Bicycle Commuting for Beginners [Guest post]


by Kathryn Elliot

Tips for riding your bike to work, school, or anywhere in the world!
Last summer I was determined to ride my bike to school, which is about 15 miles away; and gosh darn it, I did it! …Until I started 8 a.m. classes and decided 5:30 was just a little too early to get up. But I did spend a good half of the summer commuting by bike, and all summer training for a 250 mile bike trip to Door County Wisconsin. I wanted to share the lessons learned. Some were learned the easy way, some… not so much.

Unless you are just going down the block, bicycle commuting takes planning and preparation. If you already ride your bike 2-3 times a week using similar distances and terrain to your commute; then congratulations! You’re almost ready! If not, then plan on at least 1-2 weeks of preparation. This may seem like a lot, but trust me, it’s better to start slowly than to get in over your head and give up in frustration. On to the basics!


Minimally, you will need:

  • a bike
  • a helmet
  • a way to carry your stuff
  • water
  • a place to store your bike once at your destination, or a way to lock it down.

I will go into each of these topics in enough detail to get you started. Eventually you will probably want more “technical” bike gear, which I will touch on only briefly.

Some product recommendations:


The Bike:

Tips for riding your bike to work, school, or anywhere in the world!

Chances are most of you have a bike somewhere. You need to determine if this bike is appropriate for extensive riding. Here are some things to look for:

  • Are the tires in good condition? Do they still have grip?
  • Does the rubber look brittle, cracked, or old?
  • Does it have gears? (You probably want gears).
  • Are the metal and paint in good condition? You do not want rust. Rust is bad.
  • Is it the right size? You should be able to easily “mount the bike, ” but not have your knees bend much more than 90 degrees at the highest point. If you find yourself getting kneed in the belly, boob, or face, often it’s time to buy a bigger bike.

If you determine that your bike is passable, you will need to take it into a shop for a tune up. This should be done a minimum of once per year. If you decide you need a bike then we move on to the next step: picking the right bike.

First you have to choose the style that will work best for you. Below is a basic breakdown of the pros and cons of each. Any of them will work for at least short commutes, but depending on the distance and terrain of your rides, some will work better than others. Note: The links provided are examples and do not necessarily reflect recommendations. Every person’s body and preferences will be different, so to get a better idea, talk to the employees of your local bike shop.

Cruisers (AKA “Wal-Mart Bikes”): (ok, there ARE expensive, high end cruisers, but I digress):
Riding position: upright
Cost: usually $100-200


  • Typically have at least a few gears and wide tires.
  • Can be ridden on pavement or gravel easily.
  • They can have comfort features like big cushy seats.

  • You get what you pay for. They are “break” prone.
  • Very heavy frames
  • Low top speeds (around 12 MPH).

Mountain Bike:
Riding position: typically upright.
Prices range widely from $100-$500.
This would be my bike of choice for anything around 3-8 miles.


  • Many of the same features as cruisers, but everything is typically a little bit better.
  • Usually have at least 21 gear settings.
  • Do GREAT on gravel and dirt bike paths.
  • Often are very compatible with saddle bags and other storage.

  • Heavy and slow.

Road Bike:
Riding position: leaned forward, giving you a streamline shape.
Cost: $300 and up.


  • Thin tires, very light frames, and “ram horn” handle bars.
  • Fast. Expect an easy pace to be 15-25 mph.

  • Can be quite expensive.
  • Adjustment to a new riding position*
  • They do not like off-roading one bit. I do ride them on a gravel path, but it’s a lot more work.

*Note: Depending on your, umm, size you will knee yourself at first. I stopped riding mine when I kept hitting my currently-preggo belly. But you can and will adjust, so if you find the leaned forward position awkward at first, don’t fret! With any bike riding, the adjustment to a new position may be uncomfortable until you adjust, but it should not be painful; if you are experiencing pain while riding, promptly seek professional advice from either your local bike shop or doctor (depending on the nature of the pain). Often, discomfort can be fixed with a minor adjustment to the bike.

Hybrid Bike:
Cost: $300 and up.
Hybrids are a great option, if you have the cash and need to commute more than 5 miles.


  • Combine the best features of a mountain bike and a road bike.
  • Tire size is thinner than a mountain bike, but fatter than a road bike.
  • Aerodynamic shape due to handlebars being slightly forward.
  • Thinner and lighter, making them A. easier to carry around and B. Faster.
  • 12-20 mph is an easy pace for a hybrid rider.
  • You can still attach saddle bags if you want.

  • Does not do well on gravel. It does ok, but not great.

Just a quick note on used bikes:

You can find great deals on any type of bike online or at garage sales; but you should be cautious. Later I provide a link on regular bike maintenance. Do this same inspection on used bikes. If it fails, don’t buy it. Bike shops also will sometimes offer used bikes. You will pay more than at a garage sale, but you have the added security that their bike techs have done any needed repairs already, and they typically will come with some kind of warranty from the shop. Also, keep in mind that you can always start with a cheaper bike, bank that gas money you’re saving, and buy something better down the road.

