We here at Bicycle Times ride to work quite a lot. Most of us have been doing so for years, both to this office (also home of Dirt Rag) and to previous jobs. (We had a total of 11,878 miles and 605 commuting days in 2008!) We’ve amassed a lot of experience and knowledge along the way that we will enjoy sharing with you, to make your own bike commuting experience easier and more fun, and to encourage you to do it more often.
Riding to work can be a fun adventure if you have the right equipment to keep you rolling. You don’t want to be held up by a bike malfunction. So how should you prepare for your journey, equipment-wise? Read on to find out.
The Bare Minimum
Here’s the list of essentials that we all carry while commuting:
Flat fix gear: pump, tire levers, spare tube (or two) and/or a patch kit. This might be obvious, but the materials needed to change a flat tire are the most indispensable, since a flat is the misfortune you’ll most likely encounter.
Several of us prefer frame pumps: long pumps that mount parallel to a tube of the bike’s frame, held in place with spring tension. Their larger size provides more air volume for faster inflation than mini-pumps, plus they are always with your bike and out of the way of all your other stuff.
Carrying two tire levers is a good idea, even if you’re an old hand at flat fixing and can do it with one, since they can sometimes snap in half.
Andrew’s tip: “I wrap tubes tightly in kitchen wrap—the wrap enables you to compress the tubes into a very compact size and protect them from dirt and puncture hazards from other tools.”
Tools: hex wrenches, chain tool, spoke wrenches, either separate or as part of a multi-tool—in case anything more than a flat befalls you.
Most bike bolts are of the hex variety, and a folding set of metric hex wrenches (A.K.A. Allen wrenches) will let you tighten loose bolts or make adjustments you may have overlooked the night before. Bikes almost always use metric sizes, not standard.
Make sure your chain tool is a good one. Fixing a broken chain is hard enough without struggling with a dinky, awkward chain tool (which may be encountered on some lesser multi-tools).
You probably won’t be able to get a damaged wheel totally true again, but at least you can get it spinning well enough to reach your destination, as long as you have spoke wrenches. There are three common sizes and most tools have all three.
Swiss Army Knife-style, all-in-one multi-tools look impressive, but compromises sometimes have to be made to fit all that into one tool. The ex-bike shop mechanics in the house tend to prefer separate travel-size tools for their ease of use. There are some completely functioning multi-tools, however, and designs get better all the time.
Consider that you may need some special tools for your bike—for instance, a brand-specific spoke wrench, a 15mm wrench for bolt-on wheels, or tubes with a long valve stem for deep-section rims.
If your bike has a replaceable derailleur hanger, a spare is an easy thing to carry. These are designed to break first if your derailleur gets yanked, for instance by a piece of debris that gets caught in your chain.
A first aid kit is something that you’ll hopefully never need, but when you do, you’ll be glad you have it. Small and lightweight varieties are available that contain enough supplies to treat road rash or other minor injuries.
If your commute is too early or late for the benefit of sunlight (or you go for happy hour after work), spare batteries for your lights are not a bad idea.
Don’t forget the fuel: a full bottle of water for the journey and perhaps an energy bar in case you get delayed or find yourself running out of gas on the way. (This is one big advantage over driving—it’s much easier, and less expensive, to fuel up!)
Andrew is comprehensively prepared with his “wallet with paper money in it—a dollar bill makes a great tire liner if you get a tear in you tire,” as well as “the best tool of all, a cell phone.” Shannon puts his cell in a waterproof pouch to protect it from rain.
For those earning a merit badge in preparedness, here are some examples. Eric, who is part of a one-car family and rides nearly every day, has quite an extensive list of extra items he always carries:
Wing Nut pouch holding this kit can be easily transferred from bag to bag
Small bottle of lube to avoid embarrassing chain squeak
Princeton Tec headlamp as a backup light and another repair aid
Credit card-sized LED flashlight for emergency nighttime repairs, with a foot or so of duct tape wrapped around it—what can’t you do with duct tape?
Folding pliers-style multi-tool, containing useful non-bike-specific tools
Fine-point Sharpie for recording phone and license plate numbers
12” bailing wire, another useful jerry-rigging item
3 cable ties (A.K.A zip ties)—like duct tape, but different
Wheels Mfg. Emergency Derailleur Hanger—fits almost any bike
Surly Jethro Tule 15mm box wrench (and bottle opener), for bolt-on wheels
3”x1” strip of adhesive-backed rubber to aid in mounting lights or other peripherals
Nitrile gloves keep hands clean during repairs
Amanda, being the artistic type, likes to bring a sketch pad and pencil.
