If you’re new to bike commuting – or considering starting – you probably have a lot of questions. What should I wear? What do I need to carry? How can I smarten myself up once I get to work? Can I cycle to work if there are no showers at the office?
We’re here to help.
We’re going to work on the assumption that you’re cycling a reasonable distance, because if you’re going 2 miles on a sit-up-and-beg bike, you’re probably not too worried about any of this. And to all the commenters who like to weigh in and say that you don’t need anything apart from a bike, we’re here to say that you can make your life much more comfortable – and your ride much more enjoyable – with some good kit.
What gear do I need to start bike commuting?
Well, let’s start with the essentials. A bike. Obviously. Otherwise, this plan will falter. And the type of bike you need depends on several factors: the distance you’re planning to cycle, whether you want to ride upright or in a more forward position, whether you want to transport other things on your bike, and whether you intend to cycle for leisure as well as getting from A to B.
(A note if you are looking for a commuter bike for a sit-up-and-beg style ride: we were greatly impressed with the Fahrrad Manufaktur bikes on offer at Chris’s Bikes in Girton, Cambridge. The shop website is antiquated but Chris really knows his stuff and these bikes have a wealth of features to make commuters’ lives easier, such as integrated lights and luggage racks, for very reasonable prices. German efficiency at its best.)
A cycling helmet. Ignore us if you wish, listen to the militant anti-helmet brigade if you must. But cycling helmets aren’t a tool of oppression, and motorists are not the only possible risk on the road. I’ve fallen off my bike twice, and both times, I hit my head hard on the road. The first time, I misjudged the angle of a kerb coming off a roundabout. The second time, I slipped in the wet. Both times, had I not been wearing a cycling helmet I would have been in hospital requiring stitches.
We’re particular fans of the Kask Mojito, which you can buy at Sigma Sport: it’s a really lightweight, good looking helmet with excellent ventilation. We like it so much that we have a shelf full of them…
Good lights. It’s amazing, how quickly the evenings begin to draw in at the end of summer. Suddenly, you’re pedalling home at 7.30pm, realising that the light is rapidly fading and you’re not as visible on the road as you should be. Drivers are not omnipotent. If they cannot see you, they cannot avoid you. You needn’t be decked out in hi-vis from head-to-toe to cycle safely, but you absolutely must have lights. You need a high lumen front light to guide you home and avoid potholes, and you need a very bright, flashing rear light to alert other road users to your presence. You need to use them on murky days, too, not just at night. Help people to see you. Cyclists who don’t use lights in low light and low visibility are idiots.
We’ve been using See.Sense lights recently and we’re very impressed (look out for a review soon). We recommend using rechargeable lights that you can plus in to the USB port on your computer when you arrive at work. It’s also useful to keep a backup light in your desk drawer – I like to have some of the small Knog lights around in case of battery failure.
Basic Repair Kit I like to keep my repair kit in a small saddlebag so that it is always with my bike and there is no chance of me leaving the house without it. Matt prefers to carry a Lezyne repair pouch in his jersey pocket. However you choose to carry it, it should contain tyre levers, a multitool, a spare inner tube, and a couple of CO2 canisters. Carry a small bicycle pump, too. You don’t want to discover that you have a flat tyre 5 miles from home and no way to repair it. We’re massive fans of Airsmith bicycle pumps which you can buy here.
Ok. I’ve got my bike, my helmet, lights, and repair kit. Do I need special cycling clothes for bike commuting?
You don’t have to buy special clothes for bike commuting. If you’re not riding huge distances, you can manage perfectly well in ordinary clothes. The only thing we would advise against wearing are flipflops – they’re really not safe for pedalling. But as someone who used to cycle 18 miles a day on a singlespeed in heels, dresses, jeans, ankle boots – you can manage perfectly well in your every day clothes. In bad weather you’ll need a good waterproof jacket and gloves so your hands don’t slip on the handlebars, but otherwise, you’re good to go. The trouble with cycling in your work clothes, though, arises when it is warm or wet. If it’s hot, you will get sweaty. If it’s wet, you will get dirty. You probably don’t want to be either of those things in the workplace.
If you want to cycle to work in cycling gear and change when you arrive, a little more planning is required – but once you’ve nailed the contents of your rucksack and desk drawer, you’re sorted. As Lycra and Merino dry out much more quickly than a pair of jeans or cotton tee-shirt, wearing the right fabrics will make your life that much easier.
Spring/Autumn bike commuting
Legs: In between seasons, shorts can be a bit too cold and cycling tights can be a bit too warm. A pair of ¾ cycling tights is a very useful purchase. The Fierlan women’s specific ¾ tights are particularly good and have a very comfortable chamois pad so you won’t get saddle sore on your commute. ¾ tights will also keep your knees warm – important if you want to avoid injuries!
