October 2, 2007

From the Archives: Commuting Gear

All things being equal, with the dizzying array of equipment available today there is almost no reason a hearty cyclist cannot commute to work by bicycle year-round. Studded tires for icy roads, fenders and quality apparel for rain, and nearly bullet-proof tires for worry-free travel on the worst roads, there is nothing standing in your way! The items below will help give you ideas on how to tie it all together, into your personal, successful commuting strategy!

This section is dedicated to the soup and crackers of commuting by bicycle; your gear.

They say you’re only as good as your gear -- I still don't know who 'they' are, but they have a point –
When it comes to gear for commuting by bicycle, remember the Three-"R"s:

Reliability, Reliability & Reliability.

If you've read the "How-To" post, I talk about time management -- making sure that your commute goes smoothly by planning ahead and having what you need. This notion extends directly to your bike. If you have a derailleur that consistently jams, or a sticking brake caliper - get it fixed! Its bad enough being late for work because of a faulty component, but you will usually end up with very dirty hands with which you’ll have to change into your nice work clothes.... you get the picture.

So, before you throw your leg over the top tube to make your way to work, ensure your bike is in the tip-toppiest shape it can be with a good tune-up at a trusted shop, or get out the big repair manual and give it your own attention.

However, unlike racers who only have to worry about flat repairs and hydration while riding along, commuters have the additional worries of getting to work on-time, and making sure his/her clothes, normal day-to-day items like cell-phones and wallet, and maybe even a company laptop, make it work, too! The following sections will outline how to keep you, and your personal items and work gear, protected.

The Bike:

Can't commute to work by bike without one.

This begs a question that I hear far too often: “what kind of bike is best for commuting???"

The easy answer is: ANY reliable bicycle will do.
Not a cop-out - simply the truth. If the most reliable bike you have in the garage is a BMX with 20" wheels, it WILL get you there, right?
That might be an over-simplification, but unlike racing and competitive recreational riding where choices in equipment can affect your end result, commuting is merely about reliability and simplicity. If you have a bike hanging in the garage right now, it’s probably only a tune-up away from commuter-duty. You don’t need a specific “commuter” or “messenger” bicycle, which is becoming marketing-vogue recently – they ARE, make NO mistake, VERY well-made, simple, reliable bicycles that are ready to take fenders, racks and bags – but don’t feel like you need to run out and get one just to get started off to work. They are an excellent upgrade, but chances are you have a bicycle that’s up to the task nearby. If you’re reading this, that chance goes up even higher. Check the garage, and see what you have to work with. As long as what gets you to and from work fits your body, and is RELIABLE, you are riding the correct bike.

Reliability is relative: Personally, I enjoy wrenching on bikes, so my level of reliability is skewed; if something starts to go out of whack on my road bike I can easily get it back on track with adjustments that evening in the garage. If someone is not handy with the wrench, they should adjust their perception of reliability accordingly, and lean towards a single-speed, or internally-geared bicycle to minimize complications and extend service intervals and expensive trips to the bike shop for repairs. Tailor your personal machine towards long service intervals, and heavier, sturdier components - the kind of stuff that you dial in once, and just ride it until it explodes 10,000 miles later – the best part is that these parts tend to fall towards the cheaper end of the spectrum. I used this principle when I built my (since retired) single speed commuting beast that I liked to call "IT". That ENTIRE commuter bike initially cost me about $100 to build. If you are handy and enjoy a project, start by finding a good second-hand frame that fits you, old wheels that can be rebuilt, and hit the close-out or clearance table at your local bike shop, and start building your commuter. It’s a blast, a conversation-piece at group rides, and you will know your machine inside and out – when something DOES break, you are already intimately familiar with your set-up, and can get back on the road that much quicker. You can build a perfect commuter for practically nothing, and you can count the tanks of gas saved that it requires to make that money back in a matter of months, IF that.

It’s also a good idea, if you are NOT so handy, to check out your area for the real grass-roots bicycles shops in your area – we have a great one in the KC area that is bringing bikes back to the people, and they offer some great, real-world bikes at terrific prices. Many local shops in your area might have used bikes in the back, trade-ins, or stuff that is bound for the dumpster that you can save and make your own for cheap. Check it out – it never hurts to ask.

