And 8 Solutions To Keep You Going
It’s Bike To Work Day/Week /Month (I honestly can’t keep track, I just know it’s in May) and that means blogs, bike activists, and that one person at work everywhere are doing their damnedest to encourage you leave your car at home and straddle (or recline, I guess) on a two-wheeled contraption and make your way to work.
“It’s so great! Oh man, I do not miss sitting in traffic!” Bob exclaimed with bike chain grease smeared across his face and a gnat stuck between his teeth.
This is a great thing. Riding to work can be wonderful. Not only is it better for your city, for the Earth, and for your health — both mental and physical — it can be pretty fun. And besides, you’re getting your workout while you commute! Two birds with one stone twice a day! No more gyms or fighting for spots sweating on a towel jammed tight in Soul Cycle.
But… What these listicles and sweaty weirdos don’t tell you is that riding to work isn’t all lollipops and fairy kisses.
I know, I know, sacrilege. I can hear the social media outrage already. #notmyaaron #bikeislife @tsurufoto — ugh. RIP my inbox.
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
Look, I love cycling to work, I really do, and have been doing it for years and years, year round, all weather, any city, but there are definitely reasons why I, you know, sometimes kind of hate it too. Being the contrarian that I am, I get frustrated that every May when the same crop of blogs and local news sites start pushing the idea again, when your local bike activist group sets up tents to pass out Kind bars and Vitamin Water, they all seem to avoid talking about some of the less-awesome parts of bike riding to work.
I don’t think this is good. If you want to ride to work, that’s great, but I think it’s just as important to be prepared to ride to work and all that it encompasses, the good, but also the bad & ugly.
You see, starting bike commuting is like starting a new romance. At first, it’s all butterflies in the tummy, everything is adorable, new, and fun, your partner can do no wrong! You just bone each other constantly everywhere. But then as the relationship settles in, you start to have to work with all the quirks, bumps, and gases that come with a long-term relationship.
The same is true with bike commuting, after that new bike smell wears off and the grit starts finding it’s way in all your nooks and crannies, well, that’s when bike commuting stops being nice and starts being real!
So fuck it! Let’s rouse a few rabbles, shall we? Let’s get real, the real bike commuting world.
I present to you…
1. Mother Nature Is Not Your Friend
It’s a lovely Spring day, weather is 70 perfect degrees, the sun is shining just right, and butterflies are landing on your nose at every stop light. How lovely!
KERBLAMO!!! LIGHTNING!! April Showers in May (thanks climate change)! Wind, pollen, rain! You show up to work soaking wet, bike drenched and full of grit?
Summer comes and the heat & humidity really set in, 90+ degrees and it feels like 200% humidity, how is that even possible? I live up north, not in Florida anymore! The wind is hot. How is that a thing? Am I breathing water? Why don’t we have gills?
Fall is just psychopathic Spring weather in reverse and then before you know it Winter comes! Layers upon layers of clothes, 40lbs of layers, as the temps drop, fingers freeze, toes fall off, and bike paths become the resting place for mounds of snow.
Sure! You could be a fair-weather rider, I guess, but then you miss out on riding 75% of the year. What’s the point of that?
Solution: Accept the weather. Embrace it. If you fight it, you will lose. Instead, welcome the challenge mother nature presents and ride! Sing “I AM THE WARRIORRRRR!!!!” As the wind and rain try to slow you down.
Also, weather apps and websites. Read the hourlies for the day, plan for both rides, not just the weather at the moment. As a native Floridian, you become a bit of a weather expert. The quasi-tropical state could change weather on a dime, so you learned real quick how to be ready.
No matter where you live, don’t just be prepared for the day’s weather, be excited about it! Get creative with it. Snowboading goggles for snowy rides, plastic bags for the stuff in your backpack. Hell, grocery bags for your feet!
2. It’s Expensive
I’ve gotten into enough internet fights with cycling obsessive types to know this won’t sit well, but they are in denial. Sure, you can get a beater for $100 maybe, and it seems to ride fine, sure... But maintenance does cost money. Need a pump, at least a handpump. Tires every now and then, a new chain, brake pads, lubes (don’t use WD-40 please), tubes! — so many goddamn tubes — new derailleur, new wheel, new cogs, bike lock (a GOOD one, not some cheap crap I can cut with left-handed elementary school scissors), maybe some hydration, a decent backpack, and not to mention anything else that comes up that needs replacing (plus labor). Don’t forget lights for winter & night riding!
Oh, you don’t want a piece-o-crap beater? Well, now we are spending $500 or more, maybe well over $1000 easy, but guess what… still need all or most of that stuff I listed.
Don’t forget possibly wanting bike specific gear like smarter fabric clothes, helmet, maybe special shoes (and special pedals for those shoes).
And of course of any part or the whole bike gets stolen or vandalized. Ugh!
