Bike Commute

Posted on November 9, 2015. Last updated June 2, 2017.

I started commuting to work by bicycle in the spring of 2006. The round trip is about 25 miles, so it helps keep me in shape and allows me to rack up mileage, nearly 5,000 miles annually. On top of that, the trip between home and work is lovely.

These pictures were taken on a summer day during 2014. I should update the shots of the Milwaukie waterfront, which looks really nice now that the light-rail construction is complete.

Getting started

Some people have no interest whatsoever in bike commuting, but I’ve heard a lot of people express interest but… The excuses are many. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over my years commuting by bike.

Just start

I can’t emphasize this one enough. “Ready” and “set” only make sense when there’s a “go!” It may help to take your first ride on your day off. There will probably be less traffic (especially if your day off lands on the weekend) and you won’t have to worry about being late.

If getting all the way to work is a problem, you can ride two miles.

Go part-way or part-time

And that two miles can be the bike portion of your your commute!

Here in Portland, TriMet and bikes work well together: MAX trains are built to hold bicycles, and nearly every bus has places for two bikes on the front rack. Lots of people combine biking and mass transit. I also see people driving to the south end of Springwater Corridor (see slide show above), parking their cars, unloading their bikes, and riding the rest of the way into town.

When I first started, I rode only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After a few weeks, I rode three days a week. It was not until a couple months later than I could ride five days a week without feeling completely exhausted in the evening.

Find the right gear

One unexpected thing about bike commuting is that it can involve some serious expenses: bike, fenders, lights, repairs, and clothing.

I’ve learned two somewhat contradictory lessons about buying gear for commuting:

Bike companies like to market products that are lightweight and great for going faster. Commuters want gear that lasts. Sometimes cheaper, heavier parts are better for commuting than their more expensive counterparts.

For example, SRAM markets three chains that work with my bike. The $28 model is a little heavier than the $65 or $85 models, but it lasts just as long, if not longer. I’m riding to work, not competing in a race. I’ll take a little extra weight, and durability, for a lot less money every day.

Sometimes, the best way to economize is to spend a little bit more up front. At first, I used the inexpensive $20 tires similar to the ones that came on my bike. After I got tired of fixing flats and buying new tires every few hundred miles, I started paying $45 per tire. The extra up-front cost has saved me a lot of money (I don’t have to change tires nearly as often) and time (far fewer flats).

The take-away here is that the best price point isn’t always obvious. Durability typically trumps performance. Do some experimenting. Ask around. Keep a repair journal so you have hard evidence about how long your gear lasts.

Keep your bike in good repair

A local bike advocacy organization emphasizes the ABC’s of everyday bike maintenance:

Doing just those three things will make your rides much more pleasurable and safe.

Unless your bike is a technological marvel, it’s probably among the simpler machines at your disposal. If you’re ever going to learn to do maintenance on a machine, the bike is a great opportunity. You’ll learn a neat skill and your ride might be smoother, faster, or easier because of the time you’ve invested.

Note the daily benefits

There are days it’s easy to focus on the downside of biking. A headwind or driving rain, getting a flat tire, or just being tired—these are all possibilities when biking.

Sometimes you have to focus to remember the good bits. You were probably refreshed when you reached home or work. (Compare it to the tension you get when stuck in traffic in your car!) You burned a few calories. You didn’t have to pay for parking. You rode right by the traffic waiting at a difficult intersection. You’ll feel closer to the scenery and people around you.

If you can do that even on bad days (and you’ll have them), then the good days become even better. You may even develop an incurable case of Bikeyface!

Challenge yourself

I like to set annual mileage goals, which makes sense given the length of my commute. Maybe that works for you, maybe a different goal is more appropriate, like riding as often as your colleague or neighbor. I find that my mileage goal sometimes provides just enough extra motivation to get me on my bike in the morning.