Preparing for your first bicycle commute


Suggested readings before you read this article, in order to familiarize yourself with my philosophy and general attitudes as well as to become more familiar with some bike commuting related concepts: Welcome to NYC Bike Commuter, Introduction to Bicycle Commuting, The Purpose of this Site, Defensive Cycling, NYS Traffic Laws Applicable to Cyclists and We’re vulnerable, don’t rush.

I always like to be prepared

It’s the way my head works. I may on occasion get up early on a weekend and go for unplanned hike or bike ride, but that’s one trip that takes few hours. Everything that takes longer or becomes a repeated task for a prolonged periods of time, I prefer to plan for. I don’t believe that throwing a person out of a boat in the middle of a lake is the best way to teach them how to swim. Of course, not everything works as planned all the time either, but it’s definitely worth trying.

Commuting by bicycle, if the distance is more than two miles and/or involves bridges, busy roads and difficult intersections needs some preparations to make sure you can pull it off safely and not become instantly discouraged. It’s actually more likely that you will get discouraged for other reasons, than get hurt in an accident. Getting discouraged is very easy, and it’s very hard to get back. There are thousands of bikes sitting in basements, attics and garages that saw few miles of pavement before their owners gave up because they did everything wrong.

First of all you need to make sure you can handle your bike. I assume at this time that your bike has been checked out by a mechanic and fixed up properly and it’s fully functional and in good order. If you haven’t ridden for some time then start with short rounds around your local park. There are two reasons for doing this: becoming strong enough and learning to operate your bicycle properly.

Becoming strong enough

Look at a map and approximate the one way distance of your commute and add 25% to that distance. Make that distance your training goal. Until you can ride that distance without becoming completely exhausted, do not attempt to commute. Also, train enough so you can recover from the physical exhaustion in less than an hour. So, these are the physical goals. Why? First of all, getting tired while riding in traffic is dangerous: your reflexes will be slow, your attention levels will drop, you may become dizzy and confused, you can get muscle cramps, etc. Remember that you are the engine and you don’t want that engine to fail you. Even if you make it to work without problems it may take you half a day to recover from an exercise your body is not used to, you will be sweating for a couple of hours, your heart will be pounding, you will be thirsty, distracted, you will be shaky and feel weak. The speed of recovery depends on your physical endurance. A regular daily bike commuter can fully recover from a 10 mile ride under 30 minutes or less. Being tired and dysfunctional at work or school may quickly discourage you. Then the next morning you will be sore and tired and most likely you will opt for mass transit or driving for the next few days.

Learning to operate your bicycle

Although there are plenty of people who drive cars and really have no idea how to do that properly, you don’t want to repeat that mistake when riding a bicycle in traffic. If you have read my other articles you must have noticed how many times I mentioned that you are far more vulnerable on a bike than inside a car, so you need to exercise extra care to protect yourself. Your senses will be already busy enough trying to protect you from other people’s mistakes, so you don’t want to worry about making your own mistakes. Therefore, your ability to operate your bike properly will be crucial to your safety. I’m not even talking about the basics like staying upright. You need to be familiar with your brakes, have a feel for them and use both of them properly to avoid locking your wheels and skidding. You need to know how your bike behaves when braking and what to expect. Practice braking on different surfaces and under different conditions: clear asphalt or concrete or one covered with sand, pebbles and gravel, then chunky, broken, bumpy surfaces, soft sand surfaces, etc

You need to know how to shift properly and efficiently so you don’t get stuck on an uphill and how to shift quickly enough to accelerate and get out of a tough spot or clear an obstacle. You need to hone your reflexes and balance so you can brake on a split second notice, come to a controlled stop and not fall off your bike. You need to be able to predict your path and movement and shift into a right gear when needed so you don’t get stuck in a high gear and unable to move. You need to be able to accelerate from a stop in a straight line, without wobbling sideways so you won’t get side-swept by a passing vehicle.

You can’t be distracted by your bike, riding it has to be instinctive and subconscious. When you’re moving, seconds matter and there is no time to figure things out on the fly. Finally, you need to be familiar with basic bicycle mechanics and the working of your bike so you can tell when something is wrong with it and prevent breakdowns.

Test ride

Once you have achieved the above goals, once you’re in shape and in control of your bike and you think you’re ready to go, do a test run on a weekend. Pick a quiet, clear Sunday morning and do a full simulation: ride loaded with anything you’re going to need during normal commute. Before you head out check Google Maps, NYC Bike Maps or Ride With GPS websites and find a good route. Also, you may want to get a copy of the official DOT NYC Bike Map from a local bike shop or download a PDF here. Try to avoid bridges without bikeways, busy multi-lane roads and complex intersections.

