Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cycle Commuting Tips

A few handy commuting tips:

1.    You can commute on anything. Well, pretty much anything as long as it has a couple of wheels and a chain (and no motor, electric or otherwise). Anything too new and you look like you’re just trying it out or feel guilty about your empolyer buying you a 'cycle-to-work' bike and will probably quit within the week. Take a new bike out for a couple of long rides in foul weather to make it look worn-in. Or just discharge a shotgun at it. Supermarket bikes are also worth avoiding as you’ll probably want to quit within a week – it’ll be heavy, the gears and brakes won’t work right and it’ll be less comfortable than a Mexican prison. Anything too trendy or expensive is likely to attract the wrong kind of attention (see #8) and you’ll be in danger of looking like you’re trying a bit too hard. You’ll need to be able to fit mudguards, so make sure there’s eyelets and clearance – you’re in England, remember (see #10). Bromptons should really only be used if you’re coming in from Southampton on the train; otherwise it looks like you’re not very committed (see #15).

2.    Components. Knobbly tyres are a no-no. You’re in a city, remember. Swap ‘em for some slicks or semi-slicks instead. Not too skinny, mind, remember it’s not a race. Full-sus is also verboten; a sus fork you'll get away with as long as you lock it out: no-one wants to see you pogo-ing down the road. However, don't fall into the trap of replacing your sus fork with some ostentatious rigid carbon affair: that's trying too hard. Don’t think you need hundreds of gear ratios: an 8-speed drivetrain is plenty good enough (or 7-speed if you’ve not had your bike nicked for 15 years). Or just the one speed, but be careful you don’t look too fake. Weight is a secondary consideration behind reliability – don’t think you’re impressing anyone with your 16-spoke wheels. Don't replace any components until they're properly worn out - this is not a club run, no-one cares, and fancy upgraded components will just get your bike nicked (see #8).

3.    Clothing has to be fit-for-purpose if you’re going any distance, but this is not a fashion show. You might as well accept you’re going to look a bit stupid, but that’s no excuse for over-doing it. You don’t want to look like you were in a bike race and got lost, and teaming beachwear such as board-shorts with bicycles is way off-limits. High-viz is generally OK (except in Hackney), but only in the standard highway-maintenance colours of yellow or orange - no lime green please. Pink if you're a girl is accepted, but not on blokes except for those T-Mobile jerseys. You want to be visible but you don’t want to draw too much of the wrong kind of attention – envy, malice or ridicule - to yourself. Football kit is just about OK, but there’s always a risk of encountering a van driven by a supporter of a rival team. Anything liable to get caught in your chain or spokes is of course unwise. Suit with trouser clips is OK (think Boris). Turned-up jeans are only OK on a single-speed or an old racer, but don’t look like you planned it all too carefully. Flat caps and tweed is OK but only if your age is greater the sum of your total spoke count and your total gear ratios.

4.    Pashleys are exempt from #3 and have their own dress-code involving straw hats and Liberty prints. Then again, if you are a proper Pashley owner, you won’t have a job so you won’t be commuting – you’ll be going for tea at Fortnum’s or something. Boris Bikes are also a sartorial class apart: only ordinary office  clothing is permitted - the main advantage of a Boris Bike being you don't look like a cyclist so fewer people hate you. Don't spoil it.

5.    Do not endanger yourself or anyone else. It’s not a race. However, there's no point in slacking either: the idea is to get to work as fast as you can. If you go past a few people, that’s OK. Pashleys are of course exempt from this.

6.    Luggage. The more the better, but keep it strictly business-related: no tents, stoves, bed-rolls, sleeping bags or the like. What to put your stuff in? Rear panniers are good, and the bigger the better as they give your ride 'road presence'. Front panniers are also OK although they do shout ‘tourist’. A reasonably small backpack is acceptable, but anything too large (>30L) and you’ll look like a squaddie and feel extremely top-heavy. On a Pashley you’re limited to what you can get in the basket of course - definitely no rucksacks or panniers allowed.

