Go by bike! Cycle commuting top tips

There's never been a better time to have a go at commuting by bike; here's what you need to know to get started

by John Stevenson   August 25, 2014  

Bike commuting (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Dave Atkinson:Flickr) 03

With the streets free of school-run Chelsea tractors, most people back at work after their holidays and the weather usually still favourable, the end of August is boom-time for cycle commuting. If you're thinking of taking the two-wheels-to-work plunge, here are our top tips to help you get to work the fun and fast way.

Choose your route


CycleStreets gives you a choice of routes

Unless you’re fit, fast and experienced following the same roads that you previously drove is not much fun, and the arterial routes into many cities are the scenes of more than their fair share of  crashes involving cyclists because of their high levels of truck and bus traffic, and dire junction design.

Happily, you don’t actually need to use them. On a bike your top speed is limited by how hard you’re able (or willing) to pedal; you can’t go any faster on bigger roads. That means that you can avoid the fastest, busiest roads in favour of quieter ones without your average speed suffering. It’s often the case that the quiet roads are more direct, too.

Get yourself a map and work out some options. Expect to have to experiment a few times with routes before you find the best one. Google Maps is a useful tool. Use the cycling option and it’ll automatically make a route that you can then easily drag around to suit your preferences.

Cyclestreets.net is another great online tool. It will provide you three routes between your home and destination: fastest, quietest and a ‘balanced’ intermediate. It also has apps for iPhone, Android and even Windows Phone and Blackberry 10 so if you can mount your phone on your handlebar, you can easily follow the route it provides.

Cyclestreets will tend to route you along cycle paths if it can, but they’re worth keeping in mind even if you’re planning your own route. They won’t always be an option, but traffic-free routes are nice if available. Look for other alternative transport corridors like canal towpaths, too. They’re not always lit and can have unpredictable surfaces, but at this time of year that shouldn’t be a problem.

If you get hooked on bike-commuting, remember that you don’t have to use the same route every day, or even at both ends of the same day. One of the joys of cycle commuting is the freedom to take a longer, more scenic, or – if you’re training – deliberately harder route if the mood takes you. Most experienced cycle commuters have a selection of routes from which they pick and choose according to conditions and whim.

Get trained

If you're new to mixing it with traffic, you’ll benefit from some extra skills and knowledge to ride safely on the road. Several organisations offer adult cycle training, with qualified instructors to help you get to grips with busy roads, complex junctions and so on. If your commute takes you on roads (and most will) and you’re not hugely confident, then a day’s training will make a big difference.

Stay safe


Riding home after dark? Get lights

Sunset tomorrow and Wednesday is between 8pm and 8.30pm depending where you are in the country, so you might need lights if you’re working late and you’ll certainly need them later in the year if you make cycle commuting part of your routine. Some riders use lights during daylight too; modern LED lights are so compact and efficient that there’s little downside to using them.

After dark, lots of reflective material (either on your clothing or stuck to your bike) is a good idea too. Alas, there’ll always be the occasional driver who just doesn’t look, but get yourself as visible as possible and you’ll get the attention of the slightly inattentive ones.

Clothing

What you wear to ride depends on a number of factors. You can ride a short, easy commute in your normal work clothes. If you don’t have to raise a sweat then there’s little reason to change, and you’d be surprised how far you can ride with little effort. If you’ve either got a significant distance to cover, significant hills to scale or you just like going fast, then wearing cycling kit for your commute makes sense.

That means you’ll have to change at the office so you’ll need some way of getting your civilian clothes to work. This is straightforward if your workwear is something other than a smart suit: just roll it up and put it in a rucksack or pannier.

If you need to be smart it’s trickier. There are panniers and rucksacks available that are specifically designed to carry a suit, so that’s an option. Remember that you don’t have to take all your clothes every day. A popular strategy is to leave the suit at work until it needs cleaning and bring in a fresh shirt, pants and socks each day. Or bring a week’s shirts on Monday and travel light until Friday evening when you bring it all home again to wash over the weekend.

Luggage

Inevitably you’ll have to carry some stuff with you to work. If you don’t need to take much, a rucksack or shoulder bag is fine. Some people swear by rucksacks because they’re fuss-free: step off the bike and your load comes with.

Others can’t stand carrying things on their backs and swear by panniers because weight on the bike is more comfortable. You can carry a lot more in panniers and you don’t get a sweaty back. If you plan to fit a rack, make sure that you choose a bike with the necessary mounts. You can get racks that work with any bike, but good ones are expensive.

The bike


There are lots of options in street-friendly bikes, but for now you might be better riding whatever you have

Choosing the right bike is something of a challenge, particularly if you’ve not had much to do with bikes before.

This is where a good bike shop comes in. They’ll be able to narrow down your options based on the nature of your commute, how much you need to carry, whether you plan to ride in all weathers or just on nice days and of course your budget. The best bike for a commute across a busy urban area isn’t the same as the best bike for a longer trip along open roads out of town.

However, if you already have any sort of bike, you might just want to make sure there’s air in the tyres and the brakes and gears work and go for it.

Lock it or lose it


Get yourself a beefy lock like this Abus Bordo

Find out now if there’s anywhere in your building or nearby that you can safely park a bike. If you’re going to have to leave it on the street, get yourself a high-strength lock and see our tips to stop bike theft.

Share your knowledge

Got advice for your fellow cycle commuters? What do you wish you'd known the first few times you set out to work by bike? Tell us in the comments, below.

