10 lessons learnt from cycle commuting for a year

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Guest post by Gordon

Picture taken on Venice Beach in LA of a blue tandem bike in the sand

It was April 2010. I had one of those weeks on the trains and tube we all dread. Every day, delays, cancellations, diversions, engineering works, passengers taken ill, trespassers on the line. The tube even stopped working because someone had nicked the copper wiring. You name it, I had it.

It just so happened that in that same week my work announced we would be joining the cycle to work scheme. I hadn’t really cycled since I was a kid and to be honest I didn’t think I would actually cycle that much, I just wanted to make some futile gesture toward South West Trains. So I signed myself up, “anyway”, I thought, “I can always ride it at weekends”.

One year on and I now cycle pretty much every day, work permitting, and have covered over 2,000 miles. For those of you who are thinking about making the leap I cannot recommend it highly enough. These are my top 10 tips of things that I have learned in the last 12 months, which may help you when you are starting out.

10. Make the Cycle2Work Scheme work for you – If you are doing the cycle to work scheme then you may want to consider getting a little more money than you require for the bike, in order to purchase some accessories. For example, it is recommended that you spend 10% of the value of the bike on a lock, so these can be relatively expensive. You will also require lights if you cycle at night (the law) and you may want to consider a helmet (not the law).

Remember that with the scheme you are making the savings on the tax and NI, so this is basically like getting a money-off voucher!

9. A little bit of maintenance goes a long way – Bikes are relatively simple things, certainly compared to cars, but they still have plenty of moving parts that need looking after.

While the word ‘maintenance’ may make you start to sweat, it can actually be very rewarding and it will save you money. Just by keeping the bike clean and lubricated you will make the parts last longer.

You can get an excellent free ‘Maintenance Made Easy’ e-book by subscribing to the London Cyclist newsletter. I can also highly recommend the free Evans Cycles maintenance courses, which have small classes and run you through the basics. If nothing else you will be happy mending a puncture!

8. Be Puncture Resilient – And you should be prepared to fix a puncture because, unfortunately, you will probably get one at some point.

However, if you carry the right gear (spare inner tube, tyre levers, pump) then you can be back on the road in no time. I also carry a small sharp knife to dig out any bits of glass or sharp stones. My top tip – always check for what caused the puncture in the first instance, otherwise you could end up getting another one half a mile later (since you ask, yes, I have).

If you really don’t fancy fixing punctures then I would recommend buying puncture resilient tyres, such as the Marathon Plus. Although heavier (and therefore slightly slower) I have not had a puncture while using them over the winter months.

7. Don’t wear anything under your cycling shorts - It took me a little while to realise that the pads in cycling shorts are seamless to avoid chaffing. If you wear anything between the shorts and your skin the seams will cause you issues. Just trust me on this one.

6. Set some goals - when I first started cycling it sometimes seemed easier to revert to the usual commute rather than get on the bike, so I set myself the goal of paying my bike off.

Using a simple Excel spreadsheet I kept track of the money I was saving by riding instead of using the train. I paid the bike off in just over four months and by that time it was part of my every day commute and I have never looked back.

5. Embrace the winter - Probably not what you want to be thinking about before spring even ends, but when summer does start to wane then don’t immediately put the bike in the shed. With a little bit of additional clothing, none of which needs to be expensive, the winter can be just as enjoyable as the summer. For a start there are fewer pesky cyclists on the road!

With the exception of my waterproof cycling jacket (£60) and winter gloves (£10 in the sale), the rest of my winter gear came from places like Mountain Warehouse, Track & Field and Decathlon. I spent about £100 – £120 all up and it will all last me another two or three winters easily.

4. Be courteous to other road users – One of the most amazing things I discovered when I started cycling is that, contrary to popular belief, not all drivers are maniacs. Indeed it transpires that the vast majority are very courteous.

Always try and indicate your intentions or at least check over your shoulder and most drivers will give you the room. If someone does let you out or gives you space to manoeuvre then try and acknowledge it. If we all try and get along then I am sure it will be better for everyone.