Sure, this stuff isn’t necessarily necessary, you can ride a shitty little single-speed beater in your work clothes and not worry about any weird sounds & quirks the bike might experience. This is totally a thing (though, you will burn through those clothes quicker, just sayin’, and not to mention tires, tubes, wheels, and chains), but I promise if you get “into it”, really into cycling, it very easily and quickly adds up. It can and often does become a bit of an obsession if you aren’t careful. Suddenly you need different bikes for different weathers, events, terrain. You find you just have to have matching handlebar grips. Oh and man, if you could just get that one saddle, you could lighten your bike by oh-so-many grams!
And many of you will still have your car or other transport needs for other reasons or bad weather days or childrens or whatever, so those expenses don’t go away either!
Be wary of anyone who tells you this isn’t true. If someone tells you they spend no money or time on maintenance, remember you don’t know anything about their riding habits and style, you don’t know their distance, or even the condition that bike is in now. Or they could be full of shit and prone to hyperbole…. I’m not saying you definitely will rack up thousands of dollars in bills, but it is possible depending on your needs & circumstances.
Like momma always said, “Shit adds up quick!”
Solution: If you ain’t rich, have a bike budget. At least plan for basic maintenance and an emergency repair or two. If you need to, downgrade your non-bike options. Don’t worry about wanting that fancy new car (my last 2 cars cost $1500 combined, one I sold for $400 on ebay), change up your mass transit plan, and if you can’t, plan on spending more time giving your bike some love to make things like parts & components last longer. None of these are ideal (except being rich), but I don’t want anyone to think biking to work is a one-time expense.
3. Mechanical Issues
Ever double flat in the middle of nowhere and realize you forgot your pump? I have. Ever ride along when suddenly there’s a wretched grinding noise coming from all those gears in the back? Definitely. Ever having a great day when suddenly creeeeak, creeeeeak, CREEEEEAK starts emanating from somewhere on your bike, but lard knows where? The worse! Ever had brakes or gears freeze up from the weather? Where’s my ice pick? Ever had a pedal just, boop, fall off? Yep. That was a weird one, was riding an old Target mountain bike at the time.
Everything breaks down eventually. Or as scientists are prone to saying, “Entropy is a bitch!” So what are you going to do? Sit on the side of the road pouting while waiting for an Uber that will hopefully be totally cool with your greasy dirty bike going in their trunk? Take the subway ride of shame with your bike during rush hour and make about a million new enemies? Throw the bike in a ditch and start walking 80s Incredible Hulk style?
Naw. You got to fix it. Or at the very least, get it fixed just enough to be able to get your bike to work since the bike shop’s probably not open yet on that morning ride. Then you got to get it fixed for realsies or figure out some time to fix it yourself, either at work — welp, I guess I got lunch plans after all — getting it to a bike shop, or if you made it home, a project for after dinner. Oh man, the worse having to fix it yourself while sitting outside your office as everyone leaves for the day. Yeah, not the best Bike To Work advocate moment.
In summary, mechanicals suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
Plain and simple, no two ways about it. They interrupt your ride, take time to deal with, can get you dirty, irritated, and frustrated, and have one hell of a knack for happening in either a) the worse weather or b) on the most perfect of riding days.
The other day, one of my Bromptons’ back rim busted open on my way home from work. I heard a horrible thump thump thump. Pulled over to see the rim cracking open and my brake pad bumping into it. I was in the void of no mass transit area in Brooklyn south of Williamsburg with a few miles left to get home.
What did I do? I opened up my back brake all the way and gently and carefully kept riding… made it home! Next day, put the wheel on a citibike and rode to work, then made my way to the bike shop at lunch. Whattayagonnado?
Sometimes it’s something as simple as a flat. You need to be prepared to fix it, spend the time, get dirty, on the side of the road, regardless of the weather. It sucks, but it is life, or rather, #bikelife
Solution: Be prepared! First, have what you need. Ride with a spare tube or two, tire levers, a small hand pump, and a bike tool. And maybe a paper towel in a sandwich bag to wipe down. Also, know how to do basic things like fix a flat, adjust a brake pad, put a chain back on the gears, or light derailleur adjustments.
Take care of your bike. Wipe it down, keep it adjusted, properly lubed, and give it a bath every now and then (especially after some particularly nasty weather).
Finally, I like to ride with a little buffer time on my way to work, not a lot, just 10–15 min for any just in case scenarios. I’ve rarely if ever been late to work because of a mechanical issue.
4. You May Have To Carry Stuff (And It Can Get Heavy)
Bike commuters have to carry their shit, you know that, right? For some it’s a lot of stuff, like a full change of clothes, shoes, and a bunch of personal hygiene stuff. Personally, I keep my work shoes at work (and deodorant & some hair stuff), as well as some back up things like socks or undies.
