A Beginner's Guide to Biking to Work

It makes perfect sense. Instead of driving to work and back each day—which uses gas and does absolutely nothing for your rear or your stress level—you bike your way to work, miss the traffic, burn some calories, get an energy boost, and save the planet one pedal stroke at a time. Not to mention that you can actually get a $20 a month kickback from the Bicycle Commuter Act just by exercising your right to get to work on two self-powered wheels. Sounds glorious, right?

Biking does sound great on a 70-degree Friday when your boss allows you to dress casually for work, but what if the weather isn't cooperating? Or what if you have a big meeting and just can't risk getting your nice clothes all sweaty? As fantastic as bike commuting sounds, it can pose some challenges.

This is why we got personal advice from three SparkPeople members who bike to work with the best of them. These seasoned bike commuters shared their top tips, advice and personal stories to encourage you to try biking to work! Before we get started though, a quick note on safety. Obviously safety is of the utmost concern, so if you've never biked on the road, be sure to read these bicycle safety tips.

4 To-Dos Before You Begin Bicycle Commuting
  1. Find a seasoned biking buddy. SparkPeople member Tanya (RESIPSA99), who commutes 8 miles to the office (and back) in rain or shine, recommends that every first-time bike commuter befriend someone who regularly commutes by bicycle—whether it's a coworker, someone in a bike group or a salesperson at your local bike shop.

    "I was lucky enough to have a lot of coworkers who cycle-commute, and one of them shepherded me the first few days I commuted, showing me the best route," Tanya says. "It was a huge eye-opener for me, as prior to that, I had no idea that there was such a thing as designated bike routes. Once I told him that I was really nervous of traffic, he figured out the best route from my place to work, and parts of it I don't think I would have found without him."

    Tanya also recommends using Google's bike map directions to help you find the best path and make use of any designated biking routes in your area.

  2. Start simple. Just like an exercise, it's better to start slow and build over time. If it has been years or even months since you've been on a bike and your commute is a long distance, SparkPeople member Garrett (GRITSTER) says to do shorter rides closer to home until you have the endurance and confidence to commute to and from work.

  3. Do a test ride. Because you can never be 100% sure what to expect your first time out, SparkPeople member Michelle (KESTREL500) suggests that new bike commuters do a dry run or two on a non-work day to make sure they know how long it will take and how they will feel after the commute, taking any rush-hour traffic into consideration. "Then make any adjustments before you need to be there at a specific time," she says.

  4. Don't be afraid to take a day off. You don't have to bike to work every day, so if the weather makes you nervous or if you just don't feel like it, take a day off! Being a part-time bike commuter still does great things for your mind and body.
Bike-Commuting Essentials
  • A helmet! Protect your noggin at all times by investing in a quality helmet.
  • A bike in good working order (and tools to keep it that way). Michelle recommends investing in a bicycle that is in good working order, but not such an expensive one when starting out, unless you have a really safe place to store it. "Other than that, you should always have a tube, tire levers and a pump in case you get a flat," she says. "Oh, and knowing how to use these is a good idea. Depending on how much else you need to carry, you should either have a rack with a bag that hangs on it or some sort of a backpack or messenger bag. I use a rack and a bag that clips on to it and turns into a messenger-style bag when removed."
  • Lights and bright reflective clothing. No matter what time of day you're riding, you should wear some kind of bright, reflective clothing. That way even if you bike in the daylight to work, you stay safe on the way home when that meeting goes later than you expected! "Even if you are wearing your street clothing, pick up a reflective vest and some reflective arm/leg bands that won't mess your clothing and can be taken off when you arrive and stuffed in a pocket," Tanya says.
Avoiding Sticky (and Sweaty) Situations
One of the biggest reasons people don't like to bike to work is because they're afraid of not feeling fresh when they arrive at the office. However, many people solve this by just carrying their work clothes with them in a bag.

