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Ten ways to make your cycle commute easier

Updated on October 10, 2013
Cycle commuting doesn't have to mean lycra leggings and getting out of breath. Most commutes can be easy and fun.
Cycle commuting doesn't have to mean lycra leggings and getting out of breath. Most commutes can be easy and fun. | Source

If you've started travelling to work by bike, congratulations! You've chosen one of the best ways of making the daily trip to work more pleasurable, healthy and economical. Some bicycle commuters get put off early on and go back to other forms of transport, as they make some basic mistakes about what, how, and where to ride. The good news is that are a few things you can do to make the journey easier.

1. Slow down. We've all heard of the Tour de France, but cycling doesn't have to always mean racing! In fact, there is a whole movement dedicated to slow cycling - called, predictably enough, the Slow Bicycle movement, which inspired me compile the Slow Bicycle Companion. It's all about cycling in a relaxed, easy way, taking time to enjoy the ride and the time out from the rat race. Keeping to an average pace of 8-10 miles an hour means you rarely even break into a sweat.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 68% of people in the UK have a commute of less than 6 miles, so most people can commute comfortably in less than an hour even at a slow pace and can arrive cool, calm and collected at work. Slowing down can also mean getting off and walking. The beauty of the bicycle is that if you need to take a short cut, or go up a hill that's too steep to ride, you can just get off and push.

2. Keep the weight down. A lot of commuters choose bicycles that are heavy and clunky. The more weight you can avoid, the easier your commute will be. Remember the old movie cliché of the aeroplane or balloon that's losing height, and the occupants have to throw out everything they can? That's what you need to do on your bike.

Firstly, choose your bike carefully. Avoid heavy steel frames and choose the lighter alloy type. These are more expensive - but the extra money is worth it. Unless your commute is actually off road, you don't need off road tyres. One of the easiest things you can do to ditch weight and resistance is to get rid of those thick, knobbly tyres and replace them with smoother, narrower road tyres. You'll notice the difference immediately. If you have a heavy, sprung, padded saddle, change this for a slimmer, lighter type. It may be a little less comfortable but it will allow easier pedalling as less of your movement is absorbed by the springs.

Similarly, carrier racks are often made from heavy steel - swap this for a lightweight version. Unless you have to leave your bike unattended for long periods of time, avoid heavy chains and D locks - a tough lightweight chain will be sufficient for when you have to leave your bike locked up for a short time.

3. Plan your route carefully. Some bicycle commuters just stick to the old route they followed previously in the car or on the bus. The beauty of the bike is that you can go pretty much anywhere. You should always be looking for ways to chip a little here and there off the distance you have to travel. Use websites like Transport for London's Cycle Journey Planner. Try different routes regularly, timing yourself to see which takes the least time for the least effort.

The easiest way is to get a large scale map of your route and draw a line with a pencil connecting your home with your workplace. Then plan your route around this line, keeping as close as possible to the 'as the crow flies' route. Then experiment with different routes as often as you can. Remember that going a little further on a flat road can save more time than a quick route up a steep hill - use a contour map to see how steep certain routes are. It's not cheating to get off and walk - sometimes carrying your bike up a short flight of steps, over a footbridge or under a subway can save a huge amount of time. Keep your eyes open for shortcuts that aren't even shown on maps!

4. Get technical. A few basic technical items can make your commute so much easier. Punctures are the cyclist's worst enemy - but the good news is, they have practically been eliminated by modern tyres such as the Schwalbe Marathon. They are well worth the money and even if your current tyres are in good shape it is worth changing them. If you've ever had to mend a puncture by the side of the road in the rain, you'll know why! Keep your bike regularly serviced, either by yourself or your local bicycle shop, to avoid nasty surprises on the way to work.

Always carry a basic repair kit. You can get a small bike multi-tool cheaply from pound shops which will contain almost everything you may need en route. It's also worth carrying a small puncture repair kit, a lightweight pump, a pair of small pliers, some cable ties or electrical tape for emergency repairs, and don't forget a pair of latex gloves to keep your hands clean.

