How to Bike to Work: A Beginner’s Guide

May in Minnesota is when bike season kicks into high gear. The weather is finally nice enough that everyone wants to be outside riding in it, and May is also the month where bike advocacy efforts bloom. Locally we celebrate Mpls Bike Month, headlined by Twin Cities Bike to Work Day on May 18th.

Bike to Work Day is a great event and I’m not here to say anything bad about it. You should definitely participate if you can! The trails and many streets are full of cheerful people on bikes, and it’s the only day of the year for most of us that you can ride up to a table and be given free donuts and coffee by strangers, just by virtue of being on a bike. Biking has many intrinsic rewards, but I’m never going to turn down a free donut.

The one thing I don’t like about Bike to Work Day is that it only happens once a year. And for a lot of folks, Bike to Work Day is the only day they bike to work all year. That’s fine if that’s all you want to do, but many people would like to bike commute more often if they could only make it stick. I want more people to bike commute too! For me it’s been a long-running source of happiness, health, productivity, and pride. I want more people to experience those benefits, so I want to help more people form the habit.

Want to bike commute more than once a year? Here’s my opinionated four step plan to making it happen:

1. Commit to biking to work

It doesn’t sound like much, but I strongly believe that this step is the most critical to success. Here’s the thing: biking to work for the first time is hard! The reality is that the first time you commute by bike, you’re probably going to show up late, sweaty, and disheveled. Your coworkers will act suitably impressed and ask you how it was and you’ll say “awesome!” but what you are really thinking is “that was hard and I don’t want to do it again”.

If you’ve only committed to one day of bike commuting, you’ll likely heave a guilty sigh of relief as you hop back in the car tomorrow. Which is too bad, because what you won’t know is that bike commuting would have gotten easier and more fun every subsequent day. On your second day, you would have made the turn that you missed when you got lost on the first day. On your third day, you would have tweaked your clothing choices to stay more comfortable during your ride and arrive less sweaty. On the fourth day, you would have found a nice quiet side street that’s much more pleasant than the one you had been taking. On the fifth day, you would finally have figured out how to pack your bag in a way that your sandwich didn’t end up smushed.

Bike commuting can be pleasant, easy, and rewarding, but it takes a little while to get there! The positive aspects are always present, but when you’re starting out they tend to be overshadowed by the friction of trying something new. You need some time and trial runs to acclimate, adjust, and dial in the little details to reduce that friction so the rewards can shine. A single day isn’t likely to get you over the hump and into the fun part.

I recommend that you commit to 12 days of bike commuting. Spread these out to fit your schedule and route and activity level and comfort level, so long as you bike at least once a week. You could plan to bike every weekday for 2.5 weeks, or once a week for 3 months, or anything in between. The important thing is that you have a schedule for consistently making it happen, and that you make a deal with yourself that you’re going to finish the 12 days before deciding whether or not to keep doing it.

2. Plan your route

How are you going to get yourself from home to work safely and pleasantly? Keep in mind that the best route for driving is often not the best route for biking. You’ll want to have a plan before you hop on the bike so you aren’t trying to make it up on the fly. As you continue biking to work, you will experiment with your route and likely tweak it here and there to better suit you, but for now you need somewhere to start.

If you have coworkers who bike to work, ask them what route they take. If you know other cyclists who are familiar with the area, ask them for advice. For a good starting point, get bike directions on Google Maps. Then turn on the Bicycling layer to see bike features annotated on the map, and consider if there are any adjustments you’d like to make to the suggested route.

In Google Maps, open the menu and then choose “Bicycling” from the list.

Dark green lines are bike paths or protected bike lanes. Light green lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes. Dotted green lines are suggested streets that don’t have any special bike infrastructure but might be pleasant to ride on.

Bike route choice is a somewhat personal thing, so feel free to tailor your route to your own liking. People have different preferences on what sort of traffic conditions they will tolerate, how direct of a route they need, how fast they wish to travel, if they mind hills, and so on.

If you want to be extra prepared, consider driving the route you’re planning to take ahead of time. This will help you determine if you’ve chosen roads you’ll be happy biking on.

Finally, have a simple contingency plan. What will you do if you get a flat tire or other mechanical problem halfway through your ride? What if it starts to rain? What if you have to work late? You don’t need to obsess over these possibilities, just make sure you have some sort of backup in place. Possible solutions include: take a bus, call someone for a ride, walk the rest of the way, get a ride with a coworker, fix it yourself, walk to the bike shop that’s halfway on your route, wear a rain jacket, try again tomorrow, leave your bike at the office, and so on.

