Bicycle commuting | 9 MIN READ

Bicycle commuting tips for beginners

For awhile, commuting by bike was getting a pretty bad rep. In fact, at one point, bicycling started to see a consistent decline. However, in recent years, many communities have seen some significant changes to existing infrastructure, making commuting by bike safer than ever, at least in some places. While the addition or revitalization of bike lanes, paths, and safety features has made bike commuting a lot safer, there are personal safety precautions that you should take if you plan on riding your bike anywhere.

Prepare you and your bike for safety

One of the first ways to protect yourself is by ensuring you have the necessary safety apparel and accessories. You can never be too careful when it comes to your safety.

A helmet can save your life.

The most important safety accessory you could possibly own is a new bicycle helmet. While some items can be used secondhand, despite the wear and tear, a helmet is the one thing you simply cannot risk failing. In the event of an accident that sends you over your handlebars, knowing that the one thing protecting your head from the pavement is reliable and of high quality might be the only thing that brings you peace as you’re flying through the air for those few seconds. If you have any reason to believe that the materials with which your helmet is made might be compromised due to use, damage, or age, it’s time to buy a new helmet.

bicycle commuter in helmet

Make yourself seen and heard.

Because the vast majority of bicycle commuting accidents are a result of someone not paying attention, your road presence is crucial; the more visible you are to others, the less likely you are to end up in an accident.

Lights and bells are effective safety accessories to add to both your person and your bicycle. Having at least two lights is recommended - one white front light and one red rear light. (Depending on local ordinances, not equipping yourself with appropriate lighting could even land you with a fine). It never hurts to affix additional lights or reflective strips to your helmet and shirt or jacket, or to wear clothes with reflective properties or that are bright in nature. Studies suggest that fluorescent yellow-green is the most visible color one can wear during bright daylight hours. Because the typical human eye’s perspective of color changes as sunlight disappears and the night’s darkness sets in, fluorescent orange-red is a better choice for nighttime riding. If day and night riding are both part of your regular routine, having a shirt or jacket in both colors is the best way to go. If you have to choose just one, fluorescent yellow-green is the best overall choice. A neon colored safety vest is an easy solution if you can’t or prefer not to wear bright clothes around the office.

Having a decent bell can also be an effective way to communicate your presence or intent. Not all bike bells are made well, so opt for a bell with a good reputation. Whatever bell you wind up with should be easy to mount, easy to ring, and resilient enough to withstand all weather conditions.

bicycle commuting

Prepare for the commute itself

Whether you’re going to be racing the clock to get to work on time or have to take an alternate route that you’re not as comfortable with, planning in advance is the best way to ensure success. If you assume you can wake up 30 minutes earlier than you would if you were driving by car and absent-mindedly start riding, you might find yourself lost or late for whatever you had planned that day.

Know where you are

One of the most obvious ways to increase your safety is to know where you are; map out the exact riding route that you’ll be taking, as well as a few detours, and know the areas surrounding your commuting path. Google Maps and Strava are excellent tools for route planning; Google Maps offers bicycle-specific directions and they can be cross referenced with the popular cycling routes from Strava.

bicycle commuter navigate

By mapping out your surrounding area, you might find alternate routes that steer you toward less traffic or challenging terrain that were previously inaccessible to you by car. You might also discover that the quickest route to your destination isn’t the fastest returning home. By knowing where you are, you can find time-saving alternate routes and hopefully reduce the likelihood of getting lost or wasting time.

Know local ordinances

Getting a traffic citation while riding a bike might sound comical but it happens more often that you’d expect and it is an absolute buzzkill to your commute. The world is entirely different from outside of a car and it’s easy to forget that the traffic rules still apply.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that “by law, bicycles on the roadway are vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as motorized vehicles.” In other words, all of the rules you follow when driving a car apply to riding a bike. It is recommended that you read up on local bicycling requirements and regulations to avoid unnecessary commuting complications. For example, New York City requires that bicycles be equipped with a bell, white front headlight, and a red rear tail light; failure to do so could result in a fine.

In 2016, the San Diego Police Department released bicycle citation related statistics. Among over two dozen citation types, the most commonly issued bicycle citation over a 16-month period (January 1, 2015 through May 31, 2016) was for “failure to stop.” Knowing what is legally expected of you not only increases your overall safety, but it can avoid a costly citation, too.

bicycle commuter at night

Do a trial run

Mapping out possible routes to and from your destination is just one part of preparing for your first commute. What feels like a smooth, easy drive in a car can be a challenging ride on a bike. Take at least one slow-paced, unrushed runthrough of your route to reduce the risk of preventable delays. You should know what the biking infrastructure of your commuting route is, including whether or not there are bike lanes or other bicycle friendly road features. If there’s a lack of such road features, it’s good to know that, too. By taking it slower than you would on a normal morning commute and adding 15 extra minutes onto your runthrough time, you’re allowing yourself the extra time you might need on a day where there’s extra traffic or you have to change a flat tire. If you haven’t ridden in some time, a runthrough can help you assess your current cycling fitness and to determine if you need more or less time than expected.

