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12 Essential Gear Tips for Bike Commuting
Biking to work is a great way to fit regular cardiovascular excise into your day. Not only is it more cost effective and considerate for the environment, it's also enjoyable—much more stimulating than sitting in a car every day. Regular cycling can involve a bit of a shift in lifestyle, so take heed of the following considerations. We'll look at, piece-by-piece, how to plan the most effective gear to keep your daily commute enjoyable week after week, month after month.
Face it. Without your head, you're nothing. It's important to ride smart—be visible and be predictable, as they say. But still, accidents happen. Not only is it best practice to wear a helmet, it's the law in many communities. Even if you're somehow impervious to injury, you're always subject to fines.
When buying a helmet, consider your riding style. Do you plan to ride hard, working up a sweat over long distances? Or are you going to roll down a few side streets and call it a day? For serious riders, aerodynamics, weight and airflow can be significant factors to consider. Good ventilation can prevent overheating and promote sweat evaporation. For riders who are all about style, closed, skate-style helmets are a popular choice. These types of helmets can be great in wet weather—helping protect your scalp from rain—but can be heavy cookers in the heat.
These days, even the most basic, multi-use helmets are regulated by strict standards. In the United States the Consumer Product Safety Commission Standard has been implemented since 1999 to ensure all helmets manufactured and sold meet all minimum safety criteria.
Your eyes might be the last thing you think about protecting when preparing for a bike ride, but just like driving, your vision is your most important asset in spotting hazards and avoiding injury.
Ultraviolet protection and sun glare are the most obvious reasons for wearing eye protection. However, wind, rain, dust and other debris are more likely culprits for acute eye irritation—especially when travelling at high velocities. During the dry summer months, city streets are often filled with particles kicked up by vehicle tires or fallen from trees. Bugs can also be a problem in many climates. Wind and rain can make for significant irritants—causing eyes to itch and sting.
When selecting a pair of glasses, look for a large lens area for the best protection. Something light and flexible will be the most comfortable, and vents can help prevent fogging. Auto-tinting is also a nice feature when transitioning between areas of differing sun intensity; however, lenses are typically much slower to lose their tint in less sunny areas. There are a range of high-end sunglasses available, but if money is tight, you might consider a set of safety glasses from your local hardware store.
Your feet do more than just twirl around with your pedals. They are the transfer point in delivering physical force from body to bike. When it comes to your feet, the biggest decision you'll want to make is in choosing the right pedals.
"Clipless" pedals (despite their highly counter-intuitive name) actually involve clipping your feet securely to each pedal. They feature a locking mechanism that grasps a special cleat in the bottom of a dedicated shoe. This makes for more efficient power transfer between foot and pedal, and allows you to exert force during the sweep and upstroke of each pedal rotation. Clipping your feet also ensures optimal foot-placement at all times. Talk to any cyclist who uses clipless pedals, and they'll tell you they'll never go back to platform-style pedals.
There are a few downsides to clipless pedals, however. Clipless pedals are more expensive and require special shoes. Clipping in and out of pedals can also be inconvenient for short rides—especially those with regular stops at busy intersections. Toe clips can be a much cheaper alternative, but don't offer nearly the same performance as clipless pedals. For the more casual rider, a set of standard platform pedals may be enough. In either case, a stiff shoe performs best. Finding a good balance is important to avoid discomfort for any significant walking.
Gloves may not seem like a must-have accessory for new riders, but the comfort and grip they afford are well worth the time and money spent finding a decent pair. Gloves keep your hands warm and ensure good grip all-year round. They also provide padding for a more comfortable ride, while also protecting your palms in case of a fall. Many cyclists look for gloves with a patch of absorbent material on the back of each thumb to wipe away face and/or brow sweat.
During winter, when cold weather and sharp winds are common, a pair of gloves will help retain good circulation through your fingers—ensuring effective breaking and shifting between gears. A good set of gloves will also provide the best grip through rain and sweat, and will perform well during both hot and cold months. During extremely cold weather, however, it might be worth investing in a set of heavier, more insulated gloves.
Full-finger and fingerless styles are available. Fingerless gloves can be a comfortable option in warmer months, but they can also leave more sweat on your handlebars—and will lead to odd-looking tan lines depending on their skin coverage. Fingerless gloves have the advantage of being smartphone compatible; although, many full-finger gloves now offer touchscreen-friendly fingertips. There are also products available that you can paint on to any style of glove to make them touchscreen compatible.