I’m lucky in that we can wear jeans at work, so I also have 2 pairs of jeans in my larger desk drawer. This lets me ride with just a shirt, fresh undies, my lunch (yay leftovers), and other backpack things (like the bike repair stuff from #3). Unfortunately, not everyone has personal space at work to do this which means your backpack (or your bike if you do panniers) can get heavy quick.
Did you get an Amazon package at work because you don’t have anyone or good security at home to receive package? Got to carry it home. For me, this has meant a clothes order for my daughter, cans of special cat food for my sick cat, a heavy work computer, new shoes (so bulky) shower curtains (so heavy), a fixed Brompton wheel (that was awkward attaching it to my backpack), and once a bidet attachment for our toilet at home (Japan got it so right).
I also ship personal stuff from work. I’ve carried on my back art work we sold, presents for family around the country, and that broken bike wheel that needed fixing (bike shop is near work).
Point is, #bikelife can also mean #ImYourMule, I’m used to it, but some days it can literally be a pain in the back.
Solution: It’s a tough one if you don’t have alternatives to receive packages by your home. Maybe try to take advantage of Amazon lockers if they are by your home. But honestly, if this is part of your life, then it is just kind of part of the life of a full-time bike commuter, you have to kind of haul shit. A good backpack or panniers in multiple sizes are great. I have 3 different size backpacks and on the Brompton I can do a front bag too.
Oh! Almost forgot, those boxes things come in are almost always way oversized (especially Amazon)… get the product out and smart pack it in your bag! Or if it’s something like 40lbs of canned cat food, take a little home each day! Mushaboom ain’t eating all that in one sitting. Spread out the hauls across the week. It’s not awesome, but it’s not that bad. Here’s my system:
5. You Sweat. You Stink.
You are going to have to get used to it. You are going to sweat. You are going to arrive stinky. You are a human (I assume) and our bodies just do this. “Going easy” in the morning or having an electric-assist bike help, sure, but on a warm day when that sun is just going to town, you will sweat and you will stink.
If you are super lucky, you have access to showers and maybe even a locker, but most of us do not.
For the rest of us, welcome to the glamorous life of changing in the bathroom at work. Being buck naked at work is weird. Taking a backpack of clothes and changing in a stall can be super annoying, especially if the stall next to you is in the middle of a bootie evacuation from that iffy work lunch at the cheap sushi place down the street.
Look, it ain’t pretty. There’s really not much more to say, this is life, so the solutions?
Solution: First off, wear smarter fabrics and pack your work clothes. Ride in wicking and cooling fabrics, not cotton. They even make suits that help these days made with coolmax and other smart fibers. Wear the right clothes for riding if you can!
Next, if possible get to work early. Have a fan under your desk or somewhere and have a cool down period BEFORE changing clothes (if you change too quickly, you’ll just sweat in your clean clothes. Relax. Have some coffee and food, cool down, catch some internet, then grab your shit and head to the bathroom.
Lots of people say, “use wipes!”, but nah, they aren’t very eco-friendly or cheap, so what I do is, I wash my hands, face, and rinse off my neck and arms. I grab a paper towel, dry off and then wet the paper a little more. I then go into the stall, strip down, wipe my pits and crotch, and deodorize (anti-antiperspirant if you can, though some people can’t). Throw on my work clothes and BLAMO! I’m good to go. I don’t stink (I’ve asked) and any residual sweating calms down soon enough.
It ain’t ideal, I know, and some days you’ll feel a icky, but honestly, it’s not that bad.
6. I Rode To Work & Something Came Up
I biked to work, but now my daughter needs me at school to pick her up or maybe it’s a surprise date night near work with my sugarsmacks! What are you going to do? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?
Do you trust your city to leave the bike locked up outside? Can you get the bike home later? Do you have a ride to wherever? I call it being “beholden to your bike” and to be a good partner or parent, it’s good to have options.
For me, I don’t have a car and I don’t trust NYC, so I went to folding bikes. First the Brompton and now a Tern.
So I can leave my bike in the office and do date night or hop on the subway and go to my daughter’s school. But if you don’t have mass transit and a back-up car, it can get messy. So what do you do?
Solution: Think of contingency plans, have options before you need options. Taxis, friends, never date, sell your children, something, just have a plan. Some people just have to live by the bike and die by the bike and if that means no date night or showing up to date night a sweaty mess and then still having to deal with the bike after dinner, then that’s part of it. Or it means always planning ahead, which can take some of the spontaneity out of things and doesn’t solve the emergency situations. There’s always taxis/ubers/etc, but remember, legal or not, not all of them can or will deal with a bike. So have a plan before you need a plan.
7. Humans… They Are Everywhere!
People often wonder why I love riding in bad weather. One reason: Lack of humans. They all tend to go indoors leaving the roads & bridges all to myself! Mmmm….. all mine!
Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but what I’m getting at is, oddly, humans can really make commuting by bike really unpleasant.
First the obvious, our mortal enemies, the drivers. They can be dangerous. They can be mean & arrogant. They often feel like we are violating their space. I wrote a whole thing on surviving these humans. So let’s move on.
Pedestrians. In dense cities with lots of foot traffic like NYC, pedestrians pretty much (but not always) have the right of way and somehow are completely oblivious to bikes, bike paths, people on bikes, bike bells, bike horns, people yelling at them from a bike that’s about to collide into them, etc. And yes, I have collided with one, someone with headphones on, cutting through traffic when I had the right of way. Fortunately, everyone was okay. But pedestrians are everywhere! It’s like the city is infested with them!
Then there’s other bikes. We all share the same 3 feet of road. I ride bikes, you ride bikes, surely we must be friends? HA! Just because you share one common interest, doesn’t mean you’ll get along. Hell, even cyclists hate other cyclists simply based on the type of bike they ride! You got fixies vs. roadies. Everyone hating on Citibikers. Everyone thinking fatbike riders are the rednecks of cycling. And that classic rivalry between salmoning delivery guys and sundress wearing folks riding bikes decorated with flowers. It’s war out there people!
You see, some riders are fast, some are slow. Some weeble-wobble around. Some go the wrong way. Some just get in your way and some just won’t get out of your way. Some are reckless (I had two crashes last year, both with other bike riders being stupid). Everything I just mentioned comes in all bikes & riding levels, Freds on road bikes to peepaw on a Citibike to someone trying way too hard to brake on a fixie.
Sometimes by the time you get home or at work you feel more stressed than before you started riding! You feel like you just went to battle just to get home when all you wanted to do was enjoy the weather and ride your bike!
Solution: Chill out and enjoy your ride. Put anyone who annoys you behind you or just let them ride away, but let it go and just ride your ride. Some days you’ll ride and come across people that make you smile & love life, other days, you’ll hate every damn person within 10 feet of you, but that’s okay. Ride your ride, be confident, don’t be a dick, and enjoy!
8. Crashes: The Bigger You Are…
Saved the worse for last. Crashes. Most likely, they will happen. Hopefully it will be something as simple as falling over at a red light, mostly just embarassing. But sometimes it will be worse and you’ll get hurt. Sometimes it will be someone else’s fault, or you’ll have a mechanical issue that causes something, and sometimes you’ll just fuck up and go boom. The more aggressive you ride and the worse the infrastructure for cycling, the more likely you are to crash.
I ride hard in NYC, so I’ve had a crash or two. Whether it was wiping out when I slipped on a wet manhole and black ice. Or that time mentioned earlier when a bike with no brakes came flying down the Williamsburg into Manhattan and veered into my bike lane. Or that one time I just got a little over-confident in the dark and hit a speedbump with too loose a grip on the handlebars. Down I went.
Some hurt, some I just had to shake off. I’ve been bruised, bled a bit here and there, or just been embarrassed by something stupid I did. It’s not a good time and getting back on the bike can be scary and nerve wracking for a few rides after that, but all and all, I’m fine.
Unfortunately, this is a part of cycling. It’s part of life really, you can get hurt doing anything, but with bikes it can be a little extra intimidating since we ride along side cars and are hoisted up a few feet in the air with some metal between our legs going 10, 15, 20, 30+mph, so it’s also a bit unique.
Solution: First things first… Follow the 5 Laws Of Bicycling Survival.
They have been immensely helpful over the years.
Next, the more aggressive you ride or the crappier your city is about bikes, the more likely it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. I don’t wear one when I Citibike or when I’m casually farting around the neighborhood, but when I commute I ride hard so I wear a helmet. I’ve smacked my helmeted head on the pavement, I’m glad the plastic took the hit and not me.
Third, if you crash and get hurt, number one, take care of yourself and then as soon as it’s healthy to, get back on that bike. The sooner you start riding, the sooner you can shake that mental anxiety from the crash out of you. You’ll be a little shaky at first, but soon you’ll be back to your normal self. Ride with confidence, not cockiness, be aggressively defensive, and mind the right of way.
Have I scared you away yet?
That was not the point of this article anyway. I don’t want you to read this, put your bike in cold storage, and swear off bike commuting forever. I just want you to bike commute smarter and be prepared. Learn from all the dumb things I’ve done and all the random frustrations I’ve had over the years.
Yes, commuting by bike is not always fun. Sometimes it actually really sucks. But hopefully after reading this, when it does suck, it won’t suck quite as bad as it could and the rest of the days will be filled with mile after awesome mile.
Be smart, be safe, have fun, and let’s ride!
P.S. Did I miss any pain points? Let us know in the comments along with your solutions!