Following Monday’s post about going carfree, here are my tips for urbanites who are planning to make a bike their main form of transport.
1. Which bike?
If you haven’t already got a bike, you’ll need to think about what type of bike to get. I bought one at the low end of the range of a good make of mountain bikes.
I bought towards the bottom of the range because I wasn’t positive I would keep on cycling. In fact I have done, yet I don’t regret buying a cheaper bike. The more expensive mountain bikes come with features that I wouldn’t need given than I mostly cycle around town. Suspension for example which, while though no doubt welcome off-road, reduces your efficiency so requiring you to work harder, and isn’t necessary for on-road cycling.
I bought a mountain bike because I thought it would be hardwearing and take more knocks. (OK, and because it was what everyone was buying at the time and I thought it would make me look cool). I have since changed its chunky tyres for hybrid ones. Mountain bike tyres are designed to grip the ground and provide traction. Necessary for off-road riding: a waste of your pedalling energy on road. While I still enjoy my bike’s robustness, I don’t enjoy the stream of water that pours down my back when it’s raining (mountain bikes don’t have mudguards), or the dirty patches on the inside of my right trouser legs (mountain bikes don’t have chain guards). With hindsight, I think I’d have been better off with a road bike.
I still love my bike though 🙂
Another option is a hybrid, though personally I regard that as the worst of both worlds, rather than the best.
2. Get a rack and panniers
More comfortable than a rucksack and MUCH safer than carrier bags hanging off your wrists (I know someone who smashed her shoulder when the bags she was carrying caught in her front wheel as she sped downhill on a bike).
3. Outer gear
You’ll want a waterproof jacket, trousers and overshoes. As well as keeping you dry, they’ll be windproof so they’ll keep you warm when necessary. Keep them in your panniers so you don’t get caught out.
I recommend gloves too. Long-fingered waterproof ones for winter, short-fingered ones for summer. Not only do they keep your hands warm and dry, they make riding more comfortable, acting like shock absorbers for your hand. And the short-fingered ones make you look like an urban warrior, which is always a bonus.
I always wear a helmet. Debate rages about this. (Do drivers give more space to cyclists without helmets? Does promoting their use discourage people from cycling? Do helmeted cyclists ride less carefully?) I’ve come off my bike a few times in the last ten years and been glad of my helmet. On the worst ocassion, caused by black ice, though I was severly bruised, my helmet saved my face a nasty scrape (and kept my glasses and hearing aid on and intact).
I bought a pair of cycling shoes a couple of years ago. While they’re not essential, they make cycling more efficient (the solid soles transfer more of your legpower to your pedals). Plus, they take away the need to work out what shoes I’m going to put on to cycle! I can always pop a more glamorous pair in my panniers to change into on arrival. Or sometimes I just cycle in the glamorous ones (see benefits of being carfree number 5).
They’ve also got cleats in the sole that can clip into specially designed (clipless) pedals. That increases your efficiency as it harnesses the power of your pedalling upstroke as well as your downstroke. I’ve never used them though as I’m concerned about failing to unclip quickly enough on stopping (leading to me tipping over and looking like an idiot) or remaining attached to my bike in an accident, resulting in more serious injuries. Having said that, I just did a quick internet search to check my terminology for this blog post and found stuff on the web suggesting that clipless pedals and cleats disengage easily and won’t stay attached during an accident (unlike pedals with toeclips and straps) so maybe I’ll reconsider.
4. Use two good locks
Get more than one lock, of different types (thieves are likely to be carrying equipment to get through a single type). I use a D-lock plus a chain & padlock. Lock your bike to something secure (I once saw thieves attempt to lift a bike over the roughly ten foot high post it was chained to). Make sure you lock both the wheels and the frame to whatever you’re securing your bike to (especially if you’ve got quick release wheels).
5. Service your bike regularly
Do it yourself or use your local bike shop. It costs way less than servicing a car and will ensure that your bike is safe (by replacing worn brake pads, brake cables, chain etc). I have mine done annually.
6. Learn how to fix a puncture…
I confess I could do better on this one myself. I do know how. I did a great course on basic bike maintenance recently. However, I found I didn’t have the strength to get the tyre back on the wheel once I’d fixed the puncture so I don’t know whether I’d attempt it if I got a puncture while I was out. I rarely cycle so far from civilisation that a flat tyre would leave me stranded. However, if I was going way off road or far from public transport, I’d want to be carrying a spare inner tube and a pump and know that I could fix a puncture if necessary.
7…and prevent them
Pump up your tyres every week or so. It’s harder work cycling with soft tyres. Plus soft tyres result in damage to your wheels and tyres, and to more punctures.
For the first few years after I started cycling as an adult, I was lax about pumping up my tyres. I knew I ‘should’. And I rarely did. And even when I did, working hard with a hand pump, I wasn’t sure if I’d achieved anything because I never knew if I’d put in the right amount of air.
And then I bought a strirrup pump with a pressure gauge. Transformation! Now pumping up my tyres is easy, and the pressure gauge (combined with the recommended pressure printed on the side of my tyres) tells me when to stop.
Also, every now and then, have a good look at your tyres. You’ll see that they are full of nicks and indentations from sharp objects you’ve cycled over. Some of these will have the sharp object in question embedded within them. You can gently ease these bits of glass etc out with, for example, a screwdriver, which will reduce the chance of them being pushed further in and causing a puncture next time. I love doing this. It’s like squeezing spots. Dead satisfying!
8. Carry your lights at all times
I went to a party last weekend, expecting to stay for the afternoon and come home early evening to go out with some other friends. Once I was in the swing of the party though, I didn’t want to leave early and my plans for that evening were easily rearranged so I stayed. Luckily someone was driving home from the party and could fit my bike in their car (with my quick release front wheel removed), otherwise I’d have had an unpleasant ride home in the dark.
Find a way to have your lights on you whenever you’re out on your bike (e.g. keep them on the bike, or in a bag you always take with you cycling). If you don’t, you’ll inevitably get caught out, especially in the Spring and Autumn, when you’re more likely to be going out in the light and coming home in the dark.
I use clockwork bike lights. The five minutes I spend winding them up every couple of weeks are worth it to reduce my reliance on fossil fuels still further. You might prefer battery operated lights if you frequently do longer journeys though (say over half an hour).
If you’re using battery operated lights, use rechargeable batteries to keep your environmental impact as low as possible.
It’s a good idea to carry spares batteries, especially if you’re using rechargables (as they die suddenly rather than gradually fading over time). I’d suggest carrying alkaline batteries as spares so there’s no danger you’ll put your spares in only to find they’ve gone flat too.
Another environmentally-friendly option is a dynamo, though you will have to pedal harder as your legs will be powering the light as well as your wheels.
Happy cycling folks. Enjoy getting from A to B with minimal environmental impact, at little financial cost, while improving your physical and mental health. What’s not to like?
And please do share your cycling tips below.