I've been using a bike commuting to and from work since
1986, with the exception of a 2 year period where I worked in downtown
Boston and used the train instead. I ride year round, although I do
tend to telecommute during really bad snowstorms. Riding my bike to
and from work allows me to get a couple of good hours of exercise
a day, keeping me in good shape and allowing me to eat everything
in sight year round. I typically get about 5,000 miles a year just
from commuting. The time spent commuting by bike is often less than
half an hour longer than I would spend if using a car, and sometimes,
depending on traffic, about the same! I get a lot of thinking and
designing done while riding back and forth to work. It is simply amazing
how many times I figure out how to solve a bug on the way home. I
am also usually able to decompress quite well while riding home, so
it is usually a good stress reducer (unless some driver cuts me off
close to home). Commuting allows me to test out lights, clothing and
equipment I'll be using on brevets. And finally it reduces wear and
tear on the car, since I almost never use it.
Job selection can be very important in making bike
commuting feasible. For me the ability to commute by bike is a high
priority, so it's one of the things I consider when looking at a
new job. Is it within a good range? Is it accessible? Do they have
showers? Do they have a secure place to park the bike? The ideal
company for me is about 12 miles from home, is reachable by a lovely
quiet route, has showers and lets me park the bike inside (preferably
in my large window office). Of course I also look for stable financials,
challenging work in my field (Java GUI), and nice people, but the
bike commuting aspect is one of my top priorities.
Showers in the building are great. A nearby health club works well
too. If you can't get either of these, you can actually clean up
quite well with wet towelettes or skin astringent. I use a deodorant
crystal which works better than any conventional deodorant I've
I also keep a good supply of toiletries (shampoo, soap, etc.),
as well as comb and hairdryer at work. I also have a couple pairs
of shoes, a jacket, and umbrella in the office all the time. I also
tend to keep a pair of shorts and long pants there, bringing in
fresh ones once a week. I also bring in a fresh towel weekly. I've
been lucky with most of my jobs in that the shower facilities have
a place to leave a towel to dry. I now have heated towel rail for
hanging my clothes. 95% of the time, it is switched off, but if
I do get soaked riding in, I plug it in, and my clothes are dry
by the evening commute. In the old days big CRT monitors were a
great way to dry wet gloves. Flat panels just don't cut it!
While other folks have drawers full of files, I usually end up
with one drawer with spare clothing and toiletries, etc.
For my line of work, I am able to wear casual clothes, but I do
occasionally dress up. I have been known to keep a suit in the office,
and use nearby dry cleaning facilities.
I prefer indoor secure parking, but have used outdoor lockers and
even bike racks. I've worked a few places where I brought my bike
into my office or cubicle, some with special places or locked rooms,
one with bike lockers, and a few where I've had to lock the bike
up outside. John and I worked in one building that did not allow
bikes inside. For a while they let us use a small room off the loading
dock. Eventually one of the companies bought lockers, which were
installed in the parking lot.
In addition to looking at showers and parking facilities, there
is the important issue of the route. Is the place accessible,
within a reasonable distance, without having to be on too many
busy roads? I've had commutes ranging from 4 to 17 miles. 4 is
actually too short for me. It takes longer to get dressed than
ride there, but you can stretch the distance and it is nice when
the weather is awful. 17 is on the long side, but does help keep
me in good shape. We have a good series of bike maps in Massachusetts.
And when researching a new job, one of the first things I do is
pull out those maps and try to find a good route.
There are a couple of different factors that affect choice of bike.
Parking, distance and weather are the primary ones for me. For many
years I lived and worked in the suburbs. The commute was long and
rural. A major mechanical problem could leave me with a potentially
very long, very cold walk, with no easy alternatives. With a secure
place to leave the bike, I can use a higher end machine with an
emphasis on reliability.
My winter commuter is a fixed gear. Eliminating derailleurs
(and cassettes or freewheels) reduces maintenance significantly
as well as eliminating issues with frozen cables which turn a multi-speed
bike into a single speed anyway. If you start out fixed, you at
least get to select which gear you want. Single speed also offers
simplicity, but a fixed gear takes advantage of momentum and I find
it easier for climbing on a fixed gear thanks to the flywheel effect.
a while when I first started riding fixed gear, I was a bit nervous
about descents and just getting used to never coasting. I have a
flip flop hub and put a single speed freewheel on one side and fixed
cog on the other. I tried both, and really found the effect of fixed
when climbing was as if I actually had a lower gear. The wheel propels
your feet, while your feet propel the wheel, almost pushing you
up hills! On descents, I just got used to spinning and use the brakes
when I'm uncomfortable. I don't have that freewheel installed anymore.
I do have a 16 tooth cog on one side and 17 tooth cog on the other
(with a 42 tooth chainwheel) . I can use the lower gear with my
studded tire or on hillier routes, and the higher on a flatter route
or if I feel frisky. To be honest, I rarely flip the wheel, using
the 17 most of the time.
The theory also goes that one should have more control on icy roads
with a fixed gear. I've been riding fixed for about 10 years now,
and am pretty comfortable with it. I was a bit intimidated at first,
but it did not take long at all to get used to it. As I said above,
it is not the same as a single speed, so experimenting with riding
in one gear and not coasting won't give you a feel for what it's
like. If you have never tried one, try to find one to borrow, or
just dive in and build one up. Sheldon
Brown is one of the best resources for info on fixed gear bikes.