"I just leave my house in plenty of time, and I don't ride very hard," says Michelle. "I just kind of ride slowly and enjoy being outside, so I don't sweat. On my way home, I might push it or take the long way, but then I can shower when I get home."

If you do get a bit sweaty, Tanya swears by baby wipes, on-the-go pre-moistened facial wipes and extra deodorant. She also keeps extra shoes, an emergency set of clothes and a hair dryer at work so that if her hair or clothes get soaked (whether from rain or "glowing," as she calls sweating) she can look presentable.

Whether it's driving in, taking public transportation or hitching a ride with a family member, friend or co-worker, it's good to always have a back-up or someone you can call in a pinch if the weather is bad, you don't feel well, or your bike gets a flat that you can't patch.

While you should always follow basic safety guidelines, such as being predictable and signaling your intentions, Tanya also reminds that bike commuters always look around them, rotating where you are looking so that you cover all areas in your field of vision every 5 to 10 seconds. This includes looking underneath and in the windows of parked cars for pedestrians or drivers coming out, taking your time at intersections, coming to a complete stop and always being focused. Also, never assume that a driver sees you, she says.

Michelle says it's also important to ride on the correct side of the road and adhere to all traffic laws as if you were a car.

"When cyclists don't respect the rules of the road it makes us all look bad. Plus it is dangerous," she says. "I am aware that motorists are not always respectful of our right to ride on the road, but, if we are to deserve this right, we need to use it responsibly."

What to Wear—and What Not to Wear
Tanya says gloves and sunglasses aren't just for the elite cyclists or to look cool. They actually serve a purpose.

"Gloves not only reduce the vibration on your hands, but they are critical if you fall," she says. "If you don't have gloves, you are less likely to put out your hands if you are falling, which then results in an injury more serious than a hand scrape."

And the glasses? Basic safety or biking glasses are a must for protecting your eyes from bugs and risk of other debris from a passing car. They're also helpful in the rain and cold as they shelter your eyes from the "misery of pelting rain or eye freeze," Tanya says.

When it comes to apparel, you have to check the weather and be prepared. Moisture-wicking layers are key, as are a few cycling-specific pieces if you're really committed to biking in non-sunny weather conditions. While Garrett and Michelle weren't fans of biking in rain or other severe weather if they can help it, Tanya regularly bikes in rain and the cold.

"I bought a rain-proof cycling jacket that is bright yellow with full side vents and reflective tape, breathable but rainproof bike pants and waterproof shoe covers," she says. "I have different types of gloves for all seasons: fingerless for the summer, full-finger for the spring and fall, and lobster (like mittens, only split in between the middle and ring fingers) for the winter. In the winter, I have a cap for under my helmet, and sometimes will add a scarf if it is below freezing."

And remember, keep changing weather conditions in mind throughout the day so you're prepared for the ride home, too. Weather can change rather quickly in many climates.

Why You Should Give Bike Commuting a Try
Your health. Turning your usual commute into a bicycle workout can burn calories, improve your cardiovascular health and help you lose or maintain your weight.

To save money. Aside from saving gas money, many of our bike commuters cited saving big on parking fees and even car maintenance. Garrett even got rid of his car!

Stress reduction. Instead of getting stuck in traffic and fuming, you could be biking on paths and back roads for an enjoyable start and end to your workday.

"I can leave work after the most aggravating day, and five minutes into the ride I'm feeling more relaxed, even in the pouring rain," Tanya says. "On a beautiful sunny day, it's heaven. I love the feeling of being self-propelled, on my own, enjoying the weather and, when I'm on a side street, enjoying the birds singing in the summer or holiday lights in the winter."

To make the world a better, greener place. Every little eco-friendly initiative helps and bike commuting is definitely a step that makes a difference in reducing your carbon footprint.

It can save time. You might think that biking will make for a longer commute to and from the office, but Michelle found that she could leave her house half an hour later because she didn't have to look for parking. Also, if you bike fast enough to get your heart rate up, you can turn your commute into your cardio, biking right past the gym—talk about multitasking!