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Seven Tips for Better Bike Commuting

By Bruce Lin

Every morning I used to see my coworker Tom riding to work. Rain, snow, hail, fire, it didn’t matter. I would be inching along in rush hour traffic and he would just zoom by on the shoulder. It was inspiring. Tom was out there on his bike, getting fit, showing up to work with a smile — and I wasn’t.

Last summer, I decided to start commuting by bike. I live about 15 miles from the shop. Regularly riding this commute seemed crazy at first. But with encouragement and advice from Tom (who lives even farther away), I was able to find my groove and make it a part of my routine. I’ve now been commuting by bike for over a year. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, but it took a little time to adapt to the new routine.
Commuting and Riding a Bike to work

First, a little background. Tom is The Pro’s Closet’s resident hardman and an endurance specialist. He regularly leads our shop Strava group in mileage and he is a fierce competitor in 24-hour endurance mountain bike races. He uses his daily commute to get more training time in with his busy schedule. I lean on his expertise often and have gone to him countless times for training advice.

I, on the other hand, fell off the wagon last year and severely neglected my bikes and my fitness. This was due to many new factors in my life, like a lovely (but needy) baby at home. At my last health screening, I was overweight and the doctor warned me about my cholesterol. That shock, paired with the guilt I felt when driving a gas-guzzler to work made me realize that I had to make a change.

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to ride daily. Commuting by bike as much as possible is the next best thing. Fortunately, my employer encourages bike riding and other eco-friendly transportation methods. This has helped me lose weight, become happier, and it reignited my passion for riding. I’ve learned a lot in the process.

If you’re interested in commuting, training during your commute, or just committing to ride your bike more often, here are some tips for making your time on the bike more enjoyable.

Ease In

When I started commuting last year, I essentially came off the couch. My first outing on the bike was slow and discouraging. Afterward, I was starving and unfocused at work. It felt like my body took two days to recover. When you’re motivated to try something new and exciting, it’s easy to jump in headfirst, get discouraged, and lose that motivation before a solid routine can develop.

The more you intend to ride, the more you need to manage your fatigue and recovery time. When Tom found me scavenging in the fridge one morning, he suggested I start with less volume than I had originally planned and work my way up. This is key for any rider looking to improve their endurance and up their mileage whether they commute or not. Manage your fatigue so you can keep putting in the work, improving gradually, and developing good habits. 

I started at around half the volume I was hoping to achieve later in the year, essentially riding every other day. I would drive in one morning with my bike, ride home in the evening, ride back the next morning, then drive home. This gave me more time to recover as my fitness improved. As I got used to the effort, I was able to add more days of riding into the mix. Before I knew it, I had done a full week of riding without a hint of soreness or fatigue. It became normal. No matter what level rider you are, slowly building up toward your goal is the key to success.

Know the Difference Between Motivation and Discipline

When my will to ride began to wane, Tom always emphasized the difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation inspires you to ride your bike, but discipline keeps you on track every day. Motivation can come and go, and it can grow stronger or weaker day to day. But if stress, fatigue, obligations, and distractions begin to decrease your motivation, good discipline will keep you on track.

A few weeks into my commuting campaign, I woke up lazy and tired. The temptation to just get in my car and drive to work was almost overwhelming. Though I was unmotivated to ride, I had a plan to fight through. I had laid out my riding clothes the night before so they were ready to go. I had given my wife the car keys so they would be harder for me to grab in the morning. I set a series of increasingly annoying alarms that would ensure I woke up with enough time to ride. And, most importantly, the night before I emphatically declared to myself that I had to ride or suffer severe karmic consequences.

Road Bike CommutingI’ve found that getting out the door is always the hardest part. Once I finally get on my bike and start riding, I snap back and I am always super happy to be on my bike again. Eventually, mornings got easier, until they became routine. I'm disciplined enough to wake up not wanting to ride and still go through the motions needed to get on my bike without fighting or thinking.

I can still fail occasionally. But I look at those moments as opportunities to seek improvement. I don’t let them create a downward spiral.

In the beginning, I set short-term goals, like riding Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This fed long-term goals like riding Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the whole month. When I succeeded, it felt good. It rejuvenated my motivation which further improved my discipline. These things can build and improve. Discipline can be learned and trained, and the more disciplined you become, the better you’ll be as a rider.

