The world is in turmoil right now, as we are more than two weeks in to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not wanting to support war crimes in progress, much of the world is shunning Russian oil. Gas prices were already high, and now they’re even higher. I only know this from watching the news, as my primary vehicle has no gas tank. It doesn’t have a battery, either. I prefer biking for lots of reasons, mostly because it’s more fun than driving. The current situation, however, is bringing one advantage to the fore: I don’t have to buy gas!
Which brings me to the biggest reason why I share my biking stories, and the biggest reason why I created Bikie Girl Bloomers: I am a bikevangelist, and I want to share the bike love! I live in Los Angeles, and I remember how I felt when I first moved here back in 1996: how is it even possible to bike in a crazy car-centric city? It should not require special bravery and skill; biking should be available to everyone. Once you learn the tips and tricks, though, urban cycling is really quite delightful.
Back in 2017, I was inspired to create a handout for visitors to a New York pop-up shop I participated in for a week with several other brands that cater to urban cyclists. Some of the brands sponsored events as part of the pop-up shop experience, and Bikie Girl Bloomers offered a workshop for bike commuting. I made a handout that included tips for getting started on bike commuting as well as showcasing how each of the products offered in our pop-up could help make bike commuting more enjoyable. Afterward, I posted a version of it here on the site. Just this week, I revised my handout so I could post it to my virtual booth at the National Bike Summit coming up March 27-30, 2022. I realized that nearly five years had passed, and it was time for an update. Here’s the updated version:
Keep it simple. Establish a small goal: to bike to a nearby store for an errand, or to bike home from work one day this week. You will be going through the planning and execution logistics, and perhaps overcoming some trepidation, and that is enough for the first time at it. Make sure you are ready by thinking through the following items to ensure a positive experience. If you are new to city riding, you might start out with recreational social rides led by a bike advocacy group or a local bike shop, or you can search for a licensed cycling instructor (see Bike League Directory Search to find local resources). Riding with a group can make city riding safer, teach you city riding skills, and introduce you to others who like to ride. It’s also a great way to discover parts of your city you never knew. You can find local groups to ride with through sites such as MeetUp.com and Facebook. Look for “no drop” and beginner-friendly rides to match your riding level.
If you will ride your own bike, consider taking it to a local bike shop for a tune up and safety check. If you don’t know how to fix a flat tire, now is the time to learn and practice (you can find tutorials on youtube). The weekend before your first ride, check your ABC’s: A – air in the tires; B – brakes working; C – chain is clean and lubed. Re-check these before each ride. It’s normal for your tires to need a little more air, or for your chain to need some cleaning, about once a week or so. Checking these items regularly will also make it easy for you to notice when the brakes are getting worn, or another repair is needed.
If you will use bike share, go to the web site for your city’s bike share system and familiarize yourself with how it works, what you need to check out a bike, and where the docking stations are for your start and stop points. Download an app to make it easy to find bike share stations while out and about. Many bike share systems changed during the pandemic, so be sure to get up to date information. Google maps has a feature (select “more” to reveal the “search along this route” box and type in “bike share stations”) that will show bike share stations along a route you are considering.
The basic gear needs include: helmet, lights, and something to carry your stuff. Helmets are available in stylish designs (see those by Sawako Nutcase and BikePretty), and with lights to signal braking and turning (see the Lumos helmet). If taking your own bike, you will want to carry a patch kit, extra inner tube, a pump, and bike tools, such as a multi-tool. Keep a quality lock with you, even if you can park the bike inside, as you may need it when stopping for an errand. High quality theft-resistant locks can be heavy, but TiGr offers titanium locks that are strong, light and stylish. The best way to lock a bike is to combine a strong cable with a high-quality U-lock, to ensure the wheels cannot be removed and the frame is secured to a bike rack. (See here for examples.)
Gear that makes the commute more pleasant: fenders, a chainguard, a good saddle properly adjusted, a basket and/or rack, phone holder, and a kickstand. Other gear that can be worth the investment: handlebars/bike that support upright riding position, dynamo lights, panniers, platform pedals that work well with street shoes, and a power bank to re-charge your phone or lights. An electric assist bike can be practical if the commute is long and/or hilly. Although electric assist bikes cost significantly more than regular bikes, they are a fraction of the cost of a car, and well worth it if it makes it possible to commute by bike more often or at all. There are also kits that can turn a regular bike into an electric assist.
You are likely able to ride in whatever clothes you wear to work. Exceptions are avoiding or adjusting for long, flowy items that might get caught in the spokes, or dealing with hills, distance, or weather that leaves you too sweaty or wet. For these situations, you can bring fresh clothes with you and change at work. Some work places offer shower facilities or have a gym close by. Many bike commuters keep extra clothes at work, or bring a week’s worth to the office at a time. You can also keep a kit of toiletries at work to use for freshening up. Consider a small towel, cleansing wipes, deodorant, and a comb or brush.
Experiment with different clothing to find what is most comfortable. Some prefer pants, others prefer the freedom of movement provided by a skirt or dress. BikieGirl’s Hitchable Flounce Skirt comes with the patented Skitch® skirt hitch to lift the hem out of the way while riding. Pants can easily wear out from bike riding, so consider a style designed for the durability and flexibility biking requires. Skirts and dresses can be combined with BikieGirl’s lightweight bike short or leggings for coverage and/or warmth. If needed, you can wear a padded bike short for the ride in, and switch to regular pants upon arrival. Let the bike shorts air out during the day so they are at least partly refreshed for the ride home.
