Bike Commuting

This week marks Chicago’s annual Bike to Work Week, or as it’s been renamed, the Bike Commuter Challenge[1]. It’s a great way to introduce new riders to the joys of bike commuting.


For the past three years I’ve been commuting to work on my bike (at least in the Spring, Summer, and Fall – I’m not hardcore enough for Winter yet). It’s not only a great way to sneak a little exercise into my day; it’s a lot of fun too. Of course, living in Chicago has its harrowing aspects, but short bouts of pure terror when you’re nearly killed by an oncoming vehicle are good for your heart rate, right?

I’m fortunate to live in a fairly bike-friendly city, and my experience with commuting to work under my own power will probably not work for you if you’re living in the ’burbs or having to drive on a highway to get to work. For me it’s faster to bike to work than to drive, or walk to the train, take the train, and then walk to work from the nearest station. For others it may not be faster, but it’s certainly a much nicer way to get to work, and having activity built-into your day is a help for those who can’t seem to find the time to exercise.

If you’re used to listening to the radio during your morning commute, that doesn’t have to change because you’re riding a bike. I’d caution you against wearing headphones while riding, though, which just seems suicidal to me. It’s sometimes hard enough to hear traffic as it is.

Having said that, I usually listen to music or podcasts via the CyFi, a Bluetooth speaker on the way to and from work. I try to pause it while sitting in a group of other cyclists while waiting at a stoplight, but it’s aimed so that in theory you’d have to be riding the bike to hear it well. Sometimes other cyclists ask me about it. You could call it a conversation piece.

The CyFi great and it mounts on my handlebar stem, with a quick-release for taking it off whenever I park somewhere. There are many other models, some of which fit into a standard water bottle holder. I like the CyFi because the speaker is right where I most need to hear it, and it connects quickly to my iPhone which I can then leave safely in my bag while I’m riding. Highly recommended.[2]

Why Bike To Work?

  • It’s Fun! – Riding my bike is so much nicer than sitting in a car in traffic (even if you’re not driving it) or squeezing into a full commuter train during rush hour. When the weather is especially nice I’ll even sometimes leave earlier than I need and take a longer way to work.
  • It Saves You Money – Other than walking there’s no cheaper way to get to the office. The only fuel you need is what fuel you need to eat. Bike maintenance costs are a fraction of upkeep of a car, and there’s no recurring expense as with public transit passes.
  • It Saves You Time – You need to get to work, and you need to exercise. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Multitasking!
  • It’s Faster (Maybe) – This probably won’t be true for everyone, but in the city it’s often faster to ride my bike than to take public transit, or drive and try to find a place to park, etc.

Tips For Aspiring Bike Commuters

Here are some tips for commuting to work (and urban cycling in general):

