Bike Commute Guide: The Essentials

Today I’m talking commute basics, as somebody recently asked me what to keep in mind when making the transition to bike commuting. It took me back to when I dusted off my old Ross mountain bike and said to myself, “Metro no more. I’m going to make this bike commute thing happen.” Happily, it wasn’t a tough transition to make, but it was a change to my personal transportation system that took time to refine and become routine.

Now that I’ve adjusted, it’s hard to imagine a time when I relied on metro or car more than my bicycle as my primary form of transportation.

For those considering bike commuting, this post discusses the the basic gear I purchased and the adaptations I made to bike commute. Everyone develops their own systems over time, and this is my basic rundown.

1. Obtain a bike or (in cities like Washington, D.C.) purchase a Bikeshare membership. This post is more for the person with his or her own bike, but some of it applies to anyone riding to work. Wonder what type of bike is good for commuting? This post I wrote about my Surly Long Haul Trucker, which is my primary commuter, gives you some factors to consider including price point, utility, carrying capacity, and comfort.

2. Make sure your bike is in good working condition. Tires, wheels, shifting, chain, brakes… perhaps consider a trip to the local bike shop for a pre-commute tuneup.

3. Purchase a pump, spare tube, multitool, bike levers, and patch kit and stow them on your bike. Nobody wants a flat tire, but it’s important to have the right stuff to fix one if it happens. You might also consider carrying a small packet of wet wipes so that you can clean up any dirt and grease that may have rubbed off on you.

4. Map out a route with quiet streets, even if you have to ride a little further. Figure out your route before you hop on the bike. Ask around to other cyclists about good commute routes. There are lots of forums out there with commuters who are happy to offer route suggestions. One resource in the D.C. area is the Washington Area Bike Forum.

Surly LHT with Carradice, Ortlieb, and Rickshaw

5. Figure out the best place to park your bike. Can you park in your office? Is there a nearby parking garage with an attendant on duty? Scope it out. If you know or see another commuter in your building, ask him or her.

6. Commute on a bike that can take panniers (I prefer Ortliebs) or at least allows you to ride without anything on your back. Some people may not mind riding with a backpack or messenger bag, but it bothers my back and I don’t like to be encumbered by the extra weight.

If you ride to work in your work clothes, the following three points may not apply to you. I’m all for it if someone wants to ride in work clothes, and I do so often enough. That said, I’ve found it puts additional extra wear and tear on my work attire, which means I have to go out and replace it more frequently. It’s also better for rainy days, as I avoid a day spent in wet work clothes. Hence, the following three points for those who, like me, change from their riding clothes into business attire after arriving at the office.

Loving the Post-Work Commute

7. Don’t carry your work clothes in every day, if you can help it. Figure out a place to stash them in your office. I have a file drawer that conceals a couple of sweaters, a wrinkle-free skirt, and a couple of other regularly used pieces.

8. Find a dry cleaner close to your job. That way, you avoid having to haul clothes back home, dry cleaning them, and then figuring out how to fold them back into your panniers or packs to bring them back in to work.

9. Rotate clothes in and out of you office as the seasons change. Oh, and as they get dirty :).

10. Keep a brush, towel and some deodorant at the office. Also, on hot days, save the makeup application for post-work arrival. Otherwise it just melts off.

11. Don’t let the rain scare you off. Get some fenders. Invest in a rain jacket. They’re worth it.

12. Purchase a good front and rear light. I’m currently using a Light & Motion Urban 180 front light (which has been replaced with the Urban 200) and another Light & Motion Vis 180 Micro taillight. Both recharge via USB charger, which makes it easy to juice them up at the office. These are reasonably priced, durable lights with good illumination. Lights are important not only to see, but also to be seen. When I made the switch to bike commuting, I was shocked by how invisible those who ride or run at night become without lights or reflective gear.

