Although a bike commute may seem like an easy task, planning it to allow for work, things to go wrong, family commitments and all other sorts of issues can cause even the seasoned cyclist a headache.
Having started bike commuting from scratch without having friends to ask, I know I found it tough and it took me a longer to get into than I expected simply because I didn’t have the info all in one place, or someone to lay it out clearly for me.
Well, that’s where I’d like to help you and improve your chances of having a successful, and fun, bike commuting experience. So, without further ado, let’s jump into it!
The main steps for anyone planning a bike commute are the following:
- Check your bike is ready: your bike needs just to work at this point (nothing fancy for now)
- Check the route: look up the route on Google Maps (cycling directions)
- Time: calculate how long everything will take
- Decide on clothing: choose light, breathable clothes
- Practice run: do this outside of work
- Storage and lock-up: spot where the best place is when at work (before riding)
- Plan B: figure out what you’ll do if something goes wrong
- Check weather: wait for a mild day
- Check road rules: double-check rules for cyclists and hand signals
- Wait for the right day at work: not too stressful or busy
- Do it: go for your first real bike commute!
Now, those are the steps in brief, but a little more explanation is needed to make sure that you get it exactly right first time and actually enjoy your bike commuting experience!
I know it took me a while to perfect my ride to work but you don’t need to go down that route – just follow the detailed steps below.
Check Your Bike is Ready: Performing the Checks
Many people get put off bike commuting because they read that they need a brand new road bike, hybrid or commuter bike to do it, but the truth is that the bike you probably have at home already (and possibly gathering dust) is likely the only bike you need to get started. If you already have a perfectly working bike – great! You can skip down to the next heading in this article. If not, then read on to see exactly what you need to do.
Remember to do this kind of check a few days before you plan to ride to work since you might need to make a few minor adjustments and buy some parts.
To begin, just check that your bike actually works. By this, I mean to pick it up and give the wheels a spin to see if they turn without any problems. Brakes being out of alignment or buckled wheels are the most common problems here so, if you can, try and fix these first if you have any issues. If not, take it down to your local bike store and get an estimated price for how much it would be to get it running again. This still doesn’t mean that you need a brand new bike so don’t worry about that for now.
After this, assuming your wheels turn, check whether the brakes work. Lift both the front and back wheel of the bike in turn. Spin the raised wheel and squeeze the corresponding brake lever. Your brake levers should be easy to squeeze and stop the wheel almost immediately. If you have any issues here, this again most likely a simple fix with a hex key and a bit of time, but your bike store can again help if you are worried.
The next thing is to check the tires. To see if they are pumped up, give them a good squeeze between your thumb and index finger. If there’s plenty of resistance, chances are that they are ready to go. If in doubt, dust off your old bike pump and give them a bit of air to see if they hold it (best to wait to see overnight on this).
Look for cracks or any signs of the thread coming through the tires – if so, then that’s a sign that you should change the tires on your bike at this point as they won’t have long left and will be at higher risk of a puncture (not what you want on the road in rush hour traffic!).
From here, try and get together any lights or hi-viz accessories you have lying around. You could use a hi-viz emergency safety vest from your car if you don’t have anything else suitable. A point to note here is that hi-viz is only useful in the day but reflective elements can be seen at night, so bear this in mind when riding.
Of course, a good bike helmet is always recommended so either dig out your usual/old one or, if needed, check out this post to help you get the best bike helmet for you.
OK – you now should have a bike that works for you and one that is ready for your bike commute. Great start!
Check the Route: Maps and Apps
This one is nice and easy but still worth doing for a number of reasons. Simply look up the route on Google Maps and make sure you select the cycling directions.
This is helpful since it shows you the best cycling route it thinks you should take, the time taken for the average cyclist, and also a profile of any elevation (i.e. hills, both up and down). I particularly like the profile of hills it gives since this makes it very clear which parts you might like to try another route for, although it doesn’t show the hills exactly on the map.
Remember that you don’t have to stick to the route given. Think about how busy the roads are that are suggested and change it as needed. Equally, if you know of any cycleways in your area, check to see if it has suggested those (Google knows some of these but not all). If cycleways are a new thing to you, doing some quick Google searches on the topic using the search terms ‘cycleways [INSERT YOUR AREA]’ and see what comes up. Chances are that there are some free maps or routes posted online that you can use. You can then compare these to your route and see if they are convenient or might fit into at least part of your journey. One quick Google search for ‘DC bike map’ brought up this bike map for that city in PDF format, and no doubt you can find countless more for your area.
One other thing to check out is Wikipedia’s list of cycleways, which lists results for all over the world, as well as the US.
