Commuting Gear

There’s no one right way, but I can tell you what my experiences have been, and why I’ve ended up where I am, in terms of gear.

Bicycle commuting is easy when you have a short commute and the weather is moderate (dry, neither too warm nor too cold). Some people do it with nothing more than an elastic to keep their pants out of the bike chain. Personally, I recommend against that, because cycling is really hard on dress clothes, particularly the seat/crotch. When I worked somewhere I could wear what I wanted, I was wearing much heavier & tougher pants in winter, and I’d still wear through the seats in just a few years (even while the rest of the pants were just fine).

(By the way, any links to specific retailers are not endorsements of those retailers, unless otherwise noted. I just wanted to provide examples of reliably products and in some cases that’s easier than linking to the manufacturer’s site. I highly recommend cultivating a relationship with a local bike shop, and doing as much of your shopping there as you can. )

How Do I Carry My Stuff?

Your options for packing dress clothes on a bike are basically 3:

  1. Backpack/messenger bag
  2. Pannier
  3. Garment bag pannier.

With 1 or 2, you’ll need some way to keep the clothes neat. Rolling might work—and does for lots of people. Eagle Creek makes some excellent packing/travel gear for folding clothes. These plus a backpack or pannier of appropriate size could be all you need.

However, most panniers, backpacks, and messenger bags aren’t very square, so getting something like that to fit can require some planning. The folders are really intended more for [small] suitcases. And I don’t like having something on my back, particularly when it’s warm out. It’s much more pleasant to have your back free to serve as a radiator in just about all weather.

My personal recommendation is a garment bag pannier. There are only a couple on the market, and I can highly recommend the one from Two Wheel Gear. I know that $200 sounds like a big investment, but dress slacks are at least $50/ea, so the way I see it, it pays for itself in saved clothing expenses in a year or so. Lots of business tops (shirts/blouses, vests, jackets) aren’t a great fit for biking, either.

I’ve also thought about getting a roll-up travel garment bag and strapping it to my rear rack. So far, I’m happy with what I’ve got, and that roll-up wouldn’t give me anywhere to put a laptop—but it does carry 2 pairs of shoes, something I’ve struggled with with my current bag.

Whatever bag you get, you need to think about rain. Snow really doesn’t have any impact on your bags (it does impact your clothes and bike), except when it’s very heavy and wet (and then it’s the same issue as rain). Not all bags that claim to be waterproof are, and “water resistant” really runs the gamut. So read some reviews. If you want absolutely guaranteed waterproof in a pannier or backpack, get Ortlieb. The downside of completely waterproof bags is that you’ll need to remember to leave them open if there’s anything in them that you want to air (like your sweaty biking clothes), because waterproof goes both ways. The TwoWheelGear garment pannier is water-resistant. When mine was new, it would keep my stuff dry except in really torrential downpours, with only a little seepage through the vents (that are there to keep your clothes fresh) even then. But over time (5 years of year-round use) the waterproof coating has deteriorated a bit—it’s not as stretchy as the fabric it’s bonded to, so in some of the stress points it has given up. However, they now sell a raincover. So I’ll either be buying that or selling my old bag and buying their newer bag (which adds a couple interior pockets).

So, that’s the bag basics: something that can hold your clothes neatly, and is waterproof if you plan to bike in the rain. It should be at least water-resistant even if you don’t plan to bike in the rain, because sooner or later you’ll probably get caught. I recommend something that’s not on your back.

The Bike

Almost anything will work, but I recommend a cyclocross, “hybrid”, touring, or “city” bike unless you’re going to be on a lot of unpaved surfaces. Basically, suspension is just a waste of energy for most pavement riding, and ditto for fat or knobby tires, so a mountain bike is typically a poor choice without a little work (smooth tires, maybe different gearing). A road bike can work, particularly if you’re not carrying much (or drive in once a week to carry all your clothes, and don’t have to carry anything the other days), but they often don’t have clearance for fenders or mounting points for fenders or racks, and if it’s not what you’re used to, the riding posture may be too aggressive for comfort.

