Cycle commuters

Cycle Commuting, Getting Started

Energy prices are through the roof in 2022 yet it is possible for many people to cut the cost of their commute by utility cycling. That is cycling in normal clothes on whatever bike you have. This article is about how to make the transition from motorised to cycle commuting. If you want more tips on utility cycling check out this article. I’ll start with my journey to cycle commuting, it wasn’t an over night thing for me. I hope these tips will help you cycle to cut commuting costs or save the planet or what ever your motivation to cycle more!

I’ve always had a bicycle in the shed /garage but it went neglected for long periods as motorbikes did most of the commuting miles, cars in foul weather. However when my dad had a heart attack, which brought the onset of vascular dementia, I knew I had to get fitter. I got the cycle out. To be honest it was hard to ride to work and back and in parts not very pleasant. A few approaches helped me make the transition.

Tips to start Cycle Commuting

  • Start Gradually – my round trip was 14-15 miles. I could manage the distance (just) I was not much good for anything by the time I got home. I was able to leave my car at work, so I put the bike in the boot and cycled home one day and then cycled into work then next. This was not only physically easier but it was more manageable from the time perspective. From this I built up my strength but I definitely cycled more in the British Summer Time. My lights were OK but the nicest route was rural and I preferred being visible in daylight. Reflective jackets and modern lights are SO MUCH better these days!
  • Try an Electric Bike – I was offered a trial with an early electric bike and was eager to give it ago thinking it would be like an electric motorbike! While the performance disappointed my biker expectations it did make it easier to ride everyday. By this time I only had a 10mile round trip, and the boost helped to transition to being able to cycle commute daily.
  • Be Flexible – I was able to flex my working hours and it suited me to start early and leave early. I missed both rush hours this way and got home to my family earlier when they were young. It also meant I had more cycling in daylight or twilight which was better.
  • Tortoise & Hare – When I started commuting I rode as fast as I could manage. I thought this would save time. Cycling like that made me pretty sweaty so I grabbed a shower at work. I regularly passed an older guy on the road and after my shower walked past him sat at his desk. I eventually figured out that riding slower saves time. The trick to wearing normal clothes on a cycle commute of more than a couple of miles is to adapt your clothing and riding style to the weather.
  • Be kind to yourself – Whether you cycle to cut commuting costs, save the planet or get fitter, each journey is a win. This is probably the most important tip.

Count the pennies

My commuter bike came from a bike recycling scheme

Commuting 1 day a week will save you 20% off your commuting costs – its massive. If you have a bike then lubricate the chain, check the brakes and you are off! If you don’t have bike and money is tight, look for a local bike recycling scheme like the Green Bike Project or Ipswich Bike Project. A local tip (household recycling centre) may also sell bikes that have been dumped, Foxhall Road nr Ipswich. Don’t be sniffy, one of my friends has a ‘dump’ bike. It was dusty, not very fashionable but rides great.

If you aren’t confident fettling a bike then bike shops can help. Some charities like the Green Bike Project in Ipswich will use recycled parts for repairs, which can save money. A repair cafe may be able to help with simple adjustments or training might be available for example at Ipswich Bike Project. Check out the options in your area.

With these savings your dream commuter bikes becomes a great financial decision. If you pay for daily parking, there are even more savings to make. If you want a new bike, then find out if your employer offers a Cycle to Work scheme, this can save you about 30-40% off the cost of a new bike (depends on tax status etc) and help you spread the cost. Ebikes and safety equipment also qualify, so there are real financial incentives to get on your bike. I would try and start with the bike you have or a borrowed bike, just to build initial confidence.

Confidence & Training

One of the biggest barriers people mention to me about cycling is confidence, especially in traffic. My experience is that the overwhelming majority of drivers are sensible and don’t want their cars damaged by tangling with a cycle any more than cyclists want to tangle with them. The new hierarchy of users in the updated highway code helps. Sure there are always a few idiots on the road, but that is true of all road and pavement users.

Confidence in controlling the bike is an important foundation to cycle commuting. Make sure you can start, stop, look over your shoulder and signal without wobbling. Find a quiet road or carpark to practice at a quiet time of day. Ask a more experience cyclist for tips. In Suffolk the county council offer training for adults and families – for FREE!! The sessions are a few hours long and are aimed at building skills and confidence. There are even one to one sessions for adults to help you plan a route to commute safely. There is an EADT report on the scheme here.

Commute Route

Cyclists at Advanced Stop Line
Cycle Commuters using an Advanced Stop Line. Credit Carlton Reid

One thing to avoid in most cases is cycling the same route that you would drive. Especially avoid busy roundabouts if possible but definitely when getting started cycle commuting. It will be slower to cross on foot, but get proficient at starting off in a gap in the traffic before venturing across on the road. Right turns are a further challenge, clear road position and signals are important, same as when driving. Filtering is legal and I recommend it especially to move up to the Advance Stop Lines. However build your confidence bit by bit.

Google maps will give cycle specific directions and is pretty good. Segregated cycle paths are a good bet, but be extra cautious around dogs and school kids if the routes are heavily used (eg Kesgrave nr Ipswich). Generally I’d recommend taking a slightly longer more pleasant route than a shorter and congested route. My regular commute takes me along a very busy road. However it is wide, straight, 30MPH and has very few parked cards. Consequently it is fine to cycle on. Ironically the worst parts are the safety pedestrian traffic islands as some motorists seem to forget the advice about overtaking a cyclist at these points if it will hold them up momentarily. I find a look behind on the approach to the constriction helps caution motorists who are otherwise on autopilot.

Load Up

Another barrier to cycle commuting is needing to carry lots of stuff. Most bikes don’t come equipped for luggage, so the first thing people often turn to is a ruck sack. However these can make you very sweaty on anything but a short ride. Thankfully there are better options. Immy uses a bike basket and these are super simple to use. When I am carrying my laptop, charger, lunch etc I use a messenger bag or satchel. I can jump off my bike, lock it and be on my way very quickly and it blends in with normal clothes. When laptops were heavier and I carried files this didn’t work for me and I used a rack and strapped the (enormous) bag to the top of the rack.

second hand bike from a local authority recycling centre
A second hand bike from a local authority recycling centre. Functional, not fashionable. It even has a rack!

Most bikes can take a rack, and I’d say a rack and mudguards are essential on a utility commuter bike. Bike racks can carry loads of over 20kg (depends on rack) which is an arm stretching amount of gear. You can strap bags to the top but a set of special bags (‘panniers’) will fit to the side of the rack. As they carry the load lower, the bike will be less top heavy and feel more normal when loaded. If you do carry heavy loads, add a bit more time when braking, especially in the wet.

Don’t buy the biggest panniers you can find unless you intend to fill them most of the time. I’ve done that thinking the extra space will come in handy. The reality was when empty they sagged and flapped around and rubbed against the wheel. A rack and panniers will cost more money but if bought through the cycle to work scheme they will be discounted. If on a tight budget, try eBay, Freegle or FreeCycle.

For more ideas on carrying things on your bike, see this comprehensive article.

Have Fun!

Cycle commuting is satisfying, healthy and cheap. It is far more popular in Denmark and the Holland than in the UK, but it is possible for a large number of people who travel from the suburbs into the centre of our towns and cities. Please let me know with a comment if these tips help or if you’ve got any tips of your own. Also checkout this article on utility cycling and if you are interested in leisure ride ideas around Ipswich and beyond click here.

Main image: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Tony Webster at https://www.flickr.com/photos/87296837@N00/15730632647. It was reviewed on 30 April 2015 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

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