Secure your ride

If you plan on leaving your bike anywhere that might compromise its safety, a proper lock is imperative. U-locks and chain locks are the two best lock options, but neither is perfect. U-locks are generally light in weight and fasten easily to a bike, but their rigid bulkiness also makes them more difficult to transport and limit you to locking your bike to slimmer fixtures, such as bike racks and hand railings. Do not make a mistake of locking your bike to city-owned installations such as traffic signs or mail boxes as your bike is likely to be removed and you might even get fined if you try to collect it.

The biggest downside to chains is that they are noticeably heavier than U-locks, making them a literal drag. Even though the extra weight might not seem worth the risk, chain locks still come with some tremendous benefits; the physical characteristics of a chain, including flexibility and long length, allow for you to lock your bike to larger fixtures, such as trees and thick posts.

In order for locks to be effective, they must meet certain requirements. A 16 mm shaft for U-locks or 16 mm link wire diameter chain should be considered the minimum acceptable thickness because properly hardened steel at that size is too thick to be cut by manual bolt cutters; anything smaller than 16 mm runs the risk of being cut. Locks that come with flat keys, which look like a standard house key, are preferred.

bicycle commuter at night

Be prepared to deal with basic mechanical issues

While you certainly don’t have to learn all the ins and outs of what makes a bicycle work and how to fix everything on it, knowing the basics should be on your priority list. At the very least, you should know how to adjust air pressure and how to fix a flat tire. There are plenty of “how to” blogs and Youtube videos available to help you learn these basics. Being prepared also means you should always travel with a basic repair kit that includes spare tubes, tire levers, and a portable pump or CO2 cartridges and inflator.

bicycle fix a flat kit

Be prepared for inclement weather

There’s a saying that many cyclists live by: “there’s no bad weather, just bad gear.” You’re obviously not going to ride in the middle of a hurricane or winter storm, but there are plenty of rainy or cold days that are more than feasible on a bike if you and your bike are properly prepared.

bicycle fix a flat kit

Protecting yourself and your stuff

In order to withstand the weather, you’ll have to ensure you have all bases covered. If you live in a place that experiences multiple seasons, then swapping out dry summer day clothes for riding apparel designed to protect you in cold, wet, or windy circumstances will be necessary.

On rainy days, a water repellent jacket, pants, and overshoes will most likely keep you dry. Because there’s still a good chance that you’ll get wet, keeping a spare set of clothes, footwear, and basic toiletries at work is a good idea.

bicycle commuter at night

Colder winter weather should include apparel that will help keep you warm and could include thermal tights, gloves, shoe covers, face mask, and a windproof jacket should be considered. Even though you might already own a reliable insulated winter jacket, keep in mind that bulky apparel can impede your control or even turn out to be too warm, leaving you a sweaty mess at the end of your ride.

A waterproof backpack or waterproof panniers to protect your belongings from summer rain and winter slush is necessary if you expect your belongings to remain dry throughout your commute. Another wet weather necessity are fenders, which will protect you from acquiring an unattractive mud stripe across your back.

If you live in an environment where the chances of you being exposed to extreme heat sun or direct sunlight are high, there are some basic items you’ll want to include in your commuting arsenal. Protect yourself from the sun’s dangerous rays with sunscreen, sunglasses, and protective clothing. Maintain hydration by packing water and snacking on hydrating fruits before your ride. Because heat is stressful on the body, it consumes some of your energy; don’t be afraid to slow down - especially if your body is telling you to.

Protecting your bike

Bikes are surprisingly resilient to weather conditions. When properly maintained, a bike will serve you well for many years. If your bike gets wet and dirty often, there’s a few things you can do to increase its useful life.

Mudguards, commonly called fenders, are essentially shields that sit above the bike tires and they are a must-have for commuters who might encounter puddles and wet road muck. Mudguards are essential because they not only help you avoid a wet butt and a mud stripe down your back, but they also protect your bikes’ moving components from whatever filth you end up riding through. Some bikes come stock with mudguards, but if the bike you’re interested in doesn’t, it’s likely they can be added on post-purchase. If you’re concerned about a permanent fixture you might not always need, there are several temporary fenders that can be affixed to the bike on an as-needed basis.

The task of cleaning and lubing your chain after riding in any kind of precipitation might seem excessive, but those with experience will tell you it’s a sound piece of advice that you’ll be glad you took. A quick scrub with a toothbrush and degreaser followed by a few drops of lube is all it takes. Keeping a “rainy day” chain kit in your bag or at work might be a good way of ensuring you’re always able to provide the simple care your bike requires to continue running as smoothly and rust free as possible.

Prepare for the unexpected

Many beginners are quickly reminded of their inexperience when they find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Even though personal experience might be one of the most effective ways to learn, there are some things that are worth learning from others.

bicycle commuter at night

Beware of door dangers

Car doors may be one of the greatest dangers to urban bicyclists. The easiest strategy to avoid getting hit by an oblivious driver’s door is to assume that every door you pass will open and hit you. Apply this thought process to all cars: moving, stopped and parked, especially at intersections. If you’re left with no option but to ride closer than a door’s length away, slow down to a walking speed and pay attention to some telltale signs of danger: brake lights, taxi vacancy lights, and the side-to-ride rocking motion of passengers preparing to crawl out of the backseat.

