How to Cycle in the City

Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine shares his 11 tips on how to best cycle in the city to make your commuting experience safe and enjoyable.

The image is focused on a biker in the middle of the frame. The city scene behind him is blurred.

Photo by Roman Koester

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Cycling, or even walking, in the city can be scary. Everyone seems self-important, in a hurry to get somewhere, and has no regard for their neighbors. I began cycling as a commuter in the Washington, D.C. area. While riding the Metro from Vienna/Fairfax to the U.S. Capitol, I saw people cycling on the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail and wondered if I could also save the 10 dollars I spent on the metro by biking. I bought a hybrid bike and more than 10 years later, I am still loving to ride.

The two values you should keep in mind when cycling are visibility and predictability. Here are my 11 tips for how to best cycle in the city.

1. Plan Your Route

Before I started commuting, I planned my route to work. Washington, D.C. has over 200 miles of bike pathways and trails, so riding to work was much easier than riding in a city that has very few bike lanes.

Your car commute route most likely will not be safe for your bike commute, since most people drive on high-traffic roads, such as highways. You will need to link bike paths and small, quiet back roads together to create a safe route to get to work. I use Strava to find back roads, bike trails, and other shortcuts that cyclists use.

Strava is a social media fitness platform for endurance athletes where you can post your rides from your GPS computer, like the Garmin Edge 530, to the platform and see your training stats and a map of your route. Strava has a feature called Heatmaps that shows you all of the popular routes that cyclists ride near you. You can use this feature to create a safe route to get to work where there are fewer cars and the motorists know to look for cyclists in this area.

2. Use a Proper Bike

You can commute with nearly any bike, but if your ride is around five to 10 miles on paved streets, I would choose a hybrid dual-sport bike like the Cannondale Quick CX or the women’s-specific Scott Lady Sub Cross. Hybrids are a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. The bike has a 700c wheel, which is the same size as a road bike for speed, but the tire is much wider for comfort and traction. Also, you have wide, flat handlebars and more slack frame geometry for more stability and upright seating while riding in the city.

I started with a special hybrid called the dual-sport for more off-road versatility. The dual-sport has a semi-knobby tire that is wider than a regular hybrid for more traction off-road and on gravel. It also has a suspension fork with around 63 millimeters of fork travel to absorb road buzz and potholes. Also, both of these models have disc brakes instead of rim brakes. Disc brakes are more powerful and don’t fade in the rain.

3. Keep to the Right

Always keep to the right, but only as safely as possible. When riding on open roads with no shoulder, some cyclists will ride nearly in the ditch to stay out of traffic, which is also dangerous. Avoid drains, potholes, and other obstacles in the street because if you fall, you are going to fall right in front of a car. You should try to hug the white line as much as possible.

4. Be Predictable

Ride consistently. Don’t pop in and off sidewalks or behind cars. This just makes motorists angry because you are surprising them out of nowhere, and it can cause an accident. Motorists are looking at the road and likely do not see you, so if you hop on a sidewalk or duck between cars, they are more likely to hit you.

5. Stay off the Sidewalks

A group of cyclists rides down a city street.

Sidewalks are meant for walking—there is nothing more annoying than someone riding two inches away from you on the sidewalk when you are walking. There are children, elderly folks, and others who need to use the sidewalks. Plus, in many places, it is illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk.

Also, cyclists will ride on the sidewalk and encounter the “Right Hook”—this happens when a motorist doesn’t see a cyclist and makes a right-hand turn into the cyclist. You increase the likelihood of this happening when you ride on the sidewalk because the motorist is not expecting to see you there.

Moreover, a car could pull out of a side street without looking at the sidewalk. If you are riding on the sidewalk, especially at a high rate of speed, the motorist may not see you and T-bone you. If you are on the road, you’ll have better visibility.

6. Use Hand Signals

Motorists can’t read minds, so signal what you intend to do. If you need to turn right, point right or raise your left hand with the elbow at a 90-degree bend. To signal left, point left, and to stop or slow down, lower your left hand with a 90-degree bend at the elbow.

7. Wear a Helmet

Product image of the Lazer Chiru MIPS helmet.

The Lazer Chiru MIPS helmet

So many cyclists in the city never use a helmet, even though they are more likely to get into an accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that 78% of bicycle deaths happen in urban areas. Helmets are vital and necessary. I like using a commuter or mountain bike helmet since they usually have a built-in visor and the sides come down further to protect more of the head and neck. A great example is the Lazer Chiru MIPS.

Trust me, bouncing your head off the pavement is not fun. Even a 10-mile-an-hour crash can cause serious damage to your brain. I only use helmets with Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS), SPIN, or similar technologies because they reduce the rotational impact that can occur to your skull in the event of a crash by allowing the liner to move 10 or 15 millimeters or including a synthetic membrane that can absorb impact.

8. Use Lights

Visibility is extremely important, especially at night. More than half of all bike accidents happen at night, so you want to “Christmas Tree” your bike up. I used to commute on pitch-black roads at night, so lights were crucial.