Use a Bike Route Planner App
To make planning your bike commute route even easier, look into Lane Spotter, the bike route planning app. This should help you to figure out the best route for you and will give you cycle-specific routes.
An off-road cycle route planning app that might be of use to you is Komoot, although obviously only if parts of your journey are not on roads!
Long Bike Commute Journey? Split It!
If you’re a little worried by the journey time estimate for your bike commute, fear not. You can still do it!
Simply plan to split your journey up into different parts using car and bike, or even take your bike on public transportation if you are able.
For instance, you could start out by driving most of the journey to work and find parking a few miles from your work. This might actually work out cheaper for you, especially if you use an app like JustPark or similar (like AirBnb but for parking). Heck, you might even find free and secure parking by leaving your car a few miles from your office – the world is your oyster here!
From there, you could then gradually build up into doing more and more distance over time, and less by car.
If you’re able to take your bike on public transit, then just get off a few stops before needed or even a few miles away. That way you can ride part of the way and build up your confidence and fitness.
By doing the above points gradually, you might even find that in a few months or a year, you are able to complete the journey by bike if not too long.
You can also see this dedicated post on making long bike commutes work for more information.
Time: Estimate time allowing for everything
Whichever way you choose to get directions for your bike route from home to work, you will be given a rough time estimate, yet another essential part of the planning process.
With your rough time, then add on time for things like getting your bike out before work and locking it up when you arrive.
One tip would be to add on about 20% to the suggested journey time to get an idea of how long it will take you door-to-door. Although I find the Google Maps cycle time estimates to be quite accurate (perhaps a little conservative), adding this extra time should mean that you will be allowing for any mishaps along the way, as well as getting caught up in traffic (which does happen when bike commuting but is not nearly as slow as when driving!).
Try tracking your ride using a stopwatch, a smartwatch, a freemium app like Strava or anything else that you have. This helps then for you to see exactly how long it takes. My tip here is to do this door to door so that you don’t underestimate the time (which I know I certainly have a tendency to do!).
Decide on Clothing: Choose light, breathable clothing
Getting the right clothing for your first bike commute isn’t hard, especially if you follow the tips elsewhere in this post about choosing the right weather day for your ride.
Still, ideal bike commuting clothing is light and breathable. This is because in almost any conditions, you will find your body warming up quite quickly when you ride to work by bicycle. This will be even quicker if riding quickly or up hills. The aim here is to have a no-sweat bike commute, which is helped by leaving enough time so that you can ride slowly but mainly by not wearing heavy clothing.
I generally ride with only a shirt under my jacket through the winter months, but in extreme conditions, you might want to wear a sweater, but remember that your starting temperature will quickly shoot up once you start riding!
Practice run: Do this outside of work
The main point for doing your bike commute practice run is to help you figure everything out in a way that won’t stress you out. Trying to just hop on a bike and cycle to work is a recipe for stress, or at the very least a sweaty and flustered start to your workday – no thank you!
By planning to do your bike commute practice run on a weekend, or even weekday even, it will be mostly stress-free, allowing you to actually enjoy the ride instead of worrying about the time (which certainly takes the fun out of riding for me).
I’d recommend doing it on the weekend in the morning because you have the best light at that time and you should not be too tired from work, which might happen if you try to do your practice run in the evening after finishing work.
Another crucial factor in doing it this way is that it lets you go through the motions without the onslaught of rush-hour traffic which, depending on where you live and work, might make all the difference.
When doing your practice run, a few things to look out for are tricky turns you will need to make at intersections and hills. Tricky turns are usually when you have to cut across through the oncoming traffic, areas where there are often traffic jams (do you go around them?) or stop lights on hills, meaning a possible hill start on your bike. Hills are obviously going to add to the effort you need to make on your ride to work so you might look into alternative routes to help with this.
You can then start to take a mental note of these more difficult parts of the journey and figure out your own ‘path of least resistance’ and see if there are any ways around them. Perhaps there is a bike lane to cut out some of the heavy traffic, or there might be a slightly longer, scenic route that misses that big hill – whatever it is, have a look around and see what you can come up with. You’ll be surprised what you find if you take the time to turn off at different spots along the route.
Storage and lock-up: Find the best spot
Once you get to work, your actual job of exploring might not quite be over, despite your relief in getting there. This is because the next step in your bike commute master plan is to find the best spot for storing and locking up your bike. I say this because not all bike lock-up spots are created equal (!), as I will explain below.
