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Commuting by Bicycle

This page provides some guidelines for commuting by bicycle. The Xootr Swift is a particularly good bike for commuting, but these guidelines are not specific to Xootr products. Notes by K. Ulrich (Xootr co-founder)

Where to Live

If you have not yet settled on a place to live or are considering relocating, then considering your bike commute can really improve your quality of life. In my opinion, the perfect place to live is 5-6 miles distance and 300-600 ft (100-200 M) higher in elevation than work. That gives you a minimum of a 20-minute downhill commute to work. The shortest commuting distance from home to the office for me is 6 miles (10 km) and 360 vertical feet (120 M) of elevation loss. I can easily make this 11-12 miles by taking the scenic route. It's hard to make your commute shorter. That's why I recommend living no further than 5-6 miles from work. The elevation loss is a key factor. You get to work without sweating too much. You get a nice workout coming home.

Routes

Only in rare cases will the best bike route be the best driving route. Look carefully at the map and try lots of alternatives. It took me about three years to perfect my bike route. My friends and I still try incremental improvements several times a year. Your goal is not to find the shortest route. Typically your goal is to find the safest route that is also fun and is the right length. Adding a mile to your ride is really no big deal if it lets you avoid a really dangerous stretch of road or if it takes you through a beautiful patch of scenery. Check out MapMyRide.com for a Google maps application that lets you, well, map your ride.

Weather and Clothing

Many people willingly spend several thousand dollars to experience cold wind in their faces outdoors (i.e., skiing at Aspen). You can have that experience every day while saving money if you ride your bike all year in cold climates.

In my opinion, Winter riding is no big deal in temperatures above 25F. (I still ride in colder weather, but it isn't a lot of fun.) Riding in Summer, even when 100F is no big deal until you stop and lose the cooling wind across your skin. Then, you're going to want to be in an air conditioned office or home in a hurry.

The key to riding in Winter is making the right clothing choices. If you get the clothing right, you'll be comfortable. Many years ago I developed a simple table that I use to dress correctly when I leave the house on the bike. I simply note the current temperature outdoors and look up the appropriate clothing choice. Below is my table. Of course, you may run hotter or colder than I do, so you'll need to adapt it to your own preferences. Do this once, however, and you'll be a lot happier in cold weather on the bike. We created a spreadsheet template in either Microsoft Office format or Open Office format for you to tweak to your own preferences

Temp <20F (-7C) 25F (-3C) 30F (0C) 35F (3C) 40F (5C) 45F (8C) 50F (10C) 55F (13C) 60F (15C) 65F (18C) 70F (22C)
Head ski helmet; face mask ski helmet hat and helmet hat and helmet hat and helmet helmet helmet helmet helmet helmet helmet
Torso heavy fleece; vest; shell heavy fleece; shell light fleece; vest; shell light fleece; shell light fleece; shell light fleece light fleece light fleece long jersey long jersey  
Hands ski mittens lobster mitts lobster mitts light gloves light gloves light gloves          
Legs tights; long underwear tights tights tights tights tights tights shorts shorts shorts shorts
Feet booties over shoes plastic bag over socks; shoes heavy socks and shoes heavy socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes socks and shoes

Riding in the rain is no fun, especially in Winter. When it's raining, I look at the radar map to figure out if waiting an hour or two will let me avoid the worst. (It helps to have a very flexible schedule.) If I can't delay and it's raining, I just put on my rain gear and go. I have a rain jacket with a huge hood that fits over my helmet, which helps a lot. In Philadelphia, there are only five days a year when I get to the end of my commute and say "That was stupid. I should have driven to work."

Bike Clothes or Street Clothes?

How you handle clothing is largely a function of gender, dress requirements at work, the convenience of shower facilities, and the privacy of your work space.

I prefer to ride in athletic gear and change into work clothes. I avoid lycra bike shorts in the office. In the summer, I ride in shorts and t-shirt. In the winter, I ride in poly leggings and fleece. If my commute were just a mile or two, I would ride in street clothes.

I keep my work clothes in my office. I have done this for more than 20 years. I just cycle the clothes through the local cleaner. (I work in an urban environment with a cleaner just a block away.)

If you live uphill from the office you don't sweat much coming in. It's hard to get too sweaty in Winter. Really there are just a few days a year in Summer when sweating is a problem. If you are hung up about perspiration, then you could either take a shower at the gym at work (if you're lucky enough to have such a facility) or clean up with some baby wipes and a towel.

Gear

If you're serious about commuting, you should really set up a bike for that purpose. I ride a stock Xootr Swift with these accessories/modifications: Of these, I consider the fenders and rack essential all year, and the lighting essential much of the year.

Tools and Repairs

The only tool some people carry is a cell phone. If they are stranded, they call a spouse or friend to come pick them up. However, if you are the slightest bit mechanically inclined you can easily deal with most on-the-road repairs yourself.

The most common repair you will need to perform is changing a flat tire. The tools you need for this are:

  • replacement tube (faster than patching the hole)
  • tire levers (you probably only need two of these, but most kits include three)
  • portable pump (that fits the type of tire valve you have)
  • rubber gloves (i.e., "surgical gloves") to keep your hands clean

Put all of this stuff in a heavy duty ziploc bag and put it in the bottom of your cargo bag.

The only other repair that I commonly see required among commuters is a broken chain. If you are really conservative, you can carry a chain tool to deal with this. I take the approach of replacing my chain every spring, and I use a really standard heavy-duty chain like is on the Swift (KMC Z72). I've never broken a chain commuting on a Swift, but both of my commuting buddies have broken chains.

I keep a set of hex wrenches and a screwdriver in my office at work. This lets me fuss with brake cables, etc. These are rarely urgent repairs, but it's nice to have the tools at hand during the day to adjust the bike when you're thinking about it.

In my experience most flats occur in older tires because a piece of glass has become embedded in the tire and eventually works its way through the tread and punctures the tube. You can avoid this by (a) checking your tires for glass every week or so and (b) making sure you replace your tires every 1000 miles or so. Tires are relatively cheap. I just replace them, my brake pads, and my chain every Spring. I average about one flat tire a year, which is not really much to lose sleep over.