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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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: The Essentials”

  1. Matt says:

    I would say that I’d definitely pick out a decent pair of bike shorts if you don’t have them. There isn’t one brand I’d particularly recommend, but I will say that I wouldn’t personally pay more than $45-ish for a pair – check sale racks and try out store brands. If you haven’t worn bike shorts before, remember that none are going to be particularly comfortable standing up – test out how they feel sitting on a bench (a bike if you have that option). Make sure you try before you buy (but wear spandex or something underneath when doing so!).

    The other things ALWAYS with me when I’m on my bike are:

    – multitool (Alien)
    – spare tube
    – tire levers
    – C02 pump (for small size)
    – C02 cartridge

    I would say at a minimum, pack a small multitool – I can’t say how many times I’ve needed to adjust something that wasn’t crucial but greatly improved the quality of my ride.

  2. Jeff says:


    I agree about being seen as your number one priority. I have two Planet Bike Superflash blinkies; one on my helmet with a ziptie and one on the bike. I also have a Planet Bike 5 LED headlight. It’s almost enough to see on dark roads if you’re not going too fast and it lasts a long time on a few AA NiMH batteries. I’d certainly recommend picking up a spare tube and tire levers if you don’t have them. You asked about a pump. I am very happy with my Topeak Road Morph G. It’s small, but pumps a lot of air with minimal effort. It has an air tube to prevent putting pressure on the valve stem while pumping. The gauge isn’t very accurate, so you might want to save a couple bucks by going with the gaugeless version. Good luck with your commute. I went to grad school at Purdue and commuted by bike in all but the worst weather. It’s a great place to ride. We’re in Georgia now. The winter weather is a LOT better.

  3. Jeff says:

    Oh, I meant to say, If I get another headlight it will probably be the Planet Bike Blaze 1 watt. It seems to have all the advantages of my current light, but it’s brighter. These lights make amazingly bright and convenient flashlights when not biking. You might want to pick up an inexpensive saddle bag to keep tools and a tube in.

  4. Darren says:

    I would say lights are top priority. On separated off-road paths it is just as important since often there are not any lights and without lights on the bike it is very hard to be seen by other riders. I’ve had a few surprises because other riders did not have sufficiently bright lights, or no lights.

    For me I finally splurged on DiNotte lights that run on AA batteries (no proprietary lithium-ion batteries to replace every year or two). Yeah they are expensive ($120 to $150 each), but made riding at night is a whole lot more pleasant. It was money well spent.

    Next would be having fenders. It doesn’t rain much here (SoCal), but keeping dirt, grime, water, and unknown random road liquid off of myself and the bike is well worth it. After the first set came apart after 100 miles or so I bought SKS Chromoplastics which so far (450+ miles) are MUCH better (😉 I ordered them through a LBS since they have been very helpful in the past.

  5. scarecrow says:

    If you hear or see rain in the forecast, and then rule out the bike for your commute, you have not discovered the joy of fenders! They totally rock, so make that #1 on your list.

    Good blinkies/lights are #2. Make sure you can easily turn them on and off. Some of them are poorly designed in that regard.

    That should take care of your $90.

    I’ve done thousands of miles riding/touring/racing, but commuting in winter, I always wear street clothes and layers. As you warm up, peel off layers or kick it down a notch. This is commuting, not racing. I have a complete change of clothes at work, just in case, but believe me, you don’t need lycra for commuting.

  6. Allan says:

    Welcome to bike commuting in Indiana. I have been riding the Monon to work in Indy for the past 6 months. #1 for me is lighting and I am now considering an upgrade to my lighting system. Several times in the past 6 months I almost hit early morning walkers on the Monon out before dawn in all dark clothing.

    I do have Fenders, rear rack, trunk bag, messenger bag for the days clothing and lunch and an assortment of cycling clothing. I am adding today, a flashlight. If you make a commitment to commuting, you will have to add these items a little at a time. It gets expensive, but gas will soon be back at $4 so it is a trade off, pay the bike shop or pay the oil companies, your choice.

    If you work near one of the Indiana Bike Port locations, check it out. This is the best deal in Indiana. It is a $5.95 membership fee for a year and you can use the bike lockers for FREE. That way you don’t have to worry about lights, rack, bags or stuff getting stolen from your bike during the day, you just open the locker and store your bike. At the end of the day you get a code with your cell phone to unlock the locker and you are headed home.

    I am sure you will blow through the $90 pretty quickly without any problem. Good luck, hope to see you on the trail.

  7. Juan says:

    Wow…..6 responses and only one mention of a helmet?!? They have more value than just a place to zip-tie a light to.

  8. Allan says:

    Well said Juan. I didn’t mention a helmet because I can’t imagine anyone riding without one. I wouldn’t even think of getting on my bike without some protection for the old melon.

  9. Matt says:

    Scarecrow –

    My mention of bike shorts was more aimed at getting some padding under the sensitive areas than insisting on lycra. I don’t know what others are like, but I personally find that if I’m going more than 10 miles or so, I find some bike shorts well worth it (even if they’re under other things).

