Having been a bike commuter since 2013, I know that it can be a little daunting for beginners, with some people even giving up before they begin simply because they don’t have things clearly laid out for them and find it confusing.
With this in mind, I want to make things as simple as possible for all you budding bike commuters out there and give a detailed tip for each key step that you can expect along your way.
So, here are my 21 tips for bike commuting for beginners:
- Start Slowly
- Do Practice Runs
- Set Realistic Expectations
- Start in Good Weather
- Buy As You Go Along
- Buy (Some) Used Items to Save on gear
- Figure out the problems along the way
- Take the Scenic Route
- Travel at a Different Time
- Split your Journey
- Ask Friends for Help (Especially if you Have Kids)
- Remember Your Savings
- Invest in Your Health
- Spend Enough on a Lock
- Wear the Right Clothing
- Leave Gear at work
- Don’t Worry About What Others Think
- Track Your Progress
- Be Assertive on the Roads
- Get the Right Safety Gear
- Make it Social
Now that you’ve seen them all in brief, let’s have a look at each tip in more detail to help give you a better idea of how to put each point above into practice. Ready? Let’s roll!
1. Start Slowly
You might think that you can just start bike commuting tomorrow and never look back, but it will take a little more time and adjustment than some might think.
Being fully aware of this will make you more patient in your transition and, crucially, not give up at the first sign of difficulty or setback.
Your bike commute might feel like a big change at first, but gradually it will start to feel more normal and become very much part of your day – but this can only happen if you make the mental note that it will happen slowly and over time.
It took me some 3 years to commit to bike commuting full time, and it also took quite a lot of trial and error but if I got there, so can you!
2. Do Practice Runs
Before actually riding to work, I always advise bike commuting beginners to do at least one practice run of their ride to work.
This is for several reaons, but some of the more practical ones being around points like time, setbacks and confidence.
It is only by really doing a practice run that you see how your specific commute to work will be on a bicycle. You will be surprised at how many more things you notice en route, including things like hills and tricky parts of the road. This obviously continues on from the point above, but make sure to do your practice run!
Perhaps even more important to note for the less confident cyclists, try to avoid doing a practice run during rush hour, even if it’s on your day off. This might prove a little daunting at first and simply put you off every trying again. Instead, a better time to do this would be early evening when it’s still light, in good weather and with less traffic than at the height of rush hour.
3. Set Realistic Expectations
You might also be thinking that you will be bike commuting every day to work soon after starting. However, I’d say that you should probably lower those expectations a little bit as any number of things can crop up along the way and mean that you might not want to sell the car or give up your travel pass just yet!
A realistic target for a complete beginner is to aim to commute by bike 2 times a week in the first couple of weeks or months. You could make this 3 times if you are in good physical shape and a fairly confident cyclist. One of the things I found quite hard to do at the start was to find the motivation to ride on consecutive days in the week as the fatigue and That being said, even going two times a month is still better than not going at all, so just consider that if you ever find a little voice in your head telling you that don’t do it often enough to make a difference. A little is a whole lot better than nothing!
4. Start in Good Weather
Continuing on from the points about setting realistic expectations, one of the best ways to give yourself motivation to get on your bike and ride to work is to start doing it in good weather.
By this, I mean a moderate temperature on a dry day with light or no wind. Although you might immediately think of a summer’s day, depending on your local climate, the hottest days in summer might not prove to be the best as these will likely make you quite sweaty and feel uncomfortable, at least until you have all your gear and routes figured out (as we’ll cover in later points). Perhaps a spring or autumn day, but crucially one when it is not forecasted to rain because you will get wet on your bike super quick! A wet start to the day is not a good one and again has the chance of making you not want to do it again. I mention the point about wind as it’s much more noticeable riding with a wind than doing something like walking in the street. Even a moderate headwind can make a flat section of your journey feel like an uphill climb, so bear this in mind when choosing your days to ride to work!
5. Buy As You Go Along
Chances are that you already have enough gear to get started bike commuting, at least for going on a simple route in good weather. As such, the point here is not to worry about all the things you don’t yet have – you just need a bike and ideally a helmet before you start.
