How to Start Riding Your Bike to Work

Updated: October 31, 2012

Ed Goode

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This post is by Ed Goode.

There are a lot of reasons why commuting by bike might appeal to you.

Maybe you're looking to save some money in gas and parking fees, cut down on your carbon footprint, or get a little physical activity in your day without setting extra time aside for it. Maybe you just think that it sounds like a fun way to get around.

Whatever your reason, if you're about to start biking, there are some simple things you can do to make sure your ride to work is as pleasant as possible.

Make It Comfortable

An uncomfortable experience riding to work one day can go a long way towards making you want to throw your bike in the back of the garage and leave it there to rust. Biking to work doesn't have to be uncomfortable, though. There are two main areas that can affect your comfort: your bike and your clothes.

Your Bike

If you're buying a bike for commuting, get one that fits you. If you're buying new, the bike shop will be able to fit your bike to you.

If you're buying second-hand, you can take your bike in to a bike shop for a fitting, or fit your bike yourself. The fitting instructions here or here are a good place to start, and if you want a lot more information on bike fit, the information at Bike Dynamics is pretty technical, but very comprehensive.

If you do choose to fit your bike yourself, you'll find it easiest if you have someone to help you with measurements, and with holding your bike still while you sit on it.  It's almost impossible to fit your own bike without help. If you already own a bike, but it's incredibly uncomfortable to ride the thing for more than about ten minutes, you might have fit problems.

Unless your bike frame is ludicrously under or over-sized, you should be able to make it fit. Again, you can take your bike into a shop for a fitting, or adjust the fit yourself. You may be able to fix the problem by adjusting the parts that are already on your bike, but if the fit is a long way off, you may need to change some parts to get everything where it needs to be. A different handlebar, or a shorter or longer stem (the bit that attaches the handlebar to your bike) can make a big difference to the way you bike fits you, and both parts can be bought on the cheap.

Another thing that can really affect the comfort of your bike is your saddle. If you're a new cyclist, you probably want to look at a gel saddle of some type. Whatever saddle you get, though, it's important to get one that's the right width for your sit bones (or ischial tuberosities). Trying to perch yourself onto a saddle that's too narrow for you will never be comfortable, no matter how much gel padding the saddle has.

Some bike shops have a kind of foamy cushion that you can sit on, and measuring the resulting impressions will tell you how wide your sit bones are, and what kind of saddle you should be looking for.

Your Clothes

The problem with clothes and comfort is that there are really two things to consider: physical comfort and mental comfort. The softest, most comfortable padded bike shorts in the world won't do you any good if you can't bring yourself to put them on. The good news is that you probably don't need to wear dedicated bike gear unless you have a really long commute. (For reference, my commute is between 8-10 km (5 miles) depending on which route I take, and I don't wear bike shorts.)

If you've got a relatively short way to ride, and you aren't planning to ride very hard, you can pretty much wear whatever you like. Long overcoats or flowing skirts probably aren't a great idea unless your bike is the upright sort with skirt guards, but apart from that, you should be fine in anything.

I generally ride at a medium pace, so I like to wear a t-shirt for riding in and then change to my work shirt when I get to work. If I'm riding hard or the weather is bad, I'll wear a t-shirt and shorts, and do a full change when I get to work.

Speaking of bad weather, if you're riding in the rain, either keeping spare shoes and socks at work or bringing a spare pair with you is a really good idea. There is some bike gear that might be worth looking at, though - a good waterproof coat (waterproof breathable if you want to ride hard enough to get sweaty) is highly desirable if you're riding in the rain, and if you're biking in your work pants, you will probably also want a pair of waterproof overpants.

You can get waterproof gear that's designed for cyclists, but if there's something else you prefer, there's no need to go with biking-specific gear. Biking gloves are something that's worth at least trying on - I find mine both pleasantly warm on cold days and pleasantly cushiony on my hands going over rough sections of road.

Make It Safe

Riding a bike isn't as unsafe as you might think, but if you haven't been on a bike in a while and are concerned about safety, here are a couple of things you might want to consider.

Be Visible

A lot of bike-car accidents happen because the car drivers just don't see the cyclist that is right in front of their nose. Wearing bright clothing (during the day) and reflective clothing (at night) can go a long way towards making you more visible.

You don't need to go fluorescent orange from head to toe - a bright bag, scarf or helmet can make a big difference to your visibility. Reflective ankle bands or trouser clips are particularly good at night, because your legs move up and down when you cycle, and a brightly coloured thing bobbing along in the dark is much more noticeable than something that isn't moving.