3. Gather your things

Most importantly, you need a bike. It doesn’t have to be a fancy bike! Whatever bike you already ride will do. Just make sure the tires are inflated, the brakes work, and the chain has some lubrication on it. Now might be a good time to take it to your local bike shop and get their most basic tune-up package. Also, I would recommend a helmet—your choice to make, but you’ll be sharing the road with cars and cars are not your friend.

You probably have at least a few things besides yourself that you will need at work. These may include: a change of clothes (full or partial), lunch, a laptop, keys, papers, etc. You will also want a few biking items on hand, possibly including: blinky lights, a patch kit and pump, a warmer layer for chilly mornings, and on some days a rain jacket. You will need a way to carry these things with you. For now, find a backpack—any old ratty backpack you have lying around will do just fine. Once you are a regular bike commuter you may eventually wish to upgrade your carrying system, but that can wait until you have a clear idea of what will work best for you.

Test-pack your bag and make sure it sits comfortably. If you are having trouble with space or weight, think about if you can avoid carrying some of your items by bike. I used to leave my work shoes at the office overnight, tucked under my desk. Maybe you don’t need to bring your laptop home with you every night. If you are only biking to work on some days of the week, you might be able to bring extra food or clothes on the non-biking days and stash them.

4. Bike to work

The only thing left is to do it! Consider telling your boss ahead of time that you’re planning to bike to work—they’ll probably be understanding of any hiccups if they know you’re trying something new. Leave a generous amount of time for your first trip. The worst thing that happens is you get to work early and can sit outside for a bit to let the sweat evaporate. You won’t always need to leave this much extra time, but your first few days of bike commuting are unlikely to go 100% smoothly, so it’s best to leave yourself a cushion to deal with whatever unexpected obstacle arises. This will also allow you to take your time on the ride. You can determine your preferred commuting speed later, once you’re familiar with your route. For now a slower pace will help you navigate and give you a chance to identify any dangerous areas.

Once you’ve done it, continue to do it! Remember, you should be committed to biking to work 12 times on a regular schedule. You might not feel enthusiastic on the second day, or the third day, but bike to work anyways. As time goes on, it will get easier and you will start to enjoy it. Hopefully, on the twelfth day you will wake up and realize that biking to work is exactly how you’d like to start your morning.

If you keep biking to work after your twelve days are finished, of course, your journey is only beginning. There are routes to be explored and configurations to be tested and gear to be bought, but that’s just details. You’ve done the hard part already. You’ve biked to work! When Bike to Work Day rolls around next year, you’ll roll up to the pit stop with the confidence of a seasoned bike commuter, and your donut will taste extra good because for you, a lot of days are now bike-to-work days.

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10 Responses to How to Bike to Work: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. Luke Peterson May 4, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    Strava heatmaps are also very nice in figuring out which streets are typically ridden in absence of infrastructure!
    strava.com/heatmap

    • Ian Young May 7, 2018 at 11:43 am #

      Great tip, I have looked at the heatmaps before but didn’t think to mention it!

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller May 4, 2018 at 10:48 pm #

    There’s also a winter bike to work day (this year’s was especially cold, around zero) and there’s 30 Days of Biking in April.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 5, 2018 at 11:11 am #

    The square donut is the icing on the cake!

    • Jack May 7, 2018 at 8:43 am #

      If you dangled that square donut in front of me, I would be much more inclined to bike to work.

    • Ian Young May 7, 2018 at 11:42 am #

      (there’s not any icing on the donut, sadly)

  4. Jack May 7, 2018 at 8:50 am #

    I have been toying with the idea of biking to work for a while and this gave me the kick I think I needed. I think I’ll try a dry run over the weekend, to see how much time I will need. The twelve day commitment is a great idea. Thanks for acknowledging the ‘first day’ reality!

    • Ian Young May 7, 2018 at 11:36 am #

      Awesome, good luck! A dry run is a great plan, since it lets you try the route without time pressure.

  5. mplsmatt May 7, 2018 at 11:29 am #

    I’ve been gradually increasing my bike commuting during the warmer months over the last few years. I started with using Nice Ride bikes to go downtown and catch my bus. I would sometimes bike more of the way home depending on the weather. Last year was a mix of my own bike, the train, and the occasional Nice Ride. This year, I finally have a rack/pannier set up so I’m hoping to do the whole haul on my bike more of the time (Uptown Minneapolis to Downtown St. Paul), but using public transit to augment my riding has been really great.

    • Ian Young May 7, 2018 at 11:41 am #

      Sounds like a great way to do it! People often get stuck thinking of bike commuting as an all-or-nothing thing instead of starting small and building up incrementally. Having a bus/train option on your route is great, since it gives you more options like biking part of the way, or biking one way and transit the other.

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