With Summer fading fast and school spinning back up, tons of people are thinking transportation and asking, “Can I ride to class?” The short answer is, “Of course!” The long answer is that it’s easy to bike almost everywhere as long as you’re prepared. So let’s take a couple minutes to talk bike-commuting prep and what you can do to make this school year a two-wheeled success!
- What to Pack
What you need to bring will likely depend on the distance of your ride and the facilities at your school, but there are a few things you should never leave home without. Phone, cash, and ID are all at the top of that list. Kind of a no-brainer in the 21st century, but you just don’t want to be anywhere without a way to call a friend or check a map, and you’ll never regret the $5 bill tucked in the end of your bars when you need to snag a snack between classes (or owe some money on that library book).
Speaking of flats, I never ride without all the fixin’s to repair a flat on the road; wrench, tire levers, patch kit, spare tube, and pump. You can technically choose either the patch kit or the spare tube if space is an issue but, if you plan on making your commute regularly, the patch kit and pump will be life-savers someday and having spares is great because nothing matches the test-day karma-boost of getting another classmate rolling again on your way in for the final!
- What to Wear
The next bit you want to consider is clothing and personal goods. You don’t need to get all kitted up in Lycra for a 20-minute cross-campus commute, but the breathability, comfort, and sweat-wicking magic of cycling clothes certainly makes them appealing if you've got a longer ride. If you do get spandex-y, pack a change of clothes you can slip into at the gym (bathroom, etc...). If you take it easy in street clothes, you’ll likely arrive sweat-free anyway, and you can always bring a clean shirt if you think you’ll need one. Most people will find they’re fine just taking 10 minutes to cool down before popping into class.
If your school gym has showers, you can certainly grab a rinse post-ride to freshen up, but for most, that’s overkill. A little cooldown will likely have you class-ready. That said, some riders will pack a stick of deodorant and pack of baby wipes to freshen up quickly on those super hot days, so if that sounds like your jam, don’t forget to toss those things in your backpack.
Lastly, check your local laws and personal feelings about helmets (I wear one because I hustle, but I also know that it’s there to protect me if I ever put my bike on the ground, and that it’s not going to do anything against 3000lbs of steel at 45mph – so it’s no replacement for awareness and safe riding).
- Check your Bike
If it’s been a while since you’ve rolled out, you’ll probably want to swing by your local bike shop for a tune-up, but there are a few simple things you should check every ride to make sure your bike is road-worthy.
The first is air. Check the sidewalls of your tires to get the recommend pressure range, grab your pump, and stuff some sky in there! To avoid pinch-flats, you’ll probably want to aim for the high end of the recommended range, but if you’re interested in some sciency nitty-gritty, here’s a cool article on how to find your ideal tire pressure.
Brakes are the next thing to check. Just give your bike a good roll forward and squeeze the front brake. The bike should stop and the rear wheel should come off the ground. Now do the same thing with the rear. The wheel should stop and the tire should “skid” along. Lastly, check that with the levers fully-pulled you can still slip a thumb between the lever and the handlebars. If it all checks out, you’re good to go! If it doesn’t, make the necessary tweaks to get those brakes dialed in.
Next, give the drivetrain a quick look. Make sure the chain is rust-free, lubed, and that everything spins easily. If it doesn’t, clean and lube that chain!
Lastly, I like to give all my nuts and bolts a quick poke to make sure everything’s still tight, but if you tighten everything regularly (as you should) it’s just a two-second peace of mind check. And that’s it! Your bike is road-worthy!
- Plan your Route
Biking to school is more fun than driving, often faster, and most importantly, gives you a chance to see more of your city while you’re on your way! Because of that, you’ll often find yourself compelled to choose the most pleasant route, as opposed to the shortest one like you would in a car. The upside to that flexibility is that you can also choose routes based on your comfort level, traffic, and where you like to ride.
Often the easiest way to start is just plugging your trip into Google Maps and selecting the “bike” method of transport. Google will do its best to give you some options that maximize bike infrastructure (separated bike paths, segregated lanes, on-street lanes, and bike routes), while minimizing hills and traffic. Take Google’s route with a grain of salt though, as they lack the “on the ground” knowledge you’ve developed from living there, so I’ll usually adjust their recommendation a bit to increase my enjoyment.
Once your route is picked, you might try a practice run one evening to get familiar with the roads, but as long as you budget enough time for navigation checks and wrong-turns on the day of, you’ll be good to go!
