tips for bicycle commuting

I am by no means an expert, but have been commuting by bike for awhile now. I've learned some tricks that might come in handy for others who are starting (or thinking of starting) to commute by bike.

  1. Start slow. Don't rush it when you first start out. Take your time. Pick a day or week where it won't matter too much if you're a bit late, or if you get delayed a bit. Initially, you'll need some time to figure out the route and get used to the routine. Starting slow lets you get into the groove without trying to push yourself too hard.
  2. Plan your route. I poured over the Calgary bike route map to find my route. I fired up Google Earth to plot it out, and check elevations - you'll want to avoid hills as much as possible, especially as you get started. Don't plan your route as a car driver - think about parks, pathways, and other places that are accessible to bikes but not cars. Also, think about places you'll want to ride through on the way. I've added about 3km to my regular ride because it takes me through quieter residential streets, and along a beautiful valley pathway instead of along a busy and stinky street. Worth it.
  3. Prepare your bike. If it's a new bike, make sure you've got the essentials - lights (headlight, tail light), reflectors, fenders, rear rack, paniers. If it's an old bike, make sure everything's in working order. I added a barebones speedometer, and find the odometer is a great motivating tool - knowing how many km I've gone in a trip, and how many in a year - really helps keep me moving forward.
  4. Maintain your bike. Pick up some oil, and keep the bike lubricated. Keep the bike clean - road grime is evil, evil stuff. This is even more important in colder climates where the salty slush gets on everything and rusts the bike out. Keeping it clean and dry prevents that a bit. Keeping things lubed prevents some of the rust and wear on moving parts. Make sure bolts are tight, and that the quick-release on the wheels hasn't slipped (I've had both front and rear wheels pop off on my old bike because I forgot to check them periodically).
  5. Dress for the ride. I'm currently carrying 3 jackets - usually one or two on me, the rest in my panier. I wear a cotton hoodie if it's cold, and if it's REALLY cold I wear a MEC windproof shell on top of that. If things warm up a bit, I've got a lighter hoodie I can switch to. Layers are helpful - especially once you start to warm up after a couple of km into the ride.
  6. Ditch the toe baskets. My Kona bike came with these silly little baskets on the pedals. At first, I thought I liked them because it was kinda like the toe clips, without the expensive shoes. But they're really, really annoying. Imagine riding on snow or ice, with your toe out of the basket, and the basket itself dragging in the snow beneath you. One of mine actually got ripped off the pedal as I rode through some deeper snow (I pull my feet out of the baskets in case I go down in snow and ice, which meant for most of the winter the baskets were just annoying). Toe clips are a different story - they're unobtrusive, and can actually help you pedal by letting you pull up in addition to pushing down. I don't use toe clips though...
  7. I don't ride with a backpack or a messenger bag. Everything goes into one of my paniers (2 15 year old MEC paniers). In the right one, I put my "big boy clothes" to change into when I get to work. My iPod gets folded into my pants there, and my camera gets stowed on top of my clothes. My left panier is for my jackets, shoes, and my lunch. Using the paniers means I don't have to worry about the backpack-sweat-puddles, but it also means I don't lug my laptop to and from work. I leave the laptop at home, and use a desktop at work. I have my iPod Touch for everywhere in between. My paniers are old enough that the water resistant coating is long gone. So I use kitchen garbage bags to line the inside, keeping everything nice and dry even in very wet weather.
  8. Ride safe. This should be #1, but you get the idea. Don't be in such a rush that you are tempted to do stupid things like cut across traffic. Obey stop signs and traffic signals. Take the lane wherever possible. If you don't ride safe, you'll eventually regret it. Even if you are unscathed, you're making things worse for bikers overall by riding like a jackass. Car drivers already hate us, and they don't need more reasons to try to mow us down.
  9. Plan for the weather. If it's REALLY cold (-15ËšC or colder), I wear my insulated hiking boots and 2 pairs of socks. If it's just a bit chilly (0ËšC - -15ËšC) I just wear 2 pairs of socks and a pair of light Solomon shoes (which are really nicely ventilated). If it's below 0ËšC, I wear my thick hoodie and my MEC windproof shell to keep warm (and they do keep me VERY warm). Above zero, and it's fine with just a single pair of socks and the hoodie. Above +5ËšC and I switch to the light hoodie. I also have waterproof rainpants, but don't pack them unless the forecast suggests it will rain while I ride. If it's colder than -5ËšC, I just wear my MEC pants. Warmer, and I try to switch to shorts.
  10. Have fun! If it's not fun, why are you doing it? Biking can be a total blast, if you do it safely. Being able to whip down a hill at over 50km/h is a rush that is hard to beat. Being able to out-accelerate a car at a green light is just plain fun. Riding along a river, hearing the birds and sounds of nature...

    Update: thought of a few more tips:

  11. Plan a cool-off period after you get to the destination. If you have a 9am meeting, plan to get there at least half an hour early so you have a chance to cool down and get cleaned up and changed first.
  12. Gloves. I always wear gloves. If it's cool out, I wear a pair of thin(ish) leather work gloves. They cut the wind right out, and my hands stay warm. If it's downright COLD, I wear a pair of insulated gloves (the ones I wear skiing etc...). If it's warmer, I wear a pair of meshback fingerless riding gloves. I wear gloves partially in case I wipe out - grinding my palms into gravel isn't something I'd look forward to, so a bit of protection is a good thing.
  13. This one's a bit morbid - but I always have ID on me, not just in my panier. My wallet is always in my pocket. If I wipe out, and for some reason can't communicate, it's important that my identification is readily available. Haven't needed it yet, but the last thing I want is to wind up in a hospital (or worse) unidentified. It's not a fear of getting hurt while riding - I have ID on me all the time. Hmmm... This is a pretty dark revelation...
  14. Keep a spare pair of shoes at work if possible. Eventually, you're going to get soaked while riding. If you don't have clean/dry shoes to change into, you're going to make that squish-squish sound when you walk into the Big Staff Meeting...
  15. Carry a cloth to wipe sweat off with. It sounds nasty, but riding can be sweaty business. Having a cloth to sop it up with means you're more comfortable.
  16. Get a decent helmet. I had been using a crappy old Bell V1 black bucket, like the one that saved my life about 15 years ago. I decided to replace it, and got an inexpensive Nakamura (maybe $35 at Sport Chek) - it fits so much better, is maybe half the weight, is adjustable, and has much better ventilation. The better fit means that if I go down, it will stay in place - which is the whole point of a helmet.


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