A Common Sense Guide to Bicycles

Guide to Bicycle Commuting

Published: 10/02/2009 by eBicycles

So you've rediscovered cycling and are astonished by how much you enjoy it. Why not take it to another level and try commuting by bicycle? Riding in traffic requires a different kind of focus than recreational cycling on bike paths, but it can be even more rewarding. You can navigate this guide using the links below:

City bus equipped with a bike rack
© Joshua Putnum / flickr

Many city buses are now equipped with bike racks in front making bicycle commuting easier.

Why Commute by Bicycle?

Making the decision to get to work by bicycle might seem like a big step, but the advantages are obvious. Cycling is free, fun, and great for your physique. Riding to work means starting the day on a positive note: instead of spending your morning commute burning fossil fuels and cursing traffic, you get to spend the time outdoors, observing your community and filling your body with feel-good endorphins. Plus, you save money on gas, car maintenance, and gym bills.

Commuter style bicycle from Trek
© Trek Bicycle Corp.

2010 Trek Belleville classic commuter style bike.

What Type of Bike is Best for Commuting?

Bicycle commuters ride a variety of bikes. Some have racing-style bikes; others are on mountain bikes, hybrids or folding bikes. Commuting doesnít require a specific type of vehicle, but you should get one youíre comfortable with that suits your needs.

Some companies have begun making models designed specifically for commuting. Many copy European commuting bikes and come equipped with handy accessories like fenders, chain guards, and baskets. While these bikes are perfect for riding a few blocks, they may have only a few gears, so you wonít be able to use them on bigger hills. Plus, theyíre often fairly heavy, so if you plan on taking longer rides with friends, be prepared to work a little harder than your companions.

Folding commuter bike
© istockphoto / gordondix

Folding bicycles like this make great commuter bikes.

Instead, a hybrid bike - combining elements of mountain bikes and touring bikes - may be the best option for a commuter and folding bikes are good if you take a train, bus or subway for part of your commute. Whatever style bike you choose, the most important elements for a commuter to think about are the bikeís gears, handlebars, and tires.

Rear cassette of bicycle drive train
© Brandon Kelly

Rear bicycle gears with 5 sprockets providing a full range of gearing for both flat and hilly terrain.


How many gears you need depends on where you live and what kind of riding you plan on doing. If you live in a flat area and donít plan on riding more than a few miles at a time, a three-speed should be fine. On the other hand, if youíre in a hilly region and are hoping to ride just about everywhere, youíll need something stronger and more flexible. Bicycles with 21 speeds are common and give you enough options to get up most hills. The more gears your bike has, the more versatile it will be for handling various riding conditions and terrains.

Flat handlebars
© istockphoto / diego_cervo

Flat style handlebars on a commuter bike.


Deciding on a handlebar style can be tricky. Drop handlebars - the curvy ones you see on racing bikes - provide a number of grip options and put your body in a position that helps you go faster. On the other hand, they force you to lean over for the entire ride.

More traditional commuting bikes, like those used in Europe or China, have upright handlebars that allow you to sit upright and see the world while you ride. They arenít as convenient for long distances, though. Which one is best for you depends on your plans and preferences.

Medium width bicycle tire
© Brandon Kelly

Medium width (~32mm) tire ideal for commuting on paved surfaced.


Itís important to have tires that fit the riding youíre doing. Mountain bike tires are wide and sturdy, but their treads will slow you down on longer stretches of pavement. Road bikes have smooth, lean and light tires, but they can be treacherous on bumpy roads or rainy days. The best tires for commuting are somewhere in the middle - not too thick and not too thin, and with a moderate amount of tread.

Bike shop accessories
© Brandon Kelly

Wall of bicycle accessories.  Most bike shops carry a wide assortment of parts and accessories for your bike.

Accessories to Ease Your Commute

Commuting puts different demands on a bicycle than recreational cycling, and requires some specific accessories. Local bike shops carry many types of accessories and they can install the more involved accessories such as racks, fenders, mud guards and lights for you.

Commuter with reflective gear
© istockphoto / TACrafts

Commuter cyclist, wearing a reflective vest.  The panniers also have reflective patches.