Arms: You’re unlikely to need a long sleeved cycling jersey in between seasons, so wear a short sleeved jersey with a pair of Merino arm warmers. They’ll keep the chill out early in the morning without causing you to overheat. You can buy them from Rapha for £45, or you can buy a brilliant pair from Planet X for the bargain price of £5.00. I have two pairs of the Planet X Merino arm warmers and they are brilliant. Soft, cosy, durable, and they don’t slide down.
Body: A cycling gilet or vest is a very useful item when you’re bike commuting. It’s an extra layer which helps keep the chill out in the morning and evening, and if you buy a lightweight one you can squish it into a spare water bottle once the weather warms up. I’m a big fan of the Rapha gilet which is really well cut and an effective wind blocker.
Bum: A mudguard is invaluable on wet days, unless you want to arrive at work with brown splatters of mud down your bum. Buy an Ass Saver and keep it in your rucksack in case of emergency.
Fingers: You won’t need long-fingered gloves until winter bites. A pair of short-fingered gloves will see you through most of spring, summer and autumn. Endura make excellent gloves, as do Specialized – well constructed with good padding.
Feet: Nothing beats Merino socks for cycling in cooler weather. It’s a wicking fibre which regulates temperature to keep your feet comfortable. Castelli make very good merino socks, and you might want to look at Vulpine, too. You also need to think about how you’re going to keep your feet dry when bike commuting. Keeping a pair of waterproof shoe covers in your rucksack is a good idea, because once your cycling shoes are soaked through, they will be disgusting for 48 hours.
Winter bike commuting
You’re serious, aren’t you? A dedicated bike commuter! We’re glad to hear it.
Legs: In winter, long tights are a must. Rapha winter cycling tights (pictured above) are excellent, as are Rivelo. They both have robust, durable chamois pads and a dense Lycra which keeps your legs toasty on frosty days.
Arms: unless it’s a very mild winter, you’re going to want a warm cycling jacket. It needs to be breathable, it needs to be shower proof, and it needs reflective detailing for visibility at night. The Isadore Merino Membrane Cycling Jacket is superb. If you want more visibility than that, it would be worth looking at the Proviz range of super high visibility jackets.
Body: It’s time to invest in a wicking Merino base layer. We’re big fans of both Rapha and Isadore base layers, and Ice Breaker merino is also excellent.
Fingers: when the mercury drops, make sure you have some good long-fingered gloves, because nothing spoils a bike ride like cold, stiff fingers that can no longer operate brakes and gears. Again, Endura make good gloves at a reasonable price point, and we’ve been pleased with the offering from Grip Grab.
Feet: in cold weather your feet can get extremely cold in cycling shoes. Stick with the merino socks and add full shoe covers or toe covers if you’re feeling the chill.
The bike: change your tyres in winter to something with better grip. Make sure your brake pads are in good shape, and switch your chain lubricant to a ‘wet’ variety.
Summer bike commuting
You’ve done all the difficult seasons, and now you can relax! All you need is a lightweight jersey and shorts, lightweight socks, your sunnies, and a good SPF. Enjoy!
Alright. I just have one more issue: there aren’t any showers at my workplace. How can I make myself look presentable when I’ve cycled to work?
It might sound vacuous to some people – I can probably picture the comments, in fact – but for a lot of women who work in a professional environment, looking presentable post-ride is really important. It certainly is to me: the last thing I want is to have a client meeting with a red face and terrible helmet hair.
Bike commuting to a workplace with no showers can be problematic. There have been several occasions when we’ve resorted to a Spanish shower in the sink after a hot (or rainy) commute… Far from ideal. But not a deal breaker! Here is my list of desk drawer essentials to get you looking sharp in 10 minutes.
You need a bottle of Muc-Off Dry Shower. It’s a deliciously coconutty liquid which turns to a foam. It’s deodorising and antibacterial and we guarantee nobody in your office will complain that you smell once you’ve freshened up with this.
A pack of baby wipes is useful in case it’s been a wet commute and you’re a bit muddy. You can also clean a bit of dirt off your helmet and shoes, so they’re doubly useful.
A Tangle Teezer is a must for tidying up your hair. On the subject of hair, in hot weather, my anti-helmet hair method is to cycle with wet hair which has been liberally coated with a taming lotion. (I can recommend OGX Moroccan Curling Perfection Defining Cream.) I then loosely plait it (in two plaits) for cycling and let it out when I reach the office to finish drying naturally in waves. Plaits are better than pony tails which I find can end up really frizzy by the time I’ve ridden 14 miles to work. In winter, I rough dry my hair before plaiting it. A cycling cap or silk scarf wrapped around your hair will help prevent snagging and frizz.
A tube of BB cream will even out your complexion when you arrive red-faced after gunning it to win that QOM. The Clinique Super City Block BB Cushion Compact works like magic!
Finally, keep a pair of smart, neutral shoes in your desk drawer along with a cardigan or blazer. That way, your rucksack only needs to contain a dress (in a manmade fibre, ideally, which won’t crease), underwear and your daily essentials.
Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments section!
Chapeau, and here’s to #happybikecommuting.