In my last post, we talked about the surprisingly low amount of physical preparation required before starting on your first big bicycle tour. For me, one of the most important methods of preparation is to start cycling as much as possible — that’s all. In this post, I’ll discuss how to incorporate cycling into your daily life without turning it into a whole new workout routine.
After all, a lot of people (myself included) are drawn to bicycle touring because it opens doors to adventure, not necessarily because we’re completely enamored with cycling as an activity.
Don’t get me wrong: riding a bicycle is an extremely fun way to get around. But I’m not dreaming about my next big bike tour because I’m excited to spend all day cycling — instead, I’m dreaming about the people I’ll meet, the places I’ll find and the adventures I’ll have as a result of traveling by bike.
Nevertheless, incorporating cycling into your daily or weekly routine is an easy way to boost your fitness and your comfort with navigating a bicycle on the road, which is key to getting your first big bike tour off to a smooth start.
So how do you start cycling every day? First, let’s start with…
1. The Essentials
To start cycling every day you need a few items before you get started. Fortunately, you’ll also need these items for your big bike tour!
A bike: Obviously. This doesn’t have to be the flash touring bike you’re planning to take around the world. In fact, it’s almost better to avoid riding your touring bike around town and leaving it locked up on city streets — in a big city or student town, it may be an attractive target for thieves. It’s often easy to find an old bike on Craigslist, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace or any other second-hand website, and will give you a bike to ride around town while you put together your true baby — your touring bike — over time. This guide to buying second-hand bikes is pretty comprehensive.
A lock and key: Understand that a committed thief will defeat pretty much any locking system you throw on it — it’s just a question of how long they’ll take to break the lock, chain or cable, and whether there are easier targets nearby. There are numerous types of locks on the market, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid combination locks secured with cables, and look for heavier duty locks: D locks, chains, that sort of thing.
Pannier/s: This isn’t absolutely necessary, as it’s absolutely fine to carry your stuff around the city in a backpack. But if you’re planning to go bicycle touring, it’s likely you’ll acquire panniers at some point — and (in my humble opinion) cycling with panniers is so, so, so much more enjoyable than cycling with a backpack, especially when it’s hot. Most panniers come with detachable shoulder straps, so you can carry them around off the bike, too.
A rack: Touring bikes usually require heavy duty steel racks to carry big loads over long distances. Not so for your commuter bike — bike stores or online marketplaces are full of cheap second-hand racks (in steel or aluminum), which are more than enough to carry your gear around town.
Lights: When you walk into a bike shop asking for lights, a clerk will usually ask you whether you’re buying lights “to see or be seen.” That means: are you cycling on city streets where streetlights will illuminate your way (and your lights will make you visible to cars and pedestrians); or are you cycling on quieter roads and streets after dark (and therefore need a front light that’s bright enough to light up the road ahead). Personally, I have never needed a front light bright enough to light my way while traveling, but I have met plenty of bicycle tourists who enjoy riding quiet country roads at night. Brighter headlights (for “seeing”) are generally bigger and more expensive, while smaller lights (for “being seen”) are cheaper.
There are other items that can come in handy for urban cycling — brightly colored water/windproof jackets and gloves come to mind — but the above list constitutes the bare minimum for cycling in dry, not-freezing weather. Once you have this, you’re ready to start exploring.
Just as bicycle touring unlocks all sorts of adventures that are unavailable to other types of travelers, urban biking will show you new, previously unseen sides to your city. The best place to start is to look for existing cycling infrastructure. As governments around the world have woken up to cycling as a solution for the congestion, pollution and general quality-of-life problems associated with cars in cities, protected bike lanes, dedicated bike paths and rail trails (former railways converted into bike and pedestrian paths) have sprung up all over the place. For example, some Latin American cities now close off their central boulevards from motorized traffic for one day per week, allowing for easy bike exploration.
Many cities will have at least one central bikes-only traffic artery, which acts as a kind of cyclist’s Interstate. It may take some digging to find yours, but on Google Maps these routes will show up as a thin green line. Zoom in close enough, and you’ll often find these arteries have names. In Seattle, the main bike artery is the Burke-Gilman Trail. In Boston, the best rail trail I’ve found so far is the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway. New Yorkers use the Hudson River Greenway to speed up and down the west side of Manhattan. In Brisbane, it’s the Bicentennial Bikeway. Use these arteries to anchor your ride and, using Google Maps’ helpful cycling route finder (which even gives you an elevation profile), plan out a loop that starts and ends at your house.
In some cases, you might find that Google Maps’ route finder isn’t your best friend, as it will sometimes send cyclists onto busy, car-infested boulevards when alternatives exist. To find these, you can use Google Maps’ biking layer, which overlays information about a city’s bike trails, cycling lanes and bike-friendly roads onto the map. There’s a video here about how to set it up.
