Bicycle Commuting For The Beginner

I’ve been commuting by bicycle in some capacity for many years now, though I’ve taken breaks off in-between for things like recovering from ACL replacement surgery. So, no…Episode #18 wasn’t something completely new for me. I tried it as an undergraduate, before having some minor accidents, then decided to try it again in grad school and started liking it. The truth, however, is that I made the experience much harder on myself than I needed to by not getting properly informed first, and I think that this itself causes most people’s avoidance of (or premature departure from) bicycle commuting. This article (and my future ones on the subject) is designed to help with that, in the honest hope I can make the learning curve a little easier on those that come after me.

There’s a lot I could pick as a starting spot, but the most confusing mess for me has been the issue of equipment, and I think I’ve got a pretty good system going in that respect, so I’ll start with this. I’m going to do my best to give you an idea of the must-haves, the good-to-haves, and the rich-kids-toys. Buying my bike gear has been an iterative process from the essential to the mostly irrelevant. The goal here is to emulate that. Let’s start with the absolute essentials…

The absolute essentials

  • A bike – It’s not bike commuting without a bike, now is it? You’re definitely going to need one. Exactly what kind of bike you pick is going to be based on your distance, how experienced you are as a rider, conditions you’re likely to encounter, and your budget. If there is one thing I want to absolutely instill in you, it’s this — no two bikes are the same! If you stop reading at this point but walk away with that in mind, then you’ll at least have learned something that took me years. Every bike will offer you a different experience. Some are more “comfortable”, some tend to be faster, some deal with bad pavement, and some will chew your food for you. There are dozens of factors in bike sales that will overwhelm you, and many of them are not going to matter unless someone convinces you that they do. So, I want to make this second point absolutely clear — buy a bike that fits and feels right on a test ride, and disregard other factors for now. Outside of that, there are roughly three classes of bikes worth considering, each of them offering a different experience. Trust me…of the myriad configurations, just focus on these three groups.
    • Mountain bikes – Okay…I’m pretty sure we can picture what one of these looks like. They usually ride very low, they’re nimble, and they’re durable. Really, just close your eyes and think “mountain bike”. Yes…that’s fine. If it looks and feels like that, just call it a “mountain bike” for now. Now, my first commuter was a mountain bike, so I can tell you what you can expect out of it. The good balance and easy operation, plus the very familiar riding posture, will give you decent safety on the road and a pretty decent speed. The wider and knobby tires will also mean good traction on bad roads and in the rain. You will, however, likely feel like you’re working WAY too hard for the distance traveled. That’s a common experience with this kind of bike, and it’s because the riding posture won’t give you lots of power, the tires are meant to be used at very low pressure, and the frame is likely heavy. These are among the least expensive option, however, and you can get an entry-level one for $250. My first commuter was a Mongoose Rockadile SX, and even though it was heavy, I used it all through grad school and for the first several months of commuting at my current job.
    • Road bikes – Just think of Lance Armstrong racing. There you go. That’s a road bike. Again, dozens of configurations, but for here and now, they’re really all the same. Usually, their defining features are that they have thin tires, drop handle bars, and give you a riding posture that keeps you out of the wind and helps ensure power. They tend to be made of lighter materials, too, and they also tend to be more expensive. What can you expect from riding one of these? Well, there are a lot of experienced bike riders who still hate drop bars and the thin and hard tires can make the bike “twitchy”. They’re the best when we’re talking about turning your leg power into speed. It’s also important to note that those thin tires are going to notice bumps and cracks in the pavement more and that thin, hard, slick tires WILL skid on wet pavement. Oh, yeah, they will. If you’re going to be an “all conditions” rider like I am, you’ll need to learn defensive riding, because you’ll skid like a mofo if you just pull the brakes and pray. Keep in mind, too, that something that “goes fast” also “goes slower with a whole lot less effort”, so this could be a good choice for a long commute.
    • Hybrid / Comfort / Bike Path bikes – There’s really no way to close your eyes and imagine one of these because the term is a huge catch-all for bikes that didn’t fall into the above categories. They’re often called “hybrid” because they have some features of mountain bikes and some features of road bikes. Uh, sorta. I honestly can’t say I see the resemblance in most of them. A defining feature of these bikes, however, is that they’re not intended for off-road usage but are not the twitchy speed demons that are road bikes. The ride tends to be stable, the ride can be anywhere from moderately fast to cruiser-style, and the focus is generally on keeping you comfortable. These can be a crazy mixed bag, so you’ll have to try some for yourself.