3. That includes other cyclists! – One of the great things about cycling is that everyone accepts that people go at their own pace. You will not encounter any furious ringing of bells or shouting of obscenities if you are pootling along – those behind will simply follow along until it is safe to overtake.

However, that doesn’t mean you cannot annoy a fellow cyclist. One of my pet hates is cyclists that you have overtaken but then, while you are stopped at a red light, saunter through the waiting masses and stop in front of everyone. Generally everyone then has to try and overtake them all over again. The term for this is Bike Shoaling.

Whenever I am overtaken I will make a conscious effort to sit behind them if I catch back up at lights. Equally, if I arrive at lights late I will tend to wait my place in the queue unless I know I will be pulling away quicker (i.e. someone wearing a suit on a Boris bike is normally a fair bet. Beware the Brompton though, these can be deceptively quick!).

2. Ride Positively Defensively – This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is one of the best bits of advice that I can give.

You have to be positive in your riding, particularly in Central London, otherwise you will never actually get anywhere. Also, nervous or uncertain riders create nervousness and uncertainty in those around them, as no one is quite sure what they are going to do next, which can cause problems.

Remember that you are as entitled as anyone else to be on the road, so adopt a strong road position if you need to, indicate your intentions as necessary and then act on them when it is safe to do so.

However, you also need to be aware of what else is going on around you and not just what you are doing. I ride looking well ahead of me so that I pick up things such as pot holes, vehicles turning, or pedestrians that look like they may step out. The sooner you see something the more time you have to act. And please remember not to ride up the inside of lorries at junctions.

It is also worth knowing that all London Boroughs operate free cycle training if you do want to improve your cycling or simply want a confidence boost.

1. Enjoy it – As clichéd as it may sound, this is actually the most important thing. Cycling can not only save you money, help the environment, make you fitter and reduce the stress of relying on public transport but it is also immensely enjoyable.

I have seen far more of this great city than I ever would have done if I had carried on making my way around underground. Now if something catches my eye, well I just hop off the bike and have a look. So don’t delay, hope on a bike today!

Special thank you to Gordon for sending me this post of things he’s learnt in the first year. It’s easy after more experience to forget these key lessons.

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30 Responses to 10 lessons learnt from cycle commuting for a year

  1. Corin 28/04/2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Some great tips there. Agree about shoaling – it really gets my goat when single speedies rock up directly in front of me at lights, when I am in a lower gear so inevitably going to be getting away quicker than they can.

    Although you mention it, I would stress that looking behind you is a key to safe London cycle commuting. Just the act of turning your head alerts following drivers to your presence and encourages them to give you plenty of room when they pass. It takes a while to get into the habit of frequent backwards glances, but once you have it you can exert an amazing degree of control of the road using this simple technique.

    Personally, my current goal is smiling more as I do my 15 miles a day. After all, I do enjoy it so I should show it!

    • Andreas 28/04/2011 at 1:53 pm #

      Hugely agreed on the looking behind frequently and yes shoaling is a classic annoyance! It’s why I often take a very forward position at lights to prevent people from doing it to me.

  2. Cyclescheme 28/04/2011 at 1:46 pm #

    What a great article! There are some fantastic tips in here that help dispel some of the myths about commuting by bike.

    Providing you have the correct bicycle and accessories for you, cycling in bustling city centres like London needn’t be daunting.

    One thing we would highly recommend is to tell the bike shop as much as you can about your commute: will you be cycling mostly on the road, a cycle path or off-road? What time of day will you be cycling? The more the bike shop know about you and your needs, the better equipped you will be.

    Being confident you have the right gear will make you much more confident when you’re out and about too.

    We’ve posted links to this on our Facebook (www.facebook.com/cyclescheme) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/cycleschemeltd) pages – many thanks!

    • Andreas 28/04/2011 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks guys! Pleased to see you picked up the article :)

  3. alp 28/04/2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Very good advice.

