Everything You Need To Know To Start Cycling To Work
According the National Travel Survey two-thirds of people in Great Britain aged over five never cycle or cycle less than once a year on average, and a European Commission survey found that only 4% of people in the UK cycle daily. These aren’t impressive numbers – in the EU, only Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%) have a lower percentage of daily cyclists.
If the numbers increased to nearer the 43% of people in the Netherlands who cycle daily, the benefits would be incredible, both individually and for society as a whole – think reduced air pollution and a healthier population reducing the pressure on health services. And as more people start to cycle, the infrastructure will continue to improve, which in turn leads to more cyclists cycling in safer environments.
So ask yourself, why aren’t you cycling to work? And hopefully whatever reasons you come up with will be covered below. Unless the reason is you work at home. You’re off the hook.
Why should you cycle to work?
“Cycling to work is a great way to include exercise in your weekly routine, without the need for expensive gym memberships or personal trainers,” says Luke Harper, head of British Cycling partnership at HSBC UK. “You get to work feeling invigorated, endorphins are flowing around your body and you start the day off on a natural high.
“A bike is also cheap to buy compared with a car, particularly with sos many employers taking part in the Cycle to Work scheme, and it is much cheaper to run. In many UK cities there are also bike sharing schemes which make using a bike easy and affordable.
“There are numerous benefits to cycling but, perhaps most of all, cycling is fun. Most of us learned to cycle as a child when it was an activity which provided a sense of freedom.”
So you’ll get fitter, save money and have a blast. We’d also suggest that for most people in cities cycling to work will be at least as fast as taking public transport, even if you’re pootling along at an easy pace, because you can pick a more direct route and the only unexpected delay you might experience is a flat tyre.
Is cycling to work dangerous?
A common fear, especially in London, but the dangers of cycling are overplayed. Take it slow and your confidence will quickly build.
“Our perceptions of the dangers to cycling far outstrip reality. For many of us, these are mental barriers which prevent us from getting on two wheels,” says Harper.
“You don’t have to be a cyclist to ride a bike. If you’re nervous about riding to work, there are ways to build your confidence including doing practice runs during the weekends when there’s usually less traffic, which will help you to familiarise yourself with the route. We often think about cycling as a means of commuting but, in fact, riding a bike recreationally around your local park or on national cycling routes can help you re-learn the skills or techniques that may be rusty after not being on a bike for a while, and help to boost your confidence before using the roads.”
A few stats from Cycling UK drive home the point that cycling is safe. Only one cyclist is killed for every 29 million miles covered by bike on British roads, and mile for mile the risk of death is about the same as walking. Furthermore, cycling is so good for your health that statistically, the years of life gained outweigh the years lost through injuries by around 20:1.
Do cyclists need to worry about air pollution?
Only on extremely rare occasions. In London TfL will issue alerts when the air pollution is very high and it’s worth considering not cycling outdoors (you can sign up for text alerts or download an app via airText). However, in general the health benefits of cycling far, far outweigh the possible risks of air pollution. And the more people ride, the less risk there will be.
“Cycling can be a solution to many of the issues facing cities and towns across the UK, whether that is obesity, depression or pollution,” says Harper. “Ultimately, more people cycling can reduce the number of cars on the road, reducing pollution and helping towards a greener, fitter, healthier Britain.”
How fit do I need to be?
This depends on how far you live from your work and whether there are any massive hills en route, but we’ll let you into a little secret – not that fit at all. City cycling tends to involve short bursts of mild effort that are curtailed by traffic lights frequently enough that you don’t get all that out of breath. You can of course put the hammer down and up the intensity of your exercise while cycling, but if you’re looking to tick off your 30 minutes of daily moderate activity, cycling is ideal.
You also don’t have to cycle to work every day – if you get tired at first, do alternate days until your fitness and confidence increase and you feel like doing more. And if you live too far from your work to cycle the whole way a folding bike could be a nifty solution for part of the journey, and they’re easier to stash at home or at work than regular bikes.
Am I going to get sweaty?
Take it easy on your ride and you won’t need a shower when you arrive at work. And if you are getting sweaty, buying yourself a cycling top will help because lightweight, sweat-wicking materials really make a difference. You don’t have to go for Lycra all over – a top and a jacket for winter will see you right, and they’re usually odour-resistant so you can wear them all week without having to wash them. There is also plenty of stylish cycling gear available that has the technical details you need to stay cool and sweat-free while being fashionable enough to wear off the bike.
If you really don’t want to get sweaty on your commute, there’s always the option of an e-bike. Riding with a little assistance is still good exercise, but it’s only at the intensity of walking, so you won’t sweat. If e-bikes are entirely new to you, check out our e-bike buyer’s guide for all the info you need.
Do you need to wear a helmet?
There is no law saying you have to wear a helmet in the UK, and cycling campaign groups are very active in opposing any attempt to introduce such a law. The argument is simple – enforced helmet wearing leads to fewer people cycling and the best way to make cycling safer is to have more people doing it.
Regardless of the legal requirements you might well choose to wear a helmet – they can save your life in a certain type of accident, although you shouldn’t expect them to do a great deal if you’re hit by a motor vehicle. If you’re keen on lugging a helmet with you at the end of your ride, then a folding helmet you can slip into a bag might be what you need.
What lights do I need?
The minimum requirement under UK law is that you have one front light, one rear light, one rear reflector and reflectors on your pedals. The lights can be flashing, but have to flash between 60 and 240 times per minute. There are some more detailed regulations about the amount of light emitted, but in practice you don’t really need to worry about that. Just buy some lights, and put them on your bike from sunset to sunrise.