But, again, you don’t need to buy a new bike to commute. If you have a bike and you’re happy with it, you’ll be fine! If you aren’t happy with it, or you need advice on buying a new bike, then go with the above, or read one of these other guides.

Beyond a working bike, the key gear you need is:

  • Fenders
  • Rear rack
  • Headlight and taillight
  • A good lock or 3
  • Bike gloves

Bike gloves are critical, IMHO (though obviously plenty of people do without). They give you better traction on the handlebars so you don’t have to use a deathgrip (which is very fatiguing); a little bit of padding to relieve pressure areas (which are only made worse by the aforementioned deathgrip); and crucially, protection if you fall. I guarantee that if you fall your hands are going to take the brunt of it. In a more severe accident, your knees and elbows are also likely targets. But you can take a pretty nasty spill without your head ever coming into contact with anything (we reflexively try to protect our heads, frequently sacrificing hands and elbows in the process).

For locking, the easiest solution, if you can use it, is to leave a lock at work and a lock at home, and never carry one. But that’ll leave you stuck if you decide to stop somewhere on the way (to run an errand, enjoy the park, or whatever). What I do is leave a really good u-lock at work, and carry a light cable lock. It’s not good enough for leaving the bike for long, or out of sight, but for running into a store with the bike in full view from the main entrance, it’s probably fine. Others will carry a small u-lock with them, and have a larger one waiting at work.

When locking your bike anywhere you can’t keep an eye on it, use a well-rated u-lock, or one of the few other styles of solid locks that get similarly good ratings. Cable locks simply aren’t sufficient. Sold Secure is a good, independent tester of lock effectiveness. Always lock to something secure—if whatever it is is only bolted together or bolted down, it can be disassembled or removed in a few seconds by someone with a speed wrench. First priority is to lock your frame. If you can only lock 1 wheel, lock your back wheel. If you want to be sure, or you are in a particularly high-theft area, lock both wheels. There’s a myth that a rear wheel is more trouble to remove, due to the derailleur and chain. It’s not. Particularly if you don’t care if the derailleur is damaged in the process. And your rear wheel probably costs 3x what your front wheel does.

I recommend that you replace any quick-release items on your bike (most often the wheels and seatpost clamp) with the bolt-on equivalents. Yes, it means you’ll need to carry a wrench to change a flat. But it also makes your wheels and saddle much less attractive than those on a bike where they can be removed without any tools. Quick-release for the seat is particularly pointless for most people: you’ll figure out the saddle height once (or, at worst, over the first few weeks you have the bike), and then never adjust it again for possibly decades. And locking the saddle is a pain—at least a good locking strategy can circumvent the problem of quick-release wheels.

There are two purposes for headlights: seeing, and being seen. In urban areas, you might not even need lights to see—it is often well enough lit, even in the dead of night or in a storm, to see just fine. But if you do need a headlight to see the road, there are a lot of options out there, ranging from $35 2-watt LED lights through several-hundred-dollar rechargeable battery systems with multiple headlights or fancy dynamos with wired-in lights. If you don’t know that you need something better than a $35 light, you probably don’t need anything better than a $35 light. And if you discover that you need a better light, you’ll still have that cheap light as a backup, so it’s not a waste.

For being seen, you need a good headlight, and a taillight is also a good idea. Make sure the headlight is white and the taillight is red. But if all it’s for is being seen, brightness is more important than how well it illuminates the ground. So a single-LED white headlight, possibly driven by just a watch battery, can be sufficient. Blinking or not is partly a religious debate. There is evidence that blinking lights are more attention-getting, but there is also evidence that it is harder to judge the distance and speed of a blinking light. It’s also harder to judge the speed of a single-wavelength light, like an LED. Combine all this, and I’ve had near collisions a couple of times with another cyclist who had a blinking red light on the front—I thought I was gradually overtaking them when I was actually coming straight at them at a high combined speed.

