Taking a bike to work can be amazing, life-affirming, and challenging. I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years that I’ve been commuting to work via pedal power. In honor of May being National Bike to Work Month, here are some of my favorite tips for an enjoyable and safe commute.
Some days you’re Superman, other days you’re Clark Kent
Besides just tire pressure, cyclists should check the three most important gauges of human energy: physical, mental, and emotional. Before I get on my bike, I ask myself: Do I have the physical, mental, and emotional energy to complete the ride? If I’m very low on more than one of these components, it’s probably a good idea to find an alternate form of transportation or a less demanding route (perhaps with fewer steep hills or less car traffic). Sometimes if it’s at the end of a long week where I have ridden my bike a lot (physical gauge low) and my job has been particularly stressful (emotional gauge low), I will likely be distracted, and it’s probably not safe for me to share the road with 5,000 pound machines—many being piloted by people as stressed out as I am. Alternatively, even if I am feeling physically fresh as a daisy but experiencing psychological and mental fatigue, I might not be a safe rider either. If you are very stressed or emotionally drained for any reason, think twice before getting on a bike. The demands of taking a bike to work are more than just physical, so make sure you have the other resources needed to keep your ride safe and sane.
Give yourself options
Though it’s tempting to want to be an eco-warrior and cycle everyday, the approach can often lead to burnout and frustration. Sometimes it rains, sometimes you really don’t feel like riding, sometimes you want to wear really fancy pants. Whatever the reason, give yourself a break and have options for when riding isn’t in the cards for you. This could be driving, car pooling, walking, working from home, or taking public transportation. You can put your bike on many buses outfitted with racks which allows you to bike one way and take a break the other way. Also, don’t beat yourself up when you decide not to ride. In my experience, guilt like this leads to less, not more, riding. Be proud of yourself when you do ride and be nice to yourself when you don’t.
Also be prepared to spend more time and energy planning your days, especially when you are new to taking a bike to work. Your daily checklist should include the weather, having the appropriate gear, mechanical safety of your bike and thinking through all the things you might need that day. A surprise rain storm in a car can slow you down a bit and be a hassle, but on a bike it can be horrible and even dangerous if you’re not prepared. Working late and commuting home in a car may make you late for dinner, but on a bike without lights it can be downright hazardous. A rack with some quality waterproof bags will keep your equipment dry and safe and make sure you have storage space for work essentials.
Find a bike that brings you joy
Marie Kondo and I agree that your bike should bring you joy, so I suggest spending some time finding a bike that you can fall in love with as you two spend more and more time together. If you’re not sure about your leg power, what about an electric? Have a sensitive back? Perhaps a more upright Dutch/townie bike would be just the thing! Really, really love the color pink? Find a pink bike that delights you. Hopefully you and your bike are going to be spending a lot of time together, so finding one that meets your needs—which may take some time as you discover what those needs are—is worth the effort. Once you find your dream bike, don’t be afraid to customize it to make it even more awesome. The more you love your bike, the more you will ride it. Just don’t forget to get a really good lock so someone doesn’t steal your joy.
Take advantage of your morning cycling buzz
When I started riding my bike to work on a regular basis, I quickly noticed that once at work, I was vibrating with good energy while most of my co-workers were still walking around like zombies. Cycling warms your muscles, fills your body with oxygen, and wakes you up quicker than the biggest mug of coffee (though combining the two for even more energy is also an option). I suggest using your morning cycling buzz wisely and tackling the most challenging work of the day first. Also I noticed that I was solving many of my thorniest work problems without even consciously thinking about them while on my bike. There is plenty of research showing we think better while rhythmically moving, so get ready to enjoy some pedal-powered problem solving as you commute. Research also shows circular movements especially boost creativity, so your round pedal strokes are bound to inspire creative thinking.
Be careful, but not fearful
Research shows that many drivers dehumanize people on bikes, so it behooves cyclists to be careful and courteous around cars, deferring to these very large, dangerous machines. One Australian study found that 55% of drivers did not consider cyclists fully human, 17% had intentionally used their car to block a cyclist, and 11% had driven their car intentionally close to a cyclist (one can only assume with an intent to scare them). I used to react negatively to disrespectful drivers who blocked the bike lane by double parking or cut me off to make a right turn. However over time, I learned that it was counterproductive and even dangerous to engage with them. I would end up emotionally upset and angry, while the driver probably drove away not realizing their faux pas and thinking cyclists were more crazy than ever.
Now I take a deep breath and remind myself that I have way stronger and sexier legs than the person driving that car. Also, it’s reasonable that drivers would be angry at cyclists who don’t follow the rules of the road. So stop at stop signs, use your hand signals, and ride like a responsible grown-up. You’ll be safer and feel better about yourself—even if some drivers still think you’re a cockroach.
Learn even more about safe and enjoyable rides on your bike to work with our Busting Bike Commuting Myth’s quiz.
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