Find Little Bits of Adventure

Having the discipline to carry on riding is meaningless if you’re struggling to enjoy the ride itself. Commuting every day can turn into a mindless slog, so I do what I can make it as fun as possible. One key to maintaining my interest and keeping a week of commuting fun is mixing up the route I take home.

It doesn’t take much. Often just some small deviations in the route can provide enough to keep my daily ride from getting stale. For my personal commute, I have explored a spiderweb of connecting roads that can all ultimately lead me back to my house. Often these aren’t the fastest or most efficient options, but they're fun and more sustainable.
Gravel road bike commute
Whenever I have time or the opportunity, I will try a road or combo of roads that I have never ridden. I’ll switch up between riding paved, dirt, and gravel roads, and even venture onto occasional bits of singletrack with my gravel bike. I’ve stopped at random taco trucks that I normally would never try.

Hammerhead Karoo Cycling ComputerGetting lost and trying new things is part of the fun. 

It’s not much, but these small detours on my daily commute help keep things fresh and my mind active. If (or rather, when) I get lost, I have a GPS to save me. The Android-based Hammerhead Karoo cycling computer I'm using right now has great navigation and maps so I can wander aimlessly without fear and still get to my destination. If I'm planning a bigger adventure I can also easily create routes beforehand and go further out of my way onto unexplored roads. 

Gear Up for the Ride

You can ride in any clothes that are comfortable. Ride in your work attire if you’re commute is easy and short. When I’m going to be in the saddle for longer than 20 minutes, I prefer to wear proper cycling shorts or bibs with a comfortable chamois. More than any other piece of riding gear, cycling shorts or bibs improve the riding experience by increasing comfort and dryness, allowing you to ride further, longer, and more often.

Plenty of riders are picky about the shorts or bibs they wear. But for commuting, I prefer entry-level bibs since my regular riding wears them out faster. I can buy multiple pairs for less, but I still have a couple of high-end bibs I save for longer, more serious rides and workouts. 

Winter road bike commuting
In colder months, I check the weather daily to decide what I need to stay warm. If the weather is looking suspect, I always bring extra clothing. Excess layers can always be removed and stored. Most of my spring and fall kit consists of basic thermal gear like arm- and leg-warmers, vests, toe covers, and headgear which are all lightweight and packable. 

Look for cold-weather gear that is windproof, breathable, and moisture-wicking, as it prevents heat loss from your sweat. Most cycling specific winter gear combines these qualities to effectively keep you dry and warm when you’re riding hard in cold weather. If you're really committed to cold-weather riding, consider winter cycling shoes. They are much more than effective than shoe covers at keeping your feet dry and warm.

Bad weather is something that will derail a lot of riders. Plenty of times this last winter I watched rain, sleet, or snow dump from the sky and I questioned my own intelligence. When I was fit and training a lot, I was a total fair-weather rider. But when I started commuting every day, I had to harden up and learn to love going out in harsh weather.

I've found that as long as I’m properly dressed, riding through nasty conditions can actually be fun. There are always dire moments, but I find the memories I create are often some of my strongest and most cherished. Going out in a blizzard or a thunderstorm becomes a small adventure, something that has sadly become rare in my adult life. After fighting through horrendous weather, I will often show up to work and come home happier than if I had driven and stayed dry.

Commuting Backpack Road Bike
On the topic of bags, both Tom and I prefer large, waterproof, roll-top backpacks. These bags are easily expandable and have a large single compartment which provides a huge amount of space for clothing, food, work supplies, and other gear. Tom’s strategy is to stuff his bag full of the work clothes he’ll need for the week and haul them all in on Monday. This allows him to carry less later in the week so he can focus more on the ride itself.

Here are examples of the riding clothes I prefer for each season. As the weather gets colder or wetter I will mix and match as necessary to remain comfortable.

Commuting Winter Cold Weather Cycling clothes

 Summer Spring / Fall Winter
  • Basic kit: Jersey, Bib Shorts, Socks
  • Basic Kit
  • Thermal headband
  • Neck gaiter
  • Light thermal gloves
  • Windproof vest
  • Waterproof shell
  • Arm warmers
  • Knee warmers
  • Toe covers
  • Thermal socks
  • Thermal base layers
  • Thermal skull cap
  • Balaclava
  • Neck gaiter
  • Ski goggles
  • Heavy thermal gloves
  • Insulated, waterproof jacket
  • Thermal leggings
  • Thermal socks
  • Insulated/waterproof riding shoes


Keep It Clean

If you’re riding regularly, it’s important to always ride in a clean kit. My home life is hectic, laundry gets forgotten, and I’ve been tempted many times to reuse a previously worn pair of bibs. Yes, it’s gross, and I’m not proud of it. I’ve gotten away with it sometimes. But many more times I developed some form of irritation that made riding harder and miserable.

