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5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Bike Commuting

by Bike Shop Girl

This is a guest post by Andreas Kambanis who runs a blog, London Cyclist, about cycling and London. You can find him on Twitter here.

I started commuting into work by bike in the same way I do many things in life. With little or no plan! The way I look at it is if there is anything I need to learn I’ll soon figure it out along the way. Here are 5 of the lessons I soon picked up.

1. Route

When I first started bike commuting I had just moved to London for a new job. It was my first day in that job so I found my route on Google Maps and looked at it once. This was a major error.

After a good start I forgot the route and took a wrong turn. Then another wrong turn. And another. I somehow ended up on Oxford Circus. One of the busiest, most horrible roads for cyclists in London.

After a quick call to my new boss who I had yet to meet I confirmed I would be late for my first day at work.

Lesson learned: Plan the route ahead and do a test run.

2. There are some things you shouldn’t economize on

I noticed something on all the other bikes parked at office that my bike was lacking. They all had massive U-locks. I looked at my weak bike lock and realised a thief could probably chew through it with their teeth. A couple of days later I made sure I got myself to the nearest bike shop and purchased a proper bike lock.

Lesson learned: Spend as much as you can on a good bike lock. It is worth it for all the effort and money you will save by preventing theft.

3. A little maintenance goes a long way

I made all the maintenance mistakes you can possibly make. I over lubricated my chain, I didn’t keep my bike clean and I didn’t replace my break pads until they wore through my wheel rims. I caused a lot of damage to that poor bike. After a while I replaced it with a new one and pledged to learn bike maintenance.

Lesson learned: Learn the basics to bike maintenance as it will give you a much smoother, more enjoyable bike ride and will make your bike last longer.

4. Don’t undertake vehicles

An early error in my cycling technique was frequently undertaking slow moving traffic. The problem with doing this is that drivers are not on the lookout for someone overtaking on the wrong side. This is particularly dangerous with heavy goods vehicles that are a frequent cause of injury to cyclists.

Lessons learned: Be sure you are cycling where drivers can see you and don’t undertake vehicles unless it is safe to do so.

5. Shop around

Whenever I needed something new I would head into the nearest bike shop and pick it up there and then. I didn’t realise how much I could save by having a look online before buying. I ended up spending 30-40% more on a cycling jacket I didn’t particularly like.

There i.¬†also a second lesson to be learned here. It is worth building up a relationship with a local bike shop so they can help you out at a time of need. I have since got to know my local bike shop owner so whenever I head in there to buy something new I can ask some advice on any maintenance problems I’m having.

Lessons learned: Shop around for a good price and build up a relationship with the local bike shop owner.

 
Burley nomad 269

32 Responses to “5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Bike Commuting”

  1. One thing I learned from a sticker on a truck:

    “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”

    Since then I’ve made sure I drive in sight of the driver’s side mirror so I’m near the middle of the road but visible to truckers.

  2. Mimi says:

    Buying online hurts your local bike shops. Their price might be higher but they won’t be there to help you out if you don’t give them business. Think about what your local bike shop does for you, like supporting local events or helping you out in a pinch, before you shop online.

  3. Joe says:

    Mimi- the way I see it, purchasing bike parts online forces my local bike shop to compete with them on price or deal with the drop in sales. Where bike shops really need to focus is on things that can’t be provided over the internet. Repairs, fittings, advice, etc. That’s why I go to the shop I go to – he’s repair only and I don’t have to buy things from him to talk to him.

  4. Philip says:

    Can someone please explain undertaking vs. overtaking? I can’t picture what these terms are describing from the given example.

  5. DougRoz says:

    In response to Joe and Mimi-
    I actually specialize in e-commerce sales for the bike shop I currently work for. Previously, I worked for a larger sporting goods company in WI that had the ability and funds to buy (in huge bulk) the quantities that allowed for lower online sale prices that still enabled the company to operate at a healthy margin but “hurt” the smaller shops.

    I currently work for a smaller bike company that does not have this ability. Having been on both sides, shopping online is a good idea and is worth it if you see a “good deal” that you can’t pass up. Please keep in mind, your local shop is not buying the same product at the same price as the other online conglomerates. If your local shop matches that price, they potentially could be selling it at/or below their cost which will not allow their business to survive! Keep in mind, you are buying the product, the shopping experience and the relationship that you will develop. :)

  6. BluesCat says:

    I buy complete bikes from my local bike shop, as well as USUALLY any bike related items where personal “fit” is vital to me: helmets, clothes, shoes, gloves, etc.

