Bike commuting is growing in popularity in many countries around the world as a healthier and greener alternative to driving. More and more people are looking to start bike commuting, but many are faced with the same initial question before they begin.
When I first started bike commuting, I was pretty clueless and I just went for it, but it was a hard transition, despite only having a relatively short ride. This meant it took me quite a few failed attempts to get things right and actually make riding to work a regular thing. To help you avoid the same pitfalls, here’s a summary of what I would do if I were to start bike commuting from scratch tomorrow.
How to start bike commuting? Practise riding the route in your free time to check how long it takes and decide on the best route. Then, try it on a work day with nice weather, but be prepared for more traffic – however, there are more things to consider, as we’ll cover in detail below.
Now that I’ve given you the main summary of getting started riding to work, let’s get down to more of the nitty-gritty details of how it all works to make sure that you can give yourself the best chance of not only enjoying your bike commute but also doing more than once or twice a year.
Getting Started Bike Commuting in 10 Steps
To break it down into clear steps, here at the key steps to take to start bike commuting in the order I would recommend to anyone who wants to get started (and no, you don’t need to buy a whole of gear to get started!)
- Practise the route
- Check the Time for Your Ride to Work
- Decide on Your Best Route
- Try it Out
- Pick the Right Day
- Make Adjustments
- Build up Bicycle Commuting Gear Bit by Bit
- Try in All Weathers
OK, now it’s time for the detail behind each step to break things down and help you on your way to a better commute.
1. Practise the route
I can’t stress this first step enough – using some of your free time to practise riding to your work from your home (or even just part of the way) is the best thing you can do to getting started bike commuting. This is because it means that you are able to decide if it is right for you without getting overly stressed or flustered. I’d say that the main causes of stress for most people who are trying to start bike commuting comes from doing things on a tight schedule.
When time is against you and you don’t know if you can make it up the next hill, let alone complete the ride to work, it’s not going to be at all fun or appealing and you will likely not want to give it another go. It is precisely these kinds of experiences that can put many people off because they simply don’t start in the right way – so remember that and definitely try a dry run of riding to work before taking the plunge on a work day.
2. Check the Time for Your Ride to Work
When you are practicing the route, make a note of the time it takes you. This is because planning to ride on a work day will need to factor in the time of your journey as you will need to leave your house at the right time.
Make sure that you count the time from the moment you leave your house to the time you arrive at your desk. I stress this because lots of little things can add to the time it takes to get from A-B, so don’t ignore the importance of counting the time for the entire journey – just locking and unlocking your bike either end can add a couple of minutes!
Next, assuming that you do a practice run to work outside of rush hour, remember that there will be many more vehicles on the road when you cycle to work for real. This adds more time as you will have to ride more slowly to negotiate traffic jams and probably wait at more stoplights.
As a rule, I’d suggest adding 20% more time to your ride on your practice run to calculate the time on a real work day. You will know how busy the roads in your area are so you can adjust this as you see fit, but 20% should help most people.
To help you with a quick ride time calculation, if your ride takes 25 minutes on your practice run, then adding 20% on top of this means it should take you 30 minutes on your actual workday. The fastest way to work out this time is just to multiply the minutes by 1.2 (which gives you a percentage increase of 20%) – but as I am writing this, I just decided to write out all the times in a quick conversion table below to save you the brain power! Here goes:
|Practice Run Time (Minutes)||Actual Work Day Time (Minutes)|
3. Decide on Your Best Route
A big part of doing the practice run is to see if the route you think is best is actually going to work for you on a regular basis. I say that because there might be several hills that it make more stressful and tiring than you realised (even a gentle slope on a bike can be much more intense than expected with a headwind, for instance). You might also find that some of the traffic junctions and roads are less friendly to cyclists.
But not to worry, there might be cycle lanes or alternative routes that you can take to make these points less of a concern and make your ride much more enjoyable. I have found crossing a main road at a different set of lights (I ride on a cycle path most of the way) has helped me to shave off a few important minutes from my journey time as the lights give more priority to pedestrians than at other points on the route. You will no doubt be able to find similar shortcuts and time-savers by doing your route, although this might not be until you have ridden it several times.
As a free and easy way to log your route, I’d recommend using the free version of the Strava app (no need to pay for premium). This is simple to use and will log your time and route in one convenient place. My only point about Strava would be to set your journey to ‘private’ as it defaults to public – this is because, although highly unlikely, someone could track your journey end-to-end and figure out where you leave your bike during the workday
4. Try it Out
Hopefully at this point, you are ready to try out bike commuting for real. You should now have your route figured out and a good idea of the time it will take you. The next step is to get out on your bike on give it a go.