A bike with long horizontal dropouts will work well. The growing
popularity of cyclocross in the US is making it easier to find inexpensive
bikes with good clearances. My winter commuter is exactly that -
a cross frame with horizontal dropouts. In recently years, fixed
and single speed bikes have become hip and trendy and inexpensive.
The one caution is many come with track ends - rear facing dropouts,
which don't work well with fenders. If you want to use fenders with
SS or fixed, try to find a frame with horizontal dropouts or an
eccentric bottom bracket or consider a chain tensioner.
Speaking of fenders and clearance: Fenders are pretty important
on a commuting bike around here at least. I ride in all weather,
and want to stay relatively dry. While I can tolerate an hour of
being wet, trying to get the clothes to dry during the day before
heading home at night can be tough, and there is nothing more unpleasant
than putting back on wet clothes for a cold ride home. But fenders
aren't just good for when it's raining. When they really are noticeable
is on that nice sunny day in the spring. Folks are itching to get
out and ride. The sun is shining and snow is melting and running
across the road. Sand and salt are everywhere, and fenderless riders
have a strip up their backsides of mud, sand and salt. But those
with fenders are clean and dry!
In addition to clearance for fenders I want room for a fatter tire.
My commute route always has a few potholes. I am also riding home
after dark. Even with the best lights and memorizing where every
hole is on the way home, I want the extra protection and comfort
of a fatter tire. I don't like fixing flats on the way in or out,
and I hate replacing dinged rims even more. Again this is where
a cross bike really shines as a commuter, with all that extra fat
also mentioned that I use a studded tire in the winter. That snow
melt during the day freezes once the sun goes down, and can make
the ride home a bit dodgy. Studded tires can make all the difference
in the world getting through black ice upright. I just use one on
the front. If you hit ice with the front wheel, it usually turns
and you are almost guaranteed of going down. A rear wheel slip is
usually just a matter of traction, rather than steering, and it
is easier to recover. When conditions are bad enough to warrant
two studded tires, I telecommute. For me it really is more for the
occasional spot of black ice.
John has used both front and rear studded tires. For one job, he
took a road that didn't see much snow plow traffic and two were
a lot more important for him Nokian
and Schwalbe make studded tires in 700C and 26 inch sizes, with
different models for road, offroad and deep snow use.
Studded tires do add a lot of resistance. On the other hand, they
make you a lot stronger and when you go back to regular tires in
the spring, you will fly!
For additional tips on winter riding (and clothing), see my winter
As the weather gets nicer in the spring, I tend to switch over
to using my brevet bike for commuting.
It has lights, fenders and racks and works well for commuting and
long overnight unsupported rides. By using it for commuting, I can
also test out new stuff and be sure everything is mounted securely.
It is amazing how many of the things I want in a brevet bike, I
also want in a commute bike, so rather than repeating that article,
just click here.
leaving the bike unattended at a train station, or outside an office
in the city I would look for something that doesn't stand out, or
invite thieves. 700C bikes with drop bars tend to be less inviting
to thieves than mountain bikes. But it often depends how sophisticated
the thief is. Since I have not had a commute where I had to do this,
I will try to refrain from offering advice for which I have no experience!
Lights for commuting and brevets also have a lot in common, and
I use the same for both. Check out the article on lights.
To carry my gear in and out, I use either a Carradice
Saddlebag or an Ortlieb
pannier. The pannier is good for situations where I leave the
bike in a remote spot, outside, a bike locker, or a closet off
a loading dock. I can easily remove the pannier and take all my
stuff with me. Ortliebs are waterproof, so they keep my work clothes
and anything else I'm carrying in and out (palm pilot, documents,
The Carradice works well if I don't need to remove the bag (bike
parked in my office). Carradice Bags are also waterproof, although
you can't submerge them in a river, like an Ortlieb bag. They
come in a variety of sizes and many have an expansion flap, which
comes in handy for that occasional oversized load. If using a
bike without a rear rack, a Carradice works quite well with a
Like bikes, there are many different approaches to
clothing. Again, because my commute tends to be long, I tend to
value warm, dry clothing. The winter
tips article has loads of advice on dressing for winter.
As I mentioned above, I have a drying rack to hang out
my damp clothes during the day. There is nothing worse than putting
on clammy damp clothing for a ride home. For that reason, clothing
that dries easily and doesn't retain odor is a good idea. Wool works
quite well for this.
I do use cycling shoes, but go for the walkable variety.
But then I use walkable shoes for all my riding.
Some of the hazards I have encountered, aside from
the obvious traffic issues, are:
Coworkers will think I am nuts, but some do have an
appreciation and admiration.
Ice and new and growing potholes are the biggest winter
In the spring, it's sprinklers. I'll be riding along
perfectly dry, when suddenly as I am passing a pristine lawn, their
automatic sprinkler system, which is invariably set to water the
pavement will come on, and soak me!
Summer hazards are usually lots of other cyclists
out for the pleasant weather.
In the fall, danger comes from squirrels and acorns.
Squirrels are running around like mad, shaking trees, knocking acorns
loose, which bounce off my helmet, while the squirrels try to dash
Despite all these hazards, I do love riding in and
out of work, and highly recommend it.