Keep in mind that most ferry and train services allow bicycles aboard, which can add a fun new dimension to any urban exploration by bike. If it’s a warm day, take a picnic blanket, some snacks and your book and be prepared to stop and relax wherever you end up.
Cycling to and from work is often a highlight of any weekday, a little adventure in the open air to start the day. If you’re able to do so, cycling to and from work is probably the easiest way to start building your cycling fitness ahead of a big bike tour. However, not everyone has the opportunity to do so — carpenters, plumbers and electricians often need to take their tools to and from work, for example, which can be impractical on a bike. Below, I’ve outlined a few factors to consider when deciding whether it’s a good idea for you to start biking to and from work:
Distance: How far do you live from work? Obviously, if you live 50 miles from your workplace, it might not be sustainable for you to start cycling to work every day. However, cycling to and from public transport is an easy way to add even a short ride to your day. Biking to your nearest commuter rail or bus stop is easy, so long as it’s possible to walk to your workplace at the other end of your journey.
The Sweat Factor: Many of us need to look somewhat presentable for our jobs, or dress in impractical “business-casual” wear to look the part around the office. This poses a problem for would-be cycle commuters: what happens when you show up looking sweaty at the end of a strenuous morning ride? This is a real issue that can dissuade people from bicycle commuting, so let’s look at it more closely:
Sweat Limiters: Do you live in a hot environment? When you map out a cycling route between your house and place of work, does Google Maps send you up and over any big hills? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you might end up showing up to work sweaty.
There are ways to limit the sweat. Can you find an alternative commuting route, perhaps one that consumes more distance, but puts you on one of those arterial bike routes (which tend to be less hilly)? Or does colder weather in the morning and evening limit the amount of heat you’ll be exposed to on your way to and from work?
Sweat Mitigators: In the past, I have biked to work in a set of “cycling clothes” and then changed into my work clothes in a bathroom at the office. A quick change, application of deodorant and a splash of cold water on my face was usually enough to make me presentable enough to show up at work. Many workplaces nowadays have locker rooms and even showers — if yours does, you can rinse the sweat away as soon as you arrive.
When it’s written out like this, cycling to work seems like a lot of… well, work — who wants to take a change of clothes with them, and show up sweaty and bedraggled?
But bicycle commuting is good for you, and feels incredible. It builds exercise into your day and puts you in tune with the world around you. In the words of the School of Applied Mental Health:
“Cycling to work has been linked to good self-perceived health, lower stress and reduced feelings of loneliness. Walking shows equivalent benefits. Why? Well, as ever, there a few reasons behind this.
“Commuters are more likely to experience feelings of stress and exhaustion when they believe they are in a crowded and unpleasant environment. Cycling and walking can remove or reduce these factors and provide a less stressful start to the day accompanied by greater feelings of choice and control.
“Along with benefits to the mind, cardiovascular health is improved. When we commute in an active way, the downsides of potential pollution and traffic safety are usually offset with the mental and physical benefits of exercise. Although less of a high priority for mental health, some may also get personal satisfaction from a more environmentally sustainable commute.”
And in the long term, it costs a lot less than driving or public transit — saving you money to spend on the big bike tour you’ve got coming up while you gain relevant fitness and road experience.
The City Cyclist
Cars are wonderful inventions which, combined with extensive investments in road infrastructure, have opened up the world for speedy and self-directed long-distance travel.
But cars and cities do not mix well. They’re loud, they pollute and they take up far too much space. They aren’t fun to drive in a city, and they certainly aren’t fun to share the road with. Cars tend to overwhelm everything around them — a busy road full of cars is too loud, polluted and sprawling to be used (or enjoyed) by anyone except motorists.
I might be straying into editorializing here (hey, it’s my blog), but there there is a certain amount of indignity to sitting in unmoving traffic or drifting through city streets in search of a parking space.
These aren’t problems when you’re cycling. Cycling in the city is probably the most joyful, exciting and stimulating form of transportation. And the vast majority of us are capable of riding bikes — there is no need to spend our moving hours sitting idly on our asses. If you’ve ever been to the Netherlands, you’ve experienced the wondrous possibilities of cities that don’t rely on cars.
In my experience, developing a love for urban cycling goes hand-in-hand with a healthy distaste for urban car travel. Do you really need to drive one or two suburbs over to meet that friend? Or could you leave 15 minutes earlier and take your bike instead? Is there a bike path or bike lane that goes past your local cinema, pub or restaurant district? I recently figured out I can use my touring bike and panniers to do my grocery shopping by bike, and it was one of the most wonderful discoveries of the year. Develop that distaste for driving and before you know it, you’ll find yourself seeking out opportunities to ride, rather than strapping yourself into a high-speed hydrocarbon-burning cage to get everywhere.
This series deals with the practical elements of bike tour preparation. If you’re looking for something a little lighter on practicality and heavy on travel narrative, consider picking up my book about a ride I did from Canada to El Salvador.
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