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Commute by Bicycle

Updated on November 11, 2018
Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom rode many times in the Cape Cod Getaway biking fundraiser for the MS Society. He once cycled solo from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.

Me on my lazy commute.
Me on my lazy commute. | Source

Reasons to Commute by Bicycle

  1. Money - The only cheaper commute is on foot.
  2. Exercise - Commuting by bicycle is a great way to fit a daily workout into your schedule.
  3. Fun - Commuting by bicycle is much more fun than driving.
  4. The Environment - Bicycles pollute much less and use up less of our natural resources than cars do.

How to Commute by Bicycle

Create a Safe and Efficient Route

The first question to ask yourself is, "How fast can I ride?" If you can easily average 20 mph over the course of your commute, a 20-mile commute will take you an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes depending on conditions. This question is kindred to the question, "How much time can I devote to my commute?" If you are an accomplished triathlete or bicycle racer and can easily average 25 mph in a headwind and pouring rain, and you can spend 2 hours each way on your commute, then it is okay if you live 50 miles or so away from work.

Start by clocking a training ride that is at least half as long as your commute. If you rode five miles in twenty minutes, you can start with the assumption that you could ride ten miles in forty minutes.

Next, map several routes (if possible). The most efficient route may not be a straight line. For example, if the straightest route is an interstate highway, that is no road for a bicycle. But even a state highway may be too busy to be safe for your commute.

An ideal route will have ample room for both cars and bikes and no parked cars. Parked cars are dangerous - doors swinging open in your path, pedestrians darting out - definitely to be avoided if you can.

Drive and evaluate each route for safety, road conditions, dangerous intersections and other road hazards. Choose the safest one.

If there are days you would like a longer workout, create a longer alternate route. This longer route should meet or exceed the safety standards of the shorter one.

Bicycling Safely

I have been commuting by bicycle for many years now. I have bounced off the door of a Mercedes and done a shoulder roll across the trunk of a Chevy, and I have had other automotive confrontations, and I have suffered only temporary bruising. Knock on wood, I haven't had such a confrontation in several years. If you would like to be like me in this regard, I have a few pointers for you.

  1. Think about what you are doing. Do not use your phone while riding. Do not think about work, or the fight you just had with your wife. Instead, listen for cars and live to have another fight with your wife another day.
  2. Wear bright-colored clothing, reflective material, and lights, and take it for granted that many drivers still will not see you. That's why you should stay alert instead of listening to your i-Pod. Remember, too, that even if you make eye contact with a driver, that doesn't necessarily mean they actually see you.
  3. Wear a helmet. A helmet is a brain hat. Those who have a brain should wear one. If you don't have a brain you can prove it by not wearing a helmet.
  4. You're usually better off not running a red light. There are exceptions, but probably you do not have the acceleration that might be necessary to save you should the assumption that you made when you decided to run the light prove suddenly false.
  5. If you overtake a line of cars that is stopped, proceed with caution. They are stopped for a reason, and you do not want to find out too abruptly what that reason is.
  6. Stay out of the way of traffic. Use speed and intelligence to keep yourself from being an obstruction and from becoming a speed bump.
  7. When cars yield the right of way to you, move in a predictable way so that everyone knows what you are doing. You come up to a stop light and you want to take a left. Use a left turn hand signal, and when the light changes, proceed out into the middle of the intersection in the same way you would if you were a car. In this case you speak the body language of a car so that the cars know what you are going to do.

Waiting to bike home.
Waiting to bike home.


Your Bike
What kind of terrain will you traverse on your commute?

If you have hilly terrain, you may want a lighter bike with a lower gear ratio. If the road conditions on your routes are excellent, you may enjoy a super-light road bike. If the road is less than perfect, you may want a touring or cross bike. If you will ride any distance on dirt or gravel, or on woodland trails, you will need a mountain bike. Where will you put your bike when you are at work? If you have a folding bike, perhaps you can park it at your desk.

Any kind of brakes are fine as long as they work. If you have brake pads, be sure to replace them before they are completely worn out. In general, maintain your bike well and your ride will be safer and more fun.

Lights are vital for commuting before dawn or at or after dusk. They are not so important for seeing, but vital for you to be seen. Reflective vests, leg bands and clothing also help make you visible.

A luggage rack is nice if you don't want to ride with a backpack. I'll talk about cargo a little later on.


I've found that clothing designed for cycling is usually the best for commuting by bicycle. Bicycling clothing is breathable, comfortable, protective and aerodynamic. Of those four attributes, the two most important are breathable and comfortable. I like padded bike shorts because they are kinder over the course of a ride that takes an hour or more. That is, they won't wear holes in your sitting apparatus like a padded bicycle seat will.

Whatever shoes you wear, you'll need to keep your laces from getting tangled in your pedals. You can tuck the laces inside the shoe, or you can choose shoes with a Velcro closure.

Handlebar grips and tape along with the wind tend to take the moisture out of your hands. Biking gloves are a good way to protect your hands while preserving finger mobility for shifting and braking.

What do you need to carry with you to work? I bring my lunch every day and wear a waterproof backpack. You can see the backpack in the photo at the top of this article. This same company (Ortlieb) makes waterproof panniers you can hang off your bicycle luggage rack if you have one. It is good to have something waterproof to carry cargo.

Sometimes I bring a change of clothes, but usually I bring clothes to work when I commute by other means - car or train - because I like to keep the cargo weight down when I commute by bike. If you do haul a change of clothes, you'll definitely want to keep them dry.

What if you get a flat tire? I carry two extra tire tubes, tire irons and a compact pump. However, I rarely get a flat because I replace the tubes and tires once a year and keep them fully inflated, and also because my routes are relatively free of broken glass and other debris. Nevertheless, if I get a flat I can fix it and afterwards finish my rides.

Of course carry a phone. If you get the bad end of a confrontation with a motor vehicle you may need medical assistance. We all hope this won't happen, but if it does you'll want to be able to call for help. NEVER use your phone while biking, even to listen to music. If you use it for a GPS, try to look at it only when you are not in motion. The best place for your phone is tucked away in your waterproof bag.

Winter cyclist.
Winter cyclist. | Source

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