The Helmet:

Now, I’m really no helmet expert, so I’m not going to get too detailed here. I want to make one thing abundantly clear: Yes, you NEED a helmet.

Look at it this way, ladies, would you rather buy a little pocket hair brush, or die? I thought so. My recommendation is to rely on the pros here. Once you’ve dusted off that old bike, and you’re ready to take it in for a tune up, have them help you pick out a helmet while you’re there. Expect to spend $60-$120. Don’t feel rushed. Find one that has a good fit and is comfortable. When you try on helmets, wear your hair the same way you plan to wear it when you ride, as it will affect the fit.


There are really only 2 options here: water bottle holders and camelbacks (more on these later). Even if you plan on using a camelback, you should still have a few water bottles, because you will not want to take the camelback
on every ride. Side note, I have found it worth it to pay a little extra for the insulated water bottles; but it’s your choice of course.


AKA “a way to carry S*** on your bike.” I decided to make a chart, everyone likes charts. Well maybe not everyone, but I do!
Bicycle Commuting Bike Storage Comparison

There is no “right” or “best” option. You must consider what you need to bring with you (again… BE MINIMAL!), how much you’re willing to spend, and where you want the weight to be. Last year I kept paper homework and my small text book in the pocket of a camelback. I carried my personal items (cell phone keys, money, ect) and a change of clothes in the pockets of my jersey. And, because my water was in my camelback, I jam packed my water bottles with food (one full of grapes or other small fruit, one full of granola bars).

I highly recommend streamlining your personal items as much as possible. For example, you probably don’t need your car keys. I kept too sets of keys, one for bike riding, which just had my house and garage key, and my “big” key chain stayed at home for when I went out by car. You might also consider what items you can leave at work. If you have a private desk, you can load it with snacks, a hair brush, or whatever, so you don’t need to carry these on a daily basis.

Tips for riding your bike to work, school, or anywhere in the world!

Other bike gear

…with brief deceptions of their usefulness and limitations

Bike Shorts – You don’t really need specific pants for casual riding, but the more you ride, and the longer you ride, your butt will get sore. Bike shorts fix this problem, because they have a padded butt. Pros: no more sore butt! They don’t get caught in chain.

Cons: No one looks good in bike shorts. Basically it’s like wearing an adult diaper under your thinnest, tightest pair of pants/leggings. Big con, no pockets. =*(. Sizes are often run on the small side FYI. You can always wear another pair of shorts over them if you’re self-conscious or you want pockets; but remember, you’re probably going to change once you get to work anyway, so I wouldn’t worry too much about your lack of fashion.

Sunglasses/safety goggles – The sunglasses part is obvious. I have always used a cheap pair with no difficulty, but if you have an issue with them fogging, get the special bike kind. They have little slits that will prevent fogging. I recommend wearing something on your eyes at all times, as occasionally random debris does hit you in the face. A wood chip or a pebble to the eye will result in a very bad day.

Bike Gloves – Basically these are fingerless gloves that have padding similar to the padding in your hands. If you ride a lot, you will want some eventually, but they are not needed to get started. If you start riding and your hands/shoulders are getting sore, first talk to a pro about your handle bar position, and then get a pair of gloves. Added bonus, you can wipe the sweat off of your face with the back of your glove.

Cleats/ Bike Shoes – There are basically two different styles of shoes: mountain bike shoes and road bike shoes. Honestly if you’re commuting, you don’t need either one. A good, solid pair of athletic shoes will do fine. But keep it in the back of your mind if you get into any serious riding.

Bike Socks – Specific bike socks are out there. I have no idea what the claimed advantage is. Any good, cotton sock will do.

Lights – Again I’ll be brief, if you ride at night, you need a light. Local law varies, but it’s good idea to have both a front facing head light, and blinker in back.

Other clothing considerations – As with any work out you want a good, supportive sports bra. Wear whatever type of work out shirt you like. And most importantly make sure your pant legs (if wearing long pants) and your shoe strings stay out of the gears, chain, and peddle. A rubber band around 1 ankle or tucking your pants into your socks works just fine. You can also wear leggings or other tight fitting pants under bike shorts if cool weather is the concern. Long shoe laces should be tucked into your shoe or otherwise secured. Don’t overlook these last few details; nothing is more frustrating than getting a nice big hole and grease stain all over your new pants.

Planning your route

Tips for riding your bike to work, school, or anywhere in the world!

Now that your bike is all tuned up and you’ve got all your gear figured out, it’s time for the next step: planning your route. The easiest place to start is Google maps. Did you know that you can click on the little biker and it will give you a bike route? Who knew? Or you can go to a fitness tracking site like MapMyRun or MapMyRide.

This is just the start. These programs will give you a good idea of the most direct bike route to your destination, but they do not tell you the road conditions. For example, it may have you ride down a road that has a little more traffic than you’re comfortable with, in which case, you will need to find a residential road that runs parallel. After you have put in your start and stop points, carefully look over the route the computer gives you. If you notice that a portion of the route is on a gravel bike path, you may want to manually change it to a residential road. Ditto if you know a portion of the route has a lot of traffic.