Another GREAT tip: wait for 'large trash pickup' in your neighborhood and go shopping for bikes. Sure, it's a little seedy, looking through other people's trash -- but you know that saying about another man's treasure, right? Nothing beats a free frame if it FITS and it's straight and solid. With some creativity and elbow grease you can usually reuse even the worst-looking parts. You'll end up with an inexpensive, possibly vintage, conversation piece that most bike thieves would not even look upon twice -- and if they DO, your good bike is safe at home in the garage.

If you are a seasoned cyclist, don’t use your weekend strategy to build your commuter. From a training perspective, riding a heavier bicycle during the week makes for good resistance training when you hop on the race-bike on the weekends. Avoid high-dollar parts with short service lives, or parts that are notorious for needing adjustments after each ride. If something becomes tedious to maintain, you likely will develop that into an excuse not to ride to work. Keep things simple, neat, cheap, and reliable.


The Lock:

Unfortunately in today's world you either lock it, or lose it – no matter what it might be.
Unless you are blessed with a workplace that allows you to bring your steed inside the building, you NEED to lock your bike -- even the low-dollar beater you may not care too much about IS your ride home that very night. Keep it safe!

There are several quality companies to choose from when picking (heh,heh) a lock -- I leave that choice to you, and what is available in your local area. With locks, you do indeed get what you pay for, and some of the higher-profile companies are offering insurance if your bike is stolen while using their lock, which is something worth sending in the registration card for.

There are several types: cable locks, U-locks, the old cable and padlock combo, those hand-cuff looking things, and many more. Depending on your bike, and what you plan to lock it to, you should choose simplicity and reliability.

A good system could be a 7 foot cable lock looped around a parking garage pole connected to a U-lock around the seat-tube and rear tire. That leaves the front wheel exposed, however, and if you have a QR on the front wheel it could make for an unpleasant surprise. A second shorter cable looped thru the U-lock and the front wheel quickly solves that issue, but adds an extra step to your morning. Eliminating that step would involve buying “security skewers” which are now widely available. Either using a keyed wrench or simply and Allen hex-head, these keep your front wheel secure, and changing a flat only takes marginally longer. If given the choice, always secure the rear wheel – it’s usually the more expensive of the two. If you are still uncertain about the remaining wheel’s safety, bring it inside and stow it at your desk until quitting time. It’s very unlikely someone would steal a bicycle that they were unable to ride away from the scene.

Remember to keep things simple, again: locking your bike keeps it secure, but it should not become a ten-minute ordeal each morning.
In the scenario mentioned above, solving that extra step would involve ditching the U-lock and getting a single 15 foot cable that can go around the pole, thru the rear wheel, frame triangle AND the front wheel, and finally securing with a solid padlock. Your imagination and ingenuity will be your best guide; basically, choose a system that fits your commute and where you most often lock your bike. If you are in the same place every day, and don't need to run errands, you should purchase a good, heavy lock and simply leave it locked to whatever you lock your bike to. There is no need to haul around a heavy lock and it gives you one less thing to worry about. For errands and side-trips, keep a smaller coil-type combination cable-lock in your desk or a large seat-bag in-case you have to run into a convenience store on the way home.


The Rubber:

Generally speaking, once everything on your bike is dialed-in, it will take some time for something to fall out of favor and cause problems. Very seldom will you ever have to deal with a catastrophic mechanical failure on the road, unless something jams in the chain or wheel while you're in motion. Most problems that need attention will start to present themselves slowly enough that you’ll have time to get home and work on it fails completely. The one exception to this rule is the most common repair you'll likely ever perform regarding bicycles - fixing a flat tire.