Although there are many different types of bike storage and lock-up options, what you really want for safely locking up your bike at work is a spot that has as many of the following as possible:
- Foot traffic and passersby regularly throughout the day
- Visible to others from many angles and not secluded
- Close to windows, ideally of offices but houses will do, too
- Used by other cyclists
- Bonus: with a rain cover
So the foot traffic point obviously means that people will be seeing your bike, but this is a good thing since it also means that people will see if someone is trying to steal it! Yes, I know – not many people will stop a thief in their tracks but the social presence can be a powerful (if not foolproof) deterrent. The same goes for having your bike next to windows, with an office being the best option here (and the most likely). This means that as long as your bike is there, someone should be working in the window nearby and again glancing from time to time at the bikes.
Obviously, none of the above is a guarantee against bike theft, but taking these steps can add to making your bike that bit more ‘theft-proof’ while locked up at work.
Just note that having bikes there does not always mean that it is a well-used spot. In my area, bikes are often left abandoned on the university campus where I work and left to rust while still locked up. This can give the impression that they are well used from far away, but once you get closer it becomes clear that half of them have flat tires and have not been used in months, which is not ideal but perhaps not a deal-breaker.
If you’re truly convinced that there are no suitably safe areas to lock up your bike, then either consider getting a cheap but reliable used commuter bike on a site like Craigslist or go for one of these anti-theft bikes to truly beat the thieves!
Plan B: figure out what you’ll do if something goes wrong
If something does go wrong on your commute, then the practice run is the time to think about it since you’ll be most calm and not time-bound. It’s also good to have this in mind as things can go wrong, just as with any commuter journey. Just as with a car, you can get a puncture on your way to work by bicycle, so it’s always helpful to have thought about what to do in advance.
Properly Pumped Tires
The first thing is to actually look at preventing things like punctures, which is easier than it sounds. You can make sure your bike tires are pumped up to the right pressure by checking the PSI (pounds per square inch) range and using a quality bike pump to get them to that level. You can also get a smaller, more portable bike pump to take with you if you have space in your bag. This should help in that your bike is then more likely to ride over nasty objects on the road and not let them pierce the inner tube.
Self-healing Inner Tubes
The next thing you can do is to replace your bike tire inner tubes with smart ‘self-sealing’ tubes (make sure to get the right size for your bike). These work by containing a chemical that forms a bond when a puncture occurs, effectively forming a seal to prevent the puncture from deflating the tire. However, these won’t prevent major punctures, just the small ones which are probably the most common.
You should also think about contacts who you could call on in the event of a mishap on your bike commute. Perhaps you have friends in different areas or who might be passing by at a similar time, or just someone you know and trust who wouldn’t mind you leaving your bike there for the rest of the workday in case of an issue en route. Consider a list of possible contacts so that you have someone you could reach out to if things do go wrong.
Local Bike Stores
A less obvious step but still helpful is to think of any bike stores in the area. If your bike does break down en route, you might be able to call by and the parts you need on the move. If something a little more serious, some stores will allow you to walk in without a booking and leave your bike there until fixed, which could be a practical way to save on the hassle by allowing you to get to work and collect your bike after work once finished.
Somewhere to lock your bike
If you are really struggling, then thinking about somewhere to lock up your bike at various points en route is also a great idea. Refer to the points above on deciding what makes a good bike lock-up spot but remember that this might be less than ideal if things go wrong in the middle of nowhere!
You can start to plan for this by taking a mental note of the places you see on your way when doing your practice run and thinking about where would be good to leave your bike at various points along the way.
Linking back to the two previous subheadings, having an idea of public transportation links is also recommended since you could then lock-up your bike or drop it off and still get to work easily enough.
The way to plan for this might be to download a local transportation app to your phone ahead of time so that you can easily pull up timetables and schedules in the app as needed. These kinds of apps could save you a few minutes if you need to download an app on the fly with limited WiFi or data, hence they are worth getting beforehand.
Check Weather: Wait for a mild day
A mild day is perfect for bike commuting, so planning your first few real bike commutes to coincide with good weather is highly recommended. It will also be more pleasant since you can get away with less specialist commuter gear if you are riding in moderate weather conditions.
The ideal temperature range for bike commuting for most people is from 50-70°F (or 12-20°C). Obviously this varies depending on your tolerance for hotter or colder climates, but much hotter than this can make things quite sweaty, especially with hills, whereas going much colder requires more gear.
This kind of gear would be things like something to cover your ears and face in the cold, as well as proper bike commuting gloves.
As such, try to aim to start your bike commute in the right season to fit into the recommended temperature range above. This should help you to complete your bike commute with the least amount of extra accessories as possible. I always recommend this as the best way to start since it means not spending huge amounts before you have decided whether bike commuting is for you.
Another aspect of weather is actually the daylight hours since you might live in an area where it is dark for part of the year during your commute.
