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Bike commuting tips

Bike Wise Month starts today. Here are some things that I wished I knew when I started cycling, from choosing a bike to accessorising it, dressing myself, carrying gear and mapping a route—and some all-important safety tips.

Bike Wise Month starts today. Here are some things that I wished I knew when I started cycling.

Above: Bike parking in Courtenay Place, Wellington

What kind of bicycle?

As long as you get a bike mechanic to give your bicycle the thumbs-up before you hit the road, any bicycle is a good bicycle to ride.

However, if you’re planning to commit to a long-term bike commuting plan—be it everyday or twice a week—you might want to invest in a machine that will make that journey a little more pleasant.

  • Have a look-see at your local bike shop. Tell them what your journey entails and they will find one to suit you. If the first thing they ask is what your budget is, I suggest you go to another shop.
  • Of course you should have a budget in mind. You can always justify the cost of a more expensive model via the savings you’ll accrue. For me, that means I can buy a new mid-range bicycle every year if I wanted to.
  • If you’re a bargain-hunter and have a good idea of what you need, there are good steals on TradeMe. Seek the opinion of your bike nut friend first before you bid!
  • If the only off-road action you’ll see is wheeling the bike across the front lawn, go for a hybrid commuter bike. Their skinnier tires are better suited for the road—and you’ll also go faster. They have flat handlebars and you’ll ride in a more upright position.
  • Fixed-gear and single speed bikes are hip and beautiful but probably not practical for commuting around Auckland, Wellington or anywhere with hills unless you know what you are doing.
  • You won’t need aero bars or a full suspension frame unless you want to pick up cycling as a hobby sport.
  • Ditto carbon anything.
  • Ladies’s bike? Step-through bicycles are not always women-specific bikes. If possible, get a bike fit or have a test-ride. If it’s comfortable and doesn’t give you a sore back or wrist, then it works regardless of what the model name suggests.
  • Still unsure? Borrow or rent one for a week to test the waters.

Bells and locks

Bike bells and locks

Accessorise well

Your riding experience will be enhanced when you chime in these little details. Slowly add them where your budget allows you to (not that they are very expensive!).

  • Fenders, mudguards and chainguards will protect your clothes from the grimy street much when it rains.
  • Carrier racks (more on this below)
  • A kickstand will let you park your bike anywhere. No more hunting for walls, poles and other street furniture!
  • Ding-a-ling! Bells are great when you are using a shared footpath with pedestrians (although they don’t always know how to react).
  • You are legally obliged to have front and rear lights when it gets dark. The brightest Christmas tree gets the most attention.
  • Don’t forget the lock and the appropriate strategy to secure it. If possible, park it inside your workplace.
What to wear

Some motorists take a real offense to seeing people donning high-performance exercise gear made with lycra—even more so than someone cycling in the buff, I suspect.

That, plus the fear of being smelly, seems to be the excuse for people to not cycle. You don’t have to be either.

Commuter

Wear whatever’s comfy

  • Like it or not, you are legally required to wear a helmet. To make it count, make sure you put it on correctly. Remember, cheaper helmets need to pass the same safety tests as the more expensive ones. Anything over $50–$80 range are for the pros. (The price tag probably goes into the R&D of how to put as many ventilation holes as possible while still being able to protect your head).
  • I will admit to wearing a moisture-wicking top (souvenirs of the Oxfam Trailwalker experience) on the way to work but everything below the waist is just my normal work attire.
  • If you wear long pants and do not have a chainguard on your bicycle, fold it up—or risk getting your pants leg greasy and ripped apart.
  • Yes, you can cycle in heels and jandals. Make sure your pedals are grippy as you don’t want your feet to be sliding off them!
  • If you cycle at a pace where you can comfortably hold a conversation, you will also find that you won’t be working up a sweat.
  • If you ride earlier in the mornings, there are fewer cars and the temperatures are cooler—and arrive fresh as a daisy.
  • There is a shower facility at my workplace but even in the hottest and most humid summer’s day, I have never needed to use it. A change of clothes and quick wipe down (baby wipes are great!) and you’re right as rain.
  • Rain jackets and ponchos are awesome but you are allowed to leave your bike at work and take public transport home when the weather turns to custard.
  • In winter, layering is the best way to go. If you get too hot during the journey, it’s easy to peel off a layer. A good piece of advice I’ve had is to be cold for the first ten minutes of the journey. After that, the body heat your generate should take care of everything.
  • Gloves and neck buffs are good for keeping the wind chill in check. Scarves are too warm for the Auckland climate but may work in Dunedin.
  • The bicycle sometimes have magical powers to make you invisible. People with such bicycles may choose to wear high visibility flourescent attire.

Hauling gear

Basket? Check. Panniers? Check. Yoga mat? Check. Craig’s bicycle spotted outside the Grey Lynn Community Center.

Carrying your gear

Hauling your change of clothes, lunch, 40-page report or a sack of potatoes is easy.

  • Messenger bags are good if you need quick access to your stuff without having to take it off. Not good on one shoulder if you’re hauling heavy gear over a fair distance.
  • Backpacks are good if you’re hauling heavy loads as the weight spreads evenly across your shoulders. Not good as you tend to get a drenched back.
  • A rear rack and a set of panniers are not just for cycle tourists. If panniers are too expensive for your budget, opt for a DIY back basket instead. Leave your reusable shopping bag in your basket.
  • Use bungee cords to secure your load properly for when you hit a bumpy patch.
  • A front basket is a welcome addition—but be aware that they make handling a bit tricky if you have a heavy load or are going uphill.
  • I don’t recommend carrying your laptop inside your pannier bags or basket as the vibration from the road may do funny things to your hard disk drive. Wear it on your backpack if possible.
  • Eventually it’s a good idea to carry a spare tube or puncture repair kit.

“Your number one goal should be to avoid getting hit in the first place.” –Michael Bluejay, How to Not Get Hit by Cars

Rules of the road

Did you know that there’s an official Road Code for Cyclists? If you only have ten minutes, read this share-with-care cheatsheet and how to not get hit by cars.

There are many reports of cyclists getting injured or killed. But (shock, horror!) there are many, many more reports of car accidents with similar outcomes—only nobody thinks anything of it. The risk of cycling on the road is possibly lower or similar to that of driving your car.

If you’re still not feeling confident, get an experienced friend to ride with you. Some Go By Bike Day events have organised cycle buses. They are also a great place to start.

The commute

The commute

Now that you’ve got everything sorted, the time has come to put some pedal to the metal!

  • Map out your commute with the ‘Get directions’ function on Google Maps. You may have to choose the ‘walking’ option sometimes as bikes are generally not allowed on the motorway. But make sure it doesn’t direct you across a pedestrian overpass bridge either!
  • The shortest link between A and B is not always the best. I will use a longer way if it means that it has wider lanes, has less traffic and doesn’t require me to climb a big hill.
  • Ferries and trains usually permit bicycles on board but it pays to check first. The commuter trains in Auckland charge $1 extra; free on Fullers ferries.
  • If it’s your first time, it’s a good idea to test-drive the route during a weekend when it’s not so busy. This gives you a window of opportunity to adjust for the unexpected.
  • Friends don’t let friends ride home drunk.
  • Say ‘hello’ to your fellow commuters at the lights. Stop to take a photo of the magnificent sunset. Drop into your local for a takeaway cuppa without needing to find a parking spot. Above all, enjoy the ride!
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