Advice for first-time bike commuters

As Seattle’s workforce gears up for Bike to Work Day this Friday, some people out there may be looking for advice to get ready for their first commutes by bike. For one take on how to be prepared, here’s a good video from the folks at Cascade Bicycle Club:

Personally, some of my advice for first time commuters would be a little different than in the video. I don’t really think it matters what bike you use, so long as it’s not terribly heavy, rusty and/or broken. The first ride is probably going to be a little cautious and slow, anyway. Plus, mountain bikes have the added advantage of not getting stuck in trolley tracks.

The best way to find a good route is to ride with a friend or co-worker. However, if that’s not an option, both Google Maps’ bike directions and Ride the City almost always give you good routes to start with. You will have plenty of time to play around with your route on future commute trips. If you are still unsure of a good route, tweet @SeaBikeBlog or email me and we’ll figure something out.

Once you have a route and a bike (and helmet, since its the law), you have everything you need to go for it. Put yourself out there and don’t worry too much about the little details. Give yourself plenty of time in case you need to walk a hill, scary street or unexpected construction site. You will probably get to work way faster than you thought you would, so reward yourself with a breakfast bagel or tweet @SeaBikeBlog about how you’re awesome for biking to work.

Biking to work is easy, fast, convenient and fun. Best of all, unlike driving to work, there are always ways to mix things up when you ride a bike. Learning what to bring, what to wear and what kind of bike to own is part of the adventure of switching from a car-centered life to a bike-centered one. The answers are unique for everyone.

If you are looking for more help, here’s some non-mission-critical advice:

  • If you gotta look super nice or if its raining, a change of clothes ain’t a bad idea. Don’t freak out about getting sweaty, it’s really not a big deal. If you ride at a comfortable pace, you may not sweat at all (depending on the hills). If you truly have a job where you have to look completely spot-on, just bring along what you need to restyle your hair or touch-up your cosmetic products.
  • If you have nice pants, you will probably want to roll/strap up your right pants leg so it doesn’t get dirty or ripped.
  • Backpacks, messenger bags with cross-straps and bike-mounted panniers are preferred bag options. A single-strap bag may swing around and be annoying. If in doubt, use a backpack.
  • Lights and a good lock are key if you want the freedom to go somewhere else after work.
  • Rain jackets are wonderful. It’s not a bad idea to pack one with you even if it looks super nice that morning. Rain pants are almost always unnecessary and will make you sweaty (see point one above).
  • Wear gloves if your hands are cold. Otherwise, don’t worry about them. The style doesn’t matter.
  • Water is nice to have. You probably won’t need an energy bar or snack (unless your trip to work is really far). Also, it’s hard to ride with coffee.
  • Don’t look at your phone while riding.
  • Bonus points go to those who know their bus routes. Remember, in case of mechanical failure, you can always throw your bike on a bus.
  • If you see a stunning view, pull over to take it in. This is what biking to work is all about: Loving yourself and loving your city.

Got any other bits of critical or non-critical advice for someone’s first bike commute trip? Have a question that was not answered here? Leave a comment.

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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15 Responses to Advice for first-time bike commuters

  1. Cyclist Mike says:

    >> Don’t look at your phone while riding.

    Can’t emphasize this enough! I see far too many people on the BG trail on their phone. It’s bad enough in a car, but now you’re really taking a hand off your steering and breaks, and most likely, eyes off the road of whats in front of you.

  2. daisy says:

    Good stuff! Aprillikesbikes has a couple of good articles on practical cycling.

    Have patience, we are all trying to get somewhere.

  3. Al Dimond says:

    I’m a fairly new Seattleite and don’t bike commute often here (my work is way out in Snohomish County… Community Transit to the rescue!), but I used to do it all the time in Silicon Valley and in Chicago. One piece of equipment that’s really important, especially for road bikes: good tires! I’m not one for pushing products, but I always ride Armadillo tires. I’ve never had a flat with Armadillos, and I’ve never had another tire that didn’t end its life destroyed by road debris or potholes.