Planning Your Route
The best route for biking to work is likely different from the route you would take by car or other means. Most cities provide a map of bike routes, bike paths, and bike-friendly streets. Google maps Kamoot and other bike routing software can help you figure out a suitable route (in Google maps, select “layers” to see the option to show bike-friendly streets). Test ride your route on the weekend to make sure there aren’t any unpleasant surprises and get familiar with the streets and turns when there is less traffic on the roads. Keep in mind that occasionally Google maps will direct you to cross a major street without a traffic light. If you get stuck in such a situation, consider taking the sidewalk (walk the bike if sidewalk riding is not legal in your city) to access the nearest crossing with a traffic light.
Carrying Your Stuff
Options for carrying your things include: a messenger bag (make sure it is stable while riding), backpack, basket or panniers. A bag that is against your back will create much more sweating, so many prefer a basket or a pannier that attaches to the rear rack. Po Campo provides stylish options that includes bags that hook on your bike and can also be your professional-looking briefcase or handbag. Rear-mounted bike baskets allow for a more stable weight distribution, while front baskets provide easy access while riding. Your choice will also be influenced by what you need or will have to carry with you upon arrival. Think also about whether your arrangement will be used for shopping or carrying children.
I find a pannier that clips onto the rear rack, yet looks like a suitable shoulder bag for the office, meeting with clients, or running errands is a good first choice. When I need to carry more stuff, however, I like the easy of the Nantucket pannier baskets that simply hook onto the rear rack, and can hold a sizable amount of groceries. I also keep a bungee cargo net on my rear rack for those times when I get carried away with too many extra items. When all I need to carry are my essentials, including my tablet, wallet, a snack and perhaps a few toiletries, such as when visiting a client or attending a conference, I like using a stylish trunk bag that securely attaches to the rear rack and also looks like a normal purse when slung over my shoulder.
Know your local bike laws. The most important keys to safety relate to being visible and predictable to others and being prepared for the unexpected. Ride with the flow of traffic, and take the lane when sharing the road with motorized vehicles. Riding too close to the edge of the lane makes you less visible to motorists and can encourage drivers to pass you too closely. Allow 3-5 feet between you and parked cars to avoid getting doored. Avoid weaving around parked cars, as that can catch motorists by surprise when you re-enter the traffic lane. Signal your turns, and call out or ring a bell to let others know you are approaching to pass. You can increase your skills and confidence by taking a class (see link in first paragraph). Click here to see some examples of the skills that will help you handle dicey situations that can arise on city streets.
Riding At Night
Wear reflective clothing at night, and use a white light in front and a rear light in back. Brands like Vespertine NYC provide stylish reflective vests, jackets, scarves, and dresses. Flashing lights can make it harder for others to gauge distance and are unsafe (to others) as front lights. Lights vary, so be sure you know how effective the lights you have will be. Consider also whether they will require battery replacement or can be recharged. Lights are often stolen from parked bikes, so consider lights you can easily carry with you. Alternatively, dynamo lights whose power is generated by the front wheel and integrated into the bike design are less easy to steal from a parked bike.
Multi-Modal Options & Back-Up Plan
If the distance is too great, one direction is too hilly, or you feel more comfortable knowing you don’t have to ride both ways, look into the options for public transit. Some cities allow bikes on trains, buses, and/or subways, others allow them only during non-commuting hours, or have limited space. Some commuters use public transit for part of their route, or in one direction. Others take public transit (or drive) at the beginning and end of the week to carry clothes and other items for the week, and use the bike in between. These options can also be your back-up in case of weather or an equipment mishap.
Keep It Stress-free & Fun!
When it’s unfamiliar, city riding can seem quite stressful. Finding yourself on a too-busy street, worrying about cars passing too closely, navigating around broken glass and potholes, these are challenges that will become manageable once you’re a seasoned rider, but can ruin your experience when you feel unprepared for them. If this happens to you, pull over as soon as you find a safe spot to do so. Walk your bike on the sidewalk if necessary, or find a bench where you can sit down and take a breath. Use a smart phone to look at your route and see if you can find a better option to get to your destination. Often there is a parallel street or alley that is much calmer and more enjoyable to ride on. If a major thoroughfare is the only option and it’s just not feeling safe to ride in the street, I will ride on the sidewalk. In some cities that is not legal, but depending on the circumstances, it may be your best choice. I would prefer to feel safe and get ticketed than to get hit by a car, but I’m white and female.
I have found that, over the years, it gets easier and easier to find the better, more bike-friendly streets. Wide residential streets can be pleasant and offer plenty of room for motorists to safely pass. Sometimes, however, narrow streets are better because drivers have to slow down and fewer cars will choose such streets. Roads that curve, have lots of shade trees, feature historic homes with gorgeous architecture can be great choices for creating an enjoyable biking experience. It can be fun to explore a different street each day of your commute and discover all that you’ve been missing out on when getting around by car.
Other tidbits that contribute to a more enjoyable ride include: using a bike that keeps me more upright (I feel more easily seen, and I find it easier to look around), decorating my bike with flowers, wearing a cute helmet, riding in a skirt, leaving early to give me plenty of time so I don’t get nervous about being late or sweaty from riding fast. I do sense that drivers are more courteous to me when they see me as a commuter rather than as a recreational road biker. I believe the flowers and pretty helmet soften their reaction to me. Even if I’m only imagining these things make drivers treat me better, I am certain they make me enjoy the ride more. Even fake flowers can remind us to enjoy the beautiful things in life.