Bicycle Commuting De-Mystified: How to Choose Your Ride

Photo by  David Marcu  on  Unsplash

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

I trust that since you’ve stumbled upon this blog, you’re in some way interested in reducing your environmental impact.  If so, chances are you’ve thought about your choices in transportation, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that petrol- and diesel-burning cars give off a lot of greenhouse gases, contributing to the growing climate change problem. 

If you’re looking to shrink your carbon footprint by driving less, you’ve no doubt considered cycling as an alternative means of transportation, but you may be a little intimidated by the prospect of getting around on two wheels.  If that’s you, believe me, I get it.  The first time I cycled from my apartment in Brooklyn to my office in midtown Manhattan, I was overwhelmed, scared, and not 100% sure how to go about it.  I fumbled and sweated through my first ride, taking several wrong turns and no doubt making mistakes that annoyed both motorists and my fellow bike commuters, but once I got the hang of it, I began to love the liberty of bouncing around the city by bicycle.  

I now have half a decade of bike commuting under my belt, but there are a few things I've figured out over the years that I wish someone had explained to me when I first began.  There’s a lot to consider when it comes to cycling, and a lot of options when it comes to gear and clothing, but for today I’ll just talk about the most essential element of bike commuting: the bicycle itself.  

How do you choose a bike when you’re just starting out? 

When you walk into a bike shop, you’ll see a lot of different kinds of bikes, built for different purposes.  There are some with skinny tires, and some with fat, knobby tires.  Some with a single gear or speed, and some with lots of gears.  Some will have straight, flat handlebars, and some will have curved, or “drop” handlebars.  Some bikes are made of steel, others of aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, or even bamboo.  Some will have fittings for racks and cargo bags, some won’t.  

The amount of options can boggle the mind, and what kind of bike suits you will depend on several factors.  The good news is, there is no one right answer.  The most important thing about any bike is whether or not you’ll ride it, and the rest, to some extent, is just semantics. 

However, in choosing your whip, there are a few things you may want to think about, such as:

Do you already own a bike?

Do you have a friend or roommate whose bike you could borrow short term?  I’d recommend you start by riding what you already have, or what’s available to you.  Over time, as you become more accustomed to commuting, you’ll be able to figure out if you want to stick with it, or if you’d rather switch it up to a bike that better suits your particular needs.

Do you have a bike share scheme in your city or town? 

In a bike share scheme, bikes are publicly available for shared use for short term periods (usually 30-45 minutes).  Riders can pick up a bike at one point and drop it at another, usually for a small one-time fee or a subscription fee.  If your city has a bike share scheme, and your commute is under 30-45 minutes, I’d recommend giving it a go.  The beauty of shared bikes is that you don’t have to lock them up, fix flat tires, or maintain them yourself.  For minimal financial investment, you just get on and go.  They can be a great way to give bike commuting a try without plunking down loads of money on a bike of your own.  Thousands of New Yorkers use Citi Bike (New York's bike share scheme) for their daily commutes.  The bikes are a bit heavy and clunky, but they are easy to ride and they get the job done. 

What is the length of your commute?  How is the terrain? 

If you have only a couple miles between your home and office, and the road is relatively flat, then a single speed cruiser may suit you just fine.  If your commute is longer, however, you may want something a bit lighter weight that can get you there quicker.  Lots of rolling hills along the way?  You’ll probably want something with plenty of gears to see you through.  If you have varied surfaces like dirt or gravel along your commute, you may want to consider a bike with a slightly wider tire with some texture or tread to help you grip.   

How much money do you want to spend?

For every style of bike that exists, there are options in a range of prices.  Knowing how much you want to spend can help a bike shop salesperson find the right ride for you.  If a new bike is out of your price range, or you’d just prefer to buy second-hand, there are loads of great used bikes on the market.  You’ll just want to make sure what you’re buying is in good shape.  Stay tuned for an upcoming post on how to make sure the second hand bike you buy is in working condition and is safe to ride. 

Will you be locking your bike up?

The second commuter bike I ever owned, a steel frame fuji feather with flat bars, single speed (free wheel)

The second commuter bike I ever owned, a steel frame fuji feather with flat bars, single speed (free wheel)

If you have secure bike storage in your office, and you want to commute to work on an expensive, carbon fiber speed machine, go for it.  I wouldn’t, however, recommend ever locking a high-end bike outside, for any period of time.  If you think you’ll ever want to lock up your bike, whether outside your office or when you're running errands or visiting friends, you're better off opting for a bike that you feel comfortable leaving outside. 