12 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

The roads all the way into work (Muswell Hill to Canary Wharf) were carnage this morning. Lots of inexperienced cyclists learning how to handle a bike amongst more-frustrated-and-aggressive-than-usual drivers.

For some reason, the Met decided not to post police and PCSOs on all the dangerous junctions this morning, just when it was needed most. Which pretty much confirms that their intermittent presence over the last few months has been purely for show.

Stay safe London commuters...

posted by srchar [60 posts]
29th April 2014 - 9:54

60 Likes

Strongly agree with most of the points in this - good advice for newbies.

Plenty of new cyclists in Leytonstone/Hackney today. Leading me to be slightly conflicted: it's brilliant to have all these people learning the freedom of not waiting on platforms, but oh my, a lot of them are dangerous to themselves and others Surprise

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

Gizmo_'s picture

posted by Gizmo_ [857 posts]
29th April 2014 - 12:31

62 Likes

The Peloton of people weaving their way through traffic this morning only highlights the wholly inadequate infra-structure London has for cyclists.

We should rejoice that so many people cycled today (and use it as a example of what could happen every day!) and I sincerely hope everybody made it home it one piece.

posted by Nzlucas [89 posts]
29th April 2014 - 23:27

70 Likes

Using Google Maps for cycling directions is very hit and miss and in my experience often routes you along really busy roads.

I would suggest checking the route/area you want to cycle though using the satellite view as you can often find short stretches of links to join quiet and traffic free routes together. These sometimes don;t get routed via the mapping sites.

For all weather commuting mudguards are just superbly practical, and fit good quality puncture resistant tyres like Marathon plus for reliable commuting.

I started off by leaving the car part way (we have a small satellite site with car park where I could leave it) and cycling the last 5 miles each way to beat the queues into the city.

Otherwise, just get out there and ride, and try it for at least a couple of weeks.

posted by gazza_d [208 posts]
25th August 2014 - 14:14

47 Likes

I was in London with the bike recently, and Citymapper for iPhone (and Android, if that's your thing) was brilliant at taking me down quieter routes but still getting me across north and east London quickly. I'd definitely recommend it over Google Maps.

For context, I know London a bit, and ride in Glasgow every day, but it was first time cycling down there.

posted by bollandinho [52 posts]
25th August 2014 - 16:21

35 Likes

Not mentioned above - get yourself a head cam or two (front and rear) and join British Cycling for 3rd party insurance. It's dangerous on the roads on a bike. You will need all the help you can get when things go tits up. Go safely.

Airzound

posted by Airzound [303 posts]
25th August 2014 - 21:35

22 Likes

Here in New Zealand I ride with a helmet and lights day and night (the helmet by law). We have a decent network of bike paths in my town, and a decent number of people willing to drive in, undertake, and stop dead without warning in those bike paths.

I find that varying my route every few days even by a couple of alternate turns up parallel streets keeps it fresh, and I almost always take the longest way home when I can. Now that the weather is warming up I'll be extending that considerably. I couldn't imagine going back to driving to work now - it would seem stifling, lazy, and awkward somehow.

davecochrane's picture

posted by davecochrane [101 posts]
25th August 2014 - 23:54

27 Likes

No mention of ratcheting up your cycling on Strava until your tearing through red lights tasting blood arms aloft?

posted by BillyElNino [11 posts]
26th August 2014 - 8:50

24 Likes

I started out using almost all off-road paths, gradually, as my speed and fitness improved, I switched to the road, a bit here, a bit there until the off-road bits were relegated to the odd short cut.

posted by Initialised [119 posts]
26th August 2014 - 21:58

10 Likes

Initialised wrote:
I started out using almost all off-road paths, gradually, as my speed and fitness improved, I switched to the road, a bit here, a bit there until the off-road bits were relegated to the odd short cut.
Same here, the scenic route takes 20 minutes longer. Going by road and putting up with numpties is pretty much as quick as when I drive.

posted by dazwan [29 posts]
26th August 2014 - 23:06

8 Likes

One of the best things a newbie can do is test-ride his route to work on a weekend with an buddy-cyclist who is used to riding in traffic.

This will enable the newbie to
a) familiarise themselves with the route,
b) understand where they want to be on the road at a particular location,
c) build confidence,
d) get advice in a relaxed atmosphere,
e) explore alternative routes.

Now they know the route all they need to do is add about 15 to 20mins to allow for the unexpected and they're all set.

Note to the Buddy-Cyclist [After all, you're the one reading this].
Keep it light, relaxed and fun.

posted by levermonkey [368 posts]
27th August 2014 - 6:31

10 Likes

To some very good advice here I would also like to ad:

When planning the route keep in mind your lowest avg speed and give yourself some extra time on top of that.

Avoid main roads, unless it's the only option. Quiet side roads are faster (no traffic lights and the hassle of a right turn ends with a side-glance) also less stressful peering in your map than on a main road.

If you have to/want to buy something you never used before, get the cheapest option that just fits the bill (3/4 of my cycling kit, including my commuter bike is a low to very low budget) - it will still do the job, if it fails you won't regret it and with some added experience can invest onto something more appropriate, give it some time but if it doesn't do what you want, just do as above Smile

Buy WD40 (entry level maintenance hehe), puncture resistant tyres and good quality brake pads - cost only a few £ more but are more effective.

Never justify buying something with the idea 'if I will get that, I will use/do it more' - start out with whatever you have.

Get a cycling friend or get down to your LBS for basic bike maintenance info.

posted by gr3g0ree [40 posts]
27th August 2014 - 17:49

2 Likes