You’ll see some experienced cyclists who do all this with one light, perhaps a 2- or 3-LED headlight that can have steady or blinking modes. You’ll run into other experienced cyclists that have 2 or 3 lights on their handlebars, 1 very bright blinkie to get attention, and then 1 or 2 lights better at illuminating the road alongside it. Likewise, it’s not uncommon to see 2 or 3 red blinkies on the back of a bike.

One final note: where to put your lights. The basic options are handlebars or head/helmet. The advantage of a head-mounted light is that it illuminates wherever you look and it’s higher up and likely to move around more so motorists are more likely to notice it. The big disadvantage is that it will virtually eliminate shadows in dim situations where it is the brightest or only light. So there’s some danger that you won’t notice a bump or pothole in the road until too late. If you’re just biking in well-lit urban areas, this is a non-issue. The best solution for both visibility and seeing the road would be a very bright steady light and a small blinking light on your handlebars and a modest light on your head—but for most people/situations, that’s overkill.

For commuting, I consider fenders and a rear rack to be essential. The rack is where you put your bag so that it’s not on your back. You can make do with any rack, any old backpack, and an elastic web. Just make sure you keep the backpack straps well contained so they won’t catch in your wheel. Most panniers will fit on most racks, with the one caveat being that some panniers have a loop for the lowest attachment point, and will only work with racks that have a spur sticking out; while other panniers have some sort of hook for the lowest attachment point, and will work on just about any rack.

Even if you don’t intend to ride in the rain, you’ll probably ride after the rain, or otherwise have to deal with puddles. Fenders keep you and your bags clean and dry, and they also extend the life of your bike. Without them, several of the moving parts of your bike will be constantly sprayed with dirty water whenever there’s water on the ground.

Nice-to-haves would be:

  • Bike shoes.
  • Clipless pedals.
  • Mirror. You can get mirrors that mount to your handlebars, helmet, or glasses.
  • Bike shorts.
  • Helmet

(And some people don’t want some or any of these things. My spouse simply isn’t interested in clipless pedals, frex.)

Bike shoes are nice because they are extra stiff, so they make pedaling easier and require your feet to do less of the work. Plenty of people do without them. For commuting, you want bike shoes that are walkable—not racing shoes that have a [mostly] smooth outsole.

What got me to start using bike shoes (well, bike sandals, actually) was clipless pedals. Yes, they probably make my cycling a little bit more efficient and transfer a little more power from my legs to the wheels, but the real advantage is keeping your feet on the pedals when you hit a big bump, or it’s wet out, or you’re tired. Now, learning to ride with your shoes attached to the pedals is scary, I won’t lie to you. But I think it’s totally worth it. You will fall down while learning to use clipless pedals. But everyone I’ve talked to has had the same experience I have had: exactly two falls while learning, and both of them embarrassing slow-motion falls at a dead stop in the middle of stopped traffic that maybe leave a couple bruises but nothing worse. And you might be able to get through that period by practicing on a grassy field and save the hurt and most of the embarrassment. If you go clipless, for a commuting bike I recommend single-sided pedals that have a platform on the other side, so that you can easily ride them with regular shoes, too.

After a headlight and bike gloves, the next most important safety equipment is a mirror. I find that helmet- or glasses-mounted mirrors are the best, but they take a little getting used to, since the perspective moves when your head does. But the upside is that the perspective moves when your head does—getting a better view behind you is as easy as turning your head just a few degrees, while keeping what’s in front of you still in front of your eyes. But if that doesn’t work for you, there are several styles of handlebar- and frame-mounted mirrors you can get.

