There has been a lot of talk in the Austin community lately about bike commuting, so I figured it was time to try to pull together all of that collective knowledge. This blog is by far not the definitive resource on commuting, just one person's view, but hopefully others can chime in with some options as well.
The way I see it, there are 3 kinds of commuters:
- Hardcore: I ride my bike to work every day, regardless of what the conditions are (I might not even own a car)
- Moderate: I ride my bike to work most days, but if it is raining or I have another commitment, I will drive
- Light: I ride my bike to work occasionally, when the mood hits me
I am clearly in the moderate camp. If it is raining I will be in my car, or if I have to meet someone for lunch I am not going to show up all sweaty. When considering what you need to commute, first look at your work patterns and how you will be operating on a daily basis, this will make it easy to determine what you need.
There are two sets of considerations: for everyone and for the hardcore only. We’ll assume that most of the hardcore needs are going to cover weather and longer distances.
- Bike – Start with a bike that you know will be comfortable and be able to take the punishment of the streets. Typically mountain bikes are heavier duty and less optimal for commuting and road bikes, while they are used to pavement, will not do as well with curbs and potholes. If you can afford a purpose-built commuter, I recommend it. I ride a Redline 925 Commuter Bike, but there are also nice models from Trek and even some very inexpensive ones that you can pick up at places like Performance Bike. I ride a singlespeed, if you can get away with that I recommend it. The simplicity of the design means that when it comes to maintenance, you’ll have far fewer problems. Remember when you are on the trails, even if you do not have a tool, someone else has it in their Camelbak, but when you are on the streets, you are on your own. With a singlespeed be sure to have the right tools for dealing with the rear wheel, they are usually bolt-on and can have funky dropouts.
- Rack – Racks are pretty standard and they all generally fit as long as your bike has the right mounts. If they do not, companies like Topeak make models that clamp onto the seatpost and can hold enough weight to get your stuff to the office. I prefer the Topeak Explorer Rack and MTX Trunk Bag DP, the “slide on and snap in place” mounting system is excellent.
- Pack – Make sure that you have enough room to hold everything and then some. Most good packs will have panniers that unzip from the sides and expand your cargo capacity. Also think about other uses; will I need to go grocery shopping or carry a 6-pack to a friend’s house? Expandability is the key on packs, as well as durability. Some have rain shields that you can buy if you are an extreme comuter. I just stick a plastic garbage bag and a bungee cord in my bag in case I am accidentally caught in the rain.
- Headlight – A good headlight is critical. I use a Niterider Lumina 650 light. Four things to look for are flashing pattern, battery life, brightness and charging. The flashing pattern is critical for oncoming traffic and sometimes the traffic behind you. The strobe effect will bring people’s attention to you. The battery life is critical because you don’t want it to run out on you. Having multiple power levels lets you step it down to a lower level, letting you limp home with a little light versus being without. Try to get the brightest total power that you can. Finally, charging is important. USB charging is critical because often you will need to recharge at work. Everyone has an extra USB cable at work and it saves you from having to have a second charger at work. In addition to the headlight on my bars, I usually ride with a trail light as well, the Gloworm X2 Light that is permanently on my hight riding helmet.
- Taillight – Same criteria as the headlight, but this is where distance really comes in. The further back a car can see you the better. I often have 2 tail lights with alternate blinking patterns in the winter when it is dark. Remember at dusk you need to be brighter to stand out, which is counter-intuitive. I use a Cygolite Hotshot and it is great, it has one of the furthest distances. The head and tail lights are two areas where you should not skimp because they are critical to being seen.
- Tires – If you are using a road or commuter bike you probably have 700c wheels. I recommend going as wide as you can. I ride 35mm tires now, originally the bike had 28mm tires on and they did not do as well on the pavement – they rolled great, but you feel every bump and crack. Also look for tires that have some sort of puncture resistance in them (mine were cheap, I was not sure the size would work on my frame). I am amazed that I have not had a flat yet, the ride in is full of glass, nails and other bad things. If you are on a mountain bike, invest in some slicks. Probably 1.5”-1.9” at the most. A smooth pattern will help make the bike easier to roll. Consider a 29er as the larger the wheels, the less you have to work on pedaling.
- Pedals – I ride flats and recommend them for 3 reasons. First, you are going to have to stop at lights or for other reasons and if you are trying to avoid idiot drivers, not being clipped to a piece of metal can be a benefit. Secondly, when you get to work you aren’t walking across a tile or marble floor with cleats on – you will be less likely to slip and slide. Finally, it encourages you to take your bike more places because you can just hop on, you don’t have to start thinking about shoes, or look like a dork in the pub with bike shoes on. I use these, cheap, light and sturdy.
