advice for a budding bike commuter
April 13, 2004 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Need advice on bike commuting (more inside)...

I finally live somewhere where its feasible to commute by bike (relatively short distance, good roads). I have a good bike, but I'm sort of clueless what's important for a safe, fun commute. What's the important equipment/gear to have? Any special considerations for traffic, or biking home at night (I often work late)?
posted by dicaxpuella to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The most important consideration when commuting by bike is to obey the laws. If you respect the laws, and the cars around you, they respect you.

I have friends who disagree — they blast through stop signs/lights, they ride between lanes, etc. — but I think they only hurt their cause with motorists, increase their chances of personal injury, and run the risk of a traffic fine.

If you bike at night, you must have lights. It's the law (in Oregon, anyhow), and it's safer.

Obey the laws.

As for safety: much of my commute is on narrow shoulders, and I rarely feel unsafe. I wear bright, reflective clothing and use lights when appropriate. I have had several close calls, but they've had a common theme: a vehicle passes me (legally) in the traffic lane, and then makes a right turn directly in front of me. Scary near-death experiences. I'm not sure who is supposed to yield to whom in this case, but I know that I lose that battle in any event. I've learned to watch for right-turners.

If you want a good book on this subject, check out John Forester's Effective Cycling.
posted by jdroth at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2004

Good tires are always a good investment: nothing affects ride quality more. A slick that is fat compared to road-bike and skinny compared to mt-bike tires (in the range of 1.25-1.5" wide) would be ideal.

Lights: I recommend you not skimp on these. A good headlight that will really light your way costs $100+ Decent taillights can be had for about $20. I've stripped all the original reflectors off my town bike, but have put reflective tape in strategic spots (on 1/2 the rim between the spokes to create a strobing effect, on the crankarms, forks, and seatstays).

Traffic: Check out John Forester's "Effective Cycling" book. He's a bit of a crank (sorry) when it comes to bike maintenance, but his advice about conducting yourself in traffic is right on. Ride assertively: don't be a jerk, but you are much more likely to get hit by someone who didn't see you than by the rare psychopath who got pissed off at you. Conduct yourself like a car--follow the law, don't ride on the sidewalk (except in rare cases), don't ride on the wrong side of the road (ever), that sort of thing.

A lot of the other stuff depends on your riding style, conditions, needs, etc. My town bike is a modified, undersized mt bike--I ride in a pretty aggressive position, but not as bent over as on my road bike. I've cut 5" off the handlebars, added a rack, narrowed the gearing, etc. That's what works for me; figure out what works for you. I get little rainfall, but if you ride in the rain a lot, fenders and goretex would be good investments.
posted by adamrice at 5:06 PM on April 13, 2004

Wear your helmet at all times. You may want to look into some type of wristguards as well, but I think the jury is out as to their effectiveness.
posted by lilboo at 5:21 PM on April 13, 2004

i started commuting by bicycle in january. in addition to the helmet, lights and the obeying the law advice, i'd also recommend spending some time in searching out the safest route. my main problem has been a traffic circle test along paige street in the upper haight that has proven to be a bit hair raising at time, but otherwise, i've found wide, quiet roads with only a few moments on major streets.

i need advice on a new bike. i have some breed of specialized that weighs a ton and considering that i have to haul it up two flights after riding home up over the hills of sf, i think it's time to treat myself to something lighter and faster. any ideas?
posted by heather at 5:56 PM on April 13, 2004

You want a good lock. You may even want two---one to leave at work, one for when you do errands.

Tires are the cheapest, best upgrade, as adam rice describes above.

Clipless pedals are pricey, but worth a look. The Shimano SPD system is great for commuting, with tons of options.

Rack and panniers allow you to carry more, in more comfort. Courier bags are a nice alternative, and better for doing quick errands. Backpacks obscure vision and are hot.

Rain gear: jacket, tights or pants, booties, helmet cover, full fenders.

A patch kit, an extra tube, a framepump (Zephal) and the ability to change a tire.
posted by bonehead at 6:08 PM on April 13, 2004

Much good info is available on Ken Keifer's Bike Commuting page. (Ken was unfortunately killed by a drunk driver a few years ago, but his page lives on).

Here is my advice:

1) Plot a good course. The best route is not the same as the one you'd take if you drove. Get yourself a map, and brainstorm. Choose to take the smaller side streets that run parallel to the major streets. Ride on bike paths, or ride in the middle of lanes on low-traffic side streets.

2) Do a trial run on a weekend to work out bugs.

3) Get a headlight with a rechargable battery, and a red blinking light for your tail. A helmet goes without saying.