- How to Carry it All
Whatever you need to bring, there’s a way to carry it on two wheels. Most riders opt for a backpack starting out because they already have one handy and it’s going to class with them anyway. The only real downside to backpacks is that even a short ride can lead to a sweaty back as the pack doesn’t provide much breathing room. That’s easily mitigated by packing a backup shirt (right in your backpack) or choosing an option like…
Panniers! From pannier bags, to baskets, to briefcase/laptop bags, if your bike has a rack, there’s no shortage of options on the market for strapping your cargo to the side. The upside of panniers is they keep the weight off your back and, because of the way they hang, they keep the center of gravity low so your bike stays more stable. Most have some form of quick-release so you can bring them right inside when you arrive too!
The other option is the most steretotypically “bikey”, a basket. A front-mounted handlebar basket provides a simple storage solution that grants you easy access to your stuff when you pull over for a pit stop. A rear mounted basket or crate usually has greater capacity and keeps the weight off your handlebars to keep steering smooth. Because baskets are open on top, they’re easy to stuff with irregular shaped items and make great seats for our furry friends. Just be sure to check the weather before you head out in case you need to water-proof your stuff!
- Be prepared for traffic
Riding in the road doesn’t have to be scary, but if it’s your first time it’s easy to be intimidated by the commotion of cars and the novel view of the road sans windshield. The trick is to know what to expect, how you should approach different scenarios, and what to watch out for. There are tons of sources of great advice on sharing the road and how to ride safely. This is one of my favorites. Just remember, if you find yourself getting stressed or confused, the easiest thing to do is pull over, catch your breath, and start rolling again once you’ve figured out what you want to do.
- Plan some pit stops
Speaking of taking a break, planning stops on your ride is a great way to split up the commute into little bursts of fun! Make a detour to grab a coffee at your favorite café, swing over to the library to pickup that book you need (and save some money for the weekend), and then pop into the deli to grab the day’s lunch!
- Water and Food
More than half the country has a commute under 5 miles. Not only is that practically perfect biking distance, if you take it easy, it’s no more effort than a thirty minute-walk! If that’s the case for you, you won’t need to pack any extra calories for the trip, but a granola bar or breakfast when you get in will probably be a treat you appreciate.
If your ride is more than 20 miles roundtrip, you may want to consider packing some fuel. The key to feeling good on a long ride is to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty, so have a bite before you jump in the saddle and pack a fruit chew, breakfast bar, or whatever handy snack you can keep in a pocket and munch on mid-ride. Or, plan on making a breakfast stop! There’s nothing like some halfway-pancakes to boost you the rest of the way.
When it comes to water, you want some. You likely won’t need more than 1 water bottle for every 10-15 miles, but be sure to pack enough that you won’t run out (it’s super demoralizing), or know where the parks on your route are so you can top off at a water fountain! The weather will also play a factor in how much water you lose on your ride, so stock up if it’s going to be hot so you can stay hydrated. A good rule of thumb is to pack 1 bottle of water for every hour you plan to be on the road, and up that by 50% if it’s going to be 90+ degrees.
- Bring a friend!
What’s always better than riding bikes? Riding bikes with buds! Biking to school is the perfect time to share some two-wheeled time with friends. Many cities, schools, and advocacy organizations run bike trains where commuters can meet up at a central location and ride together to the most common destinations. It’s a great way to get some experience on the road for beginners too nervous to take to the streets themselves, and a perfect chance to meet other riders in your town! Check with your local organizations to see if they host anything, and don’t forget to ask around the apartment if anybody wants to bike-pool! You’ll be amazed how a little company on the road can turn any commute into a rolling conversation.
- Where to keep your bike!
You did it, you’ve arrived! Now, where to park? The best thing about bikes is that you can usually just take them in with you. Just park it in the back of class and you’re good to go!
Check with your school about bike parking options to see if they have any dedicated bike storage, or a preferred place for you to park too. In fact, I’d recommend checking with everybody else who rides to class before checking with management/facilities, as the people that ride will know the best parking tips and tricks for your campus while often times the facilities folks knowledge of parking only extends to cars. Ideally, you’ll be able to bring it inside and away from the envious eyes of thieves, but if you have to lock up at a rack, be sure to secure both wheels and the frame, and bring in any loose accessories you think might tempt a bored thief (lights, bags, etc…). You want to make sure your bike’s waiting there for the ride home.
And that’s it! Now, you’re ready to roll back to school!
In reality, the hardest thing about biking to class is realizing that you could’ve been having this much fun all along.