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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.