Cycling to work: tips on showers, clothes and route finding

Did you Ride2Work yesterday? Do you ride to work most days? Or do you wonder why on earth people do it - and how you'd even manage?

I love national Ride2Work Day because, along with Around the Bay (last weekend), the Spring Cycle (this weekend) and Daylight Saving Time (for some) it heralds the coming of summer, when days are longer and warmer and the magpies stop swooping.

Plus, I get coffee and cake at the bottom of those tedious Harbour Bridge steps.

I've heard of Ride2Work day being the catalyst that has set people on the (bike) path to commuter happiness. There are doubtless also people who try it once, have a shocker and never saddle up again.

There is no perfect protocol for commuting by bike – everyone's circumstances and preferences are unique. And there is a temptation to over-complicate things. At its core, cycle commuting is just about getting on a bike and riding to your destination – and if that's all it takes for you, go for it.

But arriving at work in a presentable and safe way can sometimes provide challenges. In the past few days I've been chatting to friends who commute, and reviewing a few things I've learned along the way. Here are a few observations:

Ablution stations

"Yes, but when you get to work you have to shower, and that takes up time," is a popular response after yet another commuter challenge story shows that going by bike is fastest.

The crushingly obvious solution is to simply shift your morning ablutions to the other end of your commute. An increasing number of workplaces are offering shower, locker and bike storage facilities –  and we can all dream of the day when six-star amenities like this become commonplace.

But is a shower crucial? It often depends on how fast and far you ride, how warm it is outside and how sweaty a person you are. Many easy riders find that a rub-down with baby wipes and a dab of deodorant before donning a clean shirt leaves them fresher than they'd be after a trudge to and from an overheated bus or train carriage.


Clothing capers

Again, horses for courses. Is your office attire jeans and T-shirts, or business formal? Can you store some items - such as shoes - or rack up a series of outfits?

For people who carry their clothes on the bike, it helps to master the dark arts of folding – or have an iron in the office for a quick touch-up. On the flip side, I know people who only buy work clothes that don't need ironing.

My relationship with shirts got considerably easier when my office set up a laundry delivery service. Some people tell me they make regular non-bike commutes to bring in fresh items, while one friend drops off a five-day supply of business clothes while running weekend errands by car. It can be a chore, he told me, but then he knows he's set for the week.

Route finding 

The ability to ride a safe and stress-free conduit to and from the office can be the make-or-break issue for many aspirant bike commuters. Many areas have bicycle user groups (BUGs) that are great sources of local knowledge about ride routes and conditions (try the links here and here).

Online resources such as RidetheCity and Bikely can be surprisingly useful (and a lot of fun to play with); clicking on the bicycle direction finder in Google Maps is especially useful when you're on the fly; and the recently released Strava heat maps are fascinating even if you know where you're going.

Bike choices

When it's not lugging me across distant lands, my touring bike doubles as my commuter. It has fat, puncture-resistant tyres that give a smoother ride, a somewhat relaxed position, a pannier rack (more comfy than a bulging backpack) and mudguards for wet days that keep my shoes dry and prevent the rear wheel from painting a stripe up my back. (Read more about rainy day riding here.)

But that's my preference. On any given day, the best bike is the one you're on. I once met a bloke doing a 20km round trip commute (over several steep hills) on a BMX bike who told me he wouldn't change his ride for the world because "it reminds me of the first bike I got when I was a kid - it was my best present ever". Who would argue with such enthusiasm?

Multi-modal meanderings

Many bike commutes aren't door-to-door. I've met people who use a cheap, not-worth-stealing bike specifically for getting from their home to the bus, train or ferry station – quicker than walking and a lot more sensible than driving and then trying to find parking.

Rough and the smooth

Of course, things can go wrong. Ever spent a day at the office in cycling shoes, or shorts, or going commando, or had to dry yourself with napkins instead of a towel because of some logistical error with your commuting prep? Or forgotten your rain gear and arrived home a soggy mess?

Maybe - but the upsides of going by bike are vast, with a recent study in Sydney showing that cyclists are twice as happy as other commuters

These advantages include "the mental health benefits of being active outdoors, a greater control over and predictability of their commuting journey, a sense of fun and a way to save money," said researcher Melanie Crane.

"This may be why cycling commuters arrive for work in a happier mind frame than other commuters."

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

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