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8 Essentials You Need Before You Trade In Your Car For A Bike

I’ll never forget the feeling of freedom I experienced the first time I rode my bike across town by myself. I was 10 years old and enrolled in tennis lessons that my mom disliked driving me to, living in a town without public transit. I took that first big scary ride over to the tennis club (it was only a 10-minute ride, but most of it on the Trans-Canada Highway) and suddenly, I felt a surge of independence — while my friends were already counting down the years until their driver’s licenses, I had my bike, and it could get me anywhere! I started riding it to my friends’ houses, to swimming lessons, and to school.

Then things happened — I moved to a larger city, got used to city buses and, eventually, learned to drive. I would drive everywhere, even though my city was full of spacious bike trails along beautiful Lake Nipissing. In high school, my bike was stolen, and I didn’t bother getting a new one until I was 21.

When I moved to Toronto, I kept my car for the first couple years. But after starting a job in our congested downtown (where parking cost a minimum of $8/day), I decided that it was time to hop back on my bike. It was rough at first — my ride home was along one of the city’s harshest hills — but almost right away I started seeing the benefits. Not only was I getting to work (and home) faster than I would have on transit, but I was also feeling amazing, seeing more of the city, and doing my own part for the environment.

Biking isn’t for everyone, but more people should feel empowered to do it. It’s not as scary as many make it out to be, and depending on your climate, you can do it far beyond the summer months. I happen to bike 12 months of the year, and will only opt for transit in the case of blizzards or torrential downpours.

I don’t use a lot of fancy bike accessories — I’ve never used a pannier, expensive rain gear, or those weird bike shorts with a padded butt. But there are a few things that will help make biking a lot easier (and safer) if you’re thinking of starting.

1. A helmet. Helmets aren’t required by law everywhere, but they’re just a smart thing to do. You can sustain a serious head injury even at low speeds — spend the money on a helmet (many are in the $20-30 range) and protect your head. Please.

2. Lights. You might not be interested in cycling in January, but when the clocks go back an hour and the sun starts to set at 5 PM, you’ll be happy you have lights. At the very least, a white light on the front and a red light on the back make for a safer ride. I’m safety-obsessed, so I’ve also added wheel lights and an arm band light.

3. A rain poncho. A waterproof jacket will only do so much. A longer rain poncho can protect your butt from splash-up, can usually fit over your bag and can be folded up to fit in most pockets. I bought mine for only $4 at a bookstore, and it’s been there for me through the craziest (and most unexpected) weather changes.

4. A security plan. Not everyone can take their bike into their office, so you should find a way to mitigate theft as much as possible. I lock the frame outside and take my front wheel in with me (people will still steal a bike without a seat, but few would bother trying to make off with a bike missing a wheel). If you can, ask your office for inside storage options, since bikes are a hot ticket item for petty thieves. I’d also invest in a tough-to-cut U-mount lock over a chain; spending more money upfront means you don’t have to spend ten times that to replace the bike down the road.

5. A change of clothes/a post-bike beautification routine. Riding to work every day means three things: Sweat, dirt and helmet hair. I wouldn’t recommend biking to work in clothes you plan to wear that day, or at the very least in the shirt you plan to wear. I always keep my work shirt in my bag and change at the office, and I have a pair of work flats at my desk, as well as generic, go-with-everything pants for emergencies. You should also consider a hair brush, dry shampoo and/or deodorant to spruce up after your ride.

6. A rewards app. If you can find an app in your city that rewards you for biking, get on it! I’ve been using Biko for under two months and have converted every kilometer I bike into points that I’ve used on coffee, takeout, bedding, and even a sweet pair of jeans. Hey, if you’re not going to do it for the environment, at least do it for your wallet.

7. A patch kit. I’ve popped my tire four times on my route. They’re not particularly expensive (about $14 a fix), but when I realized that I could get a patch kit for less than $10 and that my small pump fits easily into my backpack, I made the “investment.” Knowing how to patch a tire can get you out of some tough spots, and many bike shops or outdoor retailers like REI and MEC offer free workshops.

8. A thick skin. I won’t lie: being a cyclist is difficult at times. I’ve been doored three times (none resulting in serious injuries) and even though dooring is a chargeable offense in my city, I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m to blame for my own injuries, even by cops who are supposed to be helping me. Many drivers get frustrated with cyclists, even when we’re following the rules of the road, and some can be downright mean and scary. One driver even followed me through a series of side streets because he became irate when I shook my fist at him (he was illegally parked in a bike lane at rush hour). I’ve also been talked down to by bike mechanics because of my age and gender. None of these experiences ever make me want to give up cycling, but they are things to consider when you get to biking.

Bree Rody-Mantha is a business journalist and dance teacher living in Toronto. In her spare time, she enjoys sport climbing, lifting and running the vegan food blog, Urban Garlic. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Nathalie C

    Thank-you for this! I also bike to work and I love it – every single one of your points is perfect! Question for you though, how do you manage in the winter (I live in Québec City)? The true bike paths (those without cars) are converted to cross-country ski trails, and the bike paths on regular streets aren’t cleared of snow so cars don’t give me any room on those. Do you use the same route in the summer than in winter?

