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Utility Cycling Tips to Save the Planet

Utility cycling – cycling for everyday getting about – isn’t often talked about in the cycle press, as you don’t need any special kit. The world’s leaders are currently discussing climate change at COP26. If you’re fed up with blah-blah-blah (whether it’s Greta or our dear leaders), why not take direct action on the streets to reduce CO2? No, not by gluing yourself to a road & causing congestion, but by swapping four wheels for two. You WILL reduce your carbon footprint if you substitute cycling for journeys you’d usually make by burning stuff.  Even if you have an EV, utility cycling will improve the environment, as tyres and brakes still cause particulate emissions.  So here are my tips to increase your bike use in your daily routine, and do your bit to save the planet.

Bicycle with adult passenger sat on rack and child at the front - and a very squashed rear tyre!
Taking load carrying to the limits (look at the rear tyre!) – utility cycling in Holland.
  • Normal clothes – you need to be comfortable both riding and on arrival if you are going to jump on your bike for a local journey. I find something fairly loose fitting and loosely woven best. Polo shirts work best for me on top with jeans or shorts and trainers on flat pedals. I frequently wear a loosely woven hi-viz jacket over the top. If it’s cold then I add layers. I aim to start off feeling cool, as after a short while I will have got comfortable. Starting warm usually ends sweaty, which is no good. Unzipping or unbuttoning helps, so adjustable tops & jackets are best.
  • Mudguards – even if it’s a bit damp you need mudguards to protect you from spray from the wheels. You can wear waterproofs, but they’re a faff you can do without most of the time
  • Un-flashy bike with good lock – You need to be comfortable leaving your bike somewhere. Bikes are really easy to steal & bike thieves are ruthless. You don’t want that aggro, so ride something that won’t attract attention. A utilitarian bike may be heavy but my experience is that your fun bike feels so much more fun, and you don’t worry so much about where you park. Avoid quick release wheels and seat post, but do carry the tools you might need.
  • Low maintenance – you want to ride this bike every day, not fiddle with it. I’d aim for 6 or 7 gears max at the back and avoid anything over 9 gears – thin chains wear fast. Fit tyres with good puncture protection.
  • Carrying capacity – to shop and run errands you’ll want to carry stuff; a rucksack, satchel or rack and bags will do – your choice. You need to be able to carry your lock too.
  • Lights – in evenings or winter you’ll need them. They are so cheap and good these days, and there is a huge choice, no excuses. If you ride rural roads you should spend much more. You not only need to BE seen, you also need to SEE where you are going when there are no street lights. Although it can be exhilarating to ride a bridleway on a flashing light!!
  • Bell – very handy; although a good yell works, a tinkle on the bell seems more polite – use at a good distance so people don’t leap out of their skins. Beware people with headphones, or poor hearing.
  • Riding Style – I ride at a pace to manage my temperature. More energetic in the winter than summer, but once warm I back off to avoid getting sweaty. Don’t treat every ride as a training ride – just elevating your heart rate, and breathing deeply will do you long term good. When I had a 5-mile commute, I hammered it and had a shower at work and on returning home, but actually found it was quicker door to desk to take it a little slower and skip the shower.
  • Route – look for alternatives to the main roads you might drive on. I hate taking lengthy detours, and don’t like shared routes that are heavily used by pedestrians, especially school kids or dog walkers. They can be unpredictable (children and animals!) There are often good quiet routes along alleys, canal paths, bridleway, bus lanes etc. I filter through stationary traffic and position myself ahead of any vehicles in the advanced stop line box so they can see me.

Adapt to The weather When Commuting

British weather is variable so what you wear for utility cycling needs to be adaptable, especially when commuting, ie needing to be somewhere at a specific time when you cannot wait for the rain to pass. Layering works, not just on a single journey, but having different layers to choose from in your wardrobe helps too.

It snowed while I was at work, I could have walked but cycling was quicker. I was dressed for the weather. A great commute!
  • Wet roads & light rain – you will need a water resistant jacket but it needs to be breathable / loose fitting to avoid the “boil-in-the-bag-biker” experience. It doesn’t have to be a specialist cycle jacket, if that’s not your look. I commuted the 2.5 miles to the train station in a loose fitting wax jacket. It was very comfortable and didn’t look like I’d travelled by bike by the time I got to the office.
  • Proper Rain – at some point the rain becomes so persistent that breathable water proof leggings are worth it. The downside is that the water will run off into your shoes. Overshoes or similar need to be used as well. When I’ve commuted in these conditions I usually wear a sacrificial layer and carry a dry set of smarter clothes including shoes. I change in loos at work or on the train.
  • Cold weather – when people are scraping ice from their windscreens a utility cyclist can be getting places. Keep tyres a bit softer, be very gentle on untreated roads and it’s fine. Beware motorists who haven’t bothered to de-mist properly before setting off.
  • Smart Office Wear – When working from one office I kept a smart pair of trousers & shoes at work and just carried a neatly folded shirt if it was hot or I fancied a burn-up on the way in.

My Utility Bike

So what do I ride for utility cycling?  Currently I have a gents’ city bike with 3-speed hub gears & a dynamo.  I got it for a donation to a bike recycling scheme and so far it’s always been there on my return to train station or shops.  Previously I had a 6-speed Dawes Galaxy, but that became desirable and got nicked.  I ride in most weathers including snow and ice and rain. When it’s wet I try to avoid really heavy cloudbursts by checking the rain radar – and to be fair, in East Anglia we don’t get that much heavy rain. Fog and high gusty winds are the conditions that are most likely to find me reaching for the car keys.

Maintenance is more like neglect:

  • Tyres – I keep the tyres pumped and oil the chain about once a quarter or after icy weather and salty roads.  My gravel bike is pampered by comparison.
  • Brakes – adjusted, but I rarely (never on current bike) change the pads.  I can get them to squeak very noisily, which I find a handy safety device. Old school brakes are utterly rubbish when wet so I have to take it cautiously in damp conditions.
  • Lights – 2 at the front, both off a dynamo, 1 flickers, 1 steady. Battery light at rear.

Everyday Riding Benefits

Snowdrops on the verge discovered on a leisure ride on my daily transport, in the same month as the previously pictured snow-bound ride!

Since lock down my commute has been a 4-6 mile loop as I work from home. The gentle exercise at the start of the day does me the power of good. I do occasionally use my gravel bike but I have to ride harder for the same level of exercise and in morning traffic (cars / dog walkers) that isn’t always a good idea.  Before Covid, I commuted by train a few times a week, leaving before sunrise in the damp winter mornings, saving £££ on parking charges.  I also use my bike for visiting local shops & friends, always convenient. 

Of course utility cycling doesn’t have to be boring, sometimes its just nice to get out on a leisure ride or take a detour. I use mine on easy bridleways too. If you are riding with children or beginners, riding a utility bike can make it more fun for your companions. You will be working a little harder, so you’ll be less likely to disappear into the distance.

Utility Cycling won’t suit every commute, shopping trip or visit to friends. Where you can, I hope these tips help you to make cycling a normal part of life, not just a leisure activity. And you’ll be reducing your CO2 footprint too.

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