That thin patch of rubber between you and the road is ultimately responsible for holding up you and your gear, providing traction in corners, soaking up bumps and imperfections in the road, and occasionally diverting water to improve traction in the rain. There is little else on your bike that is so important. Again I use the word ‘reliability’, and it is critical for considering tires for your commuter. For many of us brought up in the club-rider scene, go-fast parts are absolutely necessary to give a (often perceived) competitive edge. Topping off your race-bike with $75 race tires is common-place and appropriate for the weekend speed-fests, but for the world of commuting your tires should be able to hit the occasional piece of glass or metal without exploding like a soap bubble. While faced with the task of watching traffic on your way to and from work, you should not have to fuss with the additional task of dodging glass and other hard-to-see debris to avoid getting a flat. A good tire is certainly not flat-PROOF, but should be able to shrug off things like sand, sharp rocks, occasional glass fragments and the like. Most race tires simply can’t perform at this level and still roll fast enough to be considered a race-tire – just like good commuting tires should not be chosen based on their rolling resistance and ability to corner hard. Logic will dictate – and again, most good commuter-level tires are generally cheaper than race tires. Some tire manufacturers are really coming to the table with some quality commuter and utility-bike offerings in the last couple years, and they are definitely worth considering. With Reflective sidewalls, water-channels to help in wet conditions, and extra flat-protection, these are tires that can be installed and forgotten about until the tread wears thin, many for less than $35 a tire. To keeps costs at bay, always consider many “house-brands” of tires from popular websites. You’d be surprised at what you can find for very little money.

Whatever you do out there, remember to keep the rubber-side down!


The Pack:

On way or another, you need to get your gear and clothes to and from the office - possibly lunch and paperwork, or a company laptop. Investing in a good backpack, or pannier set, is essential to commuting. You will have to do personal research to find your exact match and price range candidates, but there is a lot out there to choose from, from many companies. Choosing a pannier, saddlebag, messenger bag, or backpack will depend on the length of your commute, and the type and weight of gear you’ll be hauling – and your intentions for running non-work errands that might require extra space.

Generally speaking, and there are exceptions to all of these recommendations, backpacks and messenger bags are for commutes around 5-miles or less, where you’ll only be hauling personal items and clothing. While I have commuted farther with both, it was not it ideal comfort when compared to an “off-back” system, like panniers or rack trunks. Rack trunks will get loads off your back, but are generally too small for anything more than clothing. Panniers can handle just about anything you put in them, and come in such a wide range of sizes and build-qualities that you can find a set that will suit whatever you want to do – and then a rack trunk in tandem with a pair of panniers can handle over-spill. The only thing to consider with panniers is the requirement of a rack, more importantly the ability of your bicycle to ACCEPT the mounting of a rack. Saddlebags (search for “Carradice” in your favorite search engine) are a semi-compromise to panniers – they don’t require a rack, but can carry a large amount of gear – even a laptop (although I wouldn’t recommend it, as it’s a squeeze – but it DID work). Saddlebags are very popular with the “retro” crowd, while I would argue that they are not “retro” at all – simply another good way to carry things. In extreme cases, I have used panniers and a saddlebag, and have carried a weekend’s-worth of items, without having anything over the front axle. Front saddlebags, racks and panniers are also an option – but considering there will be a limit to what you are going to WANT to carry to work each day, I’ll focus only on the REAR of the bicycle for portage.

Comfort and storage space should be your main concerns when looking for a bag system. Where a backpack is usually limited by its own size, it is more limited by how much YOU want to shoulder. Conversely, one pannier is roughly the size of an average backpack and it’s notable that the pannier WON’T be on your back – which improves comfort for the rider. Additionally, there is room on every rack for TWO panniers, which doubles your storage space. You can see instantly why panniers are a good choice for commuting longer distances. Add a rack trunk to the equation, and you add even more space. While backpack suspension systems have undergone many changes in the last 5 years to accommodate bigger loads with less impact on the wearer, these are all things to consider. Backpacks offer more convenience with regards to getting off the bike and into the building. With items placed properly, it’s possibly to simply dismount the bike, lock it, and walk into the building without having to mess with your bags. While panniers are more comfortable for the ride while in transit, they do offer challenges when arriving, as they have to be removed from the rack and carried inside – and while some panniers have backpack-like attachments available to assist with this, you are still holding at least one of them with a free hand. This is also something to consider in colder temperatures when standing outside after a vigorous ride taking the time to unhook your panniers might become a frustrating task. Saddlebags solve this quandary nicely, don’t require a rack, and you will only have one bag to port – but you’ll also lose some storage capacity in the process.

