Bike Commuting-Intro, Gear, Clothing

Posted by Doug Shidell, December 9th, 2008 3 responses


What’s the key to bicycle commuting?
It’s the will to ride.

 Making the switch from driving to bicycling requires overcoming some barriers. It’s a lifestyle change. Bicycling requires being out in the weather. It means supplying the power that gets you to work and it requires negotiating a traffic system that is tilted heavily toward the automobile. Those barriers are real and overcoming them requires a commitment from you, the potential bike commuter. Without the will to ride, the barriers will stop you before you get a chance to appreciate the benefits of bicycling.

Without the will to ride, none of the information in this article will get you on the bike.

What’s the key to making bike commuting a regular part of your life?
Enjoying the ride.

You are reading this because something about bike commuting appeals to you. That’s the motivation to get you started. Once you’ve started, however, you will only keep going if you enjoy bike commuting.

If you have the will to ride, the information below will help you enjoy the bike commute. Some of it is prescriptive, but much of it is about giving you the information, options and underlying fundamentals of riding that help you customize your commute to fit your needs and personality.


What’s the best bike for commuting?
It’s the bike you own.

There’s a long American tradition that says before you can participate in any activity, you must first spend a lot of money. The bike industry is ready to help relieve you of spare change, but if you want to spend your money wisely, kick back on your heels a bit and get some experience, then go into the bike shop as an informed consumer.

Get your current bike tuned up and start riding. After you’ve ridden a few times, you’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. You may realize that you want a softer ride and a more upright position. Or you may go the other direction and want something a little lighter and more responsive. You may decide that you want fenders to protect you in the rain, or you may realize that you hate riding in the rain, so a bike without fenders is fine because you plan to drive even if there is a hint of rain in the air. Some riders like the funkiness of a single speed bike with a fixed gear sprocket. Others prefer the easy, upright position of a hybrid or city bike.

There is no right answer, just personal preference and the more experience you have, the better you will know what your preferences are. If, at some point, you decide to replace or upgrade your current bike, the experience you gain from riding will make you a better-informed consumer. You will go into the bike shop with a pretty good idea of what you want in your next bike and chances are higher that you will get that perfect vehicle.

Helmet: Helmets are like seat belts in a car. They’re a minor annoyance everyday, and a lifesaver in an accident. All helmets are pass/fail on safety. You can’t buy a bicycle helmet in the US unless it passes a minimum standard for safety, so the key to buying the right helmet is whether it fits comfortably. A properly fitted helmet will rest lightly on your head. You shouldn’t feel pressure spots on your skull. The straps will straddle your ears without touching them and they will clip together snugly under your chin without restricting your breathing. The sales person in your local bike shop can help you with a proper fit for the helmet.

Bike Lock: A bike lock is important unless you have the option to store your bike in a secure spot. The strength of the lock will depend on your needs. The most secure are the heavy duty U-Locks, but these are heavy, awkward to use and clumsy to carry. If you park your bike downtown or after dark in a dangerous area, the U-Lock is the next best thing to a bike locker for security. On the other hand, if you work in a suburban corporate office and the bike parking is in a spot where windows overlook it and people pass it throughout the day, chances are you can get away with a lighter weight cable lock that is designed primarily to keep honest people honest.

Backpack or panniers: You will have to bring items back and forth between work and home. It might be a laptop, working papers, toiletries, a change of clothing, lunch or any number of things. There is no “right” way to carry the load. Most riders fall into one of two schools of thought on how to carry your gear.

  • Backpacks: They’re convenient. Throw the pack on your back, ride to work, lock your bike and walk inside. Everything comes with you. The downside is that backpacks can get hot in the summer. Some are designed to allow airflow between the pack and your back, but on hot, sticky days you will still end up with a sweaty or clammy back. Backpacks also put extra weight on your shoulders, hands and butt.
  • Panniers, or saddlebags, attach to a rack on your bike. The bike carries the load. You ride carefree and easy. No sweaty back and no extra weight on your back and butt. The downside is that you have to attach and remove the panniers to take your gear inside.

It’s strictly personal preference. Try one way. If it doesn’t work, try the other.


How much of that fancy bike stuff is useful, and how much is for show? The simple answer is that all cycling clothing has some function and some show; just like every other piece of clothing you wear. The distance you ride and your personal preference will determine the clothing you wear on your bike commute. Here are some general guidelines:

Distance to work is less than 5 miles:

  • No special clothing needed. If you ride slowly and don’t work up a sweat, you can easily wear street clothing. Otherwise shorts, jeans, and sneakers will do just fine.

Distance to work is 5-10 miles: You will be on the bike for 30-45 minutes each way. That’s enough time to experience some discomfort.

  • If you ride in soft-soled shoes, for example, your feet may get sore because the sole of the shoe bends on each pedal stroke. Your foot will get tender right at the spot where the shoe bends around the back of the pedal. Correct the problem by wearing a hard soled shoe. The rigid sole will spread the weight across the bottom of your foot instead of focusing it at the back of the pedal.
  • You may also notice that the seams of your jeans or dress pants are aggravating a tender spot. Cycling shorts relieve the problem by adding a layer of padding (chamois) to the inside of the shorts and by using a design that moves the seams away from the areas that you sit on. You don’t have to ride skin hugging, bulge showing Lycra to get comfortable cycling shorts. You can buy cycling shorts, with or without padding, that are looser fitting and look like casual dress clothes.

Distance to work is greater than 10 miles: You could be on the bike for an hour or longer each way. This is where cycling clothing works best. In addition to the shorts mentioned above, consider:

  • A shirt or jersey that wicks away moisture
  • Gloves to cushion your hands
  • Cycling specific shoes to make your pedaling more efficient and less tiring.
Filed under: Bikeverywhere News

3 Comments to “Bike Commuting-Intro, Gear, Clothing”

  1. GenghisKhan Says:

    Great info–got any great tips on the post-commute pre-work cleanup when a shower is not an option?
    Ride One or Ride None

  2. fixies blog Says:

    Your logo is sweet btw!

  3. Doug Shidell Says:

    I’ve got a sweet deal at work: Indoor bike parking, locker, showers, even towel service, so I’m not the best person to give advice on post-commute, pre-work cleanup in a bathroom. My wife uses a small washcloth to wipe off the sweat. Other than that, I don’t have a lot of answers. I’ll check around, but maybe someone out there has some suggestions.