Bike shorts are largely a matter of taste for shorter rides. The padding isn’t really the point—the seamless design to prevent chafing is why you wear them. You might be able to get the same result with regular underwear and gym shorts or running tights, or even your regular pants. But, see above: biking, and particularly bike saddles, are hard on pants. It’s probably worth wearing something else to save your good dress clothes, if you have to wear nice clothes for work. Plus, then you don’t have to worry about keeping your pants out of the chain.

I’d never tell someone not to wear a helmet; I’m just putting the risk in perspective with other risks (walking is probably more dangerous) and saying that if you don’t want one, that’s reasonable. The research on their effectiveness is mixed, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic that I’ll go into another time. If you wear a helmet, wear it right—there’s no point in having a helmet on that isn’t giving you any protection.

Dressing For the Weather

Since I have to change anyway, I typically wear [lightly-padded] bike shorts. But unless you’re particularly susceptible to chafing and other negative effects, or you have a quite long ride, anything you’re comfortable biking in should be fine. I’m going to presume you have some experience cycling, and not go on about what sorts of gear/clothing you need for general cycling, instead just focusing on stuff specific to commuting and all-weather riding. For the most part, any clothes that you’re comfortable riding in (well, riding a similar distance in) will work as your foundation for commuting, too.

Rain

You have two ways to deal with this: Get wet, or stay dry. One way to deal with rain is to not have any special gear, and just get wet. Since your work clothes will be in a waterproof bag, this can be fine above about 55-60 degrees (depending on your metabolism, how hard you bike, and how long your ride is), so long as you don’t mind having to towel off, do your hair, etc., when you get to work. If you have showers, this can be the easiest solution. Don’t forget you’ll also want somewhere to hang the soaked clothes (after you ring them out), or you’ll have to put clammy clothes back on at the end of the day.

Staying dry on a bike is actually sorta hard. Because anything that will keep the rain off of you is also going to trap a lot of your body heat and sweat, and you’re working hard on a bike. This is one place where springing for bike-specific gear is a good plan. Raincoats designed for cycling have copious venting, strategically placed so that it will catch air when biking, but not let the rain in. Showers Passis probably the gold standard in bike raingear. Typically, you’ll only need a jacket. One cut for cycling will cover your butt and mostly cover your hips and lap, just leaving your legs exposed. You’ll need to towel off, but won’t be uncomfortable. For cold rain, however, you may want a pair of rain pants (again, get a cycling-specific pair—there’ll be extra venting, extra material around the hips and knees, and designed to be tight around the calves) and either rain booties or waterproof socks. I go the waterproof socks route and just let my shoes (or more likely sandals) get soaked. With a hood or rain hat, it is possible to bike in a torrential downpour, and get to work perfectly dry (so long as you don’t work up too much of a sweat). I find commuting in rain to be generally very pleasant.

Winter

Winter riding is both easier and harder than rain. It’s easier in that you don’t have the necessity to be waterproof, which means you can use more-breathable materials. It’s harder in that you need clothes that will keep the wind off you, move well, and not be too warm. Other than fingers and eyes, I never have problems with being cold. My problem, year-round, is not overheating. If anything, it’s a bigger problem in winter than in summer. One mistake a lot of people make is thinking that insulation is the most important thing. When cycling, it’s wind-blocking. You want the front of your body absolutely windproof once you get below freezing, but you want the back of your body able to breathe a bit so you don’t overheat. Cycling-specific jackets and tights will provide this combo. The Pearl Izumi Amfib tights are amazing! That single layer is all I need on my legs until it gets well below zero (I add my rainpants as an additional layer around -20° F). Everywhere else, wool is your friend. I can be quite comfortable in winter with wool socks (get something with pile inside, like the Smartwool hiking socks), leather boots (so they block the wind), cotton underwear, Amfib tights, cotton long-sleeved shirt, wool midlayer (Icebreaker 260 or 320 weight), and a winter cycling jacket. You’ll be surprised at how thin winter cycling jackets are. They are not warm enough for not-biking, with minimal insulation, but an absolutely windproof front and a partially-breathable back (you don’t want it too breathable, or you’ll lose too much body heat). When it gets cold, I replace the cotton shirt with a wool shirt (so I’m wearing two layers of wool).

