Some of us start bike commuting because traffic’s too bad or transit’s too unreliable.
Others pick it up to build more exercise in daily life. After all, that really is the “secret” to lifelong fitness.
Still others are seeking a fun way to get from A to B, to save money, or just to try something new.
Whatever your motivation, it’s easy to get started.
But as a new bike commuter or urban cyclist, there are a few common pitfalls to watch for.
- Buying too much equipment, too soon
- Not gearing up for convenience
- Improvising your route
- Leaving too little time to freshen up
- Getting pressed for time
- Not planning how to store your bike
- Trusting in right-of-way in traffic
Most of these apply not just to commuting, but to all sorts of day-to-day urban cycling.
Commuting by bike really is a different matter from road and mountain biking. Fitness and technical skill are relatively unimportant, but all sorts of practical matters take precedence.
Read on to learn what mistakes new commuters make, and you can avoid them.
For those who prefer video, here’s the YouTube version, as well:
Buying Too Much Equipment, Too Soon
Most of us enjoy learning about and looking for new outdoors gear. It’s simply fun, and that’s all right!
But it creates a lot of temptation to go all-in on equipment for your new bike commute. And that’s a problem for two reasons.
First, it may not be for you. You might be reasonably skeptical about the whole endeavor, or there might be challenges you just couldn’t have seen coming.
Second, it’s almost certain that you’ll understand your needs better with time. What seems critical on day one might prove unimportant. Conversely, what didn’t cross your mind on day one may end up critically important!
Either way, don’t drop a huge wad of cash right off the bat. I hope articles like this will help, but ultimately, experience will guide your gear selection.
Not Gearing Up For Convenience
Again, you shouldn’t run up a credit card bill to outfit yourself right off the bat.
But most commuters and city cyclists do need a handful of key things.
A bicycle rack and basket/pannier are essential for carrying your daily load.
The simple Planet Bike Eco Rack (Amazon) is cheap, fairly light, and has carried my laptop for years. It should accommodate most readily available panniers.
If you’d rather go the basket route, then Wald (Amazon) has a handful of inexpensive and sturdy options.
You’ll also want fenders in almost any climate. Even when it’s dry, cities are full of spills and drainage and other things than I don’t want spraying up my back.
I’ve used the Planet Bike Cascadia (Amazon) and SKS Longboard (Amazon) models on several bikes. They’re a decent value and quite durable. Sizing isn’t always obvious, since it’s based on tire size but not exactly the same. Talk to any local bike shop to a) confirm sizing and b) make sure they’ll be easy to mount.
Finally, you’ll need front and rear lights. They obviously help you see at night, but they also make you much more visible during the day. Cygolite sells a great pair of rechargeable front and rear lights (Amazon). They mount universally, and even their older versions served me well for years.
As for clothing, it totally depends on your bike, riding distance, and pace.
Cruising three miles on an upright city bike is just fine in jeans and a button-up shirt.
But more forward-leaning posture, longer distances, or higher speeds will demand more athletic clothing. No need for full-on Lycra, but some general “athleisure” or golf attire should suffice. Check out brands like Lululemon (men + women) and Outlier (men) for office-friendly ideas. They’re also great for travel!
Rain clothing doesn’t have to be complicated, either, so start with the options I’ve laid out here.
There’s plenty more you can buy later. If nothing else, the cycling industry has given us plenty to choose from!
But first, wait and see what problems arise (if any).
And if it does seem like you need a whole pile of accessories and modifications, then consider a separate, dedicated city bike. Surprisingly, that can end up more enjoyable and more cost-effective than trying to turn a different style of bike into something it wasn’t meant to be.
(If that’s your case, then read the guides I’ve linked to at the very bottom of this page.)
Improvising Your Route
What seems reasonable from a car or transit can be alarmingly busy, hectic, and intimidating on a bicycle.
Some of us are fortunate enough to live and work along separated bike lanes and paths. But the rest of us should take a weekend “recon” trip to check out options.
Most importantly, don’t default to the shortest route. When you’re running on human power, it’s tempting to minimize mileage.
But the most direct route may be a mix of high-speed highways and huge, dangerous intersections. That environment leads most of us to think, “why bother?”…and rightly so.
In many cases, you can find side streets that add a mile or two but remove most of the traffic and the terrifying crossings. They’re just not obvious in areas you haven’t biked before.
That’s why a little route planning goes a long way.
Leaving Too Little Time To Freshen Up
Speaking of budgeting time, it’s worth allowing a few minutes to freshen up.
I don’t recommend riding hard enough to need a shower. That’s just fine for recreation, but for everyday purposes, it makes it hard to incorporate cycling into normal life. For instance, it’s no big deal to walk half a mile to the grocery store and back, but you probably wouldn’t sprint there!
With that in mind, just a baby wipe from head to toe should leave you fresh enough. Use your own judgment (and nose!), of course, but the key is a quick and simple process that avoids a complete change of clothes.
Getting Pressed For Time
Racing the clock turns fun things into stressful things.
Part of the magic of biking is enjoy the fresh air, the feeling of gliding along, the gentle exercise, and so on.
But when you embark on a bike commute in a hurry, it’s too easy to fixate on the nuisances. Things like steep hills, rain, or long red lights are really just part of life, but running late turns them into disproportionate irritations.
If arriving at a specific time is important, then budget just 5 extra minutes beyond what the ride normally takes. Even that trivial time-cushion can keep the commute relaxed and enjoyable.
Worst case? You get there early!
What’s more, when you avoid a frantic pace, you’ll generally sweat less and spend less time freshening up.
Not Planning How To Store Your Bike
It’s easy to see bike racks near the workplace, and check a mental box saying, “yep, I’m covered.”
But what if they’re exposed to heavy rain? What if they’re always overflowing by the time you arrive? What if they’re too rickety or broken to trust?
Just because bike racks exist doesn’t mean they’ll work for you.
So take a closer look at your workplace’s bike racks before actually commuting.
If racks are inadequate, you might convince the powers-that-be to add/improve them or even let you store your bike in a secured indoor area.
(And it goes without that it’s worth buying a good lock. Kryptonite U-locks are common and sturdy, but there are many fancier options if you’re so inclined.)
Trusting Your Right-Of-Way In Traffic
Finally, I’d be remiss not to throw in this critical safety matter.
There’s nothing like a wreck to, well, wreck your commute.
I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s literally a matter of life and death.
In most places, bike infrastructure is a nice idea but affords little meaningful protection or separation. Intersections are usually the most dangerous points.
Readers in some countries might be amazed to hear this, but you just can’t trust that drivers will respect your right-of-way.
Now, many do. In most places, the vast majority do. But it only takes one exception to cause disaster. If just one driver in a hundred is careless, but you cross paths with hundreds each day, then the math doesn’t look good.
As I’m fond of saying around here, you’ve got to assume nobody sees you in the first place. So take the right-of-way when it’s clear, of course. But no matter what the law says, don’t take it for granted.
Cycling to work and other everyday destinations is a beautifully simple thing.
But that doesn’t mean the details are obvious.
As we’ve seen, a few common mistakes can make it unnecessarily hard to have a pleasant and safe ride.
But the good news is that a little extra attentiveness to the right things will make commuting a great experience. So use this article as a starting point, and defer to your own experience as you go.
Most of all, stay active and stay safe!