- Brakes – These are critical, have good ones and maintain them. On the trail you have the luxury of seeing the obstacle and slowing down or navigating around them because they don’t move. 16 year olds that text and drive are in motion, sometimes you have to stop very quickly. If you are a hardcore commuter, consider disc brakes, which are better in the rain.
- Handlebars – Think about comfort here. This is not like a mountain bike where you have to think about leverage and lifting. I have mustache handlebars on my bike, Mary bars or H bars are also popular. The longer your commute, the more bars matter.
- Clothing – Clothing is important. In the winter, don’t dress too warm. Someone once told me “if you aren’t cold for the first 15 minutes, you are overdressed.” Great, I have a 20 minute commute. But being dressed too warm just gets you more sweaty. Think about layers and think about wind. It is better to have a few layers of clothing that breathe and an outside layer that is windproof. Where it does matter is hands and feet. For hands consider ski gloves when it gets really cold or handlebar “lobster mitts” which are also called "pogies." For feet, make sure you have good wool socks, don’t let your feet get too cold. In the summer you will want to make sure that you are dressed appropriately as well.
- Lock – Since your bike will most likely be sitting outside of the office, be sure you have a good lock. I use a U-bolt lock, and the other security mechanism is a plain-looking bike. Shiny bikes with bling parts stand out, you want your bike to look pretty pedestrian.
- Toolkit – Make sure that you always have all of the tools that you need, even an air pump. It is not a good idea to have this in a saddlebag that stays on the bike. There is nothing worse than needing a tool and finding out that someone was in your pack.
Additional considerations for the hardcore riders:
- Fenders – These are critical for rainy days. There are some that attach around the wheel and others that clip on. If you have a mountain bike there are even fenders designed around a fork with travel.
- Rain gear – You will need something that is waterproof, but also breathes easy. When it is rainy it is humid and you will be even wetter when you get into work. Also, look for bright colors. Remember that when you are commuting on a rainy day, the drivers’ peripheral vision is reduced and wet streets make it harder to stop. Bright yellow is way better than dark blue.
- Tires – If you are going to be riding in the rain you will want tires with a deeper channel that can handle the wet conditions. Remember that your braking distance is determined by your tires’ ability to grab the pavement.
- Bring your bike into the office if you can. Maybe not even your office, but ask if there is somewhere in the building, like a storage room, that you can stash your bike.
- Showers are critical when you get to work. I find that alternating my clothing is good. If you get 2 rides out of one set, that is half of the laundry. But putting on wet clothes is a pain, so I will swap out alternate clothes, letting them dry at home.
- Lunch is a consideration for many. With a bike your range at lunch time is limited so you have to consider that in your plans. I generally found that coworkers were usually going out and I could reciprocate on the days that I drove in. Plus we have lunches for free in the office (limited but not bad). Otherwise you have to think about bringing something along with everything else that you are carrying if there is nothing nearby.
- Check with your company and see if there is any consideration that they give for bike commuting. Often it is tied into things like rideshare or carpool initiatives. Even if it does not explicitly call out bike commuting, you are taking a car off the road so it should count.
- If you don't have a shower at the office, shower right before you leave and immediately use bathing wipes and deodorant when you arrive. Try to find a place to hang bike clothes to dry for the ride home.
- Make sure to drive once a week and bring in at least a week worth of clothes. Put the dirty ones in a bag to swap the next time you drive. If you have a spouse that drives, you can use them as a "clothes mule too" ;)
- Look for tools to sync your data so that you don't have to carry a laptop. A USB key works, but I use Sugar Sync to sync my work files to my home computer. 5GB for free syncing, any time you make an update to one, it is updated on the other computer. Actually I have 3 computers, a heavy work laptop that never leaves the office, a home laptop, very lightweight that I also use when I travel. A desktop computer in my home office as well as an ipad and iphone. All of my files are synchronized across all devices. For the phone and tablet, they only sync down to the device when I access them, for the other computers with ample drive storage, they are synced on any change of a document.
Bike purchases are good. I was able to justify the cost of a commuter bike based on the fact that I cut back on gas consumption with my new job. At the old one I was commuting every day and buying lunch in the cafeteria. With the new job I had a bike commute and free lunches most days. This saved me ~$40-50 per week. That is almost $200/month that can go back into bike purchases, just to break even. At $2400 a year, that new full suspension 29er trail bike is only a few years away.
And, according to Charlie, here is a good book to check out.