This might seem a pretty big category to lump together, but there are a few principles to adhere to when selecting appropriate cycling clothes. For work, you'll want to make a decision as to whether you want to dress for comfort and performance—and bring an extra change of clothes to the office—or for more casual cycling. Whatever route you decide to take, a good rule of thumb is to wear clothes that fit snug but aren't restricting. Excess fabric will only flap in the wind, increasing air resistance. Loose pant legs can risk catching in an exposed drivetrain.
Cycling shorts and jerseys are typically considered the most comfortable and efficient form of bike apparel, but they're not for everyone. Many brands now design special clothes more suitable for biking in urban environments. They feature stretchy materials that breathe well and transfer moisture away from the skin. Special tailoring can offer longer sleeves, reinforced or gusset crotch seams, and better waist coverage to avoid exposing too much skin while in the saddle. Special fabrics are also available with reflective stitching visible only in the dark. Having a few pockets available can be handy for carrying a few essentials such as your wallet, keys and smartphone.
Depending on where you live, it's also worth packing a few extra layers to accommodate any cold or rainy weather. A light, water-resistant jacket can be easily folded and stored in a pack or pannier. A light hoody also makes a nice cycling complement, as a thin hood can fit beneath a helmet to help keep the head warm or tuck into the collar when it's not needed. Wheel fenders are also a great means to keeping road spray from staining your expensive threads.
If there's any chance of riding in the dark, you need to have lights—one for the front and one for the rear, minimum. Lights serve two purposes: They help you see, and they make you more visible to others. Arguably, the latter is more important in the city, as the abundance of streetlights, car headlights and other public lighting is often enough to see where you're going. Using high-output lights in the city can also risk blinding oncoming traffic, making for an unsafe situations for everyone.
Even if you're not using a headlight to see better, it's a great means to making yourself more visible to drivers—especially when using a flashing strobe. Many front lights also feature flashing side lights for better side-to-side visibility at intersections. If you ride dark trails or unlit streets, you'll need something with higher candlepower and a wide field of vision. You may even consider getting multiple lights and/or mounting a lamp on your helmet to ensure your field of vision is always lit.
These days, pretty well all bike lights use LED technology. LEDs are small, lightweight and energy efficient. They're also durable and run relatively cool. Aside from overall output, however, take into consideration the type of battery that will be most convenient—as well as their overall runtime. If it takes an hour to cycle to work, you don't want to run out of juice partway. Some lights run off AA or AAA batteries, but many incorporate proprietary chargeable batteries with a USB interface, so you can replenish them at work.
Not everyone's storage needs are going to be the same. Depending on what you do for work and how far you're riding, how you carry your essentials will vary. A couple factors that will help determine how to store your stuff will depend on capacity and comfort—which boils down to whether you want to carry your gear on your body or on your bike.
The simplest storage solution is to ride with a backpack or messenger bag. It's the cheapest and most convenient option—and most folks already have some sort of pack at home they can use. Backpacks typically carry more and are more comfortable to ride with, but messenger bags can offer the convenience of accessibility while wearing. Carry bags are convenient for short trips or when you're not hauling much more than a light change of clothes. Where they become inconvenient is during long rides or when packing significant weight. Not only can a bag be tiring to bear, but they can also increase accumulation of back sweat.
For longer rides and more substantial carrying capacity, bike panniers are more effective. Panniers attach to rack mountings that let you carry extraneous weight on your bike—reducing body fatigue, which can affect pedaling performance. Regardless of your storage style, weather and visibility are also worthy considerations. Investing in a fully waterproof bag will ensure extra clothes stay dry in any weather. Brightly colored materials and/or reflective material will also help you be seen when riding with traffic. However, storing a laptop or other expensive equipment in an on-bike pannier may be risky—as electronics don't like to be bounced around. If storing a laptop in your pannier, be sure to use plenty of padding to cushion any sudden or regular jolts. You may also consider storing your laptop in a backpack with its own laptop sleeve—as your body will absorb most road vibrations; the rest of your gear can be stored on your bike.
Among new riders, this is one of the most overlooked aspects of cycling to work. Be sure to pack a few essentials to ensure you're your best at the office. A few extra minutes spent when you arrive can make all the difference for you and your co-workers.
The easiest way to make sure you're well-equipped at all times is to keep a stash of hygiene supplies at work. There's no point in hauling the extra weight to and from work, and leaving it in one place will mean you never have to go without.
A small towel and some deodorant are a couple of obvious personal care staples. But, also consider a pack of wet wipes or a bottle of no-rinse body wash. When shopping, look in the camping/travel section for miniature, easy-to-transport products.
