Many years ago, when I was a university student in Montreal, a friend gifted me an old bicycle that he was no longer using, so that I may become a bike commuter. It was a partially rusted fixed-gear steed, more than a few sizes too big for me, with skinny tires and narrow handlebars that were many inches lower than the seat.
But did I love it?
No. I did not. I was, in fact, so terrified of that bike that I just walked and took transit, and didn’t start properly biking until three years later. Now if you thought that anecdote would take a different direction, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s a romantic notion to believe that biking can somehow just insert itself into your life through some serendipitous encounter with an old junky cruiser or a friend with good intentions who set you up with the wrong bike.
But the fact is, for many people, biking for transportation is simply not the default, so making the transition from regular driving or public transit to regular biking can require a little bit of planning, some intention, and the right gear. On the bright side, it isn’t difficult, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. So if you’re completely new to bike commuting, but interested in making it part of your life, here’s my advice to get started.
Get a Working Bike that Fits You
This may seem obvious, but if you’re riding a bike that doesn’t fit you or doesn’t work very well, you probably will not have a good time. Many new riders are hesitant to make the initial investment in their own bike because they’re not sure if they’ll enjoy bike commuting, so they just dig up whatever’s been rusting away in the yard for a few years. While this makes sense from a financial perspective, it could completely destroy your enthusiasm for bike commuting before you even get started. Because, well, riding a crappy bike is a crappy feeling.
So get something that fits you, that you feel comfortable on. For newer riders, I’d recommend a more upright riding position that will enable you to look around more easily. If you have hills in your area, get something with at least three gears. Talk to your local bike shop about bike styles that could work, and if you’re not willing or able to buy a bike, look into renting one for a week or so to test it out.
Transportation is engrained in every facet of our lives, so switching modes should understandably be a gradual process.
Try Social or Weekend Rides
If biking to work is the goal, then make leisure rides on the weekends the warm-up. Find friends (or look for a network in your community) to go for slow-paced, social bike rides to get comfortable riding on the street. This is also a great way to get to know the best bike routes in your city, which are often (always) different than the best car routes.
Social media is a great place to find a local bike network if you don’t know where to start, or talk to the folks at your local bike shop to see if they know of any group rides.
Once you’re comfortable, test out your bike route to work on an evening or weekend, so you’re not scrambling to get there on time on your first attempt.
Make Your Bike Do All the Heavy Lifting
Once I got rid of my oversized fixie and started riding a bike that fit me, I encountered my next issue: how to carry my stuff on my bike. University textbooks and a laptop make for a heavy backpack, and the daily strain on my shoulders made the commute unpleasant.
For me personally, getting a rear rack and panniers were the game-changer that enabled me to transition from occasional social rider to daily bike commuter. Nine years later, I often use two panniers and a handlebar bag on a daily basis: essentials in the handlebar bag, work materials in one pannier, and an empty pannier on the other side to grab groceries (beer) on the way home.
Don’t Stress About Riding Every Day
Transitioning to bike commuting isn’t an overnight affair. While many people I know (myself included) ride every day in all weather, it has also taken us many years to get there. So if you’re a new bike commuter, don’t worry if you don’t feel like riding in the rain, or are too nervous to ride in the dark, or just plain feel like driving today.
Transportation is engrained in every facet of our lives, so switching modes should understandably be a gradual process. Bike on good weather days first, bike to the beach or the park on the weekend. Get your friends involved, make it fun.
Then once you start to realize the benefits of regular cycling (to your health, your wallet, your focus, the planet), then those rainy days won’t seem so daunting anymore, and that grocery (beer) run won’t be so heavy anymore.
Before you know it you’ll be biking everywhere and every day. Or even writing blog posts encouraging other people to do the same.