If you want to go above and beyond with your bike lights there are many great options. Lights that project laser images onto the ground several metres in front of your bike, wheel lights, reflective clothing and ankle bands are all things to try if you want to make absolutely certain that you’re visible on the road.
Do you need any special gear?
In short, no. Aside from bike lights and a bike, there is nothing essential you need to buy, though you probably will want a helmet and a cycling top too. Beyond that the next purchase you might consider is mudguards if your bike doesn’t come with them – if you cycle in your work clothes, you don’t want them splashed on the way in to the office. Also, the people cycling around you don’t want to be splashed either.
Once you get into the swing of commuting you might also want to buy a cycling rucksack. This will be lightweight and have some kind of airflow system to help avoid your back getting too sweaty while you ride. Or, if you want to have no such concerns, you can invest in panniers and stash all your gear by your wheels.
Other gear you might want to get is some kind of route planner. This could be a cycling app that plots the best routes – whether you want the fastest or quietest roads – or a full-on bike computer that attaches to your handlebars and tracks your ride as well as guiding you.
How much will I have to spend on a commuter bike?
The good news is that there’s something out there for every budget. Ollie Glover, adult bikes expert at Halfords, says, “generally, £300-£700 will get you something reliable, sturdy and hopefully less of a target for thieves if you’re locking it outside.”
When working out how much you want to spend, give some thought to how much you want to spend on repairs. “Simply put, the more you spend, the better the ride will be but the more expensive the repair work,” says Glover. “A £100-£200 bike will be fine for commuting one or two days a week, and repair work over a year won’t add up to any more than the cost of the bike. Bikes that cost upwards of £1,000 will be fast, light and designed perfectly for the terrain, but repair work will be costly and you may find them more of a target for thieves.”
What are the hidden costs?
We see nothing gets past you, and we like it. On top of the cost of a bike there will be the price of gear, maintenance, new parts and potentially things like insurance.
Merlin Cycles has done an impressive bit of beer-mat maths, working out the costs of doing a 30km, two-hour commute over a year by car and by bike. The online bike shop and manufacturer has totted up things like the cost of a bike over its lifetime (which they assumed to be a bit over four years), as well as an average cost of adding your ride to your home insurance and a laundry list of extras – many of which we haven’t bothered to invest in.
The folks at Merlin banged it all into a calculator and it spat out £4,011 for the pleasure of sitting in a car in a traffic jam for a year versus £268 cruising along with the wind in your hair. They didn’t even deduct the cost of a gym membership you don’t really need to bother with now.
In our experience, the cost of an annual service has put us above that figure, but then we did make some noob errors. For instance, don’t just assume you know what the pressure in your back tyre will be – doing so can lead to problems that can be… er, costly.
Still, hats off to Merlin for crunching the numbers. Here’s its economics of cycling to work if you’d like to check the working.
How much maintenance does a bike need? What’s the absolute minimum someone can get away with?
“Keep the bike clean and lubricated and you will find that parts last longer,” says Glover. “As an absolute minimum, repair things when they break, but repairs are more costly when you are replacing parts rather than servicing them. If you commute approximately 30 miles a week, every six months (or when something doesn’t feel or sound right), get your bike checked out. Regular assessment of the bike can help spot a problem before it happens. The wheels and drivetrain can take a beating during the daily grind, and servicing or replacing parts before they break prevents further damage.
Won’t my bike get stolen?
A fair question. Ultimately there is no surefire way to ensure your bike never gets nicked, but you can massively reduce the chances. The most effective strategy is to make stealing your bike more hassle than it’s worth, or at least more hassle than the bike parked next to it. With almost 400,000 bikes stolen in the UK every year, it’s every cyclist for themselves out there.
Before you head out the door register your ride at bikeregister.com, record your frame number and any other key details like your bike make, colour and any unique identifiers. You can also attach a coded label to your bike to help identify it and deter thieves – the police often have events where they’ll do this for you for free. Try searching your local force’s website.
When it comes to your lock, don’t skimp. Locking a £1,000 bike with a £10 lock is not a savvy move. In an ideal world you’ll always have a secure indoor location to park your bike, at least at work and at home, but you also need at least one lock when you do have to store it outside.
Sold Secure, a not-for-profit company run by the Master Locksmiths Association, rates locks as gold, silver or bronze, with the standards relating to how long they will stop a thief for – gold is five minutes, silver three, and bronze one. It might sound depressing that even the best locks only buy you five minutes, but if you park in a well-lit, public spot five minutes of work will hopefully deter would-be thieves. Getting two gold-rated locks of different types – a chain and a D-lock – will give you the best level of security, because a thief will need different tools to tackle each.
Always make sure you’re locking your bike to something solid and fixed – and make sure it’s not a short pole that a thief can lift your bike, lock and all, over, and carry it away! Lock your frame as the first priority (it’s the most expensive part of your bike), then the back wheel (ideally the frame and back wheel can be locked in one go), then the front wheel. If you have quick-release wheels, a lock for each is needed, as thieves can pop off the wheel in a matter of seconds. The less space between the lock and your bike the better, because that means there is less room for thieves to manoeuvre against the lock.
I’m not sure I can still cycle
If you’ve ever ridden a bike, it will probably only take you a short ride to get back in the swing of it. If you are worried about it, don’t make your commute the first time you ride – head out on the trails of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network, such as the short rides recommended for people living in London, Manchester and Newcastle.
If you want some formal coaching, you may well be able to get it for free. Cycle Confident puts on sessions in most London boroughs – check its website or your local council’s for more information. Cycle Confident occasionally ventures outside London for sessions, so it’s worth checking your your local council’s website for opportunities to learn to cycle again with Cycle Confident, or indeed any other organisation.