4) I don't take a change of clothes, because I try not to work up a sweat. But some people do, and change when they get to the office.

side note to Heather: Consider getting a "commuter bike" designed especially for this task. They have all the necessary accessories built in. Trek makes some, as does Breezer.
posted by profwhat at 6:28 PM on April 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

As previously said: Lights. The most important accessory in the dark. The more like a Christmas tree you can be, the less of an excuse that inattentive motorist has. Lights for bikes have improved dramatically in the last few years, both in brightness and equally importantly, reliability. LED rear lights are inexpensive, too. Get a couple or three fixed to the back of your bike for redundancy. Consider one of those inexpensive orange mesh vestamajigs with lots of reflective bits - pack up tiny and can be worn comfortably over anything. At night you also need a bright front light - not something to be cheap about. Rechargable systems have become very affordable, reliable and very bright recently.

Another vote here for Mr Forester's Effective Cycling. If you get nothing else from it, remember that the vast vast majority of auto-bicycle impacts happen at junctions and involve someone breaking a rule. Take your correct position in traffic at a junction and you've eliminated a chunk of any risk in bicycle commuting. Be predictable.

Wear a helmet if you feel better for it or the law requires it where you are, but remember prevention is far better than protection and that helmet is not designed to protect you in anything other than low-speed impacts.

For a commute, you're likely to want to carry stuff with you. For anything but the very lightest loads, get bags that attach to your bike, rather than use a backpack. Backpacks are tiring and uncomfortable.

If you're planning on cycling in the rain, there a whole bunch more I could add...

Above all, keep it fun, enjoy yourself and don't feel guilty if you take a day off and catch the bus/train/drive.
posted by normy at 6:32 PM on April 13, 2004

Tire liners. As you put more miles on your bike, on city streets, you'll find that flats are easy to get. A decent kevlar tire liner will really cut down on that, for the cost of a few tubes.

For night riding, invest in a synthetic jacket with built-in reflectors. You'll be more visible and more likely to get out of scrapes without road rash.

"If you respect the laws, and the cars around you, they respect you."

This depends highly on location. For example, here in San Francisco, motorists and especially taxi and bus drivers get dangerously irate -- to the point of lunging their vehicles at cyclists -- around even the most law-abiding bicyclists during commute hours. Defensive biking practices in my hometown often requires breaking the law or risking death at the hands of motorists who don't know the law or don't care about it.

In other localities, perhaps with more attentive or able drivers or bus drivers with a weaker union, this may not be true.
posted by majick at 6:44 PM on April 13, 2004

id say lights - tail and headlight are number 1 - have your local bikeshop set you up. ... i think the helmet thing is overblown - if you dont mind wearing it - then a helmet as well. nice lightweight plastic fenders are good to - to keep you clean and dry.

find a pleasant way to ride to your destination, and enjoy getting your workout in to and from work - and being nice to the planet as well. ill get some opinions from my pal gene, a life long commuter, bike shop owner and cycling celeb - and send them your way.

gordon coale offers a good bit of bike culture - and would have some excellent advice for you as well - he's nice.

good for you.
posted by specialk420 at 9:33 PM on April 13, 2004

Another vote for the best lights you can get and mucho reflective gear. Always treat the rules of the road and car drivers with respect, but it's best to presume that if a driver can do something stupid they will. Try to avoid cursing them when they do as they have better weaponry than you.

Decent, lightweight, breathable waterproof gear is essential if you're going to be cycling in all weathers. The brighter the better. Panniers are great, but if you aren't going to be leaving the bike in a secure place you'll need ones that release quickly and easily. Personally, I don't find carrying a change of clothes in a rucksack to be too taxing.

If punctures prove to be a regular occurence you can get your tyres Slimed at any bike shop. This has worked a treat for me over the past two years.

Good luck with it.
posted by squealy at 6:43 AM on April 14, 2004

In my experience, the best thing you can do to avoid flats is not kevlar tires (heavy), liners (heavy) or slime (makes tube impossible to patch) but to keep your tires inflated. I have a friend that used to flat at least once a month. He got very good at changing tubes and patching. When I bought him a pump and showed him what 100 psi was like (for his 700Cx23 no names), he hasn't flatted since, better than 2 years.

Pinch and snakebite flats, the kinds you get with too low a pressure in your tires, are not prevented by kevlar or liners. Slime helps a bit, but not much; a slimed tube will get you home, but then you've got to chuck it. Foul stuff in my opinion.
posted by bonehead at 7:08 AM on April 14, 2004

*sigh* I miss bike commuting.

If you're the type of motorist who is quick to flip the bird at anyone who cuts you off, you'd be advised to work on an attitude change when you get on the bike.

When I started riding my bike I quickly realised how stupid I was to yell "fuck you" into the window of someone who honked at me, even though I didn't do anything wrong. It's very easy for a motorist to kill a cyclists and pretend it was an accident.

Not that you have to be a wuss, ride aggresivly and DEMAND your space, but watch who you yell at.

Other than that, if you need to change when you get to work get a good rack or paniers. Backpacks get in the way and cause you to sweat more.

If you ride on a popular bike path, a good set of bar ends make a good deterrent for rollerbladers who wish to play chicken with you.

Locks, a small pump and tool set, tire levers, spare tube and/or patch kit. Helmet. Decent bike map for your area.

