So you’re thinking about commuting to work by bike this summer? Congratulations, your life is about to get a zillion times more fun. But where to begin? The insular world of cycling can seema little, uh, confusing to those unfamiliar with it—it’s hard to know what you really need to get started riding.
Cycling, it turns out, can be a lot like high school. There are cliques. There are highly-codified rules about how to act, and about what to wear, and how to wear it. There is a whole unspoken language attached to your bike, your gear, your clothing. Like any subculture, it is opaque and confusing to beginners—and you shouldn’t let it drive you away… So to speak.
Because, really, riding a bike is simple. It’s one of the most uncomplicated, magical experiences you can have as an adult living in a city. It will make you feel like a little kid, rather than the ennui-laden sad sack you’ve become. You get on, you focus on staying alive, and you lapse into an absent-minded kind of joy. As Tim Kreider put it in The New York Times, “When I’m balanced on two thin wheels at 30 miles an hour, gauging distance, adjusting course, making hundreds of unconscious calculations every second, that idiot chatterbox in my head is kept too busy to get a word in.”
As you get into it, there are going to be all kinds of things you want to buy: A full toolkit! A work stand! Clipless pedals! All kinds of outlandish getups! Another bike! Another bike! But for now, let’s keep it simple: What do you really need?
The most important thing—the thing you’re probably the most freaked out about—is staying safe on the road. Before you buy anything else, buy a helmet (this is best done in the store, so we’ll skip it here). Then, buy lights. After that, we can move on to making sure your stuff stays safe while it’s locked up. But those two things are far more important, in the long run.
There are nearly as many lights out there as cyclists, and everyone’s going to have their own preference. There are a ton of really clever new products hitting the market, too, but try Knog’s Blinders. They plug into your computer’s USB port to charge, and are as brilliantly bright as their name suggests. If you’re not convinced, Gizmodo’s full bike light guide is here. [$30, Knog]
Again, everyone will have their own preference here. But over the course of several years of riding in New York (and, more recently, Chicago), my trusty Kryptonite U-Lock has never let me down. Get a cord if you’re worried about your front wheel going missing while you’re inside. The smaller U-Lock will fit in your back pocket, too. For further reading on locks, check out this guide. [$43, Amazon]
Riding a bike will make you extremely happy. That being said, your bike may be a pain in the ass at the worst times—in the rain, in the dark, in the snow. If you have a few simple tools with you, you’ll be fine. And you’ll have a cool story to tell (hey, remember that time I fixed a flat under the BQE during a thunderstorm at 4am?).
This is one of those items that just make you feel safer, even if you never have to use it. But you very well may: Whether to raise your seat, break your chain, or tighten up a screw. And then you’ll be glad you had it. This little 17-tool version is tiny but powerful. [$27, Crank Brothers]
Fender!, you say, I don’t need no stinking fender! Yes, you do, if you don’t want all your co-workers to think you pooped your pants on the way to work again. It doesn’t have to be permanent, either—Ass Savers’ origami-style folding version is awesome and easily removable. [$11, Ass Savers]
This might be the kind of thing you want to leave to your friendly local mechanic, but that’s dumb. Maintaining your chain is way more important than you think—it’s also extremely easy to do, and you’ll feel like Al Borland afterwards. There are a ton of good high-performance options out there, but this stuff is inexpensive and gets the job done. [$5, Amazon]
When your phone dies at 4am coming back from your friend’s apartment in god knows where, you’ll be kicking yourself for being so dependent on Google Maps. Get the real thing—even a credit card-sized one—and put it in your wallet. [Free at NYC.gov or $5, Amazon]
A Good Key Clasp
You’re going to be taking your keys out a lot: To lock up, to unlock, to get into your house, to open beers, etc. Having them on your hip at all times will help! And also avoid having them slip out of your pocket. [$3, Amazon]
Know How to Change a Flat
You will get a flat at some point. If you’re riding in a city, odds are good that there will always be a shop nearby when this happens. But changing a tube is actually pretty easy once you’ve done it once, and it’ll be a future source of pride when you help out some other poor schmuck. To do so, you need a few very inexpensive tools.