Now, as for me and mine. I started out life on a $200 Mongoose Rockadile SX, which is a fairly heavy and relatively inexpensive mountain bike. It suited me fine for the 2.5 mile commute to and from class, and the 3.5 mile commute to and from work wasn’t bad, though I was happy to get a new bike. My current bike is kinda an accident, and this is a very important lesson to take away from it. My parends got me a Trek 7100 for Christmas, and I was elated…that is, until I actually rode the thing. The frame was lighter and it was almost twice as expensive as my “beater” mountain bike, but the first ride around town was a miserable experience, where I panted like a fiend while barely moving. I couldn’t ride it without feeling like I was in an easy chair, and the spring in the seat post made it hard for me to really push the bike. It was with me all of 18 hours, when I traded it for a Trek FX 7.2 which has been VERY good to me. In fact, when I eventually part with it, it’ll be a bittersweet time, because this bike has felt so perfect to me. I’ve taken it as far as 80 miles in a single day, and I can be anywhere in Ft. Lauderdale in under 30 minutes. It’s a great mix of comfort and speed.

If you look at those two bikes, they may not look very different, but oh how they are. Just a few degrees difference in the frame can change your riding position and determine how much effort you’ll expend for a given speed. It’s best for you to be honest about the distance you’re going to travel, how fast you want to go, and how much a sense of safety you want, because it’ll make a difference. A lot of people love the Trek 7100. For me, I hope to never sit on one again…

This brings up another point. Expensive doesn’t mean better. There are “price points” at which this seems to happen. Below a certain “price point”…say, about $300…all you’re going to find are inexpensive mountain bikes and hybrids. And, hey! Like I said, they can work just fine. Above that point, you find other companies entering the fray, and they bring in cruisers and inexpensive road bikes and things like that. A $450 cruiser, however, was worse for me than a $200 mountain bike. Even $100 bikes from Wal Mart were a better choice for me. I rode one of those briefly, until the pedal ripped from the crank shaft. So, just get a bike you can afford that supports a riding position you find pleasant and familiar and remember that longer commutes tend to benefit from a less upright riding style. Avoid pointless “bells and whistles” such as shocks. Really. They’re pointless. I promise.

That’s pretty much all I want to say about bikes.  When you’re a commuter, you don’t have to be complicated, and I’m not going to complicate things here, either.  Everyone else is complicated, so I’m being simple.

Really, there are only three other things that you need in the “absolute essentials” list, and once you’ve got them, you’re ready to go.  Two of them are safety items and one of them is a security item.

  • A Helmet - Yes, you need one.  You need one right now.  This is not an item you can worry about later, because “later” might be after you’ve had your first fractured skull.  Medical science is amazing, but it can’t put your brains back in, so just get a helmet and wear it.  Get a quality helmet, which is a universally available item, and then make sure it fits tightly.  Cinch those straps up.  This isn’t a hat.  It’s a helmet, and it doesn’t work if it falls off your head at the critical moment.  You can get a good one cheaply, and in all honesty, there isn’t a lot to improve on, so I don’t recommend spending up on your helmet.  Just get something that fits snugly and will protect your brain-pan.
  • Eye Protection – At first, I was going to put “sunglasses” in the “nice to have” category, but I wised up and consider this almost as essential as a helmet.  Yes, I realize you probably ride a bike as a kid and never used eye protection, so what’s the point?  Well, I tell you what…go have a chat with the two mosquitoes I wiped off my sunglasses yesterday.  When you’re riding daily, and especially when you’re riding at speed, there’s all sorts of stuff in the air that can ruin your day.  You can get a bug or a falling leaf in your eye.  Your front tire or a passing car might kick up a pebble.  It might start raining and now you’re getting rain in your eyes.  Even some cheap sunglasses or a construction worker’s eye protection is a good idea.  In the last year, I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences that tell me eye protection is almost as valuable as your helmet.
  • Bike Lock - If you’re going places, you’ll need to secure your bike when you get there.  Bikes, lacking ignition keys, need to be secured to a heavy object to prevent theft.  There are all sorts of different kinds of locks.  I suggest skipping on combination locks and on cable locks that look really flimsy.  I’m still carrying around the Kryptonite U-lock I bought 11 years ago when I first went to college.  It’s nice, but it’s also heavy and it’s not very flexible in how it can be used.  Flexibility and security are on a continuum here, so a heavy U-lock might make sense if your bike was expensive.  On a long ride, though, that U-lock gets annoying.

So, there you go, you’ve got your bike, your essential safety gear, and your lock.  You have all the critical items, and you’re now ready to start bicycling on your shorter errands as well as for pleasure trips in your own neighborhood.  Good for you!  This is all the material you need to last you for a while, but in my next installment, I’ll be discussing things that will improve the safety and comfort of your commutes, and this will also mean an increase in your comfortable riding distance and bring you even more joy in using your two-wheeler for practical ends.

Stay safe and enjoy the road!

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1 Comment

  1. Abhishek said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    be sure to watch some videos here:

    They do a good job at promoting safe bicycling on roads.

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