Even if you don't need to change when you get to work you should think about keeping a spare set of clothes at work in case you have a wipeout or get caught in the rain.

Most of all, enjoy yourself and always point and laugh at the cars stuck in the gridlock.
Good luck!
posted by bondcliff at 7:56 AM on April 14, 2004

Three things to add to the aforementioned lights, fenders, tools and flat changing kit, helmet, and pannier suggestions:
  • Get a mirror (head or handlebar mounted): It isn't vital since a bicyclist has better peripheral vision than a motorist, but it may make you feel more comfortable to know when a vehicle is coming, and how close it will be. I swear by my Chuck Harris eyeglass-mounted mirror.
  • Gloves are necessary, but wrist guards may not be: Not only will gloves (fingerless) make your hands more comfortable, but if you take a high-speed spill, the padded palms will keep you from getting horrible, horrible road rash on your hands. Trust me, I know.
  • Toe clips (not clipless pedals): My experience is different from bonehead's. If you are doing a short (sub 5 mile) commute, then you can ride in your working shoes, in which case, giong clipless will work against you. For longer commutes, clipless makes sense since you will want to use biking shoes. Otherwise, you ought not have any problems cycling in your oxfords. I also carry a set of rubbers (not those kind, silly) to slip on my shoes when it's wet. You don't need special biking booties.
Depending on how short your commute is, you could prolly strip down your equipment to the bare essentials for safety: lights, helmet, gloves. If you don't mind walking your bike home (or to work) after a flat, don't bother with the tools (I've actually used my tools more often for fellow bikers than otherwise).

Above all, have fun. Since I began bike commuting, I find that I feel better and more energized in the morning, and I have really enjoyed taking in the scenery.
posted by Avogadro at 8:22 AM on April 14, 2004

heres the word from gene on gear:

Front light. Just a basic bloiking $12

Rear light. A reflector works great and it's free

Kevlar belted street tires. Less rolloing resistence, safer faster, pretty good flat protection $60

Comfortable riding position. Upright handlebars($30) to keep your head up, not down id the racing position. Nice well adjusted

Fenders. Full coverage baby. $25

A bell, horn, whistle. $8

Repair kit to change flats and other minor emerengcy. $35

Rain jacket. $100+ You never know.
posted by specialk420 at 8:27 AM on April 14, 2004

Not owning a car, I biked virtually everywhere I went here in Asheville NC for more than a year -- until my bike got stolen. A good lock and a safe place to lock your bike up is vital if you are leaving your bike for any amount of time. At the risk of repeating what everyone else has said, here are some things that I found very helpful:

Ride assertively and obey traffic laws -- I see too many people around riding on the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk gives bikers a bad rep (plus its illegal in most places) and makes it much easier for motorists to ignore you. Don't let people in cars push you around and dont be afraid to ride in the middle of the lane, especially if it is a 4 lane road.

I wore a helmet for the first few weeks but soon abandoned it, though thats probably not really smart. Also, I ditched the front headlight because I found it easier to see at night without the light, but back flashers are a must.

I rode on offroad tires because I would often take offroad routes as shortcuts, and they help in the mud and snow.

Fenders are a must but I never got a rainsuit because 1. I am poor 2. No matter the weather, I would sweat so much I would be soaked anyway.

I found all the gas stations with the free air and never really used a manual pump. Check your tire pressure often.

I never got a rack; I used a variety of bags but prefer my normal old eastpack backpack.

Finally, promote good biking practices and bicycle awareness among motorists. SHARE THE ROAD!

and laugh at the fat-asses in their SUV's with a cheeseburger in one hand and a cellphone in the other!
posted by headless at 11:21 AM on April 14, 2004 [1 favorite]

Just one note on the front light: it's not so you can see, it's so you can be seen.
posted by sixpack at 11:59 AM on April 14, 2004

Just a note on sixpack's note:

There are two general classes of headlight: "beacon" lights are so that you can be seen; "beam" lights are so that you can see (and be seen, a nice side-benefit). Beacon lights are much cheaper and much dimmer.

If you know that you will always be on roads with plenty of streetlights, you may be able to get away with a beacon light. If your route takes you down, say, residential streets with little lighting, beacon lights aren't good enough.

Being seen from in front is at least as important as being seen from behind. Most naive cyclists worry most about "overtaking" collisions, where a car coming up from behind hits them. This is actually a rare kind of bike-vs-car accident; you are more likely to be hit by a car pulling out of a sidestreet or driveway, or turning from oncoming traffic into your path.

Riding farther out from the curb, using a powerful headlight, etc, will reduce your risk of these kinds of accidents. Riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic, etc, all increase your risk of them.

I wear a helmet. I didn't always. Then I suffered a head injury in a bike wreck when I was just out running an errand. I got better (I think) after a couple days, but not being able to remember anything for more than 3 minutes is scary. I don't get all militant about helmets, but hey, if you can learn from my example, so much the better.
posted by adamrice at 12:35 PM on April 14, 2004

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