Advice for new bicycle commuters

Photo of my bike and yellow backpack

I started biking to work last summer, around 8-10 miles per day. Overall it’s been a big boon to my health – I’ve lost weight, I feel happier, and I have a new hobby to geek out over. But there are some lessons I wish I had learned earlier, so in this post I’m going to offer some advice to new cyclists.

Note: I’m not a doctor, a physical therapist, or even a big expert on cycling. So take my advice with a grain of salt.

Gear

You don’t need a lot of expensive gear to be a bike commuter. I used a 20-year-old hand-me-down mountain bike for my first few months, before I decided I was serious enough to want an upgrade.

The most important thing is safety: flashing lights, bright colors. If you’re going to be biking alongside traffic, you want to be visible in all conditions: daytime, nighttime, dusk, etc. If you don’t have a brightly-colored backpack, get a backpack cover that’s bright yellow with reflective strips. As a bonus, it will keep your backpack dry.

The second most important thing is comfort. I really like the dorky bike shorts with padding on bottom, because they reduce saddle sores, but you can also just use regular gym shorts. You don’t need special bike shoes, but you may want to use a different pair than you wear throughout the day, because they will get sweaty and stinky. In the winter, make sure to have gloves, a scarf, and a hat that will fit under your helmet.

Safety

I’ll say it again: flashing lights, bright colors. Some cars will treat you with respect, but a lot of drivers are just distracted or lazy and won’t see you coming. Deck yourself out like the yellow Power Ranger, and even then don’t assume that cars will see you.

Traditionally there are hand sigals for left turns and right turns. I don’t use the “bent elbow” left-hand signal for right turns, because I assume that no driver has seen that signal since the 1930’s. You’re better off just pointing with your right hand.

If you’re on a road without a bike lane, or if there’s barely any shoulder, then try to make it clear that you don’t want to be passed. Otherwise if you keep too far to the right, then drivers will take it as an invitation to pass you, even if you’re just inches away from their side mirror. Drive in the middle of the lane if you have to. Better to slow down someone’s commute than to be roadkill.

Look behind you when you merge left. Practice it if it’s hard to ride a straight line while doing so. I prefer this to using a rearview mirror, because it makes it really obvious to drivers that I’m craning my neck and so they should watch my movement.

If you can alter your route to include more dedicated bike paths and bike trails, then do it. Adding a few extra minutes to your commute is worth the peace of mind. Plus, you’re trying to get some exercise, right?

A bike path in the woods

Health

Biking has a lot of health hazards, but I’m just going to talk about the ones that affected me.

If you get drop bars, make sure you’re using them correctly. I made the mistake of over-using the lower position (“I’m going so fast! I’m a real cyclist now!”), and it really did a number on my wrists. I ended up with a lot of chronic wrist pain until I learned to do it right. It’s better now, but I can’t do push-ups anymore.

Basic advice: use the middle “Atari joystick” position for 90% of your ride, use the upper position on uphills (to lean back and get bigger lungfuls of air), and only use the lower position on downhills, when you want more control over your brakes and a bit more speed. Try to work your core muscles so you’re not putting weight on your wrists, and switch up your position occasionally.

Get a bike fitting. Yes, it can be expensive (mine ran $150), but it’s way cheaper than physical therapy. They’ll adjust your saddle height, your handlebar position, and everything else for maximum comfort. This can prevent all sorts of back and wrist pain. I wish I had done it earlier.

Have fun

Keep at it. Drink lots of water. Don’t feel bad when you get passed by 60 year-old dudes with gray beards – instead, think about how someday you could be that silverfox!

The other cyclists you see on the road are, statistically speaking, likely to be more hardcore than you. They probably spend a lot more time cycling – hence why you see them. So don’t feel bad about getting passed.

If there’s a particularly nasty uphill on your route, just think to yourself, “It gets a little easier every day.” Because the truth is, it does! Pretty soon you’ll be shaving time off your commute, and you may even find that it’s faster than other modes of transportation. (For me, cycling actually beats the bus, especially in bad traffic.)

So that’s it for my newbie cycling advice. Cycling is fun, it’s good for your health, and it’s good for the environment. Plus, the more you normalize it, the more you encourage other people to brave the car traffic and try cycling.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dominic on June 17, 2019 at 7:33 AM

    Any tips/resources that you’d specifically recommend for correct drop bar hand position? (I’ve also been struggling with wrist pain recently.)

    Reply

    • They should be able to help you with that at a bike fitting. I think in general just not overdoing it (i.e. only use it on big downhills) and tensing your core should help. Try to ride without even touching your handlebars, just to make sure that you’re not leaning onto your wrists too much. Good luck!

      Reply

  2. Posted by charalg on June 17, 2019 at 12:15 PM

    At least In Germany, if 60+ folks overtake young you it means that they have electric bike

    Reply

  3. Posted by KatD on June 18, 2019 at 3:12 PM

    Hey there, some great tips thanks for sharing. I just started biking again at age 45, haven’t since I was 12, and I am absolutely loving it. You could almost say I’m addicted to it hah! I have entertained the idea of riding to work and it is great timing that I came across your blog. Thanks again!

    Reply

  4. I suspect that with biking, where there’s a wide range of speeds, you end up mostly seeing cyclists who go either a lot faster or a lot slower than you—that is, people who will either pass you or be passed by you. (You won’t see people going at the same speed unless you’re in the same pack.)

    So another reason that one might feel like everyone is faster than them is that they’re simply in the lower third or so speed-wise, so they’re hardly seeing any of the people in the same bracket. :-)

    On safety, I think the two next most important things I’d tell a beginner cyclist to be familiar with are right-hooks and the door zone.

    Reply

  5. Posted by lmn on June 23, 2019 at 9:06 PM

    One bugging thing about riding bicycles here in India is the enormous amount of sweat you’d have to deal with by the end of your ride, due to these extremely high temperatures.

    Other than that, everything about riding a bicycle is awesome.

    Reply

  6. Here in Europe, or at least in Spain, it’s very common to use city bikes. They’re a public service like bus and for a yearly fee you can pick bikes from the street and leave them on the street also (in special places, most of the time it’s automatic, you pass a card and the bike gets unlocked). I find it very cool because parking a bike it’s very difficult for us in our flats and also you don’t need to maintain the bike.

    However, some people are complaining and requesting for mandatory insurance for bikes (like there is for cars) and bike driving licenses. They have some points, but if they do that almost no one is going to use the bike.

    Reply

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