Commuting 101: The Essentials

One of my readers has the following quandary about bicycle commuting essentials. I can only go by personal experience, but I figure it’s a good discussion starter:

I got $90 of gift certificates to use at Performance Bike and would like some help deciding how to spend it. Right now I own little to nothing in bike accessories or clothing but have been doing many 15-20 mile rides. Been making do with what I have. What do you use the most? Treasure the most? Suggestions on a bike pump? Balaclava? Maintenance tools? Lights?



Commuters may need a briefcase and a change of clothes at work. Without those, the bike does no good. It doesn’t mean you need to carry them on the bike to get them to the office. Some leave a week’s worth of clothes in a filing cabinet or hanging behind the office door and drive the clothes to work one day per week. I won’t cover logistics, because they differ so much.

Assuming you have only a bicycle with no accessories and street clothes, I’d say you already have the bare essentials. Commuting by bike and utility cycling are all about getting yourself where you need to go by bike.

Be seen: Unless you have the luxury of almost all off-road paths (bike or multi-use paths, not sidewalks) I’d say being seen is the first concern. To that end, I recommend a nice, bright blinky such as the Planet Bike Superflash. It’s a favorite among cyclists that ride in the dark, dawn, and twilight hours. At $25, it’s pricier than many other tail lights. At the same time, it’s arguably the brightest in its class.

Reflective jerseys, ankle-straps, jackets, vests, sashes and belts are also commonly used to make you more visible. These start around $5 and go way up from there.

Headlights suitable for being seen (as opposed to giving you enough light to see with) range from $15 for cheap flashlight-class lighting up to $50 or so. You can take your pick, here. It’s personal preference. The CatEye HL-500 is “the industry standard” inexpensive halogen headlight. Performance Bike doesn’t seem to sell it, but they offer some similar models. You may compromise by picking up a mediocre headlight and tail-light bundled together.   You’ll save some money that way. I would rather spend quite a bit more money on a better headlight to see clearly with, or try my hand at building my own lighting system from scratch. Both of those are for another article.

Be comfortable: In the winter months, Indiana gets freaking COLD! You can’t go wrong with some gloves or a balaclava if the stuff you own isn’t working out for you. Also, if you’re riding more than 20 miles round trip on a daily basis, you might find your travels more comfortable with some padded bicycling shorts.   These start near $30 on the low end of the scale and can cost a lot more than $70 on the high end!

Be prepared: A flat repair kit and hand pump or CO2 aren’t bad to have around. If you have a mobile phone and a friend of spouse who is willing to rescue you in the event of mechanical failure, they are not as important. The same goes for bike-specific multi-tools.

Stay dry on wet roads:

are a huge morale and confidence booster for many commuters. When it’s raining, the worst part is being doused in road grime being thrown off of your tires. When it’s been raining but isn’t raining anymore, you still get the same stuff.   Personally, I think that’s even more frustrating. Fenders start around $30 and quickly go up from there. You don’t always get what you pay for, but if you’re in a community with lots of bicycle commuters, it’s common courtesy to get some full-coverage fenders that keep your rooster-tail off of the people behind you as well.

Again, all of the above is subject to personal preference. Some might consider fenders the most important while others think lighting or reflective vests trump everything else. As commuters, tourers, and utility cyclists have no real homogenous standards, we are able to come up with their own way of doing things. We have the benefit of being able to pick from the accessories and methods of track cyclists, road racers, randonneurs, and even BMX riders. There are literally hundreds of accessories that you can choose from to make your commuting experience more enjoyable, from cyclo-computers, bells, and horns to racks, panniers, and battery-powered handlebar micro-fans.

What do you treasure the most on your commute.   Let’s help Steven come up with some other good ideas!

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