The No-B.S. Guide To Getting Started Bike Commuting

What I wish I’d known 10,000 miles ago.

Erik Bassett


I got on a bicycle around age four and never stopped.

As a kid, my best friend and I would tear up the paths in the woods by our neighborhood. When they got too familiar and dull, we’d hack new paths, build new jumps, get a little bruised and bloodied, and repeat day after week after month.

As a teenager, it grew into an obsession. Bigger and badder local trails, a season of downhill racing (speaking of bruised and bloodied!), and endless hours talking shop on bike forums.

It was loads of fun and taught me tons. It was also 100% car-dependent as soon as I wanted to venture outside the neighborhood. It tells you something about suburban America that we saw bicycles — the funnest and most energy-efficient mode of transportation ever invented—primarily as a sport to hop in the car and drive to.

Only in adulthood, after moving to a central part of a big city, did I realize cycling was an immensely practical way to get around. Yeah, it was damp and hilly in the Pacific Northwest, but I was fresh out of college, flat broke, pretty fit, and in need of something more direct and reliable than our mediocre bus service.

Thus began the bike commuting phase of my life.

I’m not here to convince you to try it. There are plenty of reasons it might not make sense — some of which I’ll discuss toward the end. But if you’re thinking of dipping your toes into the water of bike commuting, I’m going to share everything I wish I’d known several years and several thousand miles ago.

Photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash

The best bike to commute on

…is the one you already have. You’re new to this; you don’t know exactly what you need or prefer, let alone which bike will best fulfill those needs and preferences.

For perspective, even though I’d cycled for a couple decades before I started bike commuting, it still took a while to figure out what worked. The needs and purpose and trade-offs are completely different when you’re riding city streets at moderate speed with some cargo versus bombing down singletrack descents and grinding up mile-long climbs.

Rather than sinking boat loads of cash into whatever you suppose a “serious cyclist” rides, just get the one in your garage tuned up. You can always upgrade later.

Of course, you may not have an old bike on hand, nor a friend with one to lend you. If so, then here are my suggestions:

  • Do budget around $500-$600 at minimum for an entry-level bike that’s actually worth owning. It’ll serve you reliably unless or until you decide you want all the bells and whistles.
  • Do pick a bike that’s comfortable in casual clothing. If you want to suit up in athletic clothes and change at work, that’s fine. But if you must suit up just to get comfortably into riding position, then short trips will become a nuisance and your bike won’t be your go-to transportation.
  • Don’t buy secondhand unless you have someone to guide you. It takes some experience to figure out what’s a good deal, and more experience to fix the small things it’ll inevitably need. And speaking of guidance…
  • Don’t start reading cycling magazines and internet forums and talking to everyone in head-to-toe Rapha gear. They mean well but tend on the whole to a) see cycling through the lens of an athlete/hobbyist rather than someone just getting around town and b) get hung up on the latest and greatest gear that really is super nifty but doesn’t get you to work any better. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s just not what most commuters, least of all new ones, actually benefit from.

A few accessories make life easier

If you have no budget, or you’ve spent it on the bike itself, then you can get by with a backpack and basic lights and nothing more. I’ve done exactly that.

However, three things are worth every penny. They’re also easy to transfer to a future bike (with some exceptions) or to take off and sell if this bike commuting endeavor just doesn’t work out.

  1. Fenders to keep your pants and back clean-ish. The problem isn’t just rain; it’s the disgusting, oily road grime that your tires will spray all over. This even happens in dry climates due to irrigation run-off and the like. The more a fender encircles the wheel, the better it’ll protect your clothing and even your drivetrain from all that crud. Clearance can be tricky, since they need to a) fit inside the frame/fork and b) clear each side of the tire by at least 5 mm but ideally 8–9 or more. Budget: about $50.
  2. Quality lights to illuminate your path (duh) and to maximize your visibility even in broad daylight. I’ve used this set (affiliate link) for years and can wholeheartedly recommend them. Dynamo lighting is terrific but unnecessary, so consider it down the road if and when cycling has become an integral part of daily life. Budget: about $80.
  3. A rack and pannier to carry your things. Backpacks are cheap and convenient but sweaty and potentially uncomfortable. Some don’t mind them; I do. Baskets are decent but may impact handling once loaded with more than about 5 pounds. They’re still nice to have, but not as your only cargo option. Budget: about $100-$200.

Putting costs in perspective

When I took up bike commuting as a flat-broke recent grad, I went cheap on everything.

Uncomfortable bike that doesn’t suit my city’s topography? That’s OK: I’ll save $75! Sweaty backpack that kinks my neck muscles? That’s OK: it’s free! No fenders, so I have to get splattered by mud and carry a second set of clothes? That’s OK: another $60 back in my pocket!

That was a mistake. My love for cycling remained, but my contempt for bike commuting (as I’d chosen to experience it) outweighed whatever satisfaction the savings provided.