7.    You can go past any motor vehicle at any time (although note #5), but observe strict protocol with other cyclists. No pushing in front, cutting up or jostling for position. Pashleys are exempt provided any manoeuvre is conducted in a sufficiently regal and stately manner. Oh, and no jumping red lights to gain advantage (again, Pashleys are exempt).

8.    Do not get your bike nicked. You’ll be supporting organized crime, putting up everyone else’s insurance premiums and wasting the police’s time. Got that? The net weight of all bikes is the same – you either have a 15kg bike and 5kg of locks, or an 8kg bike and 12kg of locks. For sacrificial protection, lock your bike next to a bike that is a) nicer-looking and b) less well-secured.

9.    Do not get knocked off. You’ll be making cycling look like it’s unsafe, you’ll upset your mum, your other half and your kids, you’ll waste the police’s time and take NHS beds away from car-driving couch potatoes with myocardial infarctions. If you do get knocked off, it's your fault for not seeing the crash coming. Hone your awareness: you should have seen other road users, pigeonholed their vehicle into one of the standard stereotypes (see #16), memorized their numberplate and found out their name, address, favourite colour and mother's maiden name before they've seen you.

10.    Mudguards. You’re not in Italy, you know. We eat potatoes, not pasta, which is why the weather has to be wet. So you’ll be needing mudguards: proper ones that keep the rain off, not the ones that do nothing of the sort and just add weight and air-resistance or make it look like you didn't take all the packaging off when you got the bike.

11.    No scaring pedestrians, children, dogs or people on Boris Bikes. No getting tickets either: that means you’re not paying attention.

12.    No quitting. It never gets too cold to cycle in the UK, and there’s no weather events extreme enough to keep you off a bike. Buy some gloves and a jacket and toughen up. If you feel cold, it means you're riding too slow.

13.    Enjoy. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong or you have the wrong attitude. You’re making a pleasure (riding a bike) out of a necessity (going to work). Enjoy the freedom, the sights and sounds of the city, the changing of the seasons. Enjoy the achievement of doing something most people won’t ever do because their characters are simply too weak. No whingeing about a ‘terrible ride in’ under any circumstances. Your colleagues will have taken the tube, so it’s akin to moaning about your 'flu to someone who’s got cancer.

14.    Keep your bike in good order. Look after it and it will look after you. Mechanicals do happen however, so, as you’d take a condom on a date, take a spare tube, a pump and a toolkit and make sure you know how to use them. As on a date, no fumbling around in the dark getting the tube the wrong way round or using the wrong tool. As on a date, phoning your other half to get picked up is forbidden and likely to result in a row. Flagging other riders down for assistance is permitted in exceptional circumstances, but accepting such assistance requires you to smilingly tolerate derogatory remarks about your unpreparedness.

15.    Vary your route. Sticking to the same roads makes you mentally lazy. Extra points for extending your route to get your weekly mileage up. This is especially necessary if your ride is short (<15 miles each way), otherwise your fitness and strength of character will suffer.

16. Standard stereotypes of vehicles that you will encounter on the road, and strategies for dealing with them:
         White van. Unpredictable. Avoid. Un-sign-written ones are worse because you can't rant at their employer and possibly get them sacked.
         Private hire (minicab). Unpredictable. Avoid. Especially those grey-import-from-Japan Toyota minivans.
         Black cab. Unpredictable. Avoid.
         HGV. Unpredictable. Can't see you. Avoid.
         Bus. Usually predictable, but avoid them anyway.
         Motorcycle. Unpredictable and faster than you are. Avoid.
         Scooter. Even more unpredictable than motorcycles. Avoid.
         Car. Unpredictable. Avoid.


  1. Pashleys. Unpredictable. Avoid.

  2. There are some great folding bikes out there that would be appropriate even if you're not coming in from Southampton. Some (Montague Bikes for example) are still performance bikes with full size wheels. I agree bromptons are kind of ridiculous but some folders are a step above.