Cycling to work has, in our opinion, always been a fantastic way to stay healthy, save money and look after the planet. But with social distancing in force across the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic, cycling for transport looks set for a major boost.
In May 2020 the UK’s transport secretary Grant Schapps laid out government plans for ‘a new era for cycling and walking’, pledging £2bn worth of investment.
Maybe you’re considering cycling to work for the first time, or maybe you haven’t ridden a bike since you were a child. The old adage ‘you never forget how to ride a bike’ almost always holds true.
Even if you’ve never ridden a bike before, learning how to do so is easier than you think.
In reality, cycling to work is usually cheaper, more fun and often quicker than other forms of transport. There will be moments when not everything goes as planned, but, like with anything, preparation is the key to success.
These are our top tips for cycling to work, gleaned from years of collective experience.
Once you get into the habit, you’ll learn all the tricks and become a hardened bicycle commuter in no time. We genuinely don’t know many people who have decided to go back to commuting by car or public transport after trying cycling to work.
Safety check your bike
If you’ve already got a bike, the very first thing you should do before you try to ride it is give it a safety check.
Bikes built for general transport and commuter use are usually quite robust, but there are still a few parts that can wear out or degrade over time if the bike has just been sat in your garage.
Even if your bike is brand new, it still makes sense to double-check that everything has been correctly set up, especially if you bought it online. Better safe than sorry.
We’ve published a detailed guide to safety checking your bike and we would highly encourage you to read it.
Plan ahead and practice the route
Planning ahead and riding your route in advance is a great way to ease any stress on your first day commuting by bike.
There are plenty of good cycling apps and route mapping tools such as Komoot and Ride with GPS, but apps such as Google Maps can also work well too – just remember to change your transport mode from car to bike. Doing so enables it to work out a quieter, safer route.
The National Cycle Network and Transport for London both have route planning capabilities too, and will indicate the quieter routes you can take if you want to avoid busy roads.
We’d usually suggest opting for a longer route on quieter roads, over a more direct route on busy ones. You want to make the journey as easy as possible.
Once you think you’ve got the best route planned, it’s always worth having a practice run on a quiet day (usually a weekend). This gives you a chance to double-check everything with less pressure from traffic and means you won’t have to worry about directions on your first proper go at it.
Give yourself time
If you regularly get stuck in traffic jams or have had to wait for delayed public transport on your commute, you’ll probably find cycling to work is quicker. It’s still sensible to give yourself plenty of time to cruise in at a relaxed pace, though.
If you leave too little time there’ll be the temptation to sprint into work. While it might be good for your fitness, you’ll arrive at the office a sweaty mess with your heart rate through the roof. It’s also arguably more dangerous.
No matter how good a bike rider you are, you want to give yourself plenty of time and space to react to other road users. The most important thing is to arrive at the office in one piece.
It probably goes without saying, but don’t be tempted to jump red lights or break the Highway Code, even if you’re in a rush.
Communicate with drivers
While we’d generally advise using segregated cycle lanes for commuting wherever possible (they make for a refreshingly stress-free experience when done properly), most cyclists will have to take to the road at some point.
Communicating with drivers using clear hand signals and lots of eye contact is vital. If you can’t make eye contact with a driver, it’s safer to assume they haven’t seen you and proceed accordingly.
Likewise, don’t forget to say thanks and give a wave to other road users that give way to you or give you plenty of room. It goes a long way to reinforcing good behaviour.
If you do have any trouble with another road user, our readers agreed the best thing you can do (assuming you’re okay) is to stay calm, take a deep breath and let it go. If you don’t, you’ll almost certainly get into a pointless argument with someone who has no intention of listening to you. Trust us, it’s just not worth it.
Be sensible around traffic
Though you have as much right to space as any other road user, be sensible and don’t forget you are more vulnerable on a bike than someone in a car.
Assume car doors will open and keep a good distance between yourself and parked cars.
Likewise, don’t ride in the gutter right next to the curb. It’s usually littered with potholes, debris and other horrible stuff that could cause a puncture or a crash. It can also encourage drivers to attempt unsafe overtaking manoeuvres.
Filtering through traffic is fine as long as it’s safe to do so, but be wary of putting yourself in drivers’ blindspots. Where possible, you should overtake on the driver’s side, but if you have to filter on the inside of a vehicle watch out for side roads and turns.
If you’re in a driver’s blindspot they may not see you and could turn across you without warning. The safest thing to do is to not put yourself in that situation to begin with.
It’s also vital you take particular care around lorries, trucks, buses and vans. These vehicles often have significant blind spots, so you should never filter up the inside of them or get too close. Even if traffic is stationary, be patient and don’t take any risks.
Don’t forget your lights
The laws surrounding bicycle lights in the UK can be a little confusing at first, but the main thing you need to know is it’s illegal (and dangerous) to cycle on a public road after dark without lights and reflectors.
Running lights in the daytime can also help you stay seen and stay safe. It can make a big difference to how visible you are on dark, dreary days during the winter months, too.
If your lights take standard batteries, it’s advisable to carry spares. If you have rechargeable ones don’t forget to pack the charging equipment in your commuting bag so you can top them up at work, if necessary.
We’d also advise stashing a couple of small spare lights in your bag for emergency use, if possible. This set doesn’t have to break the bank, but you’ll be pleased you have it the day you or a colleague forgets lights and ends up staying late at the office/pub.
Get the right kit
You don’t need cycling-specific clothing to commute to work, but the weather won’t always be kind to you and when it rains you and everything outside get inconveniently wet.
Mudguards (or fenders, if you don’t live in the UK) are one upgrade that we wish came stock on every bike sold for commuter purposes. A good set will mean you can wave goodbye to wet feet and a wet back forever more.
A handlebar-mounted bell will enable you to communicate your presence with pedestrians and other road users as well.
We would advise practicing these things at home in advance. Don’t be afraid to flag down a fellow cyclist if you get stuck, though – they’ll almost certainly be happy to help.
When is it time for a new bike?
If you already have a bike of any sort that’s in serviceable condition, then you’re probably good for a while. If you don’t, or your commute is particularly long and arduous, then you may need to consider buying a bike.
Dedicated commuters might also look at buying a new bike specifically for the task, rather than pressing an old bike into service, for example. You can get the new one kitted out with all the right stuff and there’s nothing quite like ‘new bike day’.
The type of bike you need will depend largely on the type of terrain you’ll be riding; is it flat or hilly? On or off-road? etc. Don’t simply assume you need a road bike just because you’ll be riding on the road. More often than not, most ‘road bikes’ should actually be called ‘road racing bikes’, and aren’t always equipped for the demands of commuting.
For all-round capability, it’s difficult to beat a hybrid bike because they’re just so versatile.
If you live in a hilly area, want to carry heavy loads or just fancy a little assistance, then an ebike could be ideal.
The amount of choice available can be overwhelming, so make sure to check out our buyer’s guide to commuter bikes: What’s the best bike for commuting?
In the UK, working adults aged 16 and over can also use the Cycle to Work scheme to save up to 42 per cent off the cost of a brand-new bike. The Department of Transport also helpfully clarified that the £1,000 limit can be avoided providing certain requirements are met.