On my head, I use a windproof headband for my ears and a Headgator to cover my nose, mouth, cheeks, and neck. If you can’t grow a beard, you’ll almost certainly need some sort of face covering if you want to bike in winter. Even with a beard, I find I have to cover my mouth and nose or I can’t handle breathing in the cold air. Clear-lensed ski goggles are another great tool for when it gets very cold. For me, I don’t need them until around -20° F, but each will have their own thresholds. Some people never cover their eyes; some do so as soon as it gets much below freezing. I don’t cover my head until around -10° F, when I add a second Headgator over the headband, worn like a stocking cap. Any warmer than that, and I overheat if my head is covered.

For shoes, there are multiple solutions. Other than your fingertips, keeping your toes warm is probably the hardest part. There are specifically designed winter bike shoes/boots. Any reasonably slim winter boot will work just fine, if you find it comfortable to pedal in. If they’re too wide/bulky, you won’t have your weight well supported on the pedals, but they would otherwise still work. I use riding boots (as in, horse-riding), and have a regular pair for most weather and an insulated pair for when it gets really cold. Another solution to cold toes is toe clip covers, but you have to have (or install) toe clips to use them.

For gloves, you’ll again probably want bicycle-specific ones, even though they’re more expensive. The problem is, again, wind. Most winter gloves aren’t designed with the assumption that you’ll have a constant head-on 20+ mph wind aimed right at the seams. And the few that are (like ski gloves) tend to be too bulky to handle your brakes and shifters reliably. Again, Pearl Izumi has some great gloves, though they’re far from the only good brand for this.

If you have a flat-bar bike, another solution for your hands is to wear light-weight gloves and use pogies or bar mitts. I’ve never tried this, but I can see the appeal.

Oh, yeah: if you commute in winter, you’ll be riding in the dark. There’s no avoiding it. Lights are critical. Remember that as a general rule, if a car is positioned such that their headlights can illuminate your reflectors (other than your rear reflector), they’re either not a threat, or it’s too late. Either way, bike reflectors aren’t really a good accident-avoidance technology. They’re more of a general-awareness tool. The only exception to this is your rear reflector—and even it is less useful than many seem to think.

More Advice

There are a lot of people out there blogging about bike commuting—some Googling should turn up stuff of interest. The best one-stop source I’ve found is probably Commute By Bike, but that has recently changed hands. It looks to still be producing good content, and the archives are still available, just a little more buried. (That URL may redirect to http://www.bikeshophub.com/blog/cats/commute-by-bike/ so don’t get weirded out worrying that your connection has been highjacked.) However, I recently discovered Total Women’s Cycling. They have a section for bike commuting, but the real jewel of their site is their “Beginner Road Cyclist 101”. You’ll have to translate a few things (it’s a UK site, so a few words are different, and right/left are reversed for many things), but if you have questions about the basics of riding a bike, that article probably covers it, and has links to dozens of additional articles with more details on every topic. It’s not commuting-specific (so nothing about carrying stuff or dealing with weather), but depending how much riding you do currently, it could still be immensely helpful.

Other sites that I can recommend without reservation:

  • The late Sheldon Brown’s website has reliable info on just about everything bike-related, including commuting.
  • Paul Dorn’s website has an extensive commuting section, and most of his blog is also about commuting.
  • Index of Commute By Bike’s Commuting 101 articles.
  • The League of American Bicyclists has a nice tipsheet, but it’s disappointingly light on details.
  • CycleSolutions various guides, mostly aimed at commuting (looks to be a government-sponsored site to promote utilitarian cycling).

I’ve been biking year-round for years, and using a bike as my primary (and often only) transportation for decades, so if you have any other questions, feel free to ask. If I don’t know the answer, I can probably point you at a resource that does.

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