Watch out for unexpected right turns

It’s not uncommon for people to make a last minute, unannounced right turn, especially when they’re unfamiliar with their surroundings. Uncertain or lost drivers are an annoyance when you’re in a car, but when you’re on a bike, they become a real danger. When you notice a car exhibiting an erratic behavior, take extra care to give yourself sufficient stopping distance so you don’t find yourself plowing into a right-turning car. Also adopt the habit of looking over your left shoulder (if traveling on the right side of the road) when approaching intersections, exit ramps, and driveways.

Keep a safe distance between yourself and others

Tailgating is a big no-no, not just if you’re behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, but also when you’re riding a bike. Because no one can predict what another is thinking, you must conduct yourself in a way that allows the time and distance required to respond to the last minute decisions of others, which could include sudden turns and stops.

Because bikes occupy so little space on the road, it is easy for cars to unintentionally get close behind a cyclist, especially in heavy traffic. This creates a dangerous situation since a bike can stop significantly quicker than a car and most bikes are not equipped with brake lights. Hit-from-behind accidents are quite common and even at low speeds often result in injuries to the cyclist. Being able to see what’s behind you buys you additional reaction time and is critical for your safety. Bike helmet mirrors, an equivalent of a car’s rear-view mirror, are incredibly affordable and equally efficient safety devices. Bar end mirrors apply the concept of side-view mirrors to bicycles and increase safety even further.

bicycle safe distance

Ride in bike lanes, not on sidewalks

Sidewalks and bike lanes were created for a reason, as their names both suggest; sidewalks are intended for pedestrians to walk along the side of the road and bike lanes for bikes to be ridden. Bicycles are legally considered “vehicles,” with the same road rules and responsibilities that apply to motor vehicle drivers applying to bicycle riders, too. In the event that there are no bike lanes, cyclists are legally entitled to ride in the same driving lanes as motor vehicles. If your commute takes you on a busy road without a bike lane or a wide shoulder, try to avoid it and find an alternate route. One of the joys of bike commuting is taking the road less travelled.

Ride at a responsible speed on shared paths and trails.

If your commute takes you to paths that are shared with pedestrians, other cyclists, or even motorists, riding at a reasonable speed is critical for your safety, as well as the safety of those whom you encounter. Your regular route might only be used by pedestrians and other cyclists, creating a false sense of security that you can safely ride at faster speeds because there are no cars. Carelessness can still result in serious injury to yourself or others. Don’t go fast on shared paths or trails.

Know how to maneuver around pedestrians.

Because it’s considered a vehicle, bikes must always yield to pedestrians. If you decide to pass a pedestrian, know the best way to do so. Because a pedestrian instinctively jumps forward at the sight of oncoming trouble, riding behind a pedestrian for the purpose of passing is recommended because it leaves no question as to who is yielding.

Before you approach a pedestrian from behind, slow down and announce yourself and your intention to pass: “rider, on your left.” A bell installed on your handlebars will make riding near pedestrians much easier: it speaks all languages.

Ride assuming that you’re not being seen

By making decisions based on the premise that you aren’t seen by motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists, you are increasing the likelihood that you’re making safe decisions. Bright clothes, reflectors, and lights are ways to make yourself seen, but sometimes you need to create a greater physical presence for yourself. If you’re concerned that the car in front of you can’t see you, ride into the middle lane to make yourself more visible. Learn basic hand signals to communicate with others on the road and ensure you use exaggerated body language and eye contact to increase communication. Adopting defensive driving techniques in how you handle yourself and your bike during your daily commutes will help keep your mind engaged in the “here and now,” while reducing the chances of you relaxing too much, ultimately landing you in the back of the car in front of you.

What if something bad happens?

As the saying goes, “Expect the unexpected.” So why do we become frustrated or angry when things don’t go as we had hoped? Sometimes it’s the timing of the situation or that we just don’t want to deal with the inconvenience. Other times, it’s because the unexpected blindsides us and we’re not prepared to deal with the situation. The best way to prepare when getting into bike commuting, is to focus on your comfort and safety when establishing your cycling needs and requirements. Buying the best bike on the market isn’t a good investment if it causes pain and discomfort or if it’s difficult to control, turning what could have been an enjoyable commuting experience to a dangerous one.

While you have full control over which bike you buy, you can’t control everything that happens around you. So what then? If you find yourself stranded because you’ve gotten a flat and don’t have the right equipment to change it, that your bike has gone missing from where you locked it, or you get injured after an encounter with a pedestrian or motor vehicle, you don’t have to panic. Bike insurance, such as the customizable plans offered by Velosurance, can come to the rescue in all of these circumstances and more. Created by cyclists who have found themselves in a fair share of riding predicaments, there are options to cover the unexpected emergencies that cyclists often face. Whether it’s a damaged or stolen bicycle you’re dealing with or roadside assistance that you’re needing, Velosurance has got your back.

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