    I’ll buy some “fit” items on-line if my LBS either can’t get them or can only get them at a ridiculously high MSRP, or I’m “experimenting” and don’t want to pay full list price for something I’m not sure I will regularly use.

    For gear for which a warranty is important to me — such as lights, panniers, rack bags, replacement or upgraded components, etc. — I’ll usually buy from my LBS because they will almost always just swap out the product … no waiting and hassling with on-line returns/replacement.

  7. John B. says:

    Most LBS’s sell on-line these days. Many have “web only” sales. Most of the really good websites also have shops – maybe not in my hometown, but in somebody else’s hometown. I’m thinking of Yellow Jersy, Harris, Velo Orange, JensonUSA, Bicycle Warehouse, Rivendell. I don’t think the “buying online hurts local bike shops” argument holds water in the 21st century.

  8. John B-

    Haven’t personally visited (and enjoyed) several on this list..

    Velo Orange – It isn’t a local bike shop. They have a showroom that is a gallery of their products they make, and a cute espresso maker.

    Yellow Jersey is a hole in the wall in downtown Madison, WI. When I visited it was run by fixie snobs that smelled like weed and didn’t want to help customers. Plus the store looked like an old garage sale, parts shoved ontop of parts. The reason they are online is they HAD to go online.

    JensonUSA & Bicycle Warehouse have their own “blow out/buy in bulk” mentality.

    Finally – Harris Cyclery. This was grown out of what I hope Commute By bike is. A labor of love. Sheldon Brown was a wealth of knowledge on his own personal side, and helped grow Harris Cyclery into a knowledge base of hard to find parts at a great price. Plus its nice to be able to find what you were researching or reviewing to only click “Buy Now”

  9. Geo says:

    Yellow Jersey hasn’t changed much – but you if you need that 70s Campy derailleur that no one else has (or know exists) they probably have it.

    Brick/Mortar stores also have a bit more overhead when it comes to: more employees (sometimes), longer hours of operation, retail space is more expensive, marketing/advertising, etc. Margin needs to be higher than your massive-stock-high-volume just to stay open.

    Definitely a place for both internet sales & B&M. There are some manufacturers that also don’t allow their products to be sold via the Internet to protect Local stores too.

  10. Andreas says:

    Regarding the support your local bike shop thing – I completely agree. I hope my final point hinted towards this by saying it is worth building up a relationship with them. Sometimes it may make the difference between been able to afford it and not been able to afford it by going online and saving money. For easy stuff like a new bike chain I have no reason to order it online.

    Philip: Undertaking is where you overtake on the left when you should overtake on the right. Overtaking is where you overtake on the right. (This is probably the other way round if your in America, here in the UK we drive on the left)

  11. tom says:

    If one goes into an auto parts store and asks, for example, for a fuel pump for a 2001 Pontiac Grand Am, they walk to the shelf, get it, and set it in front of you. If they don’t have it in stock, they can get it in a couple of hours. And for a lot cheaper than the GM dealer does. That’s not the case with bike parts. And there are far fewer parts in the bicycle universe. Chances are nobody local carries any parts to rebuild my SRAM shifters. If I need a new crank arm, I’ll probably have to go to a bike junk yard to get one that’s affordable. If you figured bike tires as being sold by the pound, they’d be more expensive than blue fin tuna.

    This is a major problem for the bicycle industry. They would like to see more people commute on bikes, ergo buy more bikes. But the first time something on the bike needs repair, the cyclist realizes that the cost is commensurate with a car repair. The bike goes in the garage and they hop the bus or get back in the sedan. No more bike commute. Rather than design and market bikes for the spandex people, bike manufacturers need to sell bikes with a minimum of moving parts that are cheap and easy to maintain and repair. Retailers have to make more of an effort to fit bikes. Most of us are into bikes, we enjoy fooling with them. The normal commuter just wants to get from home to work and back in one piece with no hassles. They don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on a bike.

  12. Kevin Love says:

    Andreas wrote:
    “I over lubricated my chain, I didn’t keep my bike clean and I didn’t replace my break pads until they wore through my wheel rims…”

    Kevin’s comment:
    What he needs is a full chaincase and internal brakes. The amount of maintenance I do on my Pashley is almost zero.

