Your guide to commuting
By Cass Gilbert |
Monday, June 16, 2008 8.00am
Commuting by bike may start as a practical solution to a daily necessity but it can become one of the most enjoyable elements of your working routine.
Why commute by bike?
Cycling to work offers a whole assortment of benefits straight from the box, and a host of long term ones besides.
For a start, it’s purposeful. Forget expensive gym memberships – commuting keeps you fit and gets you places. In the fast-food, pre-packaged world we live in, there’s nothing like it to keep healthy and active. What’s more, it’s free. You’ll save cash on fuel and train tickets, and should recoup the cost of a bike and maintenance within a year.
It offers stress relief from day to day life; a chance to be outside, feel the elements and escape the confines of indoor existence. Plus, you know where you stand. Trains are late, cars sit in traffic. A journey by bike always takes about the same time.
By playing an important part in reducing CO2 emissions, it helps appease your environmental conscience too. Lastly, cycling to work simply equates to more riding – which has got to be a good thing in anyone’s book.
Begin by figuring out your route to work. We’d recommend taking time to map out at least two or three options, as varying the ride will keep you interested – one direct ride for when you’ve overslept, and one with more variety for when you have time on your hands. Use it as a chance to unearth your city’s lesser-known back roads – dive down alleyways, under overpasses, along quiet backstreets.
Bikely.com is the perfect place to map your route – use the maps to find the right road for you [quiet country lanes or main roads for the most direct route] then plot your route from home to work. You may be lucky and someone may have already plotted the commute.
Over the summer, you can always extend the ride home; unwind with a sunset or add to your training with a few extra hills!
Of course, you’ll need a tool for the job. A glance up and down the roads reveals a rich tapestry of bikes used for commuting. You can spend a small fortune and pimp your ride, play it low key and blend into the urban landscape, or simply convert your own time-tested bike into your ultimate commuting machine. While any two wheels will get you from A to B, some are more suited than others, and still double up for alternative uses too. Indeed, it’s a wide genetic pool, drawing from mountain bikes, road bikes, flat-barred road bikes, cyclocrossers, 29’ers, tourers, hybrids, hub gears, fixed gears and folders.
With such a bewildering choice, this guide aims to match you with the right bike, and provide you with some ideas on how to get started if you’re new to it all.
Here are the considerations that will help you figure out what bike is best for you and your type of commuting.
Bikes for distance
Is your ride to work a short shuttle across town that’s less than five miles, or a fitness commute that’s as much as twenty? The length of travel plays a deciding role in what bike is best suited to the job. At the one end of the scale, a whippet road bike (Specialized Allez) or audax machine (Quest Winter Trainer) is best at devouring epic commutes with the minimum of effort. At the other end of the scale, city folders (Mezzo d9) are suited to short stints nipping between traffic, tucking away neatly under railway seats even in the height of rush hour. Mountain bikes (Trek 4300) are also ideal for shorter journeys, with their quick handling, more upright position and wider, comfort tyres. Flat-barred bikes (Ridgeback Genesis) and slicked up mountain bikes (Ridgeback Storm) fall in between.
Are you a speedster who revels in an adrenalin-packed dash to work, or is your style more laid back? Road bikes provide maximum speed, added training for club races and the challenge to improve your personal best to work. Fixed bikes, in the right hands, are just as fast and certainly bring a relaxed flow to your ride. Audax bikes are better all-rounders, with more room for practical touches like wider winter tyres and mudguards, and slower handling for indicating in traffic. Flat-barred road bikes are a worthy compromise for many, offering a good turn of speed, a commanding riding position for nosing your way through traffic, and excellent braking – some even have disc brakes. Mountain bikes are one notch down, though they’re quick handling and you can rev them up with a set of slicks.
Maintenance free rides
Are you a natural bike fettler or do you just want to sit back and ride? There are two paths to take for the ultimate in faff-free riding: hub gears and singlespeeds/fixed wheels. Hub gears (Shimano, Sram and Sturmey Archer) offer a range of gears suited to city terrain, and the promise of easy maintenance – see the Giant Escape N7. If you want ultimate reliability and a broader gear range, they don’t get any better than Rohloff’s 14-speed hub – see Thorn’s Raven for an excellent example. The other option is to go ultra minimal and shed the trappings of gears, opting for a singlespeed or fixed. There’s been a real growth recently, from budget offerings (Il Pompino) to evolved 26in fixed machines (Condor Fisso).
For a slightly larger gear range you could use one single chainring and a rear cassette, such as on Trek’s Soho. Bikes with mechanical disc brakes (Kona Dew Deluxe) are heavier but mean more life out of your wheel rims, provide all-weather stopping power and are still easy to maintain.
Coping with the terrain
What kind of terrain do you encounter on your commute? A typical ride to work may range from rough canal paths and potholed city streets, to smooth cycle lanes and A-roads. 26in wheels are inherently stronger and happier dropping off curbs – fitted with wider tyres, they should survive all your city abuse. Well-built 700c wheels are fine too – we’d recommend a tyre width of at least 25c to help cushion the ride, as few commutes are as smooth as you’d like them. If you’re dipping onto cycle paths, chances are you’ll need a tyre that’s at least 28c or more, or 26x1.5. 36-spoke hubs (Shimano Deore and 105 are well sealed) laced with double eyeleted rims to give maximum durability.
Folders and multi-modal transport
If you live too far to cycle, mixing bikes and trains, or even bikes and cars, or bikes and buses is another option. There are few restrictions for small-wheeled folders, even on rush hour trains. They’ll fit in your office – no worries locking them up outside – or tuck away nicely in a flat. They don’t handle quite like conventional bikes, but are surprisingly nimble and most are absolutely fine for short rides. There is a wide variety of folders on the market, but the most compact ones, which tend to have 16in wheels, fold quickest and neatest. Class leaders include the classic Brompton, the zany Mezzo and the uber-stylish Birdy. For a rundown of folders, see www.atob.org.uk/why_fold.html, the Folding Society and Bath-based Avon Valley Cyclery. There are even electric folders, such as the Panasonic Will.