  10. Noah says:

    I also didn’t even think of the helmet, as I wouldn’t think of making my ~30 mile round trip without one, either. Having said that, helmets are still a personal preference thing. I’ve been known to ride to the grocery store without one, but I have an easy-going route that’s off the road and only 2.5 miles round trip. I’ll usually just grab the bike wearing whatever I’m wearing and ride there.

    Not to turn this into a huge nanny-state bicycle safety flame war, but if work was a similar situation, being so close and away from major roads, I don’t think I’d be so vigilant about a helmet for my commute either. Look at pictures from Amsterdam. I don’t think I’ve seen a single bike helmet in any of the photos that show how popular bicycles are out there.

  11. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    When I started using a bicycle for transportation, all I had was a huffy beach cruiser.
    As I saved money from not driving I bought a tire repair kit and a cheap seat bag, then a better bike, cheap lights, fenders, rear rack, rain gear, a comfortable saddle, better lights, cycling clothes, a backup bike, better tools” all this over the first year and a half, and I am still adding to make riding more comfortable.

    Bikes are not like cars, they do not come ready to use for dedicated transportation, but we do get to choose the final product, which reflects each of us. For me, thinking “I’m going to do this, but also going to keep it fun” was the best path.

    I added a helmet almost a year after I started biking, it was a few days before my fist wreck, and the helmet has the flat spot to prove it…

  12. Ghost Rider says:

    Buy a helmet first, then worry about lights…Planet Bike sells a Superflash/ 1W Blaze combo that is a great deal, and the 1W light is surprisingly bright for an inexpensive headlight…it straddles the fence between “see” and “be seen”!

  13. Chris Cowan says:

    Don’t waste your gift cert on the bike lights at Performance. The only one worth anything there is the Planet Bike Superflash for your rear light. If you want a really good headlight for cheap then get a Fenix L2D. It’s about $60 and takes 2 AA batteries (use rechargable) and has 180 lums (for 2.5 hrs). You can get 2 of them for the price of the DiNotte and have more candle power. (See

    I would recommend a spare tube, some tube patches, a small pump and possibly a saddle bag to cary it all. CO2 systems are totally worthless especially if you get another flat after the first. (of course you should learn how to use that stuff too.)

    If you don’t have a helmet you should proably get one. It doesn’t necasarily make you a safe cyclist but it comes in handy when your head hits the pavement.

  14. Juan says:

    I totally agree with Noah and I don’t want to see a Nanny State post about safety. I realize that we all have different views on helmets, and it’s a personal preference. I’ve broken several helmets over the years, and my girlfriend broke her first this past spring on the bikepath. I’m not saying we’re still alive because of a broken helmet, but I know in my heart that our injuries would have been much greater if we hadn’t been wearing one. Safe commuting to you all!!

  15. yoder says:

    If you are going to ride at night, get a light before a helmet.

  16. ethan says:

    My helmet, my lights, and my Timbuk2 messenger bag. Not necessarily in that order. But most other things depend on the length of your commute, road conditions, weather, stuff like that which varies from rider to rider. Everybody should be safe, visible, and it’s nice to have something waterproof to tote your stuff.

  17. siouxgeonz says:

    The guy doesn’t say the word “commute” at all, so I wonder where it fits in the equation.
    I started riding those 15-20 milers before commuting, and noticed that the minimalist guys I rode with (who, tho’ I didn’t realize it, put in 8-15K miles/year) had toe clips, gloves & helmets & sunglasses. Came to realize they had fenders, too.
    Once the basics are taken care of, I’d ask myself: what hurts towards the end of a ride? and take care of that. What keeps me from riding when I want to, *but.* For me it was carrying stuff. (I got an Xtracycle but that wouldn’t be everybody’s solution.) Are there risks I”m taking that I don’t know about? I’d take care of that. I’m a veritable blinky dork myself, of course, and one of these days will go so far as a flash flag.

  18. Steven says:

    Thanks for the help Noah and for all the input everyone.

    Siouxgeonz is correct that I didn’t actually say “commute” and I didn’t mean to mislead Noah.

    Mainly my riding is 5 miles at lunch every day down a bike/walk path and then 15-20 miles on Saturday or Sunday.

    I fibbed a bit about saying I don’t have much on accessories. But reading everyone else’s blogs it doesn’t FEEL like I have much.

    What I own:
    Trek 2.0 Navigator with the 1.95 tires
    Seat bag
    Wedge bag
    Profile bag
    Back rack with 3 bunge nets (just because I couldn’t decide what one to buy)
    Neon reflective vest
    Tail light blinkie
    Some skinny 1.0 tires that I put on it for a few months in the Fall
    1 bottle of lube (unused)
    Repair kit with wrenches and levers
    Padded shorts

    Things I would have thought about getting:

    MTB shoes and pedals – That’s a big purchase so I have been putting it off. I really like the shoes that look like normal shoes and I want some pedals that I can use without the shoes.