For a front light, I use at least a 350-lumen light. The Light and Motion VIS 700 is a great option; you get a 700-lumen light that is bright enough to see in pitch-black conditions and it has multiple flashing modes. With a 350-lumen front light, you can see the road well enough to ride at night, just like in a car. These lights also have flashing capabilities and higher and lower modes to save battery. Moreover, they are USB-rechargeable.

The rear light should be at least 50 lumens and have multiple flashing modes, like the Blackburn 2fer XL light. The human eye sees movement before anything else, so I like to keep the rear light on flash to save battery. I also never use the strobe setting because I don’t want to blind drivers or fellow riders.

9. Wear Cycling Shorts

If your commute is five miles or more, I would use cycling shorts. Cycling padded shorts are great because they provide comfort for your nether regions by doing the following:

Cushioning

The pad is designed to give you some cushioning. Most high-end pads or chamois have multiple layers of dense padding that range from two to 12 millimeters and some also have gel. This can help give you comfort from a hard saddle.

Pro Tip: YOU DON’T WANT A CUSHY SEAT OR SADDLE. The first thing most new cyclists demand is a large, cushy saddle. Cushy saddles sound great; however, they can create more chafing problems since you are spinning your legs at 80 to 90 revolutions per minute (RPMs) and sweating. A cushy saddle will feel nice the first few miles, but after a while, it can lead to infection and saddle sores.

Saddle Sores/Chafing

Saddle sores are caused by sweat and other fluids rubbing into your skin, creating an infection. Padded bike shorts are designed to reduce friction against the skin and channel sweat away from your body, reducing the likelihood of infection or saddle sores, thanks to their antibacterial treatments. Saddle sores feel like someone is sticking a pin in your butt—not fun. If you have saddle sores, make sure you are washing your shorts with the pad inside out after every ride. Moreover, old shorts should be thrown away after about two seasons.

Pro Tip: If you continue to have chafing problems, you can use Chamois Butt’r. It is a lubricant that you place on the saddle and yourself to reduce friction. Moreover, you don’t wear underwear with padded bike shorts. Underwear will increase chafing because the pads are designed to be next to your skin.

The higher-end the cycling short, the better fit, aerodynamics, and more comfort you will get. Lycra shorts are best for aerodynamics because there is nothing to get caught on the saddle. However, some commuters are not fond of that look. For commuters, there are cycling shorts you can wear under your normal clothing. Others, like the Specialized Men’s trail short, look like regular shorts but have a liner inside to provide comfort.

For longer rides, you should look into wearing bib shorts, like the Specialized RBX Bib Short. Most road cyclists use them because the bibs keep the chamois or pad from moving around or being pulled down. Also, cycling shorts are men’s- and women’s-specific. Women’s-specific pads, like women’s saddles, are shorter and wider since women on average have wider sit bones.

10. Maintain Good Hygiene Post-Ride

I always take a shower the night before I go to work, and then I take another shower once I get to work. If your job doesn’t have a shower, you can ask the local gym to use theirs; many gyms have memberships for shower use. If there are no showers nearby, you can use baby wipes to wipe yourself down and freshen up. If you wear cycling-specific clothing, you will most likely be dry.

11. Lock It Up!

Product image of the Abus Ultra 410 U-Lock with Cable.

The Abus Ultra 410 U-Lock with cable

My first bike was a Trek Gary Fisher Dual Sport that I used to commute from my place in northern Virginia to the U.S. Capitol. I left my bike outside of the U.S. Capitol, thinking that nobody would steal it since there are so many police officers in that area and I had a cheap chain lock. On my third day commuting, I finished work and my bike was gone!

If you have a large office, see if you can put your bike inside. Nowadays, I roll my bike inside the office and put it behind my desk. If you work at a stuffy office that does not allow for that, you can try to park your bike inside a bike lot. Basically, you pay to store your bike in a climate-controlled bike shop. Also, you can park it in your car parking garage.

Don’t be like me! If you want to commute, you need a U-lock with a chain, like the Abus Ultra 410 U-Lock with Cable. You wrap the U-lock around the seat tube, rear wheel, and a pole. After that, you lace the looped chain around the U-lock and the front wheel. Many thieves will steal the wheels to sell the metal. Locking the bike up like this keeps them from stealing your wheels and the bike frame.

To protect your handlebars and saddle, you can get the OnGuard Three-Piece Locking Skewer or a similar set that locks the wheel, seat tube, and handlebars so they can’t be stolen. You don’t want to finish work and find your bike without a front-wheel or a saddle.

For winter and rain riding, you can reference the article I wrote here for more tips. I could go on forever about this topic, but the main thing to remember is to have fun, be patient, and let the drivers go by. If you have any questions or want personalized advice and recommendations on cycling gear, reach out to a Cycling Expert here on Curated.

I am never in a hurry because I leave early to enjoy my route. I also like to change up my route to see more of the city and have an adventure before or after work. It is a great way to relieve stress and blow off steam. By cycling to work, you get there ready to go and make those dollars!

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Hi! I am a lover of professional cycling and training. I have been cycling well over 10 years and I usually go to Europe to see the Tour de France and the Giro. I have ridden most of the France mountains in the Tour like Alp d'Heuz, the Galibier, and others. Moreover, I have ridden in Ireland, Germa...

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