Depending on the season, extra clothing can be worth the space. During volatile spring and fall days, or if your commute involves a significant change in elevation, you can shield yourself from the temperature difference with a shell jacket, arm and leg warmers, and full-fingered gloves.
If you’re soldiering on through the winter, chemical handwarmers can save you from numb hands, especially if you have to stop for a repair.
After a time or two trying to run after-work errands with the wrong lock key, Karen carries both her U-lock keys on a key lanyard attached to the inside of her bag.
Shannon uses glasses with interchangeable lenses, a hard case and wipe cloth for day to night lighting.
How to Carry Your Load
That’s a big list! Add to that lunch, clothing for the office, perhaps a laptop, and other sundry items and you’ve got a lot to carry. Fortunately it’s not difficult with the right luggage.
A messenger bag is the simplest container for your stuff. Its one-strap design allows it to be shifted around from behind to the front for easy access. These bags often have organization pockets inside. Matt says, “I don’t have a separate or special bag for the equipment, I just utilize all the nifty pockets of my messenger bag. The more pockets the better!”
A backpack can’t be accessed without taking it off, but it has the advantage of more evenly distributing weight on your back.
A seat bag is a simple little bag that mounts under the saddle of your bike, good for carrying small, essential items like tubes and patch kits.
Panniers attach to front or rear racks and have the advantage of getting weight off your back and down lower on the bike, which can stabilize bike handling. Andy says, “If I carry a computer I usually go with panniers because I don’t like carrying a lot of weight on my back unless I have to. Without a computer, I like riding with a messenger bag.”
Frame bags use your bike’s own frame as support. They don’t add as much weight as a rack and panniers, but may not have as much capacity.
For traveling light or keeping crucial items at hand, good ol’ jersey pockets can be sufficient.
If you have more than one commuting bike or bag set-up, Eric’s advice: “My kit fits in a New Sun pouch that moves from messenger bag to pannier to frame bag to backpack. The two main bikes I ride to commute have frame bags and this fits nicely in either one.”
Karen says, “I keep my pump in a cotton sleeve that a Thomson seatpost came in—keeps it clean and unharmed.”
Learning the Hard Way
It’s impossible to be prepared for every eventuality, but maybe you can learn from some of our past mistakes…
Andrew: “I now carry a patch kit on long rides. When I went on my first century ride we used all our tubes in the first fifty miles. We had a tense 50-mile ride back home, panicking each time we ran over glass or hit a pothole.”
Matt: “I was riding home one night after a party and a few IPAs in Buffalo. It wasn’t a busy street and it even had a bike lane. But there were still manhole covers. I must have rode over a particularly rough one that jolted my singlespeed a tad too much. The chain actually hopped off the rear cog and was lodged between the frame and the cog. I couldn’t pry the chain free and had to walk home. So now I make sure to carry a 15mm wrench to remove the wheels. That same night I realized that if I ever got a flat, there would have been no way for me to fix that either, despite the pump and spare tubes I carry.”
Andy: “I always carry a chain tool because I’ve broken two chains on my way to work. The first time I didn’t have a chain tool and I had to walk most of the way home. There’s no particular event that prompted me to carry zip ties, but for some reason I feel like I will really need them some day. I always have a few of them with me.”
Karen: “I keep a pen on the outside of my bag, on the front strap, for easy access if there’s an accident and I need to record a license plate number, phone number, etc. Fortunately I’ve never had an incident that prompted this, but after hearing other people describe the confusion that happens after an accident, hunting for a pen isn’t a good thing to have to do.”
Shannon: “Extra clothing was a result of either too many cold rides home in unpredictable weather, or unexpectedly encountering riding friends on the way home, which changed my destination and turned into night rides around the city.”
Sometimes “enough” is really “too much.” Here are a few examples of gear that might be excessive.
Andrew: “A Surly Singleator—if you break your derailleur you can shorten your chain and singlespeed it home without one, but that usually means that you are stuck in an undesirable gear. With a Singleator you can choose the best gear for the terrain.”
Eric: “The 15mm mini-wrench I carry is hardly necessary since I haven’t had a bike with axle nuts that size in quite a while, but you never know when you might run into someone who needs it, and I have less chance to misplace it if I keep it in my bag.”
Amanda: “Sketch book and pencil. Have I ever used them to stop and sketch a beautiful vista or critter on the way home? No, but I keep them just in case there’s a license plate number of a maniac driver I want to jot down or something of that nature.”
Andy: “I carry a tube and a patch kit, a pump and a CO2 inflator with a couple cartridges. I’m sure I could get away with only carrying a patch kit and a pump, but the extra tube and CO2 inflator make for a quick change in case of a flat.”
[This article, which was written by the Bicycle Times staff with photos by Maurice Tierney, originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times Issue #1.]