At the time, I focused on avoiding these technically optional but highly desirable upfront expenses. In hindsight, the additional cost of turning a bearable commute into a pleasant one would have equaled just a few months of the very car insurance it let me avoid. That was penny-wise and pound-foolish — the antithesis of personal financial prudence.

Clothing matters, but don’t overcomplicate it

If your goal is to make cycling part of everyday life, then use everyday clothing whenever possible. Imagine if you needed to “suit up” to drive or walk to the supermarket!

The key to utilitarian cycling is a wardrobe that:

  • Allows free leg movement (you’re presumably not hunched over the bars, so that shouldn’t require more than a couple percent spandex — if that)
  • Wicks moisture (you can minimize or avoid sweating just by maintaining a slower pace…but at least a little bit of sweat is almost inevitable)
  • Looks fine at your workplace (remember, we’re trying not to have to change clothes, so Day-Glo Lycra isn’t optimal)

You may already have work-appropriate apparel that’s comfortable to wear for a long, brisk walk — which is exactly the level of exertion to aim for on your (minimally sweaty) bike commute. If so, just start there and supplement your wardrobe as needed. As with bikes and accessories, it’s not wise to go all-out until you’ve gotten quite a few trips under your belt.

When it’s time to buy new items, I recommend avoiding cycling brands, since most (not all) are harder to use in other settings. Fortunately, new options pop up every year, as everyone from Lululemon to Target to Banana Republic continually expands their business-casual “tech wear” line.

What about the rain?

Well, I’m from the Northwest, so you’re asking the right guy. As always, you’ll need to experiment to find what works, but here’s my personal approach:

  • Very light sprinkle: don’t worry about it. A windbreaker should suffice, especially if you refresh the DWR treatment. It’s not waterproof, but it’ll fend off a drizzle and dry quickly.
  • Up to somewhat heavy rain, with little or no wind: use a cycling poncho. They look goofy, but they keep your torso and legs dry while allowing superb ventilation that even the priciest Gore-Tex can’t touch.
  • Total downpour and/or strong wind: use proper rainwear, i.e., a waterproof jacket and rain overpants. They’re decidedly less breathable than a poncho, but ponchos don’t provide enough coverage to block out rain that’s coming down in sheets, splashing back up, and blowing in sideways all at once. And, in gusts, ponchos feel like a sail.

For actual waterproof attire, whatever you already hike in or wear around town should suffice. Waterproof–breathable fabrics are truly waterproof but not as breathable as you’d hope, so it’s critical to have good ventilation. Underarm zippers are common for exactly that reason, but a dual front zipper and/or snaps also help.

Pro tip: whatever you’re wearing in the rain, make yourself as bright and reflective as possible. Too many drivers will fail to see you on a sunny day, and that number only increases when their windows are distorted by raindrops.

Speaking of which…

One tip will save your life (even though it shouldn’t be necessary)

The single most important piece of cycling advice I’ve ever heard — one which has saved my life a couple times and avoided serious injuries many more — is this:

Assume you’re invisible until proven otherwise.

Like every city I’ve lived or ridden in, yours probably paints pictures on the ground and calls them “bicycle infrastructure.” Road designs encourage excess speed; vehicles aren’t meaningfully separated from cyclists and pedestrians; there are conflicting rights-of-way at intersections, driveways, and so forth.

And that is not right. It’s a sad commentary on urban “planning” in most places that anything but car use requires this degree of paranoia. It points to a profound dysfunction that few (with any serious influence) are willing or even interested to change…yet.

But unless or until it improves, the only viable response is to assume you don’t exist in the eyes of whoever’s driving nearby. “If I weren’t here, would they gun it to make a right turn on red?” Well, assume they will. “If I weren’t here, would they merge up there?” You guessed it: assume they will.

This is unquestionably the worst aspect of bike commuting, and if it’s too stressful in your situation, that’s perfectly fine. But in the spirit of a “no-B.S.” guide, I’d be remiss not to drive home a life-saving lesson that all these years of cycling have so deeply ingrained in me.

Lest I end on that depressing note, remember that many places do have sufficiently safe routes. They’re just not always the obvious ones.

For instance, there may be a calmer intersection a quarter-mile away or a narrower street running parallel to the designated bike route. Scope out possible routes on the weekend before you start commuting, since it’s hard to gauge bike-friendliness from Google Maps (or anything else besides actually cycling or walking).

Have fun, stay safe & keep moving!

From the details of gear and clothing, to the question of whether bike commuting even makes sense in your context, run every decision through this filter:

“Could it fit into everyday life?”

In my experience, that’s the key to a sustainable bike commute that enhances your mental and physical well-being. Riding for sport is terrific — I do it, too — but sport cycling is to transportation cycling what a race car is to a city bus. Not better, not worse, but a totally different mindset with different (even conflicting) goals.

There’s no right way or proper reason to bike commute. You’ll inevitably find what works — often by disregarding the advice of knowledgeable and well-being folks who ride for different reasons. And if that includes me, so be it!