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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0 thoughts on “Starting With The Basics”

  1. Juliano says:

    Hi Melanie, you live in a desert with your Ross, so I live in a hilly place, the north zone of So Paulo city, the most urbanized city of Brazil, with my Esmeralda or Verdinha, not baptized yet! A old Giant that was rusting outside a store near here.

    You advise is valuable, get a good used bike.

    I would like to put more words, some old things were made to last more than new ones.

    What is the meaning of “spandex-sporting weight-weenie “?

    Best Rides


  2. Hi Juliano,

    Thanks for the comment. We would love to see some photos of your commute in Sao Paulo and of your Esmeralda! Feel free to send them our way!

    As for spandex-sporting-weight-weenies, I am being a bit self-deprecating. I am mainly referring to sport cyclists who are obsessed with shaving off grams on their bicycles to save weight in order to go faster. There is certainly a time and place for such things (as I myself am also a bike racer – hence I am making fun of myself), but the time to save weight is definitely not during a bicycle commute in my opinion.

    Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you again.

  3. Alfred says:

    Hi Melanie,
    Thank you for the effort you have put into this article but I would like to add a few tips/suggestions if I may.

    I always ride with a patch kit and a frame pump, and, on longer rides when I’m carrying a lot of junk anyway, I sometimes throw a spare tube in my bike box. I very infrequently need that stuff but flats aren’t fun.

    The weather in your area should play a major role your bicycle selection, especially if you only have one. Think about what weather you are likely to encounter and make sure your bicycle can accomodate the nessicary add-ons you might want/need. I’m thinking specifically of fenders and studded tires (which won’t fit on sportier bicycles) but I’m sure there are others I haven’t though of.

    Cheers from the North Country,

  4. Hi Alfred,

    Great suggestions for additional gear to carry on a ride. I too usually carry a tube, and always regret it when I don’t! Indeed, weather does play a significant role in a number of bicycle commuting issues.

    I live in the desert, so while I don’t have to worry about using fenders and studded tires quite so much, I do have to worry about heat and dehydration. I have to plan my commute at certain times of the day and carry plenty of fluids for long commutes. So yes, weather is a HUGE factor!

    Thanks so much for your comment. We hope to hear from you again.


  5. Tinker says:

    Another thing to acquire either used or new is a repair manual, preferable with good clear instructions as welll as plentiful picture or illustrations. At least you need to be able to change a tire and repair a tube with the tools you carry with you.

    A chain case or cover is a minor detail for a Commuter bike, but since I just got a bike with the requisite chain case, it will help the running gear of the bike last longer.

    Getting road grit and grime on your bottom bracket, front sprocket or chain wheel (the bigger thing with teeth on it, and a chain rotating around it) can also wear out expensive parts quicker without protection even post-rain.

    Clean and lube your CHAIN!

    It’s nice to be beyond help with weight on the bike, my bike in its basic state weighs 45 pounds, so there is very little that will help it enough to make a difference. (Yes fenders and a chin case add some weight but not so much as that. The bike frame is massively sturdy. (Not I expect to add a plastic milk crate in the next week, and bungee net to cover the crate, some ROKStraps to tie things onto the crate and rear rack. It WILL get heavier.

  6. Hi Tinker,

    Thanks for the comment. Those are all great suggestions, indeed. It’s important to keep your bike relatively clean for your sanity in many cases, especially when you keep getting chain grease on your work clothes as is often my case. 🙂

    A repair manual is often a nice addition if one is mechanically inclined or simply wants to learn more about the workings of a bicycle.

    Good luck with your bike’s new additions!

  7. I keep a “wedge” bag under my saddle with 2 tubes, CO2 inflator, and a 5-in-one compact allen wrench, and some bicycle tire levers. I also hang my rear light on it. With drivers preoccupied with phoning/texting/etc. I’ve gotten to where I use flashing front and rear lights about every time I ride.

  8. Hi Beginner Cycling,

    I agree that bringing a saddle bag with the essentials for fixing and repairing issues like flats, etc. is a good idea. Lights are also definitely an essential item for safety and legality. Thanks for the comment!

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