Urban Cycling Basics

More and more people are challenging the car-dominated culture of our cities. And why not? Urban bicycling is fun, healthy and lets you see your town in a new and interesting way. A bike can get you to the grocery store, concerts, to school or work—you name it. 

Join the pedal parade. Here are the basics to being a savvy urban rider.

Choosing a Bike

Any bike will suffice: cruiser, road, mountain. Popular city choices include a retro 10-speed from a yard sale or a glammed up single-speed to show off your style. If you aim for a high-mileage lifestyle, consider a new “urban bike” for low-maintenance reliability. Add fenders if you ride in rainy conditions.

No room or funds for a bike? A bike-share program may already be in your city, or coming soon. You can rent a bike as needed for short trips and then leave your ride at a secure docking station.

For more on bikes, see the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose a Bicycle.

novara-bike-pannier

Carrying Stuff

Even a simple errand may require you to carry something on your bike. Choose your best solution from these options:

  • Daypack or messenger bag: For light loads and short trips. Highly versatile. Goes where you go, with or without the bike.
  • Front basket: Adds Euro style and carrying capacity for a few items. A smaller option for the front of the bike is a handlebar bag.
  • Rear rack and panniers or basket: For heavier loads over longer distances. Some panniers double as a shopping basket or shoulder bag. Best for commuters and committed urban cyclists.
  • Cargo trailer: For serious load hauling from the farmers' market or home improvement store.

For a closer look at the pros and cons of each, see the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose Bike Racks and Bags.

Bike Security

Bike theft is an unfortunate fact of life. To minimize the risk of having your bike disappear:

U lock for bicycles
  • Choose and use an appropriate lock. A light cable combination lock suffices for short-duration parking outside a store. For higher risk areas or multi-hour parking, use a heavy duty, keyed U-lock. 
  • Take advantage of secure bike parking services when available at events like concerts, sporting events and markets.
  • Park your bike inside your workplace or a store, if possible. Ask permission first.
  • In high-crime areas, consider using a bike with low curbside appeal. A low resale value is less tempting to thieves.
  • Keep your accessories secure! Use a bolted seatpost clamp, not a quick-release clamp. Remove and pocket your bike computer and lights while away from your bike.

Tip: Keep a lock either attached to your bike, or in your pannier or cycling daypack so that is always available to use.

For more, see the REI Expert Advice article, Bike Locks and Security.

Clothes

Special bike clothing is not required for most urban cycling. A long bike commute may warrant padded cycling shorts, but otherwise you can go with your fashion of choice provided it does not compromise your safety. 

Avoid long scarves and billowy skirts or long jackets, which can tangle in the rear wheel or brakes. On bikes without a chainguard, long pants can get caught up in the chain or get oil marks.

  • Pants: If they are not tights, either roll up or tuck the pant leg into a sock on the chain side, or secure with a rip-and-stick strap to prevent the leg from flapping onto the chain.
  • Shoes: No need for cycling shoes. Regular shoes are more versatile.  A grippy sole will help keep your feet on the pedals. If you wear smooth-soled shoes, a strapless pedal toe clip will prevent your feet sliding forward.
  • Jacket: The discomforting effects of rain and wind can be deterred with a suitable wind or waterproof jacket. For serious wet weather protection, add rain pants and shoe covers.

As urban cycling grows in popularity, clothing is being designed that blends cycling function with city fashion. Stretchy wind resistant fabric, discrete reflective accents, and hidden roll up pant tabs help you ride, work and play without looking like a spandex fashion model.

Bike helmet

Riding Safety

Riding safely in traffic can be distilled down to 3 key behaviors:

  • Be visible: Wear a bright jacket/top or white helmet. Equip your bike with front and rear flashing safety lights, and use them at night and in gloomy daylight conditions. For extra visibility, add spoke lights. For more info about lights, see the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose Bike Lights
  • Be legal: To earn respect, show respect to other road users. Ride with traffic, not against it. Use bike lanes where available. Observe the road rules. Ride in single file. Ride on the street or in a bike lane, not on the sidewalk unless this is permitted. The sidewalk may feel safer, but you must stay alert for pedestrians and driveway traffic.
  • Be predictable: Don’t ride erratically or weave in and out of cars. Hand signal your turning intention. Be courteous to other road users by not needlessly blocking lanes or impeding traffic flow, unless the safest action is to "take a lane." When riding with family or friends, focus on the traffic and not the chat.  

Bike Maintenance

Basic cleaning/maintenance involves 2 simple things:

  • Air: All tires gradually lose air. Tires need to be pumped up to their recommended pressure once or twice a month, regardless of use. Invest in a floor pump with a built-in gauge to make this quick and easy.
  • Oil: The drivetrain will work quietly, smoothly and with less effort when kept lubed. Apply chain lube once or twice a month, depending on use. Let it soak it, then wipe off the excess with a cloth.

Tip: Take your bike to REI or other reputable bike-repair shop for regular maintenance. An annual service will prolong its life and minimize potential breakdowns

Bike tube

What about flat tires?

Punctures happen, but not nearly as often as you might fear. Your options are:

  • Prevention: Have tire liners and/or tubes with sealant installed. This is particularly beneficial if you ride in areas plagued with “goat heads” and flat tires are common from this thorny seed.
  • Plan B: Have a contingency plan. It might be calling a friend to pick you up, or catching a bus or train with your bike to finish your trip. Or locking your bike up, calling a cab and attending to it later.
  • Fix it: Learn to fix a flat, and carry the relevant equipment (tire levers, spare tube, patch kit, hand pump). A repair usually takes 10 minutes or so. For instruction, see the REI Expert Advice article and video, Fixing a Flat Tire.