    I definitely think the top tips here are to absolutely ride positively and defensively and I can’t encourage cyclists to look over their shoulders enough.

    My other top tip is to use all of your senses. Listening for what is going on behind you as well as looking is invaluable. Making eye contact with other road users is also key as they often don’t ‘see’ you until you have made that connection.

    I have been commuting Mon-Fri by bike in London a 20 mile round-trip for 20 years now (!)

    • David 10/01/2012 at 4:59 pm #

      I can’t agree more about using all of your senses. I think that cycling with iPod or other music device earphones in should be made illegal.

      • Richard 09/06/2012 at 11:48 am #

        Speaking of earphones and personal music players, here in South Africa riders are banned from using them during races, for exactly that reason. I wouldn’t dare to cycle with my hearing impaired.

        Those who can’t live without their music on the road actually play it through their phones on speakerphone, in their pockets. Quite amusing at times!

  4. LordManleybe. 28/04/2011 at 2:03 pm #

    It is less of an issue in That London, but it annoys me when I cannot overtake a car because it is wide from the pavement, because another cyclist is overtaking on the inside down the line of traffic. We overtake on the right in England.

    Also cyclists who sit in the left lane at lights when they want to be in the right lane, because they somehow feel that sticking all the way to the left is somehow where a cyclist belongs, yet then are happy to cut across three lanes of traffic to get where they need to

  5. Bart Govaert 28/04/2011 at 2:04 pm #

    This is a really nice text. I agree, lets focus on the positive!

  6. LordManley 28/04/2011 at 2:07 pm #

    It is less of an issue in That London, but it annoys me when I cannot overtake a car because it is wide from the pavement, because another cyclist is overtaking on the inside down the line of traffic. We overtake on the right in England.

    Also cyclists who sit in the left lane at lights when they want to be in the right lane, because they somehow feel that sticking all the way to the left is somehow where a cyclist belongs, yet then are happy to cut across three lanes of traffic to get where they need to be.

    Oh, and if you think shoaling is bad enough, it is when the squeeze past me to then ride straight through the red light that really gets my goat.

    As you can tell, I am an angry old man, but when cyclists ride like this it gives credence to the sort of drivers who deliberately mess us up. I had an old lady deliberately hit me on a cycle path 9not even the edge of a road, it involved mounting a curb) because she had seen me cycling on a pavement. When I argued that i never ride on pavements (although, in fairness, I do ride on the 6′ of pavement outside my house to get to the drop kerb (shh)) she retorted that I did, she had seen “my lot” riding on pavements – my lot being, after further investigation, ‘cyclists’.

    Remember that you are an ambassador for all of us and that 1 cyclist riding through a red light undermines 1000 cyclists being sensible.

  7. EKB 28/04/2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Great article – Def agree about shoaling… I’ve not been commuting by bike for very long, but my route takes me along a great cycle path – with the exception it can take a while to find a spot where you can overtake! so when they go whizzing past me whilst I wait for a green light I just know I’m going to have to wait to get past them again in no time at all! Might also check out a free maintenance lesson – someone did teach me how to change my inner tube’s but I’m not sure I’d be very quick at it on the side of the road!

  8. Dave Escandell 28/04/2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Some really good tips there.

    One that I would also add is to seriously consider insurance. For less than the price of a bottle of wine a month it really does give you peace of mind, Particularly if you have a cycle to work scheme bike. If it’s stolen or damaged beyond repair you’ll have to pay your employers back and think about a new bike too.!

    I can’t recommend ETA insurance enough https://www.eta.co.uk/insurance/cycle

    • Cyclescheme 28/04/2011 at 4:06 pm #

      Insurance is vital. If you get a bike through Cyclescheme, you can get a 10% discount from Cycleguard – http://www.cycleguard.co.uk/cs

    • John 28/04/2011 at 7:23 pm #

      Hi,

      Yes I must agree with you on that one, I use ETA and they are a very good company to deal with, giving personal insurance against a 3rd party and a ‘get you home’ insurance cover if you break down with the standard insurance of the theft of your bike.

