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February 9, 2015

Advice To A New Bike Commuter From a 10-Year Veteran

This is the first in our “Dear Zipcar” series, where we take members’ questions, then tap into our employee knowledge base to share expertise. Got a city-living question of your own? Ask us in the comments below, and you just may see it in a future post.

Dear Zipcar,
My resolution is to start biking to work. I want to come up with a plan to make a bike commute workable for me so that I will stick with it all year. Got any tips?

Signed,
Ready to Switch Gears

Dear Ready to Switch Gears,

I bike commute 11 miles to work at Zipcar Headquarters in Boston every day. Much like a mail carrier, I do it in rain, sleet, snow, or ice. In daylight and darkness. Long days or short. I do it when it’s warm and sunny, when it’s cold and blustery; when I’m raring to go, and when I really don’t feel like it. Some days when I have too much heavy stuff to carry, or need to work really late and then have an early morning meeting, I might take a Zipcar, but on almost any other day, you’ll find me on my bike.

I’ve discovered a few key things over the years. (I’ve been bike commuting since 2004.) The key to sticking with it is to plan well, and then have fun!

With the right preparation and mindset you can pretty easily overcome the physical challenges of weather, physical exertion, and staying safe. The upside is complete control of your commute, lots of fresh air, and exercise at a time you'd otherwise be stressed or bored. 

I’ve put down my five most important tips. If I had room, there would be a sixth: Don’t give up. Get out there and do it! Stay safe. Stay motivated. Please report back and tell us how it’s going. And for the other seasoned cyclists out there, please share your bike commuting wisdom in the comments section, too.

Happy cycling!
Bill Connolly
Zipcar Member Services Director

1) STAY SAFE with road smarts.

The web has lots of great resources for tips to keep you safe and it's worth spending a few minutes learning some practical tips and the reasoning behind them. A good place to start is the bicyclesafe.com website.

Also, get both a front (white) and back (red) light — and use them. I ride with my lights on almost all the time, even in the daylight, because I want every little bit of help I can get in making sure I am visible on the road.

Lastly, be both “seen” and “heard.” Either get a bell that you can easily ring or just get comfortable with a loud and friendly call of "heads up." But either way, be prepared to let people know you're there — especially pedestrians, large trucks, turning vehicles, or people sitting in cars who may suddenly open the door. 

Avid cyclist (and Zipcar Member Services Director) Bill Connolly makes biking in any weather a breeze. He answers the question of how to make it work for you.Avid cyclist (and Zipcar Member Services Director) Bill Connolly makes biking in any weather a breeze. He answers the question of how to make it work for you. 

2) Don't break the piggy bank just yet.

You'll need some stuff, but don't feel like you need to spend a ton of money right away. Of course you'll need to spend some real money on a good helmet and a sturdy lock, but most other things don't need to be top quality right from the start. Got an old bike in the basement? I'd try taking it to the bike shop and asking how much it would cost to make it safe.  

When I first started bike commuting, I used a 30-year-old bike that I had left pretty much unused in the basement for a long time. After a tune-up and some safety related repairs (like new brake cables and a new chain), I was ready to ride. Same goes for clothing. There is no shortage of great cycling-specific rain jackets, wind pants, etc…but for the most part you won't need those right away.

Instead, I find it helpful to set personal goals with rewards attached. When I began riding, I had a goal of riding at least four days a week for the whole year. At the end of the year, I had averaged at least my four day a week goal and I rewarded myself with a bike that was better suited to my commute. In the years since, I've made similar deals with myself for new jackets, new helmets, new brakes, and other various upgrades and gizmos. By doing it this way, even with the occasional gear purchase, I'm also keenly aware of how much money my bike commute is saving me versus the cost of public transit or parking a car.  


Business in the front (a piping hot thermos), party in the back (a rugged carry-all) make bike commuting the best of both worlds.Business in the front (a piping hot thermos), party in the back (a rugged carry-all) make bike commuting the best of both worlds.


3) Plan for the worst-case weather scenario.

In the past decade of bike commuting, phone apps have made anticipating my riding conditions a million times more effective and easier. Still, I find that a little extra planning and a couple spare items will help make the trip more fun and less uncomfortable. Be sure to dress (or at least bring gear to be) a little warmer and drier than you think you'll need. My personal favorite is layers of wool since it is nice and warm, doesn't retain smells, and is nearly as warm when wet (which is very different from things like cotton, which can lead to hypothermia if you get cold and wet). Lastly, if you have shower facilities at work, plan to use them. It's much easier to not worry about getting splashed or dirty on your ride if you know you're going to shower anyway when you arrive at work. 

Bill’s safety tips make cycling in traffic totally doable, no matter the weather.Bill’s safety tips make cycling in traffic totally doable, no matter the weather.


4) Ask around. 

If you have a colleague, neighbor, or friend who bikes to work, ask them about it. More than likely you'll find they're happy to share some local insights, like the best routes or roads to avoid, or can make an introduction to a local bike shop and help you get any necessary gear. 

A cleared path = smooth pedaling ahead. Just watch out for the slushy spots at bike trail entrances and exits.A cleared path = smooth pedaling ahead. Just watch out for the slushy spots at bike trail entrances and exits. 

5) Have fun!

My friend Doug is 50 years old and when I bump into him on our morning bike commute, I'd swear I'm looking at an 8-year-old. Riding bikes is fun. Don't let the fact that you're headed to work distract you from the fun.

If you've ever looked out the car, train, or bus window and envied the freedom and fresh air being enjoyed by a cyclist on a nice sunny spring day, I can assure you what you're imagining doesn't even come close to how much better they are actually feeling. Try being the person on the bike and you'll see what I mean.