Next, I would highly, highly recommend a practice run; where you ride the route you intend to take on a non-work day. You will find things that you couldn’t see on the map, like a road with a lot of pot holes. This “dry run” will also give you a good indication of how long your ride will actually take. Most mapping programs estimate an average speed of 10-12 mph. If you are a little faster or a little slower than this, it’s really good to know before you’re half an hour late to work. The first several times you ride, try slight variations to your route, eventually you will find the one you like best. Last year, I went out of my way a little bit, but got to ride through a beautiful lake front neighborhood.

Quick Note: If your commute will be a greater distance than your average ride, spend a week or two building up to the required distance.

Riding in Traffic

Unless you both live and work on remote roads, chances are you will need to ride with traffic. Here’s what you need to know:

Many people find themselves wondering: “Where on the road do I ride?” If your community has bike lanes, there’s no big mystery here. Local laws vary, but most say “as far right as practical.” This basically means, you should be far enough to the right to stay out of traffic, but not so far as to run off the road. You ARE entitled to be on the pavement, instead of the gravel shoulder. You should be riding with traffic.

This makes a lot of people nervous because they can’t see the cars approaching from behind; but you are actually safer, because drivers have a longer reaction time if you are both headed in the same direction. They do make little bike rear view mirrors, so that’s always an option.

Note: If conditions dictate it, you do have the right to an entire traffic lane, so don’t be afraid to take it if needed. (One example would be in a construction zone where there is really no shoulder).

Obeying Traffic Laws

As a biker, you are expected to follow all road signs and signals, and obey general traffic laws. This means, stop at the stop sighs, and use hand signals. I tend to just point to where I’m going. But you can use all left hand signaling it that’s what works for you.

Where NOT to ride

In most places riding on sidewalks is illegal. Know if paved walk ways are strictly for pedestrians, or if bikes are permitted. Always leave space between yourself and parked cars; you never know when a door is going to open! To the best of your ability avoid pot holes and “slotted” drain covers.

When things go wrong

There will be times when things go wrong. I always carry a compact first aid kit on my bike; and it has really come in handy. I would also recommend a small break down kit. (Although, I’m being a little hypocritical here, because I have yet to purchase one.) Always make sure that when you’re riding, whether it be for pleasure, fitness, or transportation, that you have a charged cell phone and numbers of friends, relatives, and/or co-workers who can pick you up in an emergency. If you are riding alone, make sure someone close to you knows your route, and about how long your ride should take. Give them instructions on what to do if you’re late. Also, it’s good to have a person designated as your “back up ride” if the weather suddenly changes and you are unable to bike to or from work.

Crashing is scary for both you and any witnesses, but they are typically minor. If it happens, here are the basic steps you want to follow:
Assess yourself (or the person who crashed) for serious injury. If anyone is seriously injured, call 911. If no one was seriously hurt, slowly stand up, and determine if you are still able to ride. Patch yourself up with that compact first aid kit you’re carrying. You may want to walk a block or two to see how you’re really feeling. If you feel unable to ride, call someone to pick you up.

If you are okay, move on to assessing the bike. Is the frame in good shape? Do the wheels still spin straight? Is the chain intact? If your bike is relatively intact, continue your ride. If not, and it cannot be repaired on the spot, call someone to pick you up.

Stay Safe! Recommended Products:

Basic Bicycle Maintenance

Tire pressure – know what the operating pressure of your bike tires are. If you have a mountain bike or cruiser, you will need to pump up your tires are least once a week. If you have a road bike you should pump up, every ride or every few rides. If you are riding mostly on gravel, you want to be on the low end of recommended pressure, for pavement, the high end.

Chain and gears – Clean and oil your chain about once a week. Check for broken pegs on gears.

Body – Clean your bike’s body as needed. I wipe it down when I do all the other weekly maintenance.

Wheels and brakes – Clean around once a week. Use rubbing alcohol to remove any rubber residue off the wheels. Make sure brake pads are in good shape.

Handlebars – If wrapped, rewrap as needed. If you have rubber grips, replace grips if the metal is protruding at the ends (as you could impale yourself on the metal. Yikes.)

Final Notes

Tips for riding your bike to work, school, or anywhere in the world!

I truly love riding my bike everywhere. What seems like an impossibly long ride one month, will feel like a walk in the park if you keep at it. The first year I rode, 10 miles was a big accomplishment, then 20. Now 20 is not even a consideration, I even did it at 32 weeks pregnant! Keep pushing yourself for longer and more challenging rides, and soon your trip to work will just be some nice “you time” at the start of each day.

Disclaimer: All prices are ball park estimates, based on prices at my local shop; your shop could have very different prices.

About the author:

Bicycle commuting for beginnersKathryn Elliot is a math tutor, biking enthusiast, and soon-to-be mother who resides in the Chicago area with her husband Chris. Kathryn maintains an active lifestyle, listing some of her favorite activities as hiking, biking, and swimming.

For more information Kathryn finds useful, she recommends you check out this site.


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