“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” –John F. Kennedy
There aren’t many things that I get as much enjoyment out of as riding my bicycle to work. Ignoring the cost benefit for the moment, just imagine the efficiency of completing one task and simultaneously knocking three things off your “to-do” list at the same time:
- Spend some time outdoors in the fresh air.
- Get to-and-from work.
Don't fret though, this isn't going to be a philosophical article about all the benefits of riding your bike, or a cost-benefit analysis of commuting to work. No, this is going to be a nuts and bolts article to help you get started on riding your bike to work.
Step One: Have a Bike
Now you're likely wondering how difficult it is to ride a bike to work without having a bike. Rest assured, its tough to pull off. But in the off chance that you are considering biking to work and you don't have a bike yet, don't rush out and get one before you finish this article. It'll help you narrow down your choices. Hell, you might already have a bike and haven't even realized how unrealistic it will be to ride it to work. Planning to ride your single speed beach cruiser 20 miles on a gravel trail won't exactly be setting yourself up for long term success.
Also, if you don't have a bike, or don't have an appropriate one, don't feel obligated to go out to REI or your local bike shop and drop $1,000 on a bike. Search for used ones first. Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, or the occasional yard sale will have plenty of options for you to metaphorically dip your toe in the waters of bike commuting. The cost benefit of this is obvious, and it's also much easier to decide that a different type of bike, or different options or accessories would suit you better. Then you can find exactly what you are looking for and sell the used bike at little to no loss.
Step Two: Map Your Ride
Google Maps is my go-to for this option. It has a specific “biking” option that will take you on less crowded routes and trails that are available. Somehow, Google is even aware of every bike path I've come across, so if that is an option on your route, Google will pick it for you. If it's taking you completely out of the way to avoid any traffic, you can drag the route around (only an option on desktop, not the app) so you have a more direct path. By doing this, you can see how it affects the mileage as well as the general time it would take you to get there. A nifty tool at your disposal on Google Maps is the elevation tracker, so again by adjusting your route, you can get a feel for how the elevations change and help you avoid unnecessary hills. But, there are countless apps and websites that you can use to map the safest, most efficient route. Feel free to try them out. Just don't come whining to me when they lead you into a lake.
As mentioned before, your route can also be an important factor in picking out the appropriate bike. A full on road bike won't last long on a dirt trail designed for mountain bikes, but a mountain bike will be heavier and slower if you're riding purely on tarmac. A hybrid bike can be the best of both worlds, fast enough to take on the streets, but durable enough to take on light trails. An e-bike will help make a long commute much more manageable and come in varying styles. So, do some research, assess your route, and then pick your poison.
Another important factor in this step is knowing the rules and laws in your area. You have the same responsibilities as car drivers; so obey traffic stops and signals, ride in the correct lane (going with traffic, or in the bike lane if available), and ride predictably. It's important to mention that riding your bike on the sidewalk is likely illegal (there are only a handful of places in the country that it's permitted), and genuinely unsafe. So don't plan your route around a sidewalk.
Step Three: Get the Gear
Visibility is key for bicycle safety. If you are on the street at any point, at a minimum, you'll need a rear light. This will obviously make you more visible to drivers, and thus lower your chances of an accident. That little reflector on the seat won't cut it, so don't cheap out here. A front light is also heavily suggested. You'll want lights that flash, or change in some way so that it draws more attention to your presence. When I personally bike to work, I have three rear lights and two front lights. All the lights flash in different intervals, so they definitely attract attention. It's almost comedic the amount of lights I have, but I accumulated them over time. Don't feel obligated to go buy enough lights for a Christmas tree because some guy on the internet told you to. A reflective vest could be used in coordination with or, in lieu of, multiple lights; but you'll still want at least one rear light regardless.
There are a couple of small items that you'll want to carry with you on your ride. A spare tube, tire levers, a small pump, and your phone for backup. Uber has saved my wife and I from being stranded a couple times. Now, depending on your profession, your ride, and your preferences, the gear that'll make your life easier varies greatly. You could get rear racks, tons of different types of bags, fenders, electric motors, water bottle mounts, speedometers, tool kits, bike trailers, GPS's, bike racks for your car, bike locks (highly suggested), etc. It goes without saying, since this is a financial blog, but don't go overboard and spend $1,000 on accessories before your first ride.
Step Four: Get Started
At some point, all the limiting beliefs you have need to be ignored, just for a few minutes, so that you can actually get started. I completed my first ride to work on an early Sunday morning so there was less traffic and so I could gauge the route, and the time it would take me. My first ride took 23 minutes and it almost killed me. My next ride took 19 minutes, and it continued to drop, day after day, as my endurance and strength grew. It will be tough at first, but if you don't want to push as hard, just leave earlier and make it a leisurely ride.
“Don't do nothing because you can't do everything. Do something!” –Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
If your only way to work consists of a major highway or interstate, don't not ride because of that. Drive that portion and bring your bike along with you and bike the rest of the way. Or if your commute will be 10 miles and you're unsure if you could make it, drive the first six and bike four. Then you can either work your way further and further until you can complete the whole route, or just stick with that. There are any number of ways you can structure your ride to best suit you.
Now that you have an easy step-by-step process laid out for you, there should be less apprehension and paralysis analysis about commuting on your bike. You will have a little leg work (pun intended), but after a little research and a little open-mindedness, I'm sure you could figure out a way to save yourself some money, make yourself happier, get in some exercise, and spend more time outdoors all at the same time. Now, get out and ride.
James and Emily at Rethink The Rat Race are a young, married, child-free couple that write about frugality, travel, real-estate, and general life optimization. The two of them are planning to reach FIRE in 2020, which will be before they’re 30. Their hobbies include DIY projects around their house-hacking rentals, working out and riding bikes together, and spending time with their dog. Follow them at rethinktheratrace.com to get a peek inside their fast track to FI.