Remaining Cool and Clean

Whether you ride in work clothes or change into them later depends on you and your commute. If the ride is short and the weather cool, cycling in work clothes might be fine. But if it's hot or the ride is strenuous, youíll sweat. In that case, you should ride in something comfortable and change into work clothes once you get there.

No matter how low-key your cycling clothes are, youíll want to make sure your pants donít get caught in your bike chain. Most bike stores carry reflective clips or bands that hold your pants tight to your ankle - or you can join the ranks of no-frills bike messengers and simply roll one leg of your pants up.

Riding in a snowstorm
© istockphoto.com / peterspiro

Bicycle messenger riding in a snowstorm, wearing all-weather gear.

If you plan on riding in wet weather - and many do - youíll want to invest in breathable rain gear that covers at least your top half.

The biggest problem with riding in rain may surprise you: itís the grit that gets sprayed upward by your wheels and will cover your legs and back in no time. Fenders and mud guards are the solution: they keep the dirt from splashing on you and are available in a variety of materials and styles at most bike shops.

Lady's commuter bike
© Brandon Kelly

Lady's commuter bicycle, with rear rack, front basket and fenders.

Carrying Your Gear

Commuting by bike means youíll invariably wind up carrying things - work clothes, folders, papers, a laptop, maybe groceries. Some commuters are satisfied hauling their stuff in a backpack or messenger bag, but most get tired of carrying a load on their shoulders and arriving with a sweaty back.

Finding a way to put the load on your bike solves this problem. Some commuters strap their possessions onto a rear rack; others put everything in panniers, bags that attach to the bikeís front or rear racks. Still others affix baskets to the front or back of their bike. Explore the options to determine whatís best for you.

Rear bicycle light
© striatic / flickr

Rear light mounted on a bicycle.

Staying Safe

Staying safe while riding among lots of whizzing cars is crucial. Of course, youíll have a helmet on, but there are other tools that can help, too. Youíll undoubtedly wind up riding at night, so make sure both wheels have reflectors, and get a blinking red light for the back of your bike. A front light is useful, too.

Other helpful accessories include a mirror that attaches to your handlebars or helmet so that you can see behind you, and a bell, in case you need to alert cars or pedestrians that youíre coming.

Bike route map
© City of Chicago

Bike map showing designated and shared bike routes, bike shops and local facilities.

Finding a Route

Before you head out, think about your route. Streets that are good for riding arenít necessarily the same ones you choose for walking or driving. A good biking street has ample room for riders on either side; thereís not too much traffic and cars donít speed; and there arenít too many businesses that would cause cars to suddenly pull over or try to park.

If your city or town is on a grid, itís likely that there are quiet streets running parallel to the big ones; those are perfect biking streets that wonít take you far out of your way. Google Maps has a useful function that allows you to find routes that avoid highways; you may also want to buy a good bicycle map for your area.

Floor pump for bicycles
© Topeak, Inc.

Integrated pressure gauges can be found on many styles of floor pumps.

Before You Go: Maintenance

Before heading out, make sure the bike is in good condition. Does the chain need to be oiled? Are the brakes tight and the tires full of air? Many bicycle shops hold classes on how to fix your bike; the skills arenít hard to pick up and can give you a great sense of self-reliance.

Cycling in Traffic: Setting Out

Now that youíre completely prepared, itís time to hit the road. Remember, your commute should fit your style. Some riders are wild: theyíll go through every red light, dodge between cars, and pedal constantly. Thereís no need to copy them; do what feels best for you and always make sure youíre being safe.

Commuter riding in the city
© Milton CJ / flickr

Bicyclist riding alongside a city bus.

You may be tempted at first to ride on sidewalks, but try to avoid it. Itís generally illegal for cyclists to use the sidewalk, and you can get a ticket if you do. Just as important, sidewalks arenít made for biking. Theyíre slow, can be bumpy, and walkers will get in your way. Instead, get used to riding on the road.

Here are a few rules that can help.