There are plenty of things that you can buy that will make things easier but you really only need to invest in these things as you go along. You could quite easily spend a lot of money on bike commuting gear, but a much better option is to only buy as you go along when you are you sure that it is something that you will be using. This will save you money and avoid the problem of feeling guilty about investing in things which only go unused.
Yet again, thinking in the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ mindset, giving yourself enough time to figure things out helps you to get the right gear at the right time.
6. Buy (Some) Used Items to Save on Gear
In terms of getting a good deal on cycling gear, the good news is that a lot of it can be bought easily through second-hand platforms like Craigslist in the US or on Gumtree for commuters in the UK and Australia. Unless you are looking to buy an ebike, purchasing a second-hand bike or other cycle commuter hardware should be straightforward, provided that it’s in good condition and that you are able to try things before buying.
I would add a point here that buying items like helmets, bike lights and waterproof clothing is not recommended since helmets might be defective from a previous bump (invisible to the naked eye), while lights or clothing have the highest chance of not lasting a long time if bought used or second hand.
If you combine the purchasing power of buying some of your items used along with the earlier point about buying things over a loger period of time, then you will hardly notice the costs involved in getting all of the gear you need to commute regularly.
7. Figure Out the Problems Along the Way
You will certainly come across a few problems or obstacles on your way to becoming a bike commuter, but expecting this and understanding the process will once again help you to power on through any setbacks.
For instance, I used to find it quite slow going on my bike when I first started on my cycling commutes and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, a colleague suggested I tried checking the pressure of the tires on my bike as properly inflated tires can make a big difference to the speed and, lo and behold, after inflating them I felt like I was gliding along the roads! I also had an issue with some cheap pannier bags that I bought to start out these would bounce around all over the place and not properly stay on my rack. I soon realised that it was better to invest a little more in more expensive gear from trusted cycling brands, something which I still stand by today.
These were two of my problems – no doubt yours will be different but simply repeating the activity of cycling to work will help you to identify issues and subsequently solve them.
8. Take the Scenic Route
Taking the same route on your bike as you would normally do by car might not work. It’s often the case that some of the intersections and turns that you drive through in a car are almost unnoticeable when behind the wheel, but when you are out in the traffic on your bike, sometimes these can be extremely difficult. For instance, turning to the left in the US or Canada while riding up a hill is often an unnerving experience. Actually, just going up any steep hills in rush hour traffic can be a stressful experience!
So, if you do come across sections of the route like that, you might look to find alternative parts of the route that might not make sense when driving by car, but which can help you in a big way to feel safer and more comfortable on your cycle commute. Remember that these might only add a very small amount of time to your overall journey, so deviating from the “fastest” route might not be a problem at all. If you want to a longer route to avoid climbing up some hills (as you might be able to avoid this), then think about setting off just a touch earlier to avoid some of these same problems.
9. Travel at a Different Time
Rush hour traffic is no fun when driving, but it is also a tricky proposition when bike commuting. Even though you can sometimes make faster progress through the traffic, this is a more dangerous option as cars don’t expect something to come flying past them like a bicycle.
A simple solution here is to leave your home at a slightly different time than you would by car. Now I know that many of you will already have to do this because bike commuting might take longer, but think about making a 30-minute to 1-hour change in your routine to avoid some of the worst traffic. This could be either before or after your usual time but the point being that it is not when everyone else is out on the road trying to drive to work! If you have the option of flexible working times then it will really come into its own here. I have recently started work in a job that allows starts any time from 8am to 10am and it has helped massivley in this regard. In fact, just yesterday I was cycling to work after 9am and the roads had about 80% fewer cars on them – not only would this be good for time-saving, it also means fewer pollutants in the air, so a double win.
10. Split Your Journey
If you have a commute that feels long for you, be it in terms of time or your level of fitness, then you can consider splitting your journey by using different modes of transport.
So, let’s say that you have a 10-mile bike commute one way and it’s going to be too much for you, think about traveling part of the way on your usual commute option, be it by car or public transit, and then switch to your bike for the rest. If driving, and if planned correctly, you might find somewhere that is both safe and free to park all day, leaving you to hop out and get on your bike. You could then look at extending this distance as you get more experienced in riding to work, gradually cycling more of your commute.
