There are some great articles out there on how to start biking either for exercise or a commute. This post is specifically for anyone who wants to start commuting to a destination, regularly.
I live in Portland and so I have to deal with some sun/heat and cold/rain. I’m 6′ tall and about 175 lbs. When I started biking I could walk a mile, could run 0.5 a mile and probably could bike only 2 miles… so even though I wasn’t in bad shape I really didn’t have any stamina.
I would recommend using whatever bike you already have and outfitting it as you go. I started out with my mountain bike which worked awesome, it was a 29-er which is the same size as a 700c so it’s a common tire size. I only biked in the daytime so didn’t need lights at first. I also started when the weather was fair so no fenders/flaps needed initially.
Driving the Route
I first drove the route I was going to bike and I left myself a lot of time to take a break in case I wanted. I had never biked such a distance before; 8.5 miles from Banker’s Hill to Mission Valley in San Diego. I wore my regular helmet, slapped a backpack on and packed my food for the day and scrubs for work and one extra boxers and socks.
The ride there was actually really easy. The sun was brutal but otherwise I pedaled nice and slow, no rush and obeyed all traffic laws. The spots that were scary of course were the street lanes that didn’t have bike paths. And SD drivers do not like bicyclists in their lane so I left for work at 10am… not much traffic then.
I got to work, changed into scrubs and was ready to go. Well, I had to put on a white coat because I was sweating through the scrubs. Yes, I know, gross. Ideally I would have showered at work but we didn’t have a shower.
The First Ride
The ride back was brutal, it was evening time and so there was more traffic but at least nobody was moving so I actually felt safer. Not much sun left so it felt better. But I definitely wished I had some glasses on to protect my eyes, quite a bit of debris flies up in your face while riding. Also, there was this hill that was just impossible for me and even the rest of the way home there were a few steady hills that just tore me up. It took me 45 minutes to get to work but almost an hour to get home.
So… I gave up for a week and tried it again and same thing, those hills on the ride home were tearing me up. I’ll get to the solution to that in a minute. I was going to be biking home at night so I got a strobe light for the helmet, a nice bright light for the handlebars and a flashing on my backpack. I threw on a thin reflective vest and that was pretty good.
The Electric Bike Retrofit
Next I had to tackle that hill. It was keeping me from wanting to bike more frequently. So I decided on this little guy. The Hill Topper was probably one of my better purchases ever made. I got everything for $599 and the battery was super easy to charge and this thing made biking so much more fun. It had a little tiny button I could press on the handlebar that would engage the battery. Took me maybe 15 minutes to install and I didn’t need any tools. This made the hills so much easier and on lazy days I still would ride… because I could just press a button, ha! By this time I had sold the mountain bike and purchased a used beautiful commuter bike. The Hill Topper got hooked up to this bike.
So, I actually used this Hill Topper thing for 3 months and came to realize that I really didn’t need it because I just got used to the commute. Well, that was easy, I put it up for sale and it sold super quick for $220, not bad. I kept biking and as the weather got colder I got some gloves, some better rain gear. I didn’t bother with footwear or shoes with clips. Even if my shoes got soaked I could always pack a dry pair of shoes. I got fender bags but didn’t end up using them after the first few tries, backpack is easier for me even on a hot day. My rain gear was a bright yellow jacket that goes over whatever I’m wearing. It’s thin so it breathes really well. And the pants are the same. Both are awesome at repelling water.
I started wearing my glasses but I think prescription full wrap around sunglasses would have been better. Glasses.com is where I get my glasses and their prices are very competitive. Or contacts with sunglasses on top. Either way, I recommend some sort of eye protection even in the daytime because you never know what flies your way. As far as what to pack, I’ve had maybe 3-4 flats so I usually just pack a tube and some tools, pretty easy. I fix the tube when I get home so I don’t bother carrying a patch kit.
Now, 2 years later I have a folding bike and I love it. I rarely need a lock because I just fold it up and take it wherever I go. I can bum rides off of friends by throwing my bike in the back of their car. And I’m car-free and so far no regrets.
Update on Bike Commuting
I’ve now been bike commuting for 7 years. It’s 2021 as of this update and I still don’t have a car. I appreciate having a car but don’t see it as a good addition to my life.
Later, when I moved to Spain, I purchased an electric Brompton and it has been an awesome second bike for getting started cycling in Spain.