    • Julia Schnell

      I was a year-round bike commuter when I lived in Cleveland. Once I could save up some $, I got myself a bike with fatter tires and disc brakes that was a lot more stable to ride in winter (and the brakes wouldn’t jam up with snow since they were nearer to the hub). Before I had that savings put together, I’d just buy a $40 used bike on Craigslist every season and ride it through the snow until it fell apart from rust. I’d definitely suggest the winter-bike/summer-bike duo instead of the rust-bucket route, if you can swing it!

      But most of my bike-in-snow advice is exactly the same as my drive-in-snow advice: go a little slower, brake a lot sooner, and try to ride in the tracks made by cars, where the snow will be the most compact or cleared-away.

    • ScriboErgoSum

      I’ve never been to Quebec City myself, but I’ve heard Quebec City and Montreal are VERY different to bike in during the winter from Toronto because far more snow accumulates. To be honest, biking in the winter in Toronto is hardly different from biking any other season except it gets darker early.

      As for switching routes, I switch routes almost every day, actually! I’ve memorized the garbage pickup schedules near my place and will usually avoid stinky garbage streets as much as I can. But during the winter, I tend to stick to better-travelled streets because they’re plowed far more frequently — Bloor and Gerard are my East-West picks in Toronto. Oddly enough on snowy days I also tend to AVOID streets with separated bike lanes because they don’t bother plowing the separated ones.

      I say, if you want to get the cars out of your way, light yourself up like a Christmas tree!

      • Nathalie C

        Thanks for the reply! I’ve never been to Toronto in the winter either – so I don’t know what it looks like for biking. I guess I’m a scaredy-cat in terms of riding on 4-lane 50km/h roads when the bike lanes aren’t there anymore. Although I suppose if I get myself snow-tires (as Julia, below, suggests) I could switch over to the sidewalk! I’ll have to see how comfortable I can get with it – and light myself up like a Christmas tree! 🙂

  • Love the idea of Biko- it seems like it’s mostly Toronto-specific but can’t wait to try it out!

    • ScriboErgoSum

      Hey Amani – The good news is Biko is available in a few other U.S. cities, although I don’t have a full list of which ones. Toronto is actually one of its more recent editions. From what I know, the only other Canadian city it’s available in is Vancouver (at least that’s the case when I downloaded the app). They need to get on Montreal!

  • Charlie

    I’m a fellow bike commuter (and recreational cyclist just getting into racing) and this is all good advice. I would add that wear headphones or earbuds while riding is also dangerous and illegal here in California.

    On a lighter note, I personally prefer to carry an extra tube while I ride, and patch at home since it tends to be faster to just swap the tube. I’m also a fan of using a U-Lock and a cable lock since odds are that your average bike thief won’t be carrying around a bolt cutter and angle grinder. My personal locking protocol is to lock the rear wheel, chain, and frame to a bike rack and then to cable lock the front wheel to the frame.

    I’m also a fan of doing my own bike maintenance and repair. Learning how to clean and lube your bike is great for getting it to last longer and can be a great gateway into learning more about repair, not to mention that it’s also really rewarding. I found the book “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance” to be really helpful when I was learning.

  • James Wurm

    All of this is correct. Especially 8. It can be shitty biking, but I still love it. I’ve recently started riding on more populated paths and forgot how much I don’t like other bikers, who tend to quietly stalk the path until they zoom by you within inches, never announcing themselves with an “on your left” or a bell. Same thing happens in the bike lanes.

    • James Wurm

      I don’t bother with a flat repair kit because I live within trains and buses and I can take my bike home on in the twice yearly occurrence of a flat. I try to slim down how much I carry.

      • ScriboErgoSum

        I would love to be able to take my bike on transit at rush hour. Unfortunately, Toronto’s local and regional transit has a strict “no bikes at rush hour” policy, and rush hour extends from about 4 to 7 p.m. (maybe even 3 to 7, can’t quite recall). I work around the corner from a MEC, but a few times I’ve had no choice but to haul ass on a busted tube. No fun!

        Something I did for awhile was I had a few friends who were my “emergency bike stops” before I started carrying a patch kit. Two of my pals who lived along my route and had decent bike storage at their apartments let me come in and store it there when things got hairy.

        • James Wurm

          I definitely can’t take my bike on the train during rush hour, I may hang around for a drink if it’s raining, but I also benefit from two different bus lines with similar pickups and drop offs as the train, and all busses have routinely accessible bike racks. I know it’s a fortunate circumstance for me, I commute in Chicago.

  • vitadulcis

    I would add two things to this list:
    – A basket: Makes your bike much more useful. In my basket, I’ve carried groceries, takeout, my yoga mat, climbing gear, and even luggage (well, my carry-on). It’s soooo much better than trying to balance bags on your handlebar (and then getting them caught in your spokes) or shoving things into a backpack.
    – These anti-theft wheel skewers: I’ve gotten wheels and seats stolen before in my younger days, but no longer!!!

  • crazycatlady331

    I ride my bike grocery shopping (I work 33 miles away so not feasible). A basket is the best purchase ever as far as bike accessories go. This allows me to use my bike for small shopping trips (it holds a reusable shopping bag) and carry things.