Only you can know which system will work best for you – and with the wide array of seat-post mounted rack systems available these days, it’s becoming less import what type of bicycle you have – just be sure you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on weight with these systems. Some seatpost-mounted racks can only support 30 lbs., while dedicated hardware-mounted cargo racks can often support much more.


The Clothing:

Ahhh, the look. Many die-hard cycling fans are familiar with the polished and high-flash look of the pro-peloton. Everyone in their matching race kits, right down to the socks - corporate logos, and brilliant colors. On weekend training rides, it's often quite fun to run your own little stage race in your mind, as you pull on your favorite team's jersey and hit the road - but during the week, it might be a little over the top. Of course, this depends on who you are, and how you commute. I personally own several jerseys, and only a few of them are pro-team - I just don't think I should be wearing it unless I'm fast enough to actually back it up! Most of my other jerseys are understated, solid color or patterned styles that are comfortable, inexpensive and HIGHLY VISIBLE!

No matter what you wear to ride to work, you should indeed be visible – while your flashing red taillight helps at night, during the day you are only as visible as your clothing allows. This does not necessarily mean you have to relegate yourself to a strict wardrobe of Hi-Viz Yellow or Safety Orange, but you should probably stay away from brown, dark blue or black. Use common sense as your guide. Much of this can be solved in the cooler seasons when you normally would wear a jacket: make it yellow or orange and you'll be very visible. During the summer heat, stick to whites, yellows, bright reds or the like. Also, choose a bright-colored helmet, to top off your safety-conscious kit.

Cycling clothing is generally NOT cheap, however, so don't feel like what you have in the closet right now isn’t going to work - it likely will, and even if all you have is a steady diet of U.S. Postal jerseys, use them! Generally speaking, however, staying plain and visible is best --- we all know how motorists normally treat cyclists on the road, right? Imagine that the guy coming up behind you just recently got fired from the company that is proudly displayed on your fancy jersey. Of course, the chances of this are slim to none, but you get the picture I think. If I’m thinking about it, it’s probably happened. It's good practice to avoid confrontations on the road, if at all possible!

Of course, there are lots of other alternatives to standard jerseys and cycling shorts - there are baggy Tees from several companies that are inexpensive, keep you cool, and look quite nice. They usually lack the tailored fit that a jersey provides, but this should be a small concern while commuting to work. Other features, like eliminating the back pockets, keep things simple and clean – and cheaper. Most of your stuff will be packed away already, so the pockets won't get much use on the way to work – but conversely this is something to consider if you are used to keeping often-accessed items handy in a back pocket. Down below, baggy shorts are available for a more casual look, so you can avoid some good natured ribbing from your co-workers about those Lycra shorts you normally save for the weekend.

Above all else, regardless of style, you should choose fabrics that are tough enough to be used and washed often, and will dry quickly - if it's especially hot in the morning, or you encounter a little rain, you need to be certain your gear - especially the shorts - will be dry again when it's time to leave. Nothing is quite as uncomfortable as pulling on wet shorts for the ride home, and you could be inviting saddle sores or chaffing. To help prevent this, your work area should be equipped with a small fan and some hangers to facilitate drying. Keep a spray bottle of your preferred fabric deodorizer at work to prevent your sweaty July commute from offending anyone nearby. A little planning at the desk will give you some ideas on how to keep things discreet and well organized. Secondary things like gloves, headbands, and arm or leg warmers might even be safe left hanging from your locked bike - if you lock up in a secured area. No sense dragging all that inside unless it's absolutely necessary.