If so, then avoid starting at this time since bike commuting safely at night needs quite a few more items to be visible on the roads. The majority of accidents happen at times of darkness or low light, so it is not advisable to start at those times unless you are already an experienced road cyclist.
The obvious way to avoid this is to plan to start bike commuting in the right months of the year to feel safest and most confident on your ride.
Wind is actually far more frustrating when cycling than you might think. It can really slow down your progress and even make you feel like you are climbing a hill when you are on a flat bit of the route!
Use your preferred weather app to check wind speed ahead of time so that you don’t end up riding on extremely gusty or windy days.
As someone who cycles along a very exposed route with frequent gale-force headwinds, even on the flats, I often get sweaty in the coldest months of the year just battling the winds! Don’t take this lightly.
A dry day is by far the best because you will not need to be head to toe in waterproofs, as you would when bike commuting in the rain.
Having a dry, wind-free day is the best way to increase your chances of actually enjoying your first few bike commute journeys. If you do have waterproof gear for bike commuting already, then you can try it out, but I’d still recommend not doing it for your first few days as it adds time and means remembering a few more items each day.
Check Road Rules: Check rules of the road for cyclists and hand signals
You may already know most of these but it’s always a good idea to double-check road rules for cyclists before heading out on your practice run or bike commute if you haven’t cycled in a while.
I say this because you will be riding at one of the busiest times of the day traffic-wise, so having these rules crystal clear in your head will help you to avoid miscommunication with other road users.
You might also find some rules confusing when riding on your bike, let’s say around waiting in traffic at a stoplight, so have a look into the specific ones that you are not sure about. Doing this will give you confidence in your biking ability and help you feel that bit more at ease during your journey.
Wait for the Right Day at Work: Not too stressful or busy
Another thing to think about when planning to start your cycling commute is to make sure that you do it on a more relaxed day at work. Knowing your job, think about which days will likely be the most suited for this.
For instance, it’s best to avoid days when you have meetings first thing as being even a touch later than usual could just ramp up your stress levels and anxiety, making a negative association with bike commuting. Instead, look at your work calendar and see which days look like they have fewer events on the calendar, particularly in the morning.
Planning in this way will also give you a bit more time to cool down when you have just arrived at work as hopping off a bike straight into a meeting can fluster even the most long-term commuter if they have not had a moment or two just to relax.
Do it: go for your first real bike commute!
All the planning means it is now time to actually do your first bike commute! You should be ready for a first go at it that will be relaxed, informed and hopefully fun.
Using all of the above points, you should have a good time and get there and back safely. Take mental notes on your way and consider how you might improve things next time.
So you might think that completing your bike commute comes to the end of the planning stage, but actually it’s the start of what can be an incredibly healthy and rewarding process. As such, below are a couple of bonus tips to help you further refine your cycle to work experience and keep improving to help you make it a lasting part of your working day.
Refine It: do it again but change what you need to
This is the key to long-term bike commuting enjoyment – reflecting on your ride and thinking about what to change next time.
It is these small changes over time that can greatly improve your experience and the fun you have on your bike commute.
A few of the things I changed after my first few bike commutes included:
- Inflating tires to high PSI
- Raising the saddle to make sure my legs were stretched
- Added a bell
- Changed my route slightly to avoid a nasty hill and a busy intersection
These were just a few of the things I have done over time but I know they’ve all helped me to be more comfortable and keep up my riding commute.
I’d also recommend mapping your rides on the freemium Strava app as this provides a good map and time record of your journeys, which can make things fun and motivating.
Gear: add anything that you need to be safer and comfortable
As I’ve hopefully stressed throughout this post, you don’t need much cycling gear to start commuting, but you can add more as you go along to help you feel safer and more comfortable.
I remember thinking that I had to buy some waterproof over pants since my legs got so wet when riding, it was hard to believe! As such, you might like to check out my essential list of bike commuting gear to help you decide on what’s right for you – but only when you’re noticing a need for things, otherwise it’s probably not a necessity for you at that point.
What is the default bicycle speed in Google Maps directions? Google Maps displays cycling directions at just under 11 miles per hour (MPH) by default for flat routes. However, for moderate hill climbs this drops to 9.75 MPH. For extreme hill climbs/mountains, this goes down to 3 MPH.
Please note that these speeds may be reduced even further for longer rides since Google Maps can account for some of the inevitable fatigue and pacing on longer cycling journeys.
What is the ideal weather to start bike commuting? Plan to start bike commuting on a day with little to no wind, without rain and a moderate temperature of 50-70F (or 12-20C). This should mean that you will neither freeze nor overheat, and can complete your bike in comfort.
See the sub-heading earlier in this post about weather for more tips on this.