As you ride along, look out for subway stations, bike shops, delis, bagel shops, etc. It’s good to know what’s along your route in case you need help, need to bail out and hop on the subway, need a snack or just want to stop and relax or do some grocery shopping. This will be an easy ride since the traffic will be very light. Use it to scout the route, not to judge the time needed for your commute, it’ll be all different on a workday morning with normal traffic. Do a full simulation, including locking and securing your bike at your workplace and even changing your clothes if you can access your workplace on a weekend.

You can use this run to drop off spare set of clothes and toiletries as well. Even if you’re going to carry a change of clothes with you every day, it’s wise to have a full, spare set of clothes at work. Just in case you forget something, or forget to close your pannier properly and something gets wet, etc. Leave some things at work, don’t carry everything with you every day: belt, shoes, toiletries, spare power supplies for your laptop and your gadgets, any accessories that you can easily duplicate between home and work.

It’s very likely that during this first test ride you will realize that you got a number of things wrong: your bike wasn’t set up right, you were missing something essential, the route you picked was too dangerous or too difficult. In such case, wait another week and do it again :) Bring things over to work during that week that you may need.

Depending on how you commute, keep looking for alternative routes. Observe other cyclists, see what streets they take, where they come from. However, I recommend against asking other cyclists for advice at this time unless you know the person you’re asking is a mature, serious and experienced bike commuter, not some gung-ho ninja type. Most advice will be meaningless to you until you actually start riding, since you won’t have any frame of reference yet, and no related experiences. If you follow my articles I’m pretty sure you will be off to a good start and you will have that much more satisfaction if you do this all by yourself.

During this first ride, besides your scouting duties, try to look for things you normally don’t see and don’t experience while taking mass transit or driving. Notice how easy it is for you to move around the city. Notice how free you are to stop and go whichever way you want. Notice how you are in control of your movement and how independent you have suddenly become: no sick passenger, broken train or police activity will delay your trip, no traffic problems will make you sit in bumper-to-bumper jams. Notice how effortless it is to carry your cargo on a bike. Notice how exhilarating it is to breathe the air, see the sky above your head and feel the wind on your face. Do you feel bad for all the people waiting for the bus at the bus stops you’re passing? Would you rather be there with them now? Would you rather be waiting for a subway train now? It’s not your normal commute, isn’t it?

Of course, this is Sunday morning. Things will be more hectic during a morning rush hour, but most of what you have noticed on this Sunday morning ride will hold true on a weekday as well.

If you’d like try another test ride, do it on Saturday morning. It’ll be busier than on Sunday and closer to a weekday conditions. It’s up to you if you want to do some more training rides like this or start riding to work already. You can start gradually too. Try Thursdays and Fridays at first, these days should be less hectic than earlier in the week. Try only two days a week at first and focus on learning and polishing your skills and senses, on optimizing your route and figuring out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. This will be be an ongoing process. It may be many months before you find the optimal route and set up your bike exactly to your liking and perfect all your routines and get into steady habits. But it’s a start. Congratulations!


Written by Adam DZ

December 31st, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  • Adam

    I’m a big Google fan but I’m finding Google maps to be less accurate than pretty much everything else out there. Their data seems to be outdated and incomplete compared to Navtech, Garmin, Mapquest and Bing even. I’ve been on roads that were missing from Google maps but present on my Garmin or my car GPS (Ford Sync). I don’t bother with any electronics during my commute and on other rides I use a Garmin GPS. I never liked the idea of using a phone as navigation on a bike: too delicate and not waterproof.

  • ballroomdru

    If you have an android phone, google maps on android now gives cycling directions incorporating the NYC bike map.

  • ballroomdru

    A few thoughts from my experience. Currently, I commute home by bike every day that it does not rain. I started out bringing my bike into Manhattan on the way into the city and riding part of the way home. For me that meant going from 6th Avenue and 14th street to Herald Square for work, then going from Herald Square to the J stop just before the Williamsburg bridge on the way home. After doing this for a week, one day I decided to follow the other cyclists over the Wiliamsburg Bridge and gt on the J train at the stop just after. After two weeks of that, one day I just kept going. I followed the J train all the way to Broadway Junction and Navigated my way home from there. That day my wife said, now that you have done it once, you can do it again. I have been doing it fairly regularly since.

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