Commuting 101: What to wear

So far in our Commuting 101 series, we've discussed buying or resurrecting a bike and what gear will make your commute safer and more effective.  Today we'll talk about the final thing to take into consideration for your ride: what you're going to wear.  And perhaps surprisingly, it doesn't have to include spandex.

There's nothing wrong with wearing specialty bicycling clothing for your commute to work.  If this is what you're comfortable with, and you have a way to get your change of clothes to work, then go for it.  But many prefer to just wear their daily work clothes.  And that's also fine.

The first thing to keep in mind, though, is that you're going to get warm while riding.  So wearing that heavy jacket that you normally wear when driving or taking the bus is going to make you very hot and sweaty for your arrival at work.  A light jacket or fleece should be plenty to keep you warm on cool days, and that plus a windbreaker of some kind should suffice for winter riding.

The general rule of thumb for staying warm while riding is that if you feel a little bit chilly as you're taking off in the morning, you'll be fine once you get going and your body heats up from the exertion of riding.  Even if you're not going too fast, you'll find that your body heat will be more than adequate to keep you warm.

During summer months, when it's too warm for a jacket of any kind, a t-shirt should be enough.  And if it gets too warm, a simple pair of shorts will be great.

But your outfit should most certainly include this first item: a helmet.   You'll hear lots of discussion about helmets - whether they work, whether they should be required, what kind of helmet to wear, etc.

A bicycle helmet is designed to reduce the impact of a fall from your bike, plain and simple.  Helmet use has been shown to reduce serious head injuries by 85%.  And it's better to be prepared than vulnerable in case of a fall or collision.

Have the salesperson in the store show you the proper way to wear it if you don't know - it should sit flat on your head, not tilted to the front or back, and be snug but not tight.  The straps should be joined just under each ear, not halfway down your cheek.  And the strap's buckle should be snug while your mouth is completely open.  And though not necessary, a visor is nice on a helmet to keep the sun out of your eyes.  Most helmets sold to commuters have a removable visor now.

Helmets don't have to cost a lot, about $20-$40 is average for an everyday helmet.  But they do have a lifetime.  About five years is enough, after that the foam inside the plastic liner starts to break down and may not protect you adequately in event of a fall or collision.  And if you do have a fall or collision in which the helmet takes a very jarring blow?  Replace the helmet for your own safety.  The Bike Helmet Safety Institute has some other great advice on helmets.

Photo by Jamie Fellrath
Glasses are another item of bike gear you'll want to get.  And that's less because of the sun than to protect your eyes from debris and weather.  For this reason, we recommend getting a pair of "wrap-around" glasses for your cycling.  These glasses will do a great job of keeping out wind, dust, rain, snow, sleet, or whatever other hazards you may come across.

Wind can make your eyes tear up while riding, and you can imagine what getting dust in them will do.  Rain or snow falling into your eyes while riding can be distracting and even a bit painful.

Once again, you don't have to pay a lot for your cycling glasses. They'll cost anywhere from $15-$60 for a serviceable pair.  Some of the features other than being wraparound that you'll see for cycling glasses include tinted lenses or fog-proofing.  As long as they fit securely and keep things out of your eyes, though, they'll work.

You can also wear your every day sunglasses, but keep in mind that most sunglasses don't have protection on the sides of your eyes before relying too heavily on those.  Still, they should keep out most debris as you're riding along.

Next, let's talk a bit about visibility.  That's not how well you can see, but rather how well you're seen by drivers and other road users.  Bright colors and reflective material are great for ensuring that you're not missed as you ride.

There are a couple of ways to accomplish this.  Some like to go with a windbreaker or jacket of some kind.  Bright green/yellow fluorescent jackets are wonderful for repelling light rain and wind while keeping your presence on the road pretty obvious to everyone.

There are plenty of great designs for jackets ranging from around $50 to $100.  Many of them designed for cycling have vents in key places to keep you cool, or may allow you to remove the sleeves on particularly warm days.

But jackets designed for cyclists do have one minor flaw - they're not necessarily designed for for commuting.  They're generally cut very slim, with the thought that the wearer is probably just wearing their spandex bike jersey underneath.  For a commuter, who may be wearing their everyday work clothes, such a jacket may be too tight and constricting.  Buying a larger size than you need can certainly help in this regard. Keep this in mind when you buy.

Another cheaper and more flexible option is the reflective vest.  These are available in bike shops and plenty of other types of sporting goods stores or big box stores, and run from $5-$20 depending on the design.  This will allow you to wear whatever you'd like and still remain visible while you ride.

Some models even have a small pocket in the front for convenience sake (it's much easier to get something out of a vest pocket than a pants pocket while you ride!).

With a vest, you won't have the same issues as you might with a jacket and the tightness factor because they're fully adjustable to fit around whatever clothing you're wearing.

People, not speed.