Hints and Tips: Clever Commuting

In my second year at University, campus accommodation was not an option, so I moved into a great student house in Leamington Spa. Every day now I commute the 8 miles to and fro from Uni and have to say it is actually a very enjoyable experience.

It's not the first time I've been a member of the 'commuting club', back when I was working in London I used to commute from London Bridge out to the office at Heathrow (18 miles) and back three days a week. Then this summer I commuted from home to my work place at a sailing club about 6 miles away. However, it's the first time that I really feel I've got the commuting malarkey sussed; this blog post explains why: my tips and tricks for a good/safe and enjoyable commute.

The Bike
I've commuted by road bike and mountain bike and here is what I reckon is the perfect recipe for a good commuting bike:
  1. Type: For me the mountain bike wins every time when you are commuting - it's more comfortable, more robust and you can put a rack on the back without it feeling like the whole bike is flexing to it's elastic limit when you get out of the saddle
  2. Age: Old (and non-flashy) - when it is being used day-in-day-out it gets some serious wear, there is no point in trashing your best bike. It is also less likely to get stolen if it only looks like it's worth <£100.
  3. Gears: If you are commuting a relatively flat section of road, then I highly recommend a single speed conversion (or even fixed). I've converted one of my bikes to single speed using old chains and a broken up cassette (for the cog and spacers). It costs me next to nothing - when you wear one ring out, just find another old cassette and chain in the depths of the garage and put them on. It's a lot less to go wrong as well: no sticky cables, damaged derailluers or tricky cleaning. All in all, a lot simpler and a lot easier.
  4. Tyres: Use a semi-slick tyre. It is a lot safer in the winter when there is a bit of mud on the roads, but still fast and not too noisy. It also means that you can venture off-road and onto cycle paths without any problem (a great way to avoid traffic during rush hour).
  5. Brakes: I'm still in two minds about this one; a V-brake is cheaper to replace the pads and easier to adjust, but a hydraulic disk is better in the wet and has more stopping power. If you've got hydraulics I would recommend using them, otherwise rim brakes are fine.

The Kit
  1. Don't skimp on your commuting kit - you are going to be wearing it probably more than any of your other kit, so it may as well be comfortable. Get a decent, high-vis jacket and some good leggings and gloves for the cold winter days.
  2. Baggy can be better - When I'm commuting  I now wear three quarter length baggy mountain bike shorts - they help to keep the rain off when it does rain, are far harder wearing on the backside than padded tights and quite importantly you feel less a bit less obvious walking around uni/work.
  3. Don't wear boxers!  - OK, so this is something you find out early on when you are wearing padded bib shorts; you don't want to wear boxers because they are unnecessary and cause some serious chaffage. However, when I started commuting I was tempted to wear them to try and avoid getting too much kit dirty, and kidded myself that just an hour was not enough time to be painful. Inevitably though I got saddle sores. So wear some padded liner shorts instead; they are cheap and far more comfortable (and normally come with mtb baggy shorts when you buy them).
  4. Get a rack and you'll never go back! - I've tried commuting with a rucksack, and yes there are some merits to it. But as my earlier review of my pannier set highlighted, it is so much more comfortable to have a rack and panniers - you don't get the sweaty back effect, or risk damaging your back and shoulders from the extra weight.
  5. SPDs are still the best shoes to wear for commuting in my opinion. It is tempting to use flat pedals and trainers when you know you are only on the bike for 30mins or so each way. But SPDs are still more comfortable and safer: they can be worn with overshoes in the winter to keep the rain and cold out, and are actually easier to get your foot out of than pedals with straps; crucial for those moments when the car in front decides that he needs to slam on his brakes to avoid the pheasant that has taken a morning suicide-stroll into the road. Another benefit is that thieves are less likely to take a bike with SPDs - their chavy trainers aren't so comfortable to ride away in when they only have an SPD spring to push down on!

Safety
  1. Like a Christmas Tree! - Proper lighting and visibility are key when you are commuting in the dark. Reflectors aren't cool, it's the first thing that most serious cyclists do when they buy a new bike is take off the tacky reflectors that have to be fitted to meet UK bike regulations. However on a commuting bike you are not trying to be the height of fashion - so pile them back on. I have three back reflectors and two front ones on my commuting bike - they increase your visibility and act as a good emergency feature if your lights run out. In terms of lights, you can again go nuts with numbers; but if you get a decent set of LED ones then they are visible enough, at least for well-lit streets. I use the Cateye commuter combo that is about £30 for front and rear; it's light, compact, but has a serious visibility punch when on flashing mode. I also have an Alpkit Gamma Headtorch to strap to my helmet to light the way (rather than increase visibility) when I am going down unlit roads.
  1. Street lights are your friend - When you are selecting your route think about lighting - my route to Uni takes my through a town, where traffic can be a bit of a problem, but the fact that it is lit for 90% of the time by street lights dramatically increases your visibility and safety.
  2. Listen to yourself - It might seem obvious, but if you're feeling run-down or ill then don't get on the bike, get on the bus! Not only is a bike ride likely to wear you out more and make you feel more groggy, it is also unsafe to ride when you are not yourself - your reaction times are slowed and you are likely to be more wound up - putting yourself and other road users in danger.


A lot of the above probably seems like common sense, but it's that kind of thing that is important when you're commuting. The most crucial things are to be safe, be comfortable and enjoy it! 

Commuting by bike is a great way to keep fit, clear your head and get the hours in on the bike.
There are bound to be tough days, but try and look on the bright side - "Better a bad day on the bike, than a good day on the motorway!"

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