Starting With The Basics

Now that we know a bit more about the history and practice of commuting, it’s high time we get down and dirty and start talking about the different elements that make up the practice of bicycle commuting. There are some really great resources of the web for bicycle commuters: Commute By Bike, Bike Commuters, Paul Dorn’s bike commuting tips, The League of American Bicyclists, Bicycling Life, oh and right here, of course.

The Bicycle

Let’s start with the most obvious. You are going to need one of these handy-dandy machines before you become a full-fledged bicycle commuter. You might be wondering, does one need a special kind of bicycle in order to start commuting by bike? The short answer: NO. The long answer: there are some kinds of bikes and pieces of equipment that are going to make bicycle commuting more efficient and enjoyable. The bicycle industry appears to be taking the concept of the transportation bike more seriously as of late, so there are numerous commuter bike options appearing on the market. Nonetheless, I want to begin with a generic list of things to look for in a bike, before diving into the differences among bike types. Below is a list of things you might want to look for in your next commuter bike or that you might want to change on a bike you already own.

  • Comfort: First and foremost, you need your bike to be comfortable. Spending even a short amount of time on an uncomfortable bike is not fun, it’s not efficient, and it’s just not worth it. You might as well fill up on that next tank of gas, because without a comfortable bike, you’re just not going to make it very long as a bicycle commuter. Now, comfort is one of those issues that can’t be easily defined, because there numerous aspects that contribute to the idea or illusion of comfort. I will say this however, that sometimes positive mental energy, a good attitude, and the willingness to experiment (aka patience) go a long way when you are trying something new. Nonetheless, I have encountered many a person who insists that riding a bicycle is inherently uncomfortable. Oh, if they only knew how wrong they were (because hopefully I managed to set them straight)! These sorts of people have simply never ridden a bike with the…
  • Proper Fit!: And that brings me to the next issue at hand. Actually, you need to find a bike that fits you properly before you can determine whether or not the bicycle is comfortable. But proper fit comes in at a close second place to comfort, since you could very well find yourself perched on a bike that fits you properly, but just isn’t very comfortable. Such a bike is not the bike for you. Proper fit is different for every individual and every bicycle, but your local bike shop should be help you determine what size bike fits you best among the different brands they carry. Once you find a bike that fits properly, have the shop adjust the saddle to the correct height and fore-aft position, and if necessary, switch the stem and either raise or lower the handlebars along the steer tube to ensure upper body comfort. Then, take it for a test ride. At which point, you can determine whether or not the bike is comfortable. Once you have selected the right bike, you may opt to pay for a bike-fit, which is more in-depth than the most basic fit you will get from many bike shops when you purchase a bike. However, for most people, the trial and error method is usually most successful for determining where all the pieces of the bike puzzle should be.
  • Proper Gearing: Depending on the environment in which you are going to be commuting, you may opt for a bike with only a few gear options in order to keep maintenance time and costs to a minimum. However, if you live in a hilly place, a very windy place, or have a very long commute, you should make sure you have the full range of gearing necessary. Basically, your options range anywhere from 1 gear to 30, so there is plenty to choose from, though I always say, “Spin to win!”
  • Good Tires: I can’t emphasize this one enough! I live in the desert where there are plenty of spiny, flat-inducing objects laying around and crazy rain storms to wash tire-biting debris into the road, but I also hate (hate, hate, hate!) getting flat tires. And you should too! So make sure you have proper tires, and don’t let some spandex-sporting weight-weenie tell you to go lightweight on the tires or tubes to save energy or grams, because when you are trying to get to work, it’s just not worth the risk.

  • A Good Saddle: Saddle, seat, bum-coozy, what have you. The place where your bum sits needs to be symbiotic with the bum itself. Once again, everyone has different preference when it comes to saddles, so I’m not even going to try to recommend one for you, for your body type, etc. The bottom line (heh heh) is: try before you buy. Most bike shops will throw a seat on a test bike to let you sit on it and some even let you take them home for a night so you can try it out on a ride.
  • Your Stuff: You also need to consider how you are going to get your things from point A to B. You need to consider how much you need to carry on a daily basis and whether you should opt for bike panniers, a bike trailer, baskets, or simply a backpack.

In reading back over this laundry list, I realize that it might sound a bit complicated to find the right bike. This list for a good commuting bike would function well in an ideal world, but not everyone has the opportunity to purchase a new bicycle. In that case, I highly recommend looking for a good used bicycle. To illustrate how great a used bike can be for commuting, I would like to share the story of Ross – my commuter bike.

My boyfriend and I found Ross amongst a pile of trash in the backyard of our house when we moved in. Ross’s frame was rusty, the front wheel was broken, the cables and housing were trashed, the saddle wasn’t comfortable (for my tu
sh anyhow), and the poor beast wouldn’t even roll because the breaks were out of adjustment. However, for the price of a front new wheel, two sets of thorn-proof tires and tubes, cables and housing, a new saddle (donated by a friend), a basket (which came off the old commuter), and a little love (provided by my boyfriend), Ross was ready to roll. I recall that the price tag, minus the love and donations, came to approximately $150, which is certainly cheaper than the price of almost any new bike and close to the price one might expect pay for a used bike of similar quality. And the best part: $150 is about half the price I could expect to pay for parking on campus at the University for a year, but parking Ross is free!

You might be wondering about Ross’s fit and comfort for me since I made such a big deal about it earlier. Fortunately, Ross was a good size for me, so the fit wasn’t a concern. Ross wasn’t initially comfortable, as the saddle looked like it had been in a losing battle with the desert sun and the seatpost was stuck and needed to be adjusted. I had to spend a few weeks commuting on Ross to make adjustments until it was comfortable, but I didn’t give up until it was right. Lately, Ross and I have been logging nearly 8 miles each day, 5 days a week, and I’ve been loving it!

So if you can’t afford a new bike or feel it’s necessary to purchase one, I recommend looking for a good used bike. And if you already have a bicycle, it’s worth spending a little time and money to make sure that you have adequate tires/ tubes, a good, comfortable saddle, and bike in good working order before you start commuting. The benefit of purchasing a new bike is that most shops provide free or discounted maintenance, but you can also learn to work on the bike yourself. Some shops and co-ops offer great maintenance and repair classes, as well.

The bicycle is the most basic and essential element of bicycle commuting. Next up, we will talk about finding a good route, parking, locking, lighting, and so much more.

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