  13. Over lubricating? says:

    How do you over lubricate a chain?

  14. Sean says:

    You want to ensure you build a long term relationship with your LBS, particularly if you aren’t very savvy at maintaining your own gear. You will likely pay more or even have to special order something on occasion, but it will save you $$$ down the road.

    Don’t be that n00b that buys stuff online, trys to install it themselves and then goes to the LBS to fix it. You will be charged the “eBay” tax.

  15. Sean says:

    Geo said:
    “There are some manufacturers that also don’t allow their products to be sold via the Internet to protect Local stores too.”

    I recall that Park Tool was picked up by MEC in Canada (our version of REI). They had nearly the whole Park tool line up at affordable prices. There was a uproar by the small shops coast to coast who threatened to stop carrying their product unless it was pulled from MEC because they couldn’t compete with the low prices of a not for profit cooperative. Park was later pulled from MEC.

  16. John says:

    Of the bicyle retailers I mentioned, the only brick and mortar store I have actually been to is Bicycle Warehouse in San Diego. They started with one location (used to be called Mountain Bike Warehouse), grew to several, and have a pretty good website. I’m sorry if having a successful business model and offering value to their customers makes them too evil and corperate for some people’s tastes. But to my knowledge, they are a real local bike shop – not some kind of franchise or national chain like Performance or REI. I thought Jenson is similar, but I could be wrong. The other shops I mentioned may be odd-ball shops with narrow niches, but they are still brick and mortar shops nonetheless, not on-line only outfits like bikesdirect.

    If there’s a shop prospering by using the exact same business model they used in the 1970′s, good on ‘em. But the internet has changed every industry in the global economy (just ask the music and newspaper people), so why should bicycle shops be different?

  17. John says:

    tom – there is already an “Auto Zone” of sorts for casual cyclists to get inexpensive generic bikes and parts. It’s called Performance. And they bend over backwards to prove their bone fides to “serious” cyclists, because “serious” cyclists generally won’t touch them with a ten foot pole. In that sort of environment, I don’t see how any business could take it a step further and have true car-like parts availablility and pricing without immediately being labelled the “Walmart or bicycles” and shunned by the rest of the market. Some bicycle people already think that large suppliers like QBP are too evil and corperate. Could you imagine if QBP starting setting up Auto Zone-like shops in major cities? I’d be doing the Snoopy Dance if I could get Surly and Salsa stuff for cheap from QBP-Mart. But I think the majority of the bicycle community would be outraged.

  18. Andreas says:

    RE: How do you over lubricate a chain?
    If you put too much lube on a chain then it just gathers dust causing further wear on the bike

  19. tom says:

    john- A QBP catalog sits on the back counter of practically every LBS. Thus, in some respects, the LBS is just a middleman, especially for a consumer that takes care of his own maintenance and repair. If serious bicycle transportation moves beyond recreation and physical fitness, we’ll probably see shops that only sell bike parts in areas where demand is sufficient. Nature, and business, abhor a vacuum.

  20. Columbus commuter says:

    Kevin Love,

    Are you a shill for Pashleys or what??? You should realize that not everyone wants to ride a tank. It may be great for you but some folks with a longer commute need something a little more agile.

  21. Kevin Love says:

    Not a shill for Pashley, but an advocate for bike commuting. My goal is for the USA to look like The Netherlands, Japan, or even Toronto. I’m an American citizen living in Toronto and have seen how cities can transform themselves.

    Bicycle cultures have developed their enabling technology which looks the same over all the world: The commuter bike. Which has things like a full chaincase so the chain and drivetrain does not turn into a pile of rust over the winter.

    Dave Hembrow did an excellent description of what a commuter bike has to be like at:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2009/01/anatomy-of-reliable-everyday-bicycle.html

  22. Columbus commuter says:

    Like I said your idea of a commuter bike is great for short distances. A typical commuter in the US and I would suspect Cananda as well travels further distance and requires lighter, speedier bikes. What is suitable for Hans Brinker doesn’t always cut it here. I appreciate your passion for bike commuting, but the one size fits all agenda fails to recognize these differences.

  23. John says:

    tom – I think you are exactly right. You’ve sort of hit on a chicken and egg dilema. If there were shops with cheap and easy parts service, more people would bike commute. But until more people bike commute, those types of shops won’t be economically viable. (at least in the U.S.)