5. Let the donkey do the work. It's always easier to carry luggage on your bike than on your person, yet you often see cycle commuters laden with rucksacks or messenger bags. This makes it harder to keep your balance and puts a strain on your back. Instead, get a good lightweight carrying rack and strap your bag to it with a bungee cord, available cheaply from pound shops. Avoid heavy leather briefcases and choose a lightweight fabric bag instead, or panniers for larger items.

6. Toe the line. You may think that toeclips are only for racing cyclists - but they are a great boon for any cyclist as they mean that you can pull up your pedals as well as push them down. You don't need special pedals or shoes; strap-on toeclips are cheap and easy to fix to normal pedals. Your feet can fit in and out of them easily and you'll notice the difference immediately, especially when climbing hills. Be aware that after a while, road grime will build up on toeclips which will eventually work into your shoes, so keep your toeclips clean.

7. Dress for success. You don't have to wear special clothing to be a cycle commuter. Unless you have a very short commute however, it's probably best to keep your smart work clothes at work, and change when you arrive - cycling in smart clothes will wear them out quickly and isn't always comfortable. If you don't want to change at work and don't have to wear a smart suit, you can compromise with smart casual clothing.

Lightweight formal shoes such as those made by Rockport are comfortable and smart, and trousers made of technical fibre will dry easily if you get a soaking. Since you won't be rushing to work, your work shirt will be fine (though it's more comfortable to ride without a tie) and it's always best to carry a lightweight waterproof jacket.

If you choose not to wear a helmet, always carry a baseball cap, as the broad peak will keep the rain and sun off nicely when required. Old fashioned cycle capes can be a good way of keeping the rain off - waterproof jackets and trousers are often hot and heavy. In winter, avoid long coats - wear a fleece or gilet under your waterproof jacket, which will give you warmth without weight. A company called Sealskinz makes great waterproof but breathable items such as gloves and socks which don't feel any different to ordinary clothing.

8. Choose the right fuel. Cycling requires energy, so make sure you have a good breakfast of slow-release carbohydrates, such as porridge, wholewheat bread, nuts, fruits and vegetables. This will give you energy over a period of time. Avoid sugary food as this gives you a rush of energy followed by a crash. For the homeward journey, have a snack about an hour before you leave work so you are primed and ready to go. In hot weather, make sure you drink plenty of fluids - keep a water bottle on your bike.

9. Practice 'zen' or meditative cycling - but do it safely. Your cycle commute is a time to tune out of the worries of the day. But this doesn't mean switching off or daydreaming. Get into the 'zone' and pay attention to your commute in the same way you would pay attention to reciting a speech or playing a piece of music, or a game of chess. What bit comes next? Have I forgotten something? Has that motorist seen me? etc.

Advanced drivers, such as those trained by the police, use a method of inner narrative to describe everything, so that they are as aware as possible of what is happening around them and any potential hazards. You can do this too, e.g, 'I am increasing my speed to 12 mph. I am approaching a traffic light which has been green for some time. There is a car about to pull out on my left. There is a young child trying to cross the road on my right' etc.

Keep the blood pressure down by refusing to get drawn into anger and 'road rage'. If somebody cuts me up or shouts abuse, I always say to myself 'I only have to deal with him for ten seconds. He has to deal with himself for the rest of his life.' If you feel you have to say something to a driver, make a brief clear statement (not a question) loudly, firmly and politely, eg, 'please give cyclists more room', then depart with dignity. You will probably be ignored or receive abuse, but don't get drawn into an argument.

10. Enjoy yourself! Remember that as a cyclist you are saving money, keeping fit, and helping the environment. Your daily commute is a chance to have fun in the open air and have a bit of time that nobody else can have a claim on. So get out there and ride!

Hugh Morrison has been cycling in London for over 25 years. He is the editor of The Slow Bicycle Companion which is available for Amazon Kindle, an inspiring collection of prose and poetry from cycling's golden age.

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