By Will Embliss
If you have been thinking about cycling to work for the first time or feel inspired to get back on, here are some tips and thoughts about ways to make your commute a positive experience.
Commuting by bike gives you a good start to the day, the physical activity gets the body and brain functioning well. You will be healthier spending time outdoors breathing deeply compared to sitting in traffic in a car or sharing the bus or tube with hundreds of other commuters and their coughs and colds. However remember that your commute doesn’t need to be a race, you can take it gently and arrive fresh but not sweaty! I find that if I pedal really hard I can only save a few minutes on a 40 minute commute. Once you know your route, your journey time on a bike will be very consistent compared to the lottery of driving or public transport.
To plan any new route I use the free Free Tfl cycle guide maps. These you can spread out on a table and mark your route out with a highlighter. Many people use Google maps, the Tlf route planner and other apps. These can be very useful but I have found they can leave out cycle paths through parks sometimes.
Create your route
My starting point is to see if there are parks, canal tow paths and dedicated cycle lanes that will take me part of my way and join these with quiet back streets to make my routes. Since the advent of traffic calming and permeability for cyclists the main roads have become busier with traffic and the back routes quieter.
I saw some statistics recently showing that riding on quiet back streets the air is far higher quality than on busy main roads. These roads are quieter too allowing you to be more aware of vehicles approaching from behind and at junctions. It may feel like a much straighter route on the main roads but the time you save going in a straight line may be lost by all the waiting at junctions with traffic lights. You will be in traffic most of the journey – either being overtaken or filtering past queuing cars. On routes with bus lanes you will find yourself playing leapfrog with buses. The quiet roads are often the prettier and more interesting architecturally.
If your area is very hilly then it may be worth investigating which roads, with less traffic, have gentler gradients. You could take one route to work and another home to avoid harder climbs. Or the opposite if you are in the mood for some hill training! On one route I use regularly I have found a route that alternates between going up very steeply for a little bit then turning along a road which is on the flat for a bit and so on. I find this easier than riding up a long drag up.
I often find alternate routes on my way home that pass my favourite shops for fresh fruit and veg, friends’ houses, my local bike shop or bakery.
Do a dummy run
Before you try the route on a busy Monday morning, it’s well worth having a slow, careful, unpressurised go at riding it at a weekend. Stopping to look at your map regularly, finding landmarks at each junction. If you stray from the route, rather than continuing on an unplanned route, retrace your way until you get back to where you left it. At the junction where you went wrong, have a look up from the map and try and find a shop, building that is a visually memorable to fix the junction in your mind.
Is there anyone else at your work that commutes by bike from your neck of the woods? They may be willing to accompany you. If you are keen but lack of confidence and need help, please do book a cycle lesson from your local CycleFox instructor.
You may want to carry various things such as lunch, spare clothing, waterproofs, a spare inner tube, pump, and a few small tools. I am keen advocate of using panniers on a rack at the back of the bike. There is no extra weight on your back or saddle, and they can fit a surprising amount of shopping on your way home. There are some good courier bags on the market, or you can have a basket on front (I am not fond of these as heavy items can affect your steering).
Do make sure you have a good lock that will ensure neither your bike frame nor wheels can be stolen while you are at work. With a D-lock plus a cable you can secure both wheels and frame. Some bike locks are designed as belts – I feel these may be a hazard to your hip bones if you ever fall off, so make sure you can attach the lock to your bike or have it in your pannier or locked to your rack.
You will need some good lights. Technology for cycle lights has improved so much in the last 20 years. I use LED lights on flashing mode as the flashing identifies you as a cyclist. It is important that the light has some sort of lens to be seen from a distance. Some helmets come with an integral rear light, I like the idea of having a the light being at head height but I find these provide inadequate light and would only use it as a secondary additional light. So I have made my own version of this by attaching a cable tie to the rear of the helmet that a rear light with a belt attachment fits onto.
So don’t hang around now you have all the ingredients, dust off the bike, pump up the tyres and take it for a spin around your local area/park. Get comfortable looking behind and signalling, and then you are ready to try your route.
“I have always cycled since the age of 6. I started cycling on London roads as a teenager to get around and visit friends houses and get home from events safely at night. One summer in my early 20’s I set off from London to catch the ferry to France, having never cycled more than 20 miles. I took a tent and my trumpet and rode and camped wild all the way to the Pyrenees and back, busking en-route. Since then I have cycled most European countries as an independent traveller and with my family. I have been a freelance cycle instructor in London for for nearly a decade. I also make musical instruments for school playgrounds.” Find out more: www.willembliss.co.uk
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