If you use public transit and bicycles are not allowed then you still have two options, depending on your circumstances:
- Check to see if you can hire a pool bike in your city/area and whether you can sign up for a pass to get it for the cheapest amount possible
- Look into a good quality folding bike that is small enough to take on public transit with you – the best bikes for this are Bromptons, although they do have a premium price tag (because of their superior build and design)
11. Ask Friends for Help (Especially if you Have Kids)
I know, I know – this seems so obvious that you might be thinking ‘Well, I’m just going to skip this section!’, but before you do – think about this. How many times have you been mulling over a problem in your head that’s actually holding you back from doing something or making progress? Well, this might be the same with bike commuting and chances are that you know someone who either is already bike commuting or who simply cycles often. Once you have thought who that might be, make a mental note to ask them for specific tips next time you have a chance to speak to them and see what comes back. Using our existing network of friends and colleagues is perhaps the most overlooked way of gaining new information, but it can be an extremely powerful and often untapped resource. Most cyclists will be glad to share their tips and expertise so just ask nicely and no doubt you will glean some great information from them.
Another way that this might work is if you have children and need to get them to school, which is preventing you from bike commuting. In which case, try asking some of the other parents who live on the way to school that already walk. You might be able to drop the kids at the house of a friend (yours or theirs) and they would be able to get to school with friends while you travel to work by bike. It’s possible that you can come to an arrangement that both your children and you are happy with, so start asking the questions and see what can be done!
12. Remember Your Savings
Before you start to get a little bogged down in some of the logistics, you might be inspired by thinking about the savings that you can make from bike commuting.
Remember that, once you have the basic gear, the only running costs are that of bike maintenance and upkeep, which should not exceed $80 a year. Compare this to equivalent costs with a car or traveling on public transit and you might well be inspired to keep going!
13. Invest in Your Health
As another point of inspiration, when considering the changes and items needed for bike commuting, remember that bike commuting can provide you with a great boost in terms of health and physical fitness.
Cycling provides a more intense type of exercise than just walking and, by doing it regularly as part of your commute, it can impact many parts of your lifestyle.
If you like to think of things in terms of business/economics, investing either time or money into bike commuting can provide a return on investment in your health and wellbeing.
14. Spend Enough on a Lock
A constant bugbear I have is that of seeing commuter bikes which are quite expensive but with only a lock that even I could probably break with my bare hands! OK, so the last part is a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.
Being a cheapskate when it comes to a lock will only increase the chances of your bike getting stolen, especially if leaving it in the same place each for all the hours of the day while you are in work.
My simple rule here is to spend anywhere from 5-10% of the bike’s initial value on a lock. So, for a $500 commuter bike, look to get a lock worth anywhere from $25-50. If you have a more expensive bike, then there might be some more expensive locks but you could also look at reinforcing them with a second lock, a cable or some other anti-theft device. Spending enough on a lock means that your bike should be around long enough for your bike commuting to become a habit, rather than a one-off!
15. Wear the Right Clothing
This might seem obvious but I know that the right clothing can make or break some people’s experience of bike commuting. You might start of thinking that you can wear your usual work clothes and just hop on your bike – but you might also be in for a surprise!
If you wear garments made of materials like polyester or other synthetic fabrics then you might find that this makes you sweat very quickly when riding a bike in warmer weather.
On another note, wearing a normal winter coat when cycling will make you feel extremely hot in no time at all given that it is not designed for cycling in (even my snowboarding jacket felt like an oven, despite the obvious active design!). It is for this reason that I now have cycling-specific outer clothing for both my upper and lower body as they are designed for riding in and cut appropriately for comfort.
In summary, your choice of bike commute clothing comes back to two key points: think about the material of the garments you are wearing and the climate. If you only have a short and flat commute, then you can probably get away with wearing your work clothes on most days of the year. However, if you are cycling a hilly route of anything more than 3 miles, then you will probably need cycling or sports clothes and have to change into your work clothes later. I say this because the more intense ride will make you hot and sweaty on almost any day of the year!
16. Leave Gear at Work
Specifically, I am suggesting you leave some spare clothes, like socks or perhaps even pants at your work. These items should be easy to store discreetly and in a way that goes almost unnoticed by colleagues. If you are in a relaxed working environment, you might also get away with hanging some formal clothes up in the office to save you folding them into your bag every day. Having these items there then means that you have a back-up and do not need to worry about garments getting wet on a particularly rainy day.