Even if you lock up your bike perfectly securely (I'll discuss how to do this in an upcoming post), people are still going to walk by it, accidentally bump it with their bodies or their own bikes, or knock it into the pole or bike rack to which it's locked, so it’s best to have something you don’t mind getting a few dings on.  In other words, don’t spend thousands of dollars on a lock-up bike.  Get a good value bike that can handle some wear and tear.  

How can I make sure I'm getting a bike that's right for me?

Have a chat with a knowledgable salesperson.

I advise finding a bike shop that you trust.  Ask for a recommendation from a cycling-savvy friend, then head over to the shop, prepared to give the salesperson a thorough rundown of your needs.  You might say something like: 

"I'm looking for a bike that I can use for commuting to work.  I live 10 miles from my office, and there are a lot of hills on my route.  Part of my route is on a dirt and gravel path, with some cobblestones.  I'd like a bike that I can feel comfortable locking up, since I don't have bike storage at my office.  I've been riding my roommate's dutch-style commuter bike (here's a picture), and I like that it has gears and wide tires, but I'd like something lighter weight and a bit faster.  My budget is £600."  

Given this information, the salesperson will probably have a good idea of the kind of bike that might be right for you, and may be able to show you some options.  The more information you give about what you're looking for, the better equipped they will be to set you up with a bike that will suit your needs.  

Test ride a few different bikes.

Once you've narrowed it down to a few options, I highly recommend taking them for a test ride.  Most bike shops should allow you to do this with no issues, though they may require you to leave a driver's license at the shop while you're out,  or sign a waiver clearing them of any liability if you have an accident.  The salesperson will adjust the bike's seat to the right height for you, and should have a helmet for you to borrow.  Take the bike outside to a quiet street or parking lot, and pedal around a bit to get a feel for it.  Practice using the brakes, and click through the gears, if it has them.  If you don't know how to shift gears (there are a few different kinds of shifters, so don't be embarrassed if you don't know how!), ask the salesperson to show you before you go out.

Take your time.  

It's important that you not feel rushed into a purchase decision, especially if this is the first bike you're buying as an adult.  You're spending a good deal of money, so you want to be absolutely sure that you feel good about your choice.  While every bike will take a little getting used to, you don't want to buy something that makes you so uncomfortable or nervous that you'll never ride it.  If the shop you visit doesn't quite have the bike you want, they may be able to refer you to another shop that does.  

Don't trifle with the meanies.

I hope this side note won't be necessary for you, but I think it's worth mentioning: I've dealt with a lot of wonderfully helpful salespeople in bike shops over the years.  I've also dealt with a lot of very rude and condescending salespeople.  If you are confronted with someone who makes you feel stupid for what you don't know about bikes, politely tell the manager, and then find another shop with a more helpful salesperson.  You don't know what you don't know, and you deserve to deal with someone who wants to encourage and support your newfound enthusiasm for cycling.  Vote with your dollars for inclusive shops whose aim is to get more people on bikes.  OK, end rant. 

Have a think about gear.

Once you've made your decision (yay!) you'll want to think about any additional gear you might need, like a lock, a helmet, a track pump, gloves, lights, or rain protection.  I'll go into bike gear in an upcoming post, but it's something to think about when you're working out your budget for your bike.  At minimum, I recommend having a helmet, a lock, and lights for riding at night.  These can all easily be acquired second hand, though it's important to make sure the helmet you buy isn't more than a few years old, as helmets can weaken over time, even if they aren't crashed or otherwise physically damaged. 

You'll definitely want to buy a good track pump, also easily acquired second hand.  Think you don't really need one?  Trust me, you do.  Something I didn't know when I first started: the inner tubes inside bike tires are made of rubber, are porous, and will therefore gradually lose air over time even if they're not punctured.  You need to inflate your tires on a regular basis to keep them rolling fast and smooth, and you'll need a track pump in order to do this.  (If you're not sure how to inflate your tires, don't sweat it.  I'll be covering that in an upcoming post, too.)

Still intimidated at the prospect of becoming a bike commuter?  Not to worry, there's more to come.  I'll be bringing you more bike commuting basics very soon!

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