You will instantly start to note a few things on your cycling commute that you won’t have seen on your practice run, but this is a good thing as it will help you to learn and improve on your bike commuting experience.
How to dress for bike commuting?
Make sure to wear light, breathable clothes. This is where riding to work on the right kind of day helps as it means you won’t be suffering from choosing the wrong clothes on your first day. If you can, I’d recommend trying to wear your work clothes as this makes it a lot easier in terms of packing. If not, try wearing some light sports clothes, the kind you wear for the gym should work fine for most people.
Biking to work sweat
You might be worried about sweating on your bike commute – you can avoid this in a few ways. Firstly, wearing the clothes detailed above will help you to keep your sweating to a minimum. Another point is trying to use a pannier bag if you have one, or at least avoid taking a very full or heavy backpack as this will make your back sweat more than you might expect.
5. Pick the Right Day
By the right day, I’m referring to the weather. The ideal day for your first few bike commutes is a sunny one without much wind. That said, you will want to avoid the extreme temperatures of deep winter or high summer as this can make things downright unpleasant when starting out, so a more moderate season is best to start, if you can.
The wind is probably the thing that has surprised me the most about bike commuting. Having a strong headwind (a wind coming towards you) can make a flat ride feel like a hill climb, while a tailwind (a wind from behind you) can make you feel like you are gliding along effortlessly. If the wind is more than about 15mph, I would advise against trying out a bike commute as one of your journeys will be more strenuous than you might expect.
I take the points about weather seriously as I live (and work) in a wet and windy climate with an exposed route, so I know all too well about this – don’t take it lightly!
6. Make Adjustments
Once you’ve completed your bike commute journey a few times, you can then start to reflect on the things that need to change. You might see that your choice of clothing was a bit uncomfortable, or that your tires were a little flat – these are the kind of small things that you can only learn by doing, but they will all add to you having a more pleasant cycle to work.
Clearly, making it a regular thing this is the goal with bike commuting – but some people do it once and give up because of a lack of planning and thought. However, since you’ve followed the previous steps above (in order!), you should not have nearly the same problems as those doing it from scratch, and you will be able to get back on the bike for many more rides to work.
Give yourself time to make the physical adjustment to this ride as it will probably make you feel a little more tired (or even a lot if traveling far!)
8. Build up Bicycle Commuting Gear Bit by Bit
The nice thing about bike commuting is that most people have the gear they need to get started on a good weather day already. The downside is that to do it through all 4 seasons, you will likely need to buy some special gear that will protect you from the elements and also keep you safe on the roads. That said, these are things that you can buy as you go along, choosing your days carefully and gradually cycling to work more often mean that time is on your side.
Trying to do too much too soon will likely end up frustrating you and putting you off doing it, so just be patient with and figure out what gear you need as you go through it. To give you an idea of some of the key bike commuting gear, you will want to think about things like powerful lights to make sure that you are seen, waterproof clothes from head to toe (including shoe covers), a good lock to protect your bike outside your work, and a good bag that works on your bike, ideally a pannier bag.
9. Try Commuting to Work in All Weathers
After going through the stages above, you can then start to experiment with cycle commuting in all weathers. You will probably find that you get far wetter than you expect, as I found when trying to ride in heavy rain for the first time. There is something about the riding position on a bike that makes you that much more exposed to rain than when walking, so don’t underestimate this! If you leave a change of clothes at work (or even just take some spares with you), you will be prepared for any misadventures with bad weather on your ride.
Bike commuting year-round
To do this properly year-round requires an investment in the right gear but, as mentioned above in the previous step, it’s not something that you need to invest in immediately and build up your collection of gear over time. I’d also say that cycling makes you feel warm, so you don’t need lots of layers in most winter conditions as you will get hot, especially if riding up hills.
So now the easy part. Once you’ve done all of the above, you will soon start to see little ways in which you can make your bike commute that bit smoother, more efficient or just easier.
A couple of tips that come to mind for me are leaving a lock at the bike stand at work to save carrying the weight all the time and also using my waterproof pants to layer up for warmth in winter, instead of wearing thermal pants and having to change.
No doubt once you get out on your bike commute you will also see just how many little things you can change or improve – but you can only do this by actually riding to work, so keep going and things will get easier!
How far is too far to bike to work? For most beginners, cycling more than 5 miles each way to work is hard, especially if there are busy roads or hills en route. For regular cyclists or fitness enthusiasts, 15 miles each way is doable with the right gear.
What to expect for a 30-minute bike ride to work? Expect to break a sweat if there is more than one hill, and for the ride to take you up to 35 minutes on windy days or days with bad traffic. The longer the journey, the more variability day-to-day.