The Cannondale’s rear Nitto rack, Spanninga light (oo la la), and Velo Orange Croissant saddle bag, Kryptonite U-lock

13. Wear reflective gear, especially if you ride at night or commute before dawn. It may not be stylish, but reflective stuff makes your more visible to drivers and other cyclists. Ankle bands and reflective vests are cheap. Don’t give anybody the excuse to say that they did not see you.

14. Helmet. I am not going to tell you what to do, but it’s part of my checklist.

15. Invest in and carry a good bike lock. This is especially important if you have to park your bike outside or plan to go on any pre- or post-work outings in the city. Even though a U-lock can be broken by a determined thief, they are less likely to be messed with than cable locks. U-locks do add a little bit of weight to your bike, but I’d rather deal with that and have the additional security than fret all day about my bike and put it at greater risk for being stolen.

That concludes my list of commute basics, though I probably forgot something. Hope you find it helpful and as always, please feel free to add to this post with your own checklist items in the comments section. Thanks!


  1. Nice list. As for riding to work in work clothes: I am fortunate to have a job where, while I can’t wear jeans, I can wear stylish khakis or other “casual” slacks with a simple oxford shirt or sweater.
    My choice these days: SWRVE all-cotton cycling trousers. They’re not cheap ($100 new! — though I’ve managed to find a couple of pairs used for far less), but they’re well-made, wiith gussetted crotch for comfy riding and a right-side pantleg that rolls up to reveal a reflective stripe visible from the rear. Brilliant!


  2. These are great points! I’m still working out a viable system for carrying work clothes. I’ve been wearing work clothes on the bike, and have noticed I’ve worn out some of my work pants in the crotch. Not good. I’ve bought some bike pants to save the wear and tear!
    One suggestion I can think of is as it gets colder, I need to wear gloves. On bikes with gear shifters on the brakes, gloves are better than mittens– I found out the hard way that I need my fingers to shift.


    1. Lisa and Beth… thanks for your comments about add’l gear. I might do a future post that focuses more on the commute clothing system. Oh, and Lisa, I forgot to tell you I ordered a pair of the Chrome pants based on yours and another Friday Coffee Clubber’s recommendation.


      1. Nice that you got the Chrome pants! I’ve also just recently got a pair of Gore pants that work nicely as well. (I’ll do a write-up of those soon.)


    2. Gloves: Not sure how they’d work in your climate, but here in PDX I’ve given up on dry hands in favor of warm ones. I usually use ragg wool gloves with grippy dots (my favorites are from Manzella, though you can often find cheaper versions at the hardware store). I carry a second pair in my bike bag for the ride home in case the first pair doesn’t dry out in time. (I also carry a spare pair of thin wool socks.)


  3. Think you forgot pump in your list. Also if riding in winter take a led head torch for dealing with punctures . Leave heavy lock at work if poss. Carry a spare inner tube. Much easier to replace tube at side of road, then fix puncture when back home.


    1. So right! I also carry a spare tube and a pump, and have done as you note in the event of a flat. I’ll go back and add those. Good suggestion about the helmet lamp as well.


      1. This is a great post. (You beat me to it. I had one sitting on my pc for future use!) I think I’ll add my two cents to this tonight.


    2. Or not…. (first, good list!!!). Just pointing out that many of us commuters have a good failsafe system. The public buses all have bike racks on them these days – and you can use the subway during non-rush hour. If you commute along public transportation routes, one option is to leave all the tools and spare tires at home – and know that you can hop a bus (I have had one flat in…. um… like 20 years).


      1. Here in the UK no buses have bike racks. I also cycle unlit country lanes. So self reliance is the name of the game. Besides punctures are actually pretty rare as long as you don’t cycle in the gutter.


  4. Great post! For those timid folks just starting out, I’d add:
    -You can skip the spare tube and tools at first, if it seems difficult. Just have a good backup plan- Bikeshare, transit, or a ride.
    -The first commute is always the hardest – once you get your routine and your route in order, it get easier and easier.
    -#16: Have fun! Enjoy the scenery, the exercise, the sunrise, the sunset, the changing of the seasons, and just exploring your city or town.


Comments & questions welcome - moderated for trolls and spam.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s