  • Always wear a helmet. Always. In the insurance industry they have a term for people that ride without wearing a helmet: organ donors.
  • Dress for a few degrees less than the actual temperature outside. Once you start biking you’re sure to warm up.
  • Be visible. Wear clothing that stands out. When riding at night, be sure you have blinky lights (white in the front, red in the rear) to let drivers see you.
  • Don’t ride on the sidewalk. I know riding with traffic can be scary, but in most places it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk, and you’re more likely to run into a pedestrian than you are to get hit by a car.
  • Make sure your clothing is loose enough to not restrict your movement but not so loose that your pants get caught in the bike chain. I tend to pull my sock over my pant cuff in the Spring and Autumn, and just wear shorts in the summer while riding. I need to get a pair of those little bungee pant clips.
  • Bring a change of clothes. Even if your office doesn’t have a shower (mine doesn’t) you can usually do a quick change in the restroom. If you want to save yourself some trouble and have space for it at your desk, you can bring a few shirts and undershirts on Monday and not have to worry about hauling laundry with you except one direction each week (or day, since it’s easy to bring home a single shirt). I find that I mostly sweat in my upper body, but of course when it’s really horrible out in the summer I’ll sometimes bring an extra pair of shorts to change into at work.
  • While you’re changing your clothes you can take a whore’s bath with a no-rinse shower wipe to clean up a little. You’d be surprised how well they work, along with a spritz of deodorant body spray both before and after your ride.
  • If you can’t park your bike indoors be sure to use at least two different kinds of bike locks if you’re parking outside, preferably a u-lock and some kind of cable lock to go around your wheels (especially if you have quick-release wheels). Spend a little money here. Get a decent brand. If you get something crappy, and someone steals your bike, you’ll regret not spending the extra $50 to get something that’s rated better. You don’t need the best lock in the world, you just need the best lock at the bike rack. Let the bike thieves take an easier target instead of your ride.
  • If you’re new to bike commuting and are a little scared to ride your bike in the city streets, try biking only one way for a while, taking public transit the other, and then alternate. Another option is to pair-up with a co-worker who can sherpa you through tough intersections.
  • Caravanning with other cyclists in your office is fun! If you know people who ride along the same route, maybe meet up and ride in together. There’s safety in numbers, too.
  • Make sure you have a little something in your stomach before you take a ride. That way you won’t get fatigued while commuting.
  • Take your time. You can ride at your own pace. It’s not a race so don’t worry about people passing you while shouting “ON YOUR LEFT!” You don’t have to keep up with them.
  • Im the one wearing the Chrome bag with the red stripe. The safest route is not always the most direct route. For instance, I make use of one of Chicago’s rare protected bike lanes which takes me about half a mile out of my way. You can probably find a bike lane guide for your city. If not, Google Maps has a bike path tool, although it’s marked as experimental and often doesn’t suggest the best path, so be careful. If you can ask someone else at work about a safe route you should.
  • Take the flattest route possible. In Chicago, this means pretty much any route, but if your city has hills (I’m looking at you, San Francisco) you may want to route around them. There’s also no shame in walking your bike up a big hill, but it’s better to just not have to deal with it, especially on the way to work.
  • Beware the “door zone.” The door zone is the area where a parked car’s door may swing open into your path making for a very bad day. I’ve been commuting to work for three years now and I’m still terrified of being “doored” (as it’s known in the community). Running into any stationary object is not a fun time when on a bike, but hitting one that’ll flip you over onto your head is a sudden and serious injury waiting to happen. Every car door I see is an opportunity to get doored. All I can offer as a tip is to look for drivers in cars, be alert, and try to keep to the far side of the bike lane away from parked or parking cars.
  • Make some noise. Ring your bell, shout at the driver that’s about to run into you, just make sure that they hear you one way or another because there will come a time when your path is going to intersect with someone else’s. If you don’t shout prior to the impact, you’ll be shouting after it.
  • Obey traffic laws as if you were driving a car. Sure, sometimes I’ll zip through a stop sign if I can clearly see both ways crossing an intersection, but in general you should stop at red lights, signal to turn, and otherwise obey the same rules of the road as any other vehicle.
  • Don’t ride erratically. I have a theory that most bike/car accidents occur because one driver wasn’t paying attention, or the driver of the car can’t predict what the bike is going to do next. Cyclists that don’t obey the rules of the road and zip in and out of traffic makes the road less safe for everyone. I don’t want to be killed while on my bike, and you can help my wishes come true by not riding like a douchebag.

  1. Technically “Bike to Work Week” is still a thing, but ActiveTrans emphasizes the Bike Commuter Challenge, and barely mentions the phrase “Bike to Work Week” on their web site.  ↩

  2. The Cy-Fi Bluetooth speaker that I like and use seems to no longer be available (the company’s website is now showing a domain registrar’s parked domain page). I guess I’ll get something else when it breaks or dies. My one complaint about this particular model is that sometimes it’s not loud enough to hear a podcast or audiobook over traffic, which is usually okay, and better than the alternative.  ↩

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3 Responses to “Bike Commuting”

  1. June 11th, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Ryan O. says:

    I loved my Cy-Fi, but lost it after taking my bike on a cab ride a few months ago. I can confirm that you can’t get the Bluetooth model Cy-Fi anywhere I can find. I ended up getting this one:

    It puts out about the same sound as the Cy-Fi did, and has a light built in. However, the mount is a bit flimsy and doesn’t latch as well as the Cy-Fi did. I’ve knocked it off while riding a few times.

  2. June 28th, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Lisa says:

    Great post!! It looks like you live in Chicago? I LOVE Chicago! What a cool city. Is it safe to bike there?

    I live in Portland and we have a great cycling community. I bike to work often (weather permitting). Love it!

  3. June 28th, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Jough Dempsey says:

    Portland is probably the best bike city in the country. Chicago is decent, and there are plans to install more protected bike lanes, which is great, but there’s so much traffic here that it always feels a little claustrophobic to me unless you just ride within the neighborhoods.

    I can’t complain, though. You can get anywhere you need to go by bike, and the entire 30+ miles along the lakefront is all bike and running trail.

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