April 27, 2022

Bike Commuting 101

WORDS & IMAGES @MRBABCOCK

My bike commute is often the best part of my work day. On the way to work, I plan my day, and I arrive at work feeling ready to go. On the way home, I pedal off the stress of the day and get home ready to relax and spend quality time with my family. And because I’ve worked an hour of exercise into my day, I can skip the gym! If that sounds good to you, here are a few tips for setting yourself up for bicycle commuting success.

What bike should I ride?

I’ve commuted on a BMX bike, a track bike, an enduro MTB, and everything in between, so odds are the bike you have in your garage will work just fine as it is. That said, some bikes are better suited to commuting than others.

Commuting-specific bikes, hardtail MTBs, gravel bikes, and hybrids are often the best options. They allow you to sit in an upright, comfortable position, fit large tires, and tend to offer mounting options for racks and fenders. 

Road racing bikes will get you where you’re going quickly, but they aren’t the most comfortable option, especially if you commute in street clothes. They also tend to be heavily targeted by bike thieves. 

On the other end of the spectrum, modern full-suspension MTBs are plenty comfortable, but they aren’t the most efficient, and they rarely offer provisions for rack and fender mounting. Like road racing bikes, they tend to be heavily targeted by bike thieves. 

Whatever bike you choose, make sure it is in good working order. If you need help with maintenance, the good folks at the Hub can get you tuned and ready to roll.

MY PICK: Rigid Surly MTB. I find it to be a good compromise between efficiency and comfort, and it allows me to mount a rack and fenders. I also know that it’s very durable while not being too expensive to replace.

And what about all my stuff?

I’ve commuted many miles with just a backpack, and it has worked great! If you choose to go the backpack route, be sure to get a pack that fits you well, has at least a sternum strap if not also a waist strap, and includes a rain cover. An ill-fitting backpack can really ruin a ride.

If you live in a warm climate like here in Athens, GA, you might want to look into moving your cargo off your back and onto your bike. Handlebar bags and frame bags work very well for smaller items, but if you need to carry a larger bag with a computer and other items, you’ll want to look at a rack and basket. 

Racks can go on the front or back of your bike, and there are pros and cons to each.

The effects on handling are complex, but to oversimplify, rear racks are great for riders who spend most or all of their ride time in the saddle, whereas front racks work better for riders who tend to get out of the saddle. 

Rear racks are better for larger loads (greater than 20 pounds), whereas front racks work well for anything under 20 pounds. 

There are a lot of ways to attach cargo to a rack, but I suggest a high quality basket. A basket is incredibly versatile and very easy to use. You can put almost anything in it, and strap it down using regular bungee cords. 

Personally, I use a Surly 24 Pack front rack with a Wald 139 basket. I have attached the basket to the rack with Voile ski straps, and I secure my cargo with two bungee cords. I’ve carried up to 30 pounds of stuff with no problems. 

Regardless of where your rack is, make sure that everything is properly installed and securely attached, and that no straps or tie downs can come free and tangle in your wheels. Also, before heading out with a heavy cargo load, make sure you practice in a safe place so you can get used to how your bike handles with the added weight.

TIP: You might find that you need to add a little air pressure to the front tire when carrying a load on a front rack.

Light it up!

Even during the day, proper lights are key to a safe commute. Make sure you have a bright red blinking rear light and a white front light. Make sure to charge your lights regularly, and maybe even carry backups.

For the truly dedicated commuter, check out dynamo-powered lights. A dynamo is a small generator that lives in a front hub and uses the rotation of your wheel to generate power. With a dynamo, you never need to worry about charging batteries, but there is a good bit more upfront expense and setup. Usually, dynamo wheels are custom built — and I'm sure Brian or Joseph at the Hub would love a chance to build you one!

TIP: Be sure to remove your lights from your bike when you reach your destination. They are often stolen.

MY PICK: Bontrager ION light on the front and a Bontrager Flare on the rear. These lights strap on to the handlebar and seatpost respectively, and they recharge via USB. They are also weather-proof. Eventually, I plan to upgrade to a dynamo setup, so Joseph, get ready.

Lock it or lose it.

To make sure your bike is waiting for you when you’re ready to go home, you need a good lock.

Cheap cable locks are ubiquitous and easy to use, but they don’t offer much protection. Generally speaking a high quality U-lock offers the best protection against theft. A cable lock can be easily cut with bolt cutters, whereas a U-lock must be sawed through in two places. And on the best U-locks, this can only be done with power tools.

A good lock isn’t cheap, but it’s less expensive than a new bike!