I’ve found owning six pairs of bibs to be a good amount. There’s a pair for every day I ride and then one extra pair to get me by when I am behind on laundry. Your mileage may vary. If you’re diligent about washing, you could get away with only one or two pairs.

When it comes to your body, try to keep the saddle region clean and dry after riding. This is your best defense against irritation and saddle sores. Fortunately, our shop has a shower to wash off after a ride. If you don’t have access to a shower, baby wipes are your best friend. I keep a pack at my desk for when I don’t have time to squeeze in a shower and will wipe off when I change.

When it comes to your bike, just be sure to clean and lubricate the drivetrain regularly to ensure it continues operating problem-free. This is especially important in winter and in wetter climates since road grime will degrade shifting performance and accelerate wear.

If you want more tips on what you can do to maintain your bike, check out our Spring Maintainance video.

Choose the Right Bike

The right bike is any bike that you can ride comfortably and consistently. It can be your road racing bike, a mountain bike, or a hybrid commuter bike. Ideally, the bike you choose should suit your local roads. Tom and I both ride versatile cyclocross/gravel bikes because Boulder, Colorado has tons of options for paved and dirt roads, gravel paths, steep climbs, flat terrain, and singletrack.
Cannondale SuperX SE Cyclocross Gravel bike
I’m riding a Cannondale SuperX SE cyclocross/gravel bike. It is simple and cheap to maintain. My tires aren’t the lightest or fastest, but they are puncture-resistant for reliability and high-volume for increased comfort. As the seasons change, I will swap to even beefier gravel-specific tires to handle inclement weather and sloppy road condition.

Fenders are a necessity when the roads are wet, to keep spray from soaking your clothing. If your bike doesn’t have dedicated fender mounts, many companies make lightweight, clip-on fenders that are fairly effective, like those shown on my Cannondale.

In the winter months, pack riding lights because it gets dark earlier and visibility becomes an issue. If you’re riding in complete darkness a light with at least 500 lumens is best. All lights aren’t created equal, but in general, the more lumens the better. The light can be bar-mounted, helmet-mounted, or both.

If you’re looking for the perfect bike to ride, check out our complete Bike Collection.

Fit in Training on Your Commute

This is Tom’s area of expertise. For time-crunched racers, commuting may be the only consistent time they have on the bike. Trying to fit a good workout into your schedule can be difficult. Riders who are targeting certain fitness or race goals have to shape their commutes to facilitate their training.

“I choose my route to support the workout,” Tom says. “It will often be a very roundabout route so I can do extended blocks without interruption and avoid traffic and lights.” One of the keys to training during your commute is reducing the amount of time you’re interrupted by stops. That means avoiding stoplights, stop signs, cars, and other traffic as much as possible. Tom will often go far out of his way to ride roads outside of town.

“I do a lot of tempo, sweet spot, and suprathreshold intervals, and hard group rides after work,” Tom says. “Usually I’ll just split off if the group ride goes near my house.” All of Tom's work helps build the large aerobic engine he needs for endurance racing. If he’s not doing a specific workout, he’ll be riding at recovery pace, which is easy. There have been many times that I’ve passed him on the road and felt proud of myself until I realized he was soft-pedaling. This is a good example of Tom’s great discipline. He doesn’t chase when he doesn't need to. Instead, he sticks to the plan, recovers, and smashes me every other day.

Tom has also adjusted his nutrition to suit his commuting schedule. “I ride on an empty stomach in the morning to jump-start the body and eat at work,” he says. “I’ve adjusted my diet to suit my riding. I’m vegetarian and I supplement with protein to support the volume I do.” If you ever look in Tom’s food drawer at work it is filled with bars and shakes so he can fuel and recover properly throughout the day.
Training on bike during commute
Tom pushing the pace on the way home

Even if you’re not doing structured training, simply riding your bike every day will make you fitter. I’ve found that the amount of volume I’ve accumulated from easy daily riding over multiple months has given me a great base that I can build on when I actually feel like pressing on the gas.

I'm going to keep riding through the winter this year and hopefully shed even more pounds. Hopefully, you can apply some of this advice to your own riding and get out on the road more.

 

Do you commute to work? What tricks and tips do you have? Let us know in the comments!  