The little plastic levers you’ll need to get your tire off your rim. These only cost a couple bucks and they’re super light. [$3, Amazon]
A Patch Kit
Once you have your tire off, it takes just a minute or two to slather some of this stuff on the tear and press a patch into place. Again: Tiny, cheap, light, invaluable in a pinch. [$6, Amazon; Image: Kate McCarthy]
A Short Pump
Once you’ve got yourself all fixed up, you need a way to fill the tire back up so you can go on your way. Try a short pump—these are just a little longer than the length of your hand, and fit easily inside a back pack. Another options? A tiny CO2 canister, which is more expensive per use but smaller than a pump. But keep in mind, you should only use these in emergencies—you’re going to want a floor pump for home use. [$27; Amazon and $20; REI]
Be Comfortable With Sweat
Unless you’re an alien, you’re going to sweat. That’s OK. There are a few different approaches to dealing with it. One: Don’t give a fuck. Two: Bring a change of clothes so you can change once you get there (hopefully there’s a shower, as there is at my lovely workplace). The third way is a compromise: Bring a kit that includes the essential elements of a faux-shower.
A Bathroom Kit
Wet wipes. Deodorant. A tooth brush. A comb. They sell kits for camping for not much money online, or hit up the travel-size aisle at Target. Add or subtract as you see fit—dry shampoo, clean socks, and so forth—but you’ll thank yourself for lugging these seemingly inconsequential tools when you really need them. [$12, Amazon]
The commuter’s best friend. A quick wet wipe “shower” will make you feel a thousand times better if you’re faced with sitting in your own sweat for eight hours. [$.65, Amazon]
A Note On Your Privates
Ha ha, a little levity! But I am deathly serious. Getting your jimmies (or the female equivalent) twisted in a pair of underwear while moving at high speeds in traffic is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval Pear of Anguish. Do not let this happen to you!
Avoiding wedgies starts with underwear: You could try something fancy, like Urbanist Cycling’s chamois-embedded numbers, but any pair of seamless underpants will do the trick to (the same goes for dudes). [$50, Urbanist and $12.50, Victoria’s Secret]
As a wise person once told me, “pants and underwear form an unholy matrimony for commuters.” One is only as good as the other. Think stretchy, but not too stretchy. You want to find the perfect tensility that gives enough to allow movement, but isn’t so thin that it feels like you’re riding naked, which would hurt.
Outlier’s Daily Riding Pant comes highly recommended for both dudes and ladies. But if you’re looking for something cheap and you don’t mind giving money to Urban Outfitters, I’ve found that BDG makes a serviceable pair that last long enough to become a great pair of jorts when summer rolls around. [$198, Outlier; $58, BDG]
Ask any cyclist: Racing saddles are uncomfortable. Especially for the first few months, when they feel like pieces of wood. But Brooks, the venerable … Read…
This isn’t exactly a basic necessity, but consider investing in a comfortable saddle. If you’re a lady, check out Terry—they make female-specific saddles and clothing. We’ve had great luck with Brooks’ Cambium, which is a road cycling-style saddle made from rubber. It’s softer than a normal Brooks, and absorbs bumps a bit better. [$130, Brooks]
Finally, Don’t Be an Idiot
The most important part of riding in the city is keeping your head on straight: Be aware of what’s going on around you, always throw a glance over your shoulder when you’re turning, and if you’re going to listen to music, only use one earbud. But there are a few basic rules that will endear you not only to cyclists and pedestrians, but also to cars—which is important:
- Stop at every red light (even if you’re going to roll through it). Being on a bike doesn’t make you impervious to the law. Blowing through a red light or stop sign makes you look like an asshole, since you’re endangering other cyclists, pedestrians, and even drivers. Also, you’ll probably get a ticket, and you’ll deserve it.
- Don’t shoal. “Shoaling” is when a cyclist in front of you stops at a light—and you pass them to blow through it. It’s rude, and a little dangerous.
- Don’t pull out into a crosswalk where pedestrians are trying to walk. Everyone will hate you. Same goes for riding on the sidewalk. Come on.
It also wouldn’t kill you to do a little reading. A great guide to not acting like a total dick is Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike [$14, RivBike]. But also check outBikesnobNYC, the blog of Eben Weiss, who covers cycling culture and the city in general (here’s his take on shoaling). It’s really, really funny writing, and a reminder to not take yourself to seriously.
Now go forth and use your legs to power your way to your place of employment! And be sure to drop your essential items below—again, this list is far from complete, but should be enough to get you started.