Bicyclist using hand signals
© John Luton / flickr

Bicyclist signaling a left turn to other drivers.

Be Predictable

One of the key elements to staying safe on the road is making sure your actions are readable and reliable to the cars behind you. You have the same rights as a driver - and the same responsibilities. So when youíre at a four-way stop sign and there are cars at the intersection, follow the same rules youíd use as a driver. Similarly, when youíre in the road and planning on turning, use hand signals to indicate your intentions. Remember, drivers canít always react quickly to changes in front of them, so donít do anything that requires them to make split-second decisions.

Bicyclist using bike lane
© istockphoto.com / diego_cervo

Bicyclist riding in designated bike lane.

Be Courteous

Bikers who force cars to slam on their brakes, or zip around pedestrians like theyíre in a slalom race, give cycling a bad name. Thereís no reason to be rude to the people around you. A good rule of thumb in dealing with pedestrians in particular is to treat them as youíd like drivers to treat you - that is, with respect.

Cyclist at an intersection
© Daquella Manera / flickr

Bicycle commuter waiting to cross a busy intersection.

Take Up Space

All that said, however, itís important to stand your ground as a biker and take the space thatís rightfully yours. When theyíre available, bike lanes are great. The painted lines remind drivers to move to the left and give cyclists room on the right side of the road.

But many streets donít have bike lanes, and drivers often forget to make space for riders. Your first instinct might be to hug the right side of the street so that cars can pass easily. What often happens, though, is that drivers avoid moving out of their lane and may come dangerously close to you. In contrast, if you take up more of the lane, drivers are forced to go around you - and when they do, theyíll usually give you a wide berth.

Bicycle road markings
© Joshua Putnum / flickr

Markings on the road like these remind drivers that the road is to be shared with bicyclists.

One of the most common cycling accidents is getting ďdooredĒ - that is, riding into the door of a parked car that has suddenly opened. If you keep enough space between you and parked cars on your right, that wonít happen.

Cycling in Traffic II: Riding Defensively

Once you get more used to riding on city streets, you might start getting complacent. Donít. For better or worse, a key characteristic that distinguishes bicycle commuting is the need to be constantly alert. There are few times on a busy street that you can truly space out while riding: thereís too much that can happen while youíre not paying attention.

Over time, you may grow to be a ďdefensive rider.Ē That is, you donít assume cars see you or will make choices that are best for you. Instead, you check that theyíre looking your way and arenít planning on turning directly into your path, and you slow down when thereís a chance a car doesnít see you.

Looking over the shoulder
© Photos.com

Bicycle messenger looking over his shoulder to see if any traffic is approaching from behind.

A key element of riding safely is checking behind you. Some commuters buy mirrors for their bikes or helmets; others simply look behind them regularly.

Ultimately, riding in traffic just takes practice. Staying alert doesnít mean you should feel scared or stop having fun. In fact, being aware means youíre present in your surroundings and able to appreciate all the great sensations that riding brings.

Bicycle locked up
© Brandon Kelly

Secure bicycle locked up with a U-Lock, through both tires and the frame.

Parking and Locking up your Bike

Once you arrive at your destination, what are you planning on doing with your bike? Ideally, your office has an indoor spot where you can stash your bike for the day. But thatís not always the case.

Many people park their bicycles outside. A bike rack is useful if itís nearby; otherwise, a parking meter or signpost can work well, too. The most important thing, though, is your lock. If you live in an area with a high rate of bicycle theft, itís crucial that you get a good lock for your bike. Many people swear by U-locks, but some go a step further and get heavy-duty chain locks.

Cage for parking bikes
© John Luton / flickr

Parking garages may have designated cages like this for parking bikes.

And remember, if itís removable, itís stealable: if your seat or wheels are quick-release, they should be locked up, too, using a separate cable if necessary.

After all, youíll soon start thinking of your bike as a reliable friend that gets you from one place to another - one you definitely wonít want to lose.

Photo Gallery

Bicycle commuter assessing traffic.
© Brandon Kelly
  • Bus Bike Rack
  • Commuter Bike
  • Folder Commuter
  • Rear Cassette

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