Things I wish I knew before I started commuting by bike

I’ve been cycling to work now for about 10 months, although I started writing this post after 2 months. The experience, by and large, has been overwhelmingly pleasant. I have a great route, the weather has been unusually kind, and I’ve got fitter by a ridiculous magnitude without really trying.

I would honestly prefer cycling over public transport any day of the week as long as I had the correct gear (more on that later.)

Let’s start with the bad stuff, as that’s where most conversations start when colleagues see me carry my bike up the stairs and lean it up against the wall in my office. Hopefully this will take people from “I’m gonna die instantly” to “I’ll give it a try.”

Be perceptive of your surroundings and you will not die

TFL provides a way to search for urban cycling training courses. If you never did cycling proficiency as a kid, and especially if you’ve never learned to drive, then it’s probably worth it.

The idea of “driving defensively” applies much more importantly to cycling. Take space, look around and listen, and take your time. Don’t listen to music on your bike.

There are a lot of people that do stupid stuff: rush, treat their commute as a race, ignore the highway code, run reds, don’t look, and get road rage. These are the statistics and future organ donors that end up in the newspapers.

Road positioning is important, and the 60cm rule is a myth

Driving around London’s many junctions and questionable road surfaces was tenuous enough, and starting to cycle really reinforced this.

Adopting the realistic mindset that you are actually part of the traffic rather than an obstacle to drivers is so, so important. The law even states it, too.

You should be aiming to take a liberal amount of space. At all junctions, especially roundabouts, take the lane wherever possible. Despite the misinformation, you are legally entitled to do so. It often makes sense to be around 40% away from the kerb to avoid drains, glass, potholes, and any of the colourful adornments on which Peckham Rye’s market owners bestow upon the road.

Passing static and slow moving traffic

There seems to be a mixed consensus on this, as the norm is that cyclists pass static traffic on the left in the UK.

HGVs don’t have the “caution when passing on the left” stickers for no reason. Buses pull in to the left. Cars and other vehicles will, at least in the UK, all hug the left hand side of the road, which means dodging wing mirrors on one side, and the kerb on the other.

It sometimes makes sense to pass on the right. As a driver myself, even in static traffic, having cycles pass on the left just felt weird, and even though you must scan the whole field of view before setting off from stationary, I would bet that a lot don’t check their left window before moving.

Passing on the right often affords better visibility, and more predictable reactions from drivers. You can make visual contact with drivers at lights much more easily when pulling in to the cycle section.

Whenever you do pass, though, ensure there’s plenty of space to get through, and do not rush.

The lifesaver

My dad, a motorcyclist, always hit this one home. Before you ever move position, look over your right shoulder to look out for mopeds, other cyclists, and cars. It’s surprising how few people do this, but it’s akin to checking mirrors before changing lane as a driver.

Get a bell

If you’re cycling during the night, or have a route that has blind spots, although not legally required, it’s the responsible option. Until I got one, I’d take a blind spot dreading a hit (or a near miss.)

Security: carry two kinds of lock, get your bike marked, and locate your frame number

A D-lock around a fixed object, the frame and one wheel, and an extension lock around a fixed object, other wheel, the frame, and the first D-lock is necessary to protect against bike theft.

Don’t cheap out on your locks, and don’t forget to remove your lights, too. I carry a larger D-lock so that I can store and lock my helmet to the bike instead of carrying it around, but do sometimes worry that someone’ll come along and piss on it or something. Hopefully that fear is irrational.

Before you lock up, ensure that the object you’re locking to is actually sturdy. Thieves now pre-compromise locking stations with duct tape so they can just unslot your D-lock and walk off with your bike.

Locating your frame number means you can insure your bike, and also you have a chance to locate it if it’s ever stolen.

Clothing

For longer journeys, or when there’s the potential for rain, or if it’s just damn cold, lycra is honestly your friend. Hurry up and accept it in to your life.

If you don’t have a shower at work, a spare set of clothes at work will suffice. I bring in a new set every few days. Also, wetwipes are brilliant.

A strap or mount for GPS / smartphones is handy

While cycling around London, my knowledge of the city’s road system has increased massively. That being said, you can quickly strap a smartphone to your handlebars using elastic bands or a Finn strap.

Maintenance

So far I’ve managed to never get a flat out on the road, which is extreme good luck. But for half the time commuting by bike I had no idea how to change an inner tube… so I fixed that by taking a course at Look Mum No Hands, which covers that, along with basic safety checks. It left me hungry for more, so I do try to do the majority of maintenance myself these days to save some money.

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