  9. Darren 28/04/2011 at 4:09 pm #

    Excellent blog and couldn’t agree more, cycling is quicker than the train for me and a whole lot nicer too.

    One thing I’ve found that’s served me well is to always assume that everyone else on the road is about to do something incredibly stupid. As this article correctly says, the vast majority of drivers are couteous and sensible, but sometimes you will get overtaken by someone who, halfway through the manoeuvre, decides to turn left across you, or someone who is going quickly, not indicating but will still turn. Assuming the worst means that on the rare occasions something does happen, you’re not completely caught out.

  10. Benn 29/04/2011 at 2:25 am #

    A couple of things.

    Eye contact. Make it happen when you can. Really useful for turning traffic.

    Nothing under bike shorts? Hmm.. not so sure. I’ve always worn boxer briefs underneath and never had a problem. My longest ride would have been 60-70km, so not an all day effort, but that’s more than enough for the commuter.

    Work on your balance – only so you can boot shoalers in the butt when you pass them. Same goes for any moron who wears headphones. Best to kick them off the road and let them hit a gutter, lose a few teeth and maybe break a collar bone as opposed to being squashed by a semi.

    • Oscar 29/04/2011 at 10:13 am #

      How very nice of you.
      I wear headphones because my hearing is not that good at all, so I may as well not rely on it at all, and rely on my other senses to avoid traffic, rather than “thinking I’m entitled to it”.
      War is out there, and I won’t be caught unexpectedly.

      • RSK 29/04/2011 at 9:26 pm #

        That’s what I was thinking. I sometimes wear earphones, but never so loud I can’t hear what’s going on around me. Though if I didn’t I’d have to wear earplugs to block out the deafening trucks and motorbikes. Having been hit by a car in the past and had damage to my clavicle, I’d certainly want to distance myself from violent thugs like Benn.

    • mithun 30/04/2011 at 10:00 am #

      I listen to music on my earphones when riding into work – 7 miles or so. I enjoy it and don’t think it increases my risk of accidents at all.
      My route consists of a cycle lanes on the road and a short canal stretch.
      I think the sound of traffic is bad enough to mislead you sometimes so I believe there is nothing wrong with listening to a bit of music as long as you make use of all other senses and are fully aware.
      Criticising someone the way you have done for listening to music is unjust. It could be said that those that have tinted eyewear on are impairing their road vision? Its not for you to decide or to encourage people to kick someones teeth out because they listen to music when they ride. You might think of fairies or about your dinner whilst riding which is just as dangerous as your focus is elsewhere…

      • LordManley 03/05/2011 at 9:54 am #

        When coming up behind a cyclist wearing earphones on a cycle lane it can take minutes to pass them because they are not able to hear.

        Almost without exception their response is that they can hear fine and it is not loud, but they still are always a nuisance.

        This is not cycling specific – people who wear earphones when walking about are a pain in the bum.

    • HarryMonmouth 05/08/2012 at 6:57 pm #

      Interesting. We must have very different definitions of ‘moron’. Personally I would imagine a moron to be far more likely the person who attacks a cyclist and puts them in hospital rather than the person who is attacked as he cycles along listening to a lecture about Plato on his Phone.

  11. Kevin 29/04/2011 at 9:54 am #

    Great article. Just did not cover the cost-benefit analysis of the health improvement from a daily commute. 1 hour of easy riding = +_ 350 calories, more than making up for that expensive and often under used gym contract. well done in becoming a cycle commuter.