9 comments


  • I live in a small rural town and live less than a mile from work. I love commuting on a bike, It helps me feel more connected to my body and the greater community. I like the idea of using a commute to train. This article has inspired me to look at new routes and add some miles to my commute. Thanks!

    Michael on

  • When I was living in Alaska, I wanted to keep up with my riding all year long. What I found was that winter riding and commuting make for great training… if, as you mentioned, you have the right gear.
    Another aspect of when I was commuting while living in Alaska was that I took it as a personal challenge to go everyday. When I had a co-worker or friend say I was crazy, then I knew the challenge was met. I looked forward to new challenges, and that usually meant colder or more snow.
    The only thing I would add here is Lights, LIGHTS, LIGHTS!!! Get good lights, invest in quality lights that light up EVERYTHING. Yes, in Alaska it was key, but even commuting in the summer up there, I wanted high powered lights so I could be seen better. Commute with lights all the time, it is so much better.

    Rob Hartsock on

  • I have rode to work a couple times already. After reading all the above I know what I am doing in the morning.

    Craig Powell on

  • I moved closer to work so that I could safely commute every day (about 4 mi one way). I use a dedicated commuter bike with a belt drive, disc brakes, and an internal 11-speed rear hub. My bike is festooned with lights, including front and rear battery LEDs on day flash in the summer and solid in the winter, and additional LEDs driven by a dynamo front hub as a backup. I wear high-viz clothing. Fenders are a must. I live in North Florida where it can occasionally get below freezing, but the main problem is torrential rain which makes me invisible to drivers. Under those conditions I get a ride from my partner. Because of the heat and humidity I keep a change of clothes and shoes at work, which I swap whenever I get a ride in. Riding twoce every day pumps up your metabolism all day. Despite occasional issues with drivers, I look forward to my commute instead of enduring it as I would in a car. It also is a lot cheaper.

    Simon Capstick on

  • I ride my Single speed commuter bike, the same I bought in NYC while living there. I don’t drive (big city girl) , in NYC I commuted by bike everywhere, to work (train clients), run errands, meet people. I could not endure the cold in NY after 10 years anymore so my husband and I relocated to Scottsdale, AZ, hot but great weather year round! Here, people think I am a little weird because I ride my bike everywhere and I don’t have a car!!!
    Now I’ve been looking at your inventory to buy a road bike and go back to cycling ( used to race triathlon back in the day). Hope to purchase one soon!

    Ines Sanderson on

  • I enjoyed the article. I’ve been commuting to work by bike for about 25 years in the SF Bay Area. One additional tip I’d give which helps when motivation is down. Find a partner to share the ride with. If you know someone is out there waiting for you, you’ll be much more likely to overcome the motivation to drive in.

    Jim Wheeler on

  • Good tips.
    I’ve been commuting for many years on a hybrid/commuter bike, but just began clipping in on that bike last year. I love it; I should have done that years ago! I keep a dedicated pair of normal shoes at the office.
    I use strobe lights 24/7 all year.
    And get a loud electronic horn; it’s more civil than a finger.

    Albert Moore on

  • Great article! I, too, remember when commuting by bike everyday seemed like a pipe dream. Now, I commute pretty much everyday (12-13 miles each way), and use it for training as well. Also, I’m doing it on the Scott Scale (now heavily upgraded) I bought from The Pro’s Closet in March. My road commute was getting too dangerous, so now I ride well out of the way to stay on dirt/gravel. So much more relaxing!!! For those that don’t think it’s possible, take it from a former pack-a-day smoker……you can do it. Just start small, work your way up, and most importantly, just get out there!!!

    John Badger on

  • Bike commuting has been a regular practice for over 15 years. I live 10mi from my office (direct by road) I have spent years stringing dirt into my commute to extend my fun. Although I don’t have Colorado weather, winters do get cold and dark in Southern California.
    My must have/do tips:
    1.Good lights front and rear My Choice niterider (as many lumens as you can afford)
    2. Get away from traffic, use google maps to find alternate routes and fun dirt if you can.
    3. Comfortable bike backpack. Regular day packs don’t fit. I love waist and chest straps.
    4. Proper ride gear (well described in article) hands, head and face are something I have struggled with.
    Hopefully your company has facilities to clean up and are encouraging. Mine has not been and I have had to carve out my routine the hard way.
    Commuting is my meditation and love it 🙏🏻

    Matt Crowl on


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