And if you're commuting at night, it's also worth investing in good front and rear lights for your bike.

One final thing to think about in terms of visibility is road position - you want to ride far enough out from the side of the road that you can be seen by cars pulling out from side streets or driveways. It's generally a good idea to give yourself at least a meter of clearance from the side of the road. This will also stop your bike tires from getting caught in drains and gutters, as well as give you a place to retreat to if you need some extra space.

Take a Course

If you've never ridden a bike, or if you haven't ridden in twenty years, you may find that you aren't particularly confident riding on the roads. If that's the case, rather than riding on the sidewalk (which is actually more dangerous than riding on the road), think about taking a cycle skills course. You should be able to find a course through a local cycling group or your city council.

A cycle skills course will teach you useful basics like the right way to signal, how to go through intersections, and how to check your bike before you ride it. You might also want to think about taking a basic bicycle maintenance course, which will teach you things like how to fix a flat tire and adjust your brakes.

Check Your Bike

Speaking of maintenance, it's a good idea to make sure your bike is in working order before you get out and start riding.

At a minimum, you want to check that you've got air in your tires, and that your brakes actually work. To check your brakes, wheel your bike along the ground, and then squeeze one of your brakes as your bike is moving (you'll want to check each brake individually).  If your front brake is working properly, your back wheel will lift off the ground a little as the front wheel stops and you keep pushing. If your back brake is working properly, your back wheel should drag along as you keep pushing.

It's important that your brakes both work when you squeeze them and disengage so they aren't touching the wheel when you let them go. You'll also want to check the cable that runs from your brake lever to your brake and make sure it isn't frayed or about to rust through. If you are having brake problems, you can probably fix them yourself, but if you're not comfortable tinkering with your bike, a bike shop can service your bike for you.

Make It Easy

If you live round the corner from your workplace, you probably don't need to worry too much about making your commute easier. But if you're going to be riding more than a couple of miles or kilometers and you aren't used to cycling, then you might want to think about easing your way into cycling to work, instead of just throwing away your car keys and hoping for the best.

Shorten the Ride

If your commute is really long or really hilly, you could consider only biking part of the way. If you've got a good public transport option somewhere nearby, try biking there and then taking public transport. As you get used to riding, you can bike to stops that are further away.

Alternatively, you could look at driving part of the way and finishing up on the bike, or biking to a coworker's house and then carpooling.

And if you don't like the idea of coordinating bikes alongside buses, trains or cars in one commute, you could try biking one way and then driving or taking public transport the other way. This isn't really practical unless you have a safe place at work to leave your bike overnight, but if you do, you may find this a lot less tiring than trying to ride both ways.

Go Electric

Another way to make your bike commute easier is electric assist. An electric bike is just like a regular bike, but it has a motor - most often built into one of the wheels - that provides extra power. If you've already got a bike you like, you can get an electric conversion kit for it, and if not, there are plenty of dedicated electric bikes in various price ranges to choose from.

You'll need a certain amount of mechanical competence to convert a bike yourself, or you can get a bike mechanic to do the conversion for you. Electric bikes aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if the idea appeals to you, you should be able to find a bike shop relatively close to you with an electric bike you can test ride.

Find a Nice Route

If you're driving to work, chances are you don't need to think too hard about the route you take to get there. On a bike, though, it might be worth taking a look at your options a little more carefully. There are probably shortcuts, shared pathways and off-road trails that you could take if you're biking that just aren't open to car drivers.

Some of these may be obvious, and others probably aren't.

Talk to other bike commuters, follow someone who looks like they're heading in the right direction, or check cycling maps of your local area and see what's out there. You can probably find something a lot nicer than riding along the main roads, and it may actually be quicker as well.

Ride with Someone

If you have a friend who's already commuting by bike, try riding with them the first couple of times. They should be able to show you a good route or two, and riding with someone who knows where they're going and is confident on their bike can be a good confidence booster when you're starting out.

Start Riding

Once you've got a comfortable, well-fitting bike, a route you're happy with and an outfit you can ride in, all that remains is for you to start riding.

Pick a nice day when you aren't feeling too rushed, hop on your bike and give it a go.  You'll probably find biking to work easier than you thought, and you might even like it enough to give up driving to work altogether.

What have your experiences with riding your bike to work been? Share any helpful tips or experiences below in the comments.

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