Whether you fantasize about being an urbane European cruising along a canal, or just want to save a few bucks on gas, cycling can be an enriching and healthful part of life.
Here in the US, though, it’s rarely our default. That can make it tricky to find answers on how to live a bike-based life.
Weekend fun? No problem.
Shopping and commuting and visiting friends? Now that is surprisingly rare in most cities.
Now, like any lifestyle matter, there are as many good ideas and opinions as there are individuals.
All the same, a few tips come in handy. Here are my top recommendations for new city cyclist:
- Slow your roll
- Take a break from the race bike
- Plan your routes in advance
- Quick, regular maintenance goes a long way
- Two simple accessories can fix the rain problem
- For comfort and convenience, take the load off
- Assume you’re invisible
- Find moments for mindfulness and gratitude
Slow your roll
I know, I know. You’re thinking, “But biking is already so much slower! Why would I take it even easier yet?”
But here’s the thing.
Part of the charm and joy of cycling is stopping to smell the roses, or at least catching a whiff as you roll on by.
When you take a break from a pedal-to-the-metal pace, it gets easier to enjoy the everyday richness of simply being outdoors and moving under your own power.
After all, did anyone ever wish they’d hurried more through life?
As Gandhi wisely said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
That’s just as true for cycling.
Take a break from the race bike
Many sport cyclists dabble in practical riding–you know, errands and the like–only to find that their racing-style bikes…just aren’t that comfortable.
For one thing, it’s tough on the neck to look around from a deep bend. And riding comfortably in street clothes is almost out of the question.
And the accessories to carry stuff or block road spray don’t always play nicely with road bike design.
That’s fair enough. A race car driver wouldn’t take a track vehicle to the store, right?
It’s really the same principle with cycling. You’d do well to pick up an inexpensive, upright city bike for tootling around town.
But fair warning: the comfort and convenience of just hopping on might become addicting!
Plan your routes in advance
In most of the world, it’s practically impossible to find a network of bike lanes that is totally protected from traffic.
Some cities have installed them here and there, and it’s terrific progress. Unfortunately, even most of the good ones require mixing with cars at some point, if only in intersections.
You and I and practically everyone else get nervous riding around traffic. And that’s totally fair and rational.
However, it does make it important to plan a route that minimizes these interactions.
For instance, is there a dirt path or a series of quiet neighborhood streets that bypasses a congested boulevard? Or perhaps a few minutes’ detour that leads to a protected lane or shared-use path?
These aren’t always obvious if you’re in a new area or you don’t already cycle for transportation.
Even five or ten minutes exploring Google Maps can reveal more pleasant and safe routes that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Quick, regular maintenance goes a long way
Many of us keep a bicycle around for fair-weather outings.
One day, we get the urge to try it for a local errand, only to find flat tires, a rusty chain, or unpredictable shifting. That’s too much to deal with on the spur of the moment, so we put the idea aside and grab the car keys after all.
If that sounds familiar, then you will, of course, need one initial tune-up to get your bicycle in safe, working condition. From there, even rudimentary maintenance every month or two should do the trick.
Without a ready ride, it’s just not possible to hop on and go. That makes cycling feel like a big deal, not a natural or intuitive mode of transportation.
Any shop would be happy to check up on your bike regularly. However, a few minutes on YouTube, plus inexpensive tools like a pump and metric Allen wrenches, will set you up to take care of yourself.
Two simple accessories can fix the rain problem
Besides traffic, one of would-be cyclists’ main concerns is what to do about rain.
And they have a point. Rain dries out, and raincoats are easy to find, but what about that filthy spray from the road?
The simple answer is a pair of fenders and a chain guard.
For $50-$100, give or take, that combo will block the nasty road grime from your clothes and prevent the greasy chain from smearing and splattering your pants.
Look for the fullest, wrap-around coverage you can find, and feel free to check more than one shop or online retailer. There are a few good brands of both fenders and chain guards, but most shops stock just one or two, and may need to order them for you.
Note that it’s easier to install fenders on some bikes than others. It’s usually a piece of cake on anything sold as a “city,” “commuter,” or “touring” bike. For others, it may take some creativity. Tire and frame clearance can also be an issue, so if in doubt, ask your local bike shop for an opinion.
For comfort and convenience, take the load off
It’s all well and good to ride with a backpack. You almost certainly have one already, and starting with what you have is usually a wise move.
But when hauling more than a few pounds, they can get uncomfortable. Backpacks are also tricky with some larger items.
Backpacks also trap moisture against your back, which can leave you surprisingly sweaty after even a gentle ride.
The solution is to invest in a basic rack or basket. For as little as $20-$40 or so, these turn practical cycling into a far better experience.
As with fenders and chain guards, it might take some ingenuity to make a rack or basket work on certain bikes. It’s almost always possible, but best left to a pro if your bike lacks obvious attachment points.
Assume you’re invisible
Sadly, most of us live in places where cycling “infrastructure” amounts to little more than paint—not meaningful separation from auto traffic.
Infrastructure often forces conflicts between bikes’ and cars’ paths. Worse yet, few drivers are even accustomed to looking for cyclists, pedestrians, or anything else smaller than an automobile. To top it all off, city drivers often exceed the critical 30 mph threshold at which we cease noticing peripheral details.
If you have the good fortune of a low-stress bike route through town, it probably doesn’t end right at your office or storefront. Even if it did, there would still be intersections along the way.
The greatest safety tip you’ll ever hear–it has, literally, saved my life–is to assume you’re invisible.
Yes, you have lights. Yes, traffic might be minimal. Yes, you might even have high-visibility clothing.
But those factors alone aren’t enough.
Don’t place total faith in safety gear or circumstances. Instead, assume that no driver sees you unless, or until, their actions prove otherwise.
It’s not my favorite topic, but better to go in with eyes wide open.
Is it a little pessimistic? Sure. But this might be the one case where strategic pessimism actually saves lives. After all, I assume you want to have a life to make cycling a part of.
Find moments for mindfulness and gratitude
Bikes are fun and awesome and frugal and the most practical eco-friendly transportation ever devised.
And my safety note above is a bit heavy–albeit critical–so let’s end on something upbeat.
At some point in every bike trip, there’s at least a moment of tranquility and pure joy. It might be rolling along an empty stretch of pathway, or coasting down a hill in the sunshine, or stumbling across a pleasant route for the first time.
To me, it’s these moments, and not speed or technical feats, that make cycling downright addictive.
Coming full circle to the first point, slowing our pace lets us more freely and naturally immerse ourselves in these moments. That’s a truly great part of practical cycling.
This might take conscientious effort at first, but each trip becomes a chance for a breather from the perpetual time crunch of modern city life.
And that is something we all need.