You might find that you can leave other things there that help – perhaps you could leave a lock on the bars where you leave your bike during the day to save carrying that extra weight home with you (assuming you have another option for when you get home!). Again, this another thing that you’ll figure out as you go – hopefully you will find a few more ‘hacks’ along the way.
17. Don’t Worry About What Others Think
Many people are concerned about what their superiors or colleagues might think of them arriving at work looking a little hot and after exercising. They might be worried about changing into work clothes or simply being seen carrying cycling gear.
If this sounds like you, then you shouldn’t be so worried! Most of your colleagues will probably hardly notice your cycling apparel, but you could always make a point of being as discreet about it as possible. Remember that bike commuting is benefiting your overall wellbeing, as well as probably making you a little more productive through having regular morning exercise – two things which you can say to any skeptics at work.
If you still can’t convince yourself that others don’t think less of you for cycling to work then perhaps it’s time to look at working in a workplace with a more positive culture – just sayin’!
18. Track Your Progress
There’s a couple of way that you can track your bike commuting progress. The first main one is through adding mentions of it to a journal or diary. You can write about things like how you felt on certain days, how any new items of gear have helped and what you have learnt along the way.
The other way to do it is a more technological approach and it uses a free app for smartphones called Strava. This app tracks your route, journey time and many other factors along the way. You can use it at regular intervals to see if you have been able to complete your bike commute faster than in previous weeks or months, as well as to see just how many times you’ve been riding. The app also syncs seamlessly with many smartwatches so you can do it without much fuss at all on your commute.
Using these two kinds of approaches should help you to see just how much progress you have made up to that point, especially when looking back a few months down the line with (hopefully) a big smile on your face.
19. Be Assertive on the Roads
This was something that a bike shop owner told me when I was looking for a bike to commute on back in early 2013. He said that if you are riding basically in the gutter, then this invites drivers to continually pass or overtake you at times when they probably shouldn’t. Being too meek and reserved on the roads does not usually work in a cyclist’s favour and can make your ride far less enjoyable. Although you should never think that you have the same protection as a car (which some cyclists seem to), being assertive can go a long way to making your ride more pleasant and keep drivers from forcing you into submission, making you perform dangerous stops and turns. Always follow the rules of the road for cyclists but don’t let idiots behind you revving their engines put you off.
20. Get the Right Safety Gear
There are quite a few items of safety gear that you can use when bike commuting, with the most obvious starting point being a helmet with MIPS protection (which gives your head most protection if falling) followed by powerful enough lights to be seen and clothing with reflective detail. If you can, get all your cycling gear with reflective detail for the added visibility this provides at night (hi-viz does nothing for you in the dark!).
If you are not going to be riding at night then remember that you can leave some of the items above until that time comes, saving your pennies until these things are necessary. And one last point – there is no gear that can protect you from everything, so keep your head up, your eyes open and stay alert when on the road – common sense is the one priceless commodity that will keep you safest of all.
21. Make it Social
You might find that you sometimes don’t have the motivation to ride to work on your own, especially if the weather is getting worse into the colder months or if you have had a busy few days beforehand.
To help you overcome this, try to find someone to ride with, even if it is just part of the way. Making this kind of social commitment with a friend or colleague can be a powerful way for you to get going when you might otherwise not.
You could also look at asking at local cycling clubs or groups (even without joining), or even post on active places online like the Reddit bike commuting forum.
Just having someone there some of the time can be a big influence in getting out on your bike to work that bit more often.
What is the best bicycle for commuting to work?
This depends on your route to work when bike commuting but usually, the best bicycle for commuting to work is one that is reliable, costs $500 or more (new) and is not something that you will feel too scared to leave outside during your work day – thieves are a threat to all locked bikes!
Tips on Cycling Uphill for Beginners
Make sure you use a bike with enough gears to make it easy to pedal and use a gear that feels easy to pedal up a hill and just take it easy – you can sit or raise your body up and forwards for a more intense ride. Trying to sprint uphill will leave you feeling tired before you get to the top!
If cycling uphill as part of a commute, give yourself more time than you think, especially if you are new to cycling or not in peak physical fitness (or even if you just want to get to work without sweating!).