    Most large cities already have parts-only shops such as you describe and often take the form of co-ops, used part shops, community do-it-yourself repair shops and things like that. The only problem with them is they tend to be in highly urban areas and generally cater only to the cognoscenti because they are too small to do much, if any, advertising. Since most American middle class family types tend to live in suburbs and are not plugged into the cycling “scene”, those shops don’t help them much – especially if we’re talking about potential commuters who are not necessarily bicycle enthusists. Not that an urban co-op wouldn’t serve a dorky working stiff from the ‘burbs, but the dorky working stiff probably doesn’t know the co-op exists.

  24. Kevin Love says:

    Columbus –

    People in The Netherlands, and some I know here in Toronto, routinely commute 10-20 km on commuter bikes. This includes school children. See, for example,

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2009/09/school-cycling-route-from-village-into.html

    Any extra weight of the bike is insignificant compared to the extra weight (alas!) on my body. Not to mention my briefcase, laptop, etc that I’m taking to and from work.

    The reality is that wherever there is a mass cycling culture, whether in Northern Europe, Japan, China or here in Toronto, there is an overwhelming consensus about what type of bike works best.

    Just look at the streets of Tokyo. Or the thousands of bikes parked at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Seeing is believing.

  25. jdc says:

    I’m a shop mechanic and daily commuter. I own a large stable of bikes and use two single speed converted bikes, old steel road bike for rain, rigid steel mountain bike for snow, as my workhorse commuters. No fuss, no maintenance.

    As far as online shopping is concerned. Go ahead and do it….but please dont come into the shop, show me that new xtr derailleur, and gloat over your “sweet internet deal” as you ask me to install it “because you couldnt figure it out or broke something while doing so”. It pisses me off, I remember faces, and might not be so ready to help you out with a freebie when you really need me. If I had a nickel for every person that has needed my help when the “sweet deal” hasnt been correct for their bike, I’d be a trillionaire. And no, I’m not going to exchange the wrong part that you bought online for the correct one out of my inventory.

  26. John says:

    jdc – so you’re saying if I brought in an XTR rear de that I “got a sweet deal” on and its, say, a short cage when I really need a long cage, you wouldn’t swap it for a Deore long cage? :)

  27. jdc says:

    Now THAT one we’d have to talk about! That’s exactly how I got a mid-cage XTR derailleur for my Tricross as a matter of fact lol. My original point was that a surprising number of people feel that they can buy online in a haphazard fashion and just let the local bike shop sort out the mistakes. My favorite is when someone buys a used suspension fork…..and is shocked to find that the steerer tube is the wrong length due to it being from a bike with a shorter headtube. Or buying a fork with a QR20 when they have a standard axle front wheel. You’d be surprised at the caveat emptor stuff we see.

  28. Yoshiyahu says:

    LOL @ Kevin Love — every place he posts, he has to mention his Pashley. :)

    But Kevin’s point is brilliant– if we measure the best commuter by what most cyclists ride, by the billions, Bike Shop Girl could have saved a lot of time and effort by purchasing a Flying Pigeon or Hero and being done with it.

  29. jdc says:

    Actually, I think that a Flying Pidgeon would be a cool addition to any avid collector’s stable. I’d love to own one just to experience what many commuters in Asia have to contend with machinewise. Might be strong enough to do light freeriding on…..or full-on downhill!!!

  30. Yoshiyahu -

    The goal of the bike build is to help people learn that modifying their ride to their liking.. is part of the fun!

  31. jdc says:

    Bike Shop Girl….I made a move from the western half of Canada to the eastern half several years ago. In the west, a small group of us locals had found that the hot winter setup was a mountain bike equipped with drop bars, John Tomac style, since we couldn’t afford a real cyclocross bike. When I arrived on the other side of the country and rode this setup around, people looked at me like I had green skin and six arms. It was as you said, we modified our bikes to OUR liking, regardless of what the masses thought. Remember the first time you ever saw a messenger on a fixie road bike, perhaps in the snow, pre hipster trend? They were pioneers of this way of thinking.

  32. I had the same experience with my first day on a Job, that happened when I was working in India and I must say the traffic sucks there :( I was in the Bombay and I was 4 hours late on my first day to work :(

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