If you live further away from the train station and there are bike restrictions at the time you travel, you can ride there, lock up your bike, and train to work. A cheap, second-hand ‘station hack bike’ will complete your journey at the other end.
Converting your bike
If you’re on a budget, convert your main bike into a commuting machine with a few tweaks, or pick up something cheap from the classifieds. A good set of puncture proof slick tyres will save you lots of hassles. If you run 26in wheels, we recommend Specialized All Condition Pro ATB for fast riding, and hefty but impregnable Schwalbe Marathon Plus for more guaranteed puncture protection. Likewise, Schwalbe Marathons are a great 700c all-weather rubber, while Continental’s Ultra Gatorskins suit a bike with narrower clearances. In the winter, fit a set of mudguards – they’ll protect you and your bike from cold, wet spray, corrosive salt and grime. SKS’s full-length Chromoplastic mudguards are the best on the market but if you don’t have mounting points, SKS’s Raceblades will do the trick on a road bike, or Crud Catchers on a mountain bike. Adjust the handlebar height for optimum visibility, which may mean buying a new stem.
Singlespeeds and fixies are really cheap to build. Either buy yourself an old frame with horizontal dropouts or use On One’s converter kit (£9.99) and a chain tensioner, like an On One Doofer (£9.99) or an old mech. Answers to most of your questions are at www.fixieFAQs.org.uk. Likewise, hub gears can also be retrofitted.
Advice for the newbie
Perhaps you’ve been that last person to squeeze onto an overcrowded tube, or simmered in one traffic jam too many, only to see someone shoot by on their bike and think, ‘Well shiver me timbers. If that’s not the transport solution, what is?!”
If your local area is not blessed with such integrated, ubiquitous city cycleways as Holland and Germany, there are probably plenty of back roads to ensure an all but traffic-free route to work. If you need some confidence, practise the route at the weekend when it’s quieter. Allow yourself plenty of time – you can build up fitness and speed as you go, and start out by riding in a couple of times a week. Make sure your bike is in good working order and you have a proper set of lights. Eat an energy rich breakfast and lunch – or you’ll feel tired by the end of the week. Depending on the length of your ride, carry some snacks or mix up an isotonic drink (a home-made version is half and half of fruit juice and water with a pinch of salt) – and make sure you drink it. Lastly, learn how to fix a puncture.
Your workplace might be very cycling friendly with bike parking, lockers and showers. Or it might be that you’re the only cycle commuter, reduced to shoving your bike in a hallway and applying some extra deodorant – if that’s the case, lobby for better facilities and try to encourage others to bike too. With the right setup and a bit of planning, there’s no reason why you can’t commute wearing proper cycling clothing, carrying very little baggage and still pull off a shirt and tie/skirt and heels combo for meetings. Many people find it’s easiest to drive or ride the train one or two days a week, and restock with enough ‘work’ wear to keep you going.
If your commute is particularly short you might get away with normal clothes on the bike. Use ankle bands to keep trousers out of the chain – or fit a chainguard.
The ideal clothing should keep you dry, comfortable and visible, and stand up to daily use. The basic layering system works in three parts: light wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer, and wind or waterproof outer layer. Keep your extremities covered too, and adjust what you wear based on the conditions outside.
One of our favourite base layers is Howie’s NBL, which is light, wicking and made from Merino wool – so it resists odours far better than synthetic fabrics. In the summer, a wicking jersey might be all you need. Your mid-, or insulating layer can be as minimal as a long-sleeve top, or as much as a warm fleece, depending on the temperature. As with any layer in a performance system, steer clear of cotton – it gets soggy, cold and takes ages to dry. Knee, leg and arm warmers (Lusso) are a great way to extend your summer wardrobe and cover up exposed joints.
Waterproofs don’t have to be expensive – look out for models designed for city use. Endura’s Laser comes in high vis’ yellow and features a light loop and lots of reflectors. Altura’s Night Vision jacket is durable and also offers great visibility. Overtrousers may be too hot for fast commuting, but are useful round the city in a downpour.
If your commute is long, you might want a pair of dedicated cycling shoes. Many of us rate mountain bike shoes because of their stiffness and walkable tread. If you’ve got a shorter commute and don’t want to swap shoes, try leisure shoes such as Shimano’s MT30 or Specialized’s Sonoma 2s for men and women. Feet are particularly prone to catching cold in the wet; Gore’s City overshoes in waterproof Gore-Tex fit easily over most shoes and have a reflective logo. Or use waterproof socks like SealSkinz’ Mid Light – some people even like them with SPD sandals in the pouring rain…
Helmet usage is not compulsory but it is shown to reduce head injuries in some cases. If you choose to wear a helmet make sure you get the right size, and it’s correctly adjusted to stay put in the proper position. If you’re a fast commuter, clear lenses like the M:Vision Shields help guard against rain, flying critters and bloodshot eyes on windy rides – unless you want to arrive at the office looking like you’ve been on an all-nighter.
Try to check over you bike once a week, as commuting can be hard on kit. Get a floor pump for home; keeping your tyres at the right pressure means less rolling resistance and extends their life. Pay extra attention to brakes. Wipe down the rims and pads of grit so they last longer. Be sure to keep your drivetrain clean and use a suitable heavy-duty lube (Finish Line Cross Country).
Check your tyres for bits of broken glass that might try to worm their way in. For the minimum maintenance, go fixed or hub geared.
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