If you plan on commuting year-round, you should design your wardrobe for layering. Starting with a base of summer cycling garb, you can build a system that will keep you comfortable in a variety of conditions. It's mid-August, and it's forecast to be 90º in the afternoon, and it's about 70º when you leave the house: You can survive with cycling shorts and a jersey, and a headband to keep the sweat out of your eyes. No matter what time of day it is, you are riding in comfortable to hot conditions. A month later, the seasonal change might keep afternoon temps comfortable, but the mornings are in the mid-50's: add a base-layer or a wind-vest for the mornings, perhaps some arm-warmers that you can ditch in the afternoon. A month after that morning temps are in the 40's and the day-time is still around 60º: getting a little chillier, eh? Arm and leg warmers, and thicker wool socks will keep you comfortable all day, plus that wind-jacket or vest and a thermal head cover for the morning to keep the chill off your ears. Another month later, it has dropped below freezing for the first time and afternoons are windy, cloudy and not much above 50º: Many of us will hang up the bike until Spring, but for the die-hard commuter you can still add layers: a base-layer, your trusty summer jersey with arm-warmers and a fleece jacket over that, that wind-vest to break the chilly air, and leg-warmers with tights over the top of them to keep the knees warm. Plus, those thick wool socks don't seem so thick anymore...invest in some shoe covers. By this time you will have started wearing full-finger gloves, and you might consider a balaclava to protect your head, ears and neck from biting cold, and maybe a helmet cover to stop those cooling summer air-vents from channeling super-cold air over your noggin! Clear shipping tape works, too, by the way...thanks, Sheldon! Another month after that and it's COLD: Most of your layering will be done, and you'll probably wear much the same thing in the afternoons as you wear in the mornings, as temps stay in the 30º's most of the day, perhaps shedding an outer layer only if the sun comes out and makes it feel warmer. The windbreaker as a shell may not be enough for some mornings, and you may have to invest in a cycling jacket -- not cheap, but worth it if you plan on tackling sub-zero commutes.

Basically, you can see the progression --- all this time you maintain the same summer jersey and shorts and build layering around them -- no matter what the weather throws at you, you can add or subtract items to adjust your comfort level. If you start commuting in the early summer with your current, basic wardrobe, you can use the gas money saved to slowly add cooler-weather items as they become necessary, and they will last you several years of commutes after the initial purchase. Remember not to OVER dress, however -- have you ever shoveled the driveway after a snow and eventually ended up with your heavy parka unzipped and your hat off? The same thing occurs on the bike, even if you commute at a leisurely pace -- after about 5-10 minutes, you will generate about 8 times the body heat that you generate at rest. Your goal is to be a little chilly when you leave the driveway, and perfectly cozy 3 miles later, possibly reaching up to un-zip the jacket a touch. If you are already cozy in the driveway you will be overheated in 3 miles, and un-zipping the jacket too much could result in cold chills from the sweat you've built up. It will take personal experimentation to see where your comfort levels are, and what clothing purchases you'll need to make, but commuting year-round is indeed possible and highly rewarding.

For much, much more on dealing with winter commuting, the best source comes from the folks at IceBike.

GLOVES are a BIG question I get, and it took me YEARS of pricey experimentation to FINALLY have my current system in place. Everyone will vary on this, because individual skin reactions to cold and personal tolerances will change from person to person. But, in general, this is the system I have come up with, and it’s a layer strategy, just like with the rest of your clothing. Use your personal comfort levels as a guide, and experiment with layering. Keep the OUTER layers loose – don’t constrict the fingers, as loss of circulation can often be confused with cold, frostbitten fingers. If you can find WOOL GLOVES, get them: many military surplus stores carry these for cheap, and wool is still king for cold. The one thing about wool that is often forgotten: when wool gets wet, it insulates. If synthetics or cotton get wet, they cause bad chills and contribute to frostbite. Layering with wool mitts allows operation in the coldest of temperatures, and you never have to worry about frozen digits – whether your hands get wet from sweat, or cold rain. Works for hats, too. While wool caps and beanies are cheap, as are gloves, wool jerseys and tights can begin to get pricey – but the benefits are the same for the rest of your body. Shop carefully, watch for sales, and you’ll be set for many seasons of comfortable cold-weather commutes.

The Snow: I’ve done it, but I’m not the expert:
Check out the IceBike website! http://www.icebike.com

These guys KNOW COLD.

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