To use a U-lock, put the lock around a solid object (like a bike rack) and then around your rear wheel within the rear triangle of the frame. This secures the rear wheel along with the bike. In high risk areas, you might want to pair a U-lock with a high quality chain lock to also secure the front wheel.

TIP: Lock your bike in a high-traffic, visible area, such as near a main entrance, and make sure that the object you lock to does not allow the bike to be lifted off.

A heavy tire is faster than a flat tire.

Nothing ruins a commute quite like a flat tire. Riding through urban areas can be hard on tires, especially right after a rain. All the debris on the road tends to get washed to the shoulder — right where you ride! Because of this, I suggest looking for a tire with solid puncture protection. 

On a road bike, I like to use 28 or 32mm Bontrager Hard Case or Continental Gatorskins. They aren’t light — and they don’t give the most supple ride — but you can count on them to give you many miles of flat-free riding. 

On bikes that can fit a larger tire, there are a ton of options. Most low-profile MTB tires like the Bontrager XR2 or SE2 will work great, especially if the bike does double duty as a weekend warrior. For more commuter-specific options, you can’t go wrong with the Surly Extraterrestrial of the gold standard: the Schwalbe Marathon.

Regardless of what tires you use, be sure to inflate them properly and inspect regularly for wear. Also, carry a flat repair kit, and know how to use it.

MY PICK: Bontrager SE2. They are fast-rolling and durable, plus they allow me to have a little fun on the trails should I choose to take a detour on the way home.

Photo courtesy of MoMA

But what if it rains?

Dealing with the weather is part of bike commuting. If you live in southern California, you're probably better off to just hitch a ride with a friend the few days a year it rains, but if you live anywhere with variable weather, you should prepare for rain.

When it comes to rain you have two options: fenders and rain gear, or a change of clothes. If you choose the latter, just make sure your dry clothes are packed in a waterproof bag, and enjoy getting soaked. If you choose the former, there are some things you need to know.

Fenders keep you drier than rain gear. In all but the heaviest rain, most of the water that ends up on your pants and in your shoes comes from the ground, by way of your tires. Full-length fenders will keep all that water where it belongs — and they work even better with mud-flaps!

Not all bikes have fender mounts, but SKS makes clip-on fenders for almost any application. They also make seatpost and downtube mounted fenders. These are better than nothing, but they don't work near as well as true fenders.

So fenders have your bottom half covered; what about the top? A rain jacket keeps the rain off, but it also tends to cause you to sweat enough that you might as well have just let the rain do its thing! Finding the right balance of coverage vs. ventilation takes some trial and error, but you'll get there. And in just in case, pack an extra shirt.

The best option for your top half is a cycling poncho. These are hard to come by — and won't win you any style points — but when it comes to waterproof breathability, they can't be beat.

What else do I need to know?

I could talk about this all day, but at some point, I gotta get off my computer and ride home! With that in mind, here are a few bonus tips:

  • Get a bell! "On your left!" works in a pinch, but more often than not, it just confuses pedestrians and causes them to either jump left (in your way) or freeze. In my experience, a bell causes people to look back calmly and respond rationally.
  • Don't stick to the same route all the time. Do some exploring to find the safest/fastest/most fun routes. One of the benefits of commuting by bike is that your route options are almost endless.
  • Keep an eye on drivetrain wear. Urban riding introduces a lot of grit and grime to your chain, which can cause premature wear to chainrings and cassettes. Talk to your local shop about the best chain lube options for your area, and make cleaning and lubing your drivetrain a regular part of your week.
  • Get to know your local shop. A good bike shop is incredibly valuable to a committed bike commuter. Introduce yourself and treat them well.
  • Check out e-bikes! I don't have personal experience commuting by e-bike, but it sounds awesome! E-bikes let you go faster, farther, and in more comfort. What's not to like?
  • Experiment with your wardrobe. When I was a young bike racer, I commuted 20 miles each way to my job at Jittery Joe's. I did this on my race bike, in full spandex and disco slippers (cycling shoes). But these days, I like to choose clothing that allows me to go from bike to office without changing. Depending on your company's dress code, this might not be feasible, but I've found a number of pieces of clothing that are breathable and fast drying, but also sharp enough to wear to a meeting. My favorite: Vuori Strato Polo. And if you ride flat pedals, you'll find that almost any shoe with a flat-ish sole works great. If you ride clipless, I suggest leaving your work shoes at work (or switching to flat pedals, but that's a whole other blog post...).

If you're traveling by bicycle, you're probably doing it right.

These tips come from my three and a half decades of traveling by bike, but your mileage may vary. At the end of the day, as long as you're getting where you need to be safely and reasonably on time, you're doing it right. Happy commuting!