  12. simon 29/04/2011 at 10:38 am #

    A great summary I have been commuting now for 10 months with a Brompton doing around 65 miles a week and it has been life enhancing . One thing I found of real value was an afternoon’s training which I had from Bikeworks in Tower Hamlets (http://www.bikeworks.org.uk) which is local to me but the advice and guidance I had was good for my confidence and definitely for an understanding of safe cycling. I see LCC is offering cheap training for over 50s as well.
    oh and I am saving a fortune! Thanks cyclescheme.
    simon

  13. John 29/04/2011 at 8:30 pm #

    Shifting to bicycles after 40 years of motorcycling I found I just couldn’t do without at least one mirror, neat little Cat Eye. Beats head turning for me, couldn’t deal with not knowing what was coming up behind.

  14. Stephen 30/04/2011 at 11:12 pm #

    Wayhey – The brompton speed factor acknowledged!

    The bike to work scheme means that one of these change not only your commute, but your life purchases is within the grasp of more cyclists!

  15. Andrew 01/05/2011 at 6:55 am #

    Great article, I’ve now been on the road for about a year too.

    A source of much of my kit when I first started out was Ebay, as genuinely I wasn’t sure if this was going to be for me – if I’m honest I have a bit of a reputation for being “faddy”…. So my first purchases from Ebay included my £14 bike which was old but in good working order, a brand new with tags Altura cycling jacket for £35… Ebay meant with the lock and light I picked up from Brick Lane market I got on the road for under £60. I upgraded to a new bike recently using about half the money saved from cycling to work and put my old bike onto freecycle – a guy called Frank is now cycling in London for free!

    For any novices, I also completely recommend you take to a bike, very quickly it becomes the way you get around London. I’m lucky enough to use Regent’s Park as part of my commute, and even when the weather is wet, windy and grey it still beats using the hot, smelly unreliable tube.

  16. Titan yer tummy 01/05/2011 at 8:45 am #

    This is a very good article. There are also some good comments and suggestions.

    I caught the cycle commuting bug about 2 years ago to coincide with my employer moving to new offices giving access to a bike rack (now upgraded to a bike shed) and shower facilities.

    I commute just under 24 miles a day. I would ride every day but I don’t always finish work at my office and it usually isn’t practical to take my bike for work type outings.

    I started off with an old Dawes MTB rescued from a skip and done up by my local bike shop.

    I used this bike for about 4 years for leisure cycling prior to commuting.

    I then used the old Dawes for commuting for a year before buying through the CTW scheme – Scott P4.

    I shall finish paying for the Scott in September.

    I keep a spreadsheet record of my rides (a bit sad I know). My aim is to do more than three commutes per week over the year. Last year I managed 3.1 – at one stage I was on 3.2 but then suffered a bad back which laid me up for a couple of weeks.

    This year I am presently on 2.6 – at one stage I was on 4.2 but I have had a couple of accidents – one which landed me in hospital – which have hampered my progress.

    I think the tips are great. The only thing I might add as a suggestion is don’t get on your bike with an attitude like “I’m going to war”. My experience is most other road users are just going about their business; if they cause you a problem – cut you up, or near miss you; just zone it out with the thought that it was probably just carelessness on their part. You’ll soon recover your own equilibrium and just keep trundling on getting all the health benefits of being a cycling commuter.

    Lastly; great site Andreas – I like it a lot.

    TyT

  17. Chris 02/05/2011 at 9:58 pm #

    Great article. I also recommend the free cycle training in London Boroughs – I attended a session when I was starting commuting and it really helped me to build confidence and awareness.

  18. KochamRowery 19/02/2013 at 6:20 pm #

    You’ve become a mature urban cyclist very quickly! Congratulations on that.

    It’s indeed surprising how many drivers are very corteous if only a cyclist behaves in a proper way, especially signals their maneuvers in advance. They do indeed usually make room for you, even here in Poland, not to mention other, more cycling-friendly places in Europe.

    Keep it that way, Gordon! Thanks a lot for a great article.

  19. Jeff_Thomson! 23/04/2014 at 8:47 am #

    I think I have suffered a lot due to my inability of fixing a puncture and trust me it isn’t a rocket science. It is quite easy once you learn it. Especially during winter cycling, a puncture can be a little troublesome. Anyhow, Thanks for these useful tips. they look familiar yet important :)

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