9. Hydration & nutrition
There are a variety of products out there suited to keeping you hydrated during your commute. They range from very basic to advanced aerodynamic designs and include many mounting types to fit below your body tube, beneath your seat or on your handlebars. Wearable hydration packs are also an option, but they can be heavy and expensive—and are for the most part unnecessary for road biking. While convenient, these systems are more suited to rough trail riding where two hands are needed to maintain control at all times. For the average commuter, one or two water bottles mounted somewhere convenient should be enough.
Specialized hydration products with valuable electrolytes are available to help absorb water. These sport drinks can be valuable for heavy riding during hot summer months, but these products can be expensive if consumed regularly all-year round. Being sure to drink plenty of water before, during and after cycling is a surefire means to avoiding dehydration.
While cycling is a great form of cardiovascular exercise—ideal for shedding a few extra pounds—it's important to stay properly fueled during your daily rides. Be sure to eat before and after any substantial riding, and it's often a good idea to ride with an extra piece of fruit or a granola bar for long rides.
Depending how long you're riding for, every cyclist should have a small amount of tools at home or with them on the road. At the very minimum, be sure to carry a basic tire kit and maybe a set of hex wrenches. If riding without a tire kit, avoid travelling further than you're willing to carry your bike home.
A basic tire kit contains an extra tube and/or patch kit, as well as a compact pump. Keep in mind, fixing a tube can be difficult on the road. It involves locating the puncture, cleaning, preparing the rubber for adhesion (usually with a small piece of sandpaper), and then applying the patch with glue (unless they're self-adhering). Instead, it's much easier to replace a flat tube with a new one and then fix the puncture later at home or at work. A compact pump is also different than the stand or floor pump you should keep at home. Compact pumps are great for their portability, but their design makes them much less efficient and somewhat awkward to operate—often requiring some decent upper-body strength to achieve a firm tire pressure. Still, in a pinch, a compact pump will give you the inflation you need to get home safe. Tire levers can be a useful addition to your kit, but many treads will slip over a rim easily enough without them.
A set of hex wrenches can be convenient to have on the road, and they don't take up much space. It can be common for parts to become loose on your bike—say, a water bottle cage or lighting bracket. A set of wrenches are useful when you need to make a quick adjustment to your seat, handlebars, brake tension, etc. Pliers, an adjustable wrench and some basic screwdrivers can also be a good complement. At home, you'll want to make sure you have some chain lube and rags. Degreaser or WD-40 is also a good idea for removing gunk in your drivetrain before lubricating. Down the road, you might consider more specialized tools depending on the work you're prepared to perform on your own.
Whether parking indoors or outdoors, you should have some form of security on your bike at all times. Without a proper lock, a bike can be a major inconvenience if you have to make a quick stop for some last-minute groceries. Whether you ride an old beater or a brand new racing bike, never leave your bike unattended without locking it first.
There are a range of locks available that typically fall into one of the following categories: U-locks, chains and cables. For each type of lock there are a range of different qualities. A good rule of thumb is to spend as much as you can afford—but also keep in mind that the most secure locks are also the heaviest to carry. U-locks are typically the most secure and offer a good weight-to-portability ratio. Chains and cables can be more susceptible to bolt-cutters, but they coil easily, making them easier to store and transport. Chains and cables can also be purchased with protective Kevlar sleeves or other reinforcement to better prevent being snipped—although, no lock is entirely impervious to theft.
When locking your bike, always lock the frame and both wheels to a secure bike rack. Many cyclists recommend using two different types of locks—a U-lock on the rear and a cable or chain on the front. This secures all essential components and requires potential thieves to use a different method for breaking each lock.
There are many products out there to better customize your riding experience. Some are practical additions and others trivial (and costly). For more performance- and data-oriented riders, a bike computer can be a great means to tracking speed and distance as you ride. The most accurate computers are dedicated electronics that mount directly to your bike, but a range of inexpensive smartphone apps are also available.
If you cycle a particularly scenic route and you want to share your experience with others, an onboard camera—mounted to your bike can be a great feature to include. While the novelty might wear off quickly when cycling the same commute each day, there is also the benefit of documenting your journey in case you get an accident; visual footage can be a valuable means to proving faulty actions of dangerous drivers.
If you're thinking of cycling with music but don't want to obstruct your ear channels with headphones, bike speakers are available that mount to different parts of the frame or fit in a convenient water bottle cage. Many of these products will sync wirelessly to your smartphone to avoid the risk of loose cords—perfect for keeping up with your favorite morning and afternoon radio shows.
Stay equipped & ride safe
We've taken a comprehensive look at how to equip yourself for the best bike commuting experience possible. But, it's best you find what's most suitable for you and your commute. At the end of the day, it's important that you find the safest and most comfortable means for getting to and from work—that way, you'll be sure to arrive on time, feeling healthy and energized.