the panniers, but above all, get riding and enjoy it, and figure out which of the great suggestions here you are interested in as you go along.
posted by Rumple at 11:57 AM on May 22, 2006

Looks pretty comprehensive already. I'd just like to add a couple of points about awareness(brain gear). I like to think of myself as a deer in the woods. I need to know what is going on in every direction for at least a block or two. It's not always possible, but don't put yourself in a position where you can be hit. Don't wear headphones! Don't trust turn signals. Eye contact is your friend; I won't trust a driver until they look me in the eye, even then I give them a wide berth when possible. Your weakest spot is behind you, know who is there and pray they don't have a seizure. Almost everthing else is up to you.

The most valuable set of knowledge I've learned is Vehicular Cycling. The most useful point for me is to 'take the lane'. You are a moving vehicle, act like a car when you feel it will make you safer. If you are feeling crowded or see the road narrowing ahead, automatically move to the center of the lane after signaling(I usually just point). This is legal and has saved my butt plenty of times(of course you should always yield if a driver gets pissed about it. Most won't as long as you move back over as soon as it's safe).
posted by a_green_man at 12:41 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks a lot everybody. I learned a lot more than I thought I would. Good call to Green Man about Vehicular Cycling - it's important to keep in mind that there's a mentality to street riding that's different than recreational biking.
posted by awenner at 1:27 PM on May 22, 2006

Pretty much everything I use/do has already been covered. So some other stuff:

As has been noted, most bikes these days are not designed for fenders. While kind of pricey, I recommend (GIS) SKS "Raceblade" fenders as a good (and lightweight) solution to this problem. Easy to install yourself, regardless of how fender-hostile the bike design is.

My goal is lights that are on in the daytime, and can be seen in broad daylight, front and rear.

Route planning: I found a bridge across a freeway that wasn't on the roadmaps because it was ped/cycle only, and this improved the safety of my commute tenfold (previously I had to go past onramps and offramps).

A commuter riding tip that I've come to realise from experience, but haven't ever seen mentioned anywhere, is that when braking/slowing down because you're unsure whether a car ahead has seen you or not, and might or might not move into your path, don't stop pedalling. It's wasted energy, since you're braking, but the motion is vital to being seen - if you simply coast as you brake, you look like a static tree in the peripheral vision of a driver ahead not paying attention.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:40 PM on May 22, 2006

You can stop pedalling?
posted by fixedgear at 4:35 PM on May 22, 2006


Fixedgears are a bad choice for commuting :-p
posted by -harlequin- at 4:46 PM on May 22, 2006

Spoke reflectors are OK if you put both of them 180o apart on one wheel instead of one reflector on each; you get just as much reflectivity and the wheel stays balanced.

If you're doing a lot of riding in rain or slush, get a bike that's purpose-built for those conditions. I commuted 14km each way in Berlin for six months, including a couple of months of Berlin winter (brrrr!) on a very nice Union bicycle made in Holland that had five speed hub gears and a fully-enclosed chain guard. No mud on the chain, no chain grease on my leg, very low maintenance. That bike also had full mudguards with effective flaps.

Disc brakes are great in the wet, if you can afford them.

You need good panniers; wearing a backpack while cycling will make you sweaty and miserable even on cold days.

What everybody else said about lights and reflective clothing. And rechargeable battery lighting beats dynamos hands down.

Finally: you need showering facilities at your workplace. This is non-optional! And you should get used to riding in stinky cycling clothes, or your laundry requirements will just get horrendous; find somewhere semi-outdoors to store them so they get throughly aired whenever you're not wearing them, and they'll just smell of your sweat instead of a whole reeking ecology of microbes feeding on your sweat. Cycling clothes shut in a locker all day are very very nasty things indeed.
posted by flabdablet at 5:43 PM on May 22, 2006

I don't agree that showers at work are necessary - it depends on many things. Vancouver is pretty cool most of the year, and when the temperature isn't too hot (or wet), and you can take your time (or are fit) so that you don't work up a sweat, then there is no need to change clothes or shower. (For unrelated reasons, I'm careful about smelling good, and cycling generally hasn't been a problem in this regard).
posted by -harlequin- at 6:41 PM on May 22, 2006

Sign me up on the "horrendous laundry requirements", as I'm not too keen on donning dirty gear. I usually carry a lightweight clean shirt to ride home in, in fact.

Nobody mentioned the commuting section at yet. All these suggestions and more.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:19 PM on May 22, 2006

Fixedgears are a bad choice for commuting :-p

All kidding aside, they are really a great choice for commuting. No pesky derailers to maintain, nothing to get out of adjustment. But folks do commute on all types of bikes, from recumbents to racers, cross bikes to comfort bikes.

I posted this FiberFix Kevlar Spoke before, and it's a good ten dollar commuter accessory. It's tiny, and it will ge you home or to a shop.
posted by fixedgear at 1:59 AM on May 23, 2006

Number one on the list to get, a bike. C'mon, someone had to say it !
posted by madderhatter at 4:39 PM on May 23, 2006

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