    Better cold headgear – Been doing some more riding in the cold and I’m just using a typical skull cap and scarf. Really thinking about something like a balaclava.

    Front light – I’ve already rode a few times in the dark. Sometimes with no light. (I know… very dangerous.) And other times with a flashlight duct taped to the handlebars. I bought a $5 strap-to-forehead light from Big Lots that I was going to try attached to the bike. Some of those bike lights are just scary expensive. I really don’t wanna drop alot on one of those until I start biking more in the dark.

    Maintenance tools/cleaning supplies – I don’t know how to do much maintenace on the bike. But I’d like to. Right now I have cables that need adjusted on both the brakes and derailers. I’d also like to get some stuff for cleaning the bike. I’ve looked all over Wal-mart for little wire brushes to get in betweent the cogs and have found nothing. But for now my main tool might just be old toothbrushes.

    Frame pump – I have an old used compressor at home so airing up at home isn’t an issue. But I’d like to have something to use while out on the ride if a tire is getting soft. I tried the CO2 cartridges that came with my repair kit and wasn’t too crasy about them.

    Clothes – I had a couple short sleeved shell shirts and a pair of padded bike shorts (which I have only worn once). But this past weekend I hit Wal-mart and bought a couple long sleeved ones as well as some tights and warm up bottoms. I think those should do me through the cold. Long longs and ratty pants weren’t cutting it. I’m still not into the Lycra and probably never will be. But I found out that cotton t-shirts suck in the summer.

    Bike – yeah… I’d really like a 2nd bike. I hear everyone talk about having multiple bikes. But for now I cannot afford another and don’t actually know what I would want if I could.

    Books – Would like to get some books on basic bike maintenance as well as some touring/camping books. Although there is enought stuff out on the web that I can really get by without buying any books. But books are so nice to look at now and then.

    What I’d really like to get into this year is bike camping. Interesting in getting a front rack and some panniers. And whatever else goes along with that.

    Oddly enough I have no desire for a cyclometer. Although I’ve always been curious as to what speed I max out on some of those big hills.

    And I will confess that I rarely wear my helmet and have been known to take the iPod along on solo rides.

    Thanks for all the suggestions and input everyone!

    Southern Indiana (the hilly part)

  19. siouxgeonz says:

    I think my vote would be for a computer perhaps w/ heart rate monitor for logging the riding that you’ll end up doing more of if you’re measuring it… or some practical bling (is that a contradiction in terms?) – something useful that brings pleasure using it so the action is likely to be repeated.

  20. siouxgeonz says:

    I said to myself “just put in your vote, then read what has been added, to see how funny it is.” I really did.

    You’ve got $90, right?

    My otehr thought was tires – sweetskins perhaps?
    (and I have this problem wiht breaking bike computers … but when I get around to getting them working again or replacing them, I realize how much I do miss them. )

  21. Johnny says:

    Personally, I consider carrying repair gear, a helmet and lights a necessity, and the same goes with fenders and a rack — for me. I know some folks who prefer to not have them, and that’s cool for them. But being able to carry stuff and ride in the rain is necessary for my commute.

    But I think the best accessory you can carry around commuting is, as cheesy as it is to say, a smile. I’ve gotten a few folks to ride for transportation at least some of the time just by showing them how much frikkin fun it is:^)

    My rack holds stuff, and my fenders keep me dry. But it’s the attitude that really helps keep a person riding, especially when the weather is nasty.

  22. Johnny says:

    Sorry that sounds so dang preachy 🙂

  23. siouxgeonz says:

    It’s worth saying.

    I rode hard one windy, sunny day and sunburned the inside of my lower lip.
    I needed a new “overflow face,” so I trained my face to expose teeth only in a grin when exerting.
    When your default face is a smile, it *does* change things. People smile back (and then I realize I’m riding hard and, therefore, grinning 😉 ).

    Try it…

  24. Jeff says:


    You can use the edge of a rag to get between the cogs. Just stretch the rag between your hands, put the edge between two cogs. You should be able to make the gears turn by using a shoe-shine type motion so that you can get all sides, then move on to the next cog. The Planet Bike headlights are small and bright and not too expensive. I’m very happy with mine.

  25. Mike says:

    Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires — say goodbye to flats.

  26. Adriel says:

    After reading what you have and do not have I would recommend a headlight above all. (Riding at night without a headlight is very dangerous, cars coming from cross streets cannot see you).

    My favorite hookup is get 2 of the cheap 5 led headlights, and that gives you a ton of light. Also if one breaks you have a backup. I also carry 2 blinkies for the same reason. I put one on solid and one on blink. (The blinking makes it hard for motorists to tell how far away you are).

    Get the books at half price. Much better deal. And you can get almost all of it online. Sheldon brown’s website is awesome.

    I have the back panniers from performance and have been happy with them. They lasted me about 3000 miles (which was almost a year) They still worked, but I wanted to replace them and my brother needed some so I gave him my old ones.

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