New Adventure: Bike Commuting

A portion of my bike route to work

A portion of my bike route to work

A few posts ago I shared with you some funky ways to spice up your commute. On the post after that I gave some ideas for a wild time on your bicycle. This got me thinking, where’s my post on bike commuting? After all, bike commuting is how I got re-interested in riding a bike as an adult. Would it not make sense to start there instead of the funky and wild posts? I thought of you: the poor, sad reader; lost and confused, looking desperately for guidance that was not there.

Or, maybe you didn’t even notice. If you’re like me, you’ve read a few (dozen) early retirement blogs and are well aware of the joys of bike commuting. That’s great! I’m glad you didn’t need my help getting started.

If bike commuting is a new challenge to you, don’t fret! Biking to work is a great idea to increase your health, wealth, and happiness- and I want to help you start as soon as possible. If your commute is under 10 miles*, you should try it now. Once you get in the habit, its the days you need to drive to work that are difficult!

It's easy to get convinced that bike commuting requires a mountain of expensive dedicated gear to get started, but the reality is you need very little beyond motivation. The goal of this quick start guide to bike commuting is to get you peddling to work with as few obstacles as possible. The only prerequisite is to know how to ride a bike!

STEP ONE: ACQUIRE A BIKE

It starts and, arguably, ends here. What more do you really need to bike to work than the bike itself? If all you have is a department store bike you got when you were 10, it’s a good idea to upgrade to a grown up bike. If spending any money is out of the question, go down to step 2 with your old bike and give it a try.

There’s no need to buy a new bike if you aren’t yet sure how much you’ll be biking; if not completely abused, bikes last a long time. Many people have one lying around, and often they’re trying to get rid of them via Craigslist, garage sales, donation, etc. Here’s a few tips for used bike shopping:

  • Research: Before looking at used bikes, look at brands and styles that you would want to buy new. This helps you pick out good finds, and weed through garbage.

  • Shop smart: Online spots like Craigslist can lead to amazing deals, but you will be sifting through many terrible ones. Learn to identify and avoid department store and other low-end models; people often try to sell them for as much as they paid a decade earlier.

  • No “fixer-uppers”: If the bike requires much repair at all, keep looking. It’s just one more obstacle keeping you from biking to work. Avoid rusty chains and gears, that’s a big sign of disrepair.

  • Go local: You can optionally skip the hassle of Craigslist and head to your local bike shop or co-op. People often donate their old bikes to them, and the shop will repair them and sell them at a good price. You might not find an astounding deal like you could online, but you will have more confidence that the bike is in good working order and priced fairly (See “Navigate a Bike Ship with Confidence” for more advice).

Lastly, you can buy new if you’re most comfortable with that. Just be absolutely certain that you will consistently use it before dropping all that cash, as you’ll want to spend at least $500 - $1000 to get a good all-purpose bike new

See “Buying Guide: Bicycles (Coming soon!)” for more detailed information on frugal bike shopping.

STEP TWO: ENSURE YOUR BIKE WORKS

Even though you made sure the bike was quality before you bought it, you’ll still want to take a few spins to test everything out and get comfortable. Shift into each gear, hit the brakes, bike slow and fast. If anything is out of order, you should notice pretty quickly.

If you do notice issues just take it to a shop. Learning bike repair self-sufficiency is awesome, but the goal here is to bike to work as soon as possible. Hassling around with your bike without tools or experience will always take longer than you expect and often make you extremely frustrated (trust me…). If you just bought it from the shop they will usually do the repairs free. Otherwise, the cost will likely be under $20 unless many parts need replacing.

If you’ve determined the bike is in good condition, you will still need three things in the near future:

  • Chain lubricant ($5-$10): Many shifting issues will be fixed by this alone, and it will help stave off rust.

  • Tire pump** ($7 - $70): Biking on low tires reduces your speed and can cause damage to your wheels, fill them regularly! The appropriate PSI will be indicated on the side of the tire. High end pumps are nice, but you can cheap out for now.

  • A decent U-lock ($15 - $30): You can get a cable lock for cheaper, but a U lock is significantly more secure and is what you will eventually upgrade to anyway.

STEP 3: PLAN AND TEST YOUR ROUTE

Congratulations! You now have a functional bicycle! Get ready to save money on gasoline, avoid traffic jams, and be healthier!

The only obstacle in your way now is figuring out your route to work. You could just bike on the roads you usually drive, but it is likely not practical or even possible (please don’t bike on the interstate).

The simplest way that I know of to determine your route is Google Maps. It isn’t perfect, but it is easy to use and does an admirable job of finding bike lanes and trails. Take a peek on your computer ahead of time to get a rough idea of what the route looks like.

Go for a test ride on a day you don’t work; you don’t want the pressure of being late while figuring out your route. Boot up Maps on your phone, turn the volume up to max, and stick the phone in a secure pocket. Alternatively, write the instructions on a piece of paper. Prioritize being aware of your surroundings over making all the correct turns, stop frequently to check the directions if needed.

Make a note of any roads that feel too busy for your liking, you can adjust and fine tune your route later. Even if Maps gives you the “quickest” route, it may not be the best. It’s worth a bit of extra distance if you can be on a separated bike trail or wide bike lane versus being crowded on a busy street.

Make the trip once or twice more until you’re confident. If you still aren’t sure, give yourself a pep talk and do it tomorrow!

STEP 4: START BIKING!

That’s it! Go out and do it! Allow yourself extra time at first, but soon your commute will be second nature just like driving is (was). Be sure to reap the rewards of exercising by packing extra food, and note how little you need to fill up your car’s gas tank.

BUT WAIT, I THOUGHT I NEEDED…

Skintight biking clothes

  • Not at all, any synthetic athletic wear is great. Save the lycra for the Tour de France. You could even wear your work clothes while biking for added simplicity, but they might not breathe as well.***

To shower after biking

  • Even in hot weather, you can avoid getting too sweaty by going at a slower pace. Yes, this will make your commute a bit longer, but you’ll increase your speed with time. A stick of deodorant is all you need afterwords if you aren’t dripping with sweat. Change into your work clothes in the bathroom stall if there isn’t a locker room.

A rack and pannier

  • Nice to have, but will set you back even more money. Use a backpack for now and put them on your birthday list once you are consistently bike commuting!

Do you have any tips for new bike commuters that I missed? Leave a comment below!



*If your commute is over 10 miles, you can still make it work! Commuting by bike may be a more lofty goal, but see if you can do it at least once (See “Add adventure to your commute”)

**Note that bike tires have different valves, Presta and Schrader. Schrader valves are what you see on car tires. Make sure you get a pump that can work with what you have.

***If you’re wearing nice-ish pants be sure to roll up the leg or wrap something tightly around your calf, pants have a tendency to rub against chain and get black bike grease marks.