    Armadillos are sort of expensive, but they last so long that they turn out to be a bargain. They don’t have great traction or a smooth ride, but I’ve changed enough tires by the side of the road that I live with it. If I lived in a city with smooth, debris-free roads, I’d probably switch to something that felt nicer to ride, but in Seattle (or Chicago, or Teh Valley) Armadillos are the best by far.

  4. Lisa McConnell says:

    I like One Bus Away app on my phone for those Bonus Bus Route points.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Agreed! One Bus Away is absolutely amazing if you have a fancy phone. A powerful tool for any new urban adventure in the region.

  5. Leif says:

    +1 to most of the points in the original post. Also to the Armadillo tires, I’ve had them for about a year and so far I’ve only had one flat from a particularly well placed bit of glass. I even rode them 3 miles out a gravel road with camping gear on the rack with no problems.

    I want to counter your point about gloves. The one time I crashed with gloves on I was happy to have them. Since like most people I use a computer/mouse all day, having scraped up hands could be a real hassle, whereas a scraped elbow or knee doesn’t affect my work.

    Watch out for those railroad tracks and potholes. I’ve spilled on both in this town.

    Don’t ride really close to parked cars. Lots of beginning cyclists do this because they are scared of traffic. It presents two problems: first, you are highly likely to get a door opened up in your path which can be dangerous whether you hit it or swerve to avoid it. And secondly, it makes it harder for drivers to see you (and easier for them to buzz you). Ride in line with the arrow part of the sharrows, that is partly what they are there for. Take the lane if you need to, it is your right.

    Stay safe and have fun!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Good points, especially about being aware of the door zone. That could go in the vital information category, since riding outside of the door zone both keeps you safe from opening doors and urges you to take the lane.

      As for gloves, I wear them, and I definitely think they are good to have. But for someone taking their very first trip out, it’s totally not worth worrying about (unless it’s cold). That’s all. Sometimes people are so overloaded with info I think they are scared away from trying. Gloves fits into the category of “Things that you can worry about once you develop a commuting habit.”

  6. Merlin says:

    For keeping your clothes looking fine while riding, nothing beats the European city bike with chain guard and skirt guard. Probably not something you’d find on that old bike in the basement, but if you are just getting set up for a comfortable city commute, keep this in mind.

  7. jpsfranks says:

    I like how “wannabe cyclist” Stacey already has two decked out bikes. :)

  8. Jake says:

    What kind of bag does suspiciously well-outfitted “wannabe” cyclist Stacy have? I like the looks of that zipper.

  9. Veronica says:

    Advice that served me in good stead my first week of bike commuting:

    1. Budget a little extra time at first, maybe 30 minutes. This allows for slower pedaling/less sweating, missed bus connections, and any tidying up once you get to work. If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll trim that extra time right down.

    2. Don’t be afraid to take the lane for a spell. If it feels like cars are passing too close, they’ll only get closer if you hug the curb or parked cars. That’s not safe for you and encourages cars to crowd out bikes. Move into the lane about 1-2 feet and watch how the traffic will slow, then pass with a wider berth and at a slower speed.

    3. Signal before you merge into a lane, look for cars, and don’t be shy about moving in. They’ll let you in if you give them a heads up, and won’t ride your tire if you give a thank you wave once in the flow of the lane.

    4. Lastly, smile at drivers. Seriously, this is the best way to help ease any tensions that might exist out there and help you enjoy your ride.

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  11. y2bike says:

    It’s always been helpful for me to commit to riding in the morning no matter the weather and getting all the necessary stuff together the night before. Fumbling around in the morning to find that darn glove, lock, etc. can be a real deterrent to biking. Also, I always tell non-commuters that see me heading out to less-than-ideal weather that I can handle any type of weather, from sun to sleet, for the next 40 minutes to an hour it takes to get home or to work. You don’t need to be dressed to stay out all day, only for the relatively short time it takes for most bike commutes. And riding in more than just sunny days reveals that someday the stormier weather brings with it nice things like a strong homebound tailwind!

  12. daisy says:

    A gym membership can be useful for a quick shower and change before work, super convienent when there is one close by your work or destination.

    Isn’t there a bicycley type shop downtown that has inside bike storage and showers for a monthly fee? Maybe down by the train stations?

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