Commuting on your cycle in India. Safely!

Commuting by cycle to work is a proper joyride when done safely and properly. This guide will help you plan and start making your everyday commute a little more green, safer and fun!


The grass is greener they say.

People have been cycling to work for decades in India, be it the postman, milkman or any other man or woman! With an increase in disposable income, there has been a shift towards motorised two wheelers. The convenience, cost and ease of use making it a winner.

Yet, there are those sitting on the other side of the high fence. Those with multiple cars parked in their houses, wishing to cycle to work. Reasons ranging from the environmentally conscious, health, convenience or simply the joy of pedalling a bike. Unfortunately there is a massive chasm between wanting to commute by cycle to work and actually doing so.

The reason for the most part is the lack of knowledge of how to go about it, safely! This article will help you bridge that chasm and enjoy pedalling your way to work.

The Must Haves

Cycling is pretty simple, you don’t really need much. The two things you do need are a cycle and the will to pedal it! Closely followed by the third, a helmet. Once you have this trio, you can ride around the world, at least in theory! There are a few other essentials to make riding an enjoyable and safe experience when commuting by cycle in Indian cities.

For the rider

If you are planning to buy a bike for commuting, get one which isn’t too expensive nor cheap. You shouldn’t get heartburn worrying about that carbon getting stolen from the parking lot. A reasonable quality bike which will not breakdown and have things falling off every other day is perfect for commuting.

A proper fitting helmet is essential and should always be strapped on securely. A high visibility vest to be worn over your tee shirt goes a long way in ensuring your safety from fast moving vehicles overtaking you. With the levels of pollution currently in Indian cities, it is prudent to wear a pollution mask (Read: Respro Cinqro Mask Review).

For the bike

Rider sorted, your bike also requires a few updates for a safe commute. The first and foremost being puncture resistant tyres. Repairing punctures when you are already late for work is no fun and you will thank yourself for doing this. A bell or a horn is useful to alert pedestrians, but don’t expect that little tinkle to grab the attention of a truck driver! A reasonably powerful headlight and tail light should be used whilst commuting whether day or night.

An often overlooked upgrade for a commuter bike is mudguards. Full length mudguards will save your shoes, shorts, tees, face, bags and drive train from the muck on the road, even when it isn’t raining. Ensure the installation is done securely, else it tends to rattle a lot, making it a nuisance. The final piece of kit for your bike is a sturdy lock for securing your frame in the parking lot, and thinner cable locks for the wheels, in case your bike has quick release skewers.

Ready to Ride

Now that you have all the equipment to commute and run out of excuses to procrastinate, here’s what you should do, before heading out for that first office run!

Plan

Sit in front of your computer! Sounds odd? Not quite, search online for route options from home to office, which has the least amount of traffic, avoid highways and fast traffic. On a holiday, ride the route as a leisure ride, check the amount of time it takes and add 10% for traffic. That is approximately the time, speed and distance that you will need to manage while under pressure of reaching your workplace on time.

On this dry run, get comfortable with the brakes on your bikes, be it rim or disc brakes. Also have the brakes setup as per your comfort, i.e., the right brake lever operating the front or rear brake. While commuting there will be occasions where you need to stop in a hurry, you don’t want to learn braking at that moment!

Practice

Learn how to repair a puncture on a cycle, possibly the only thing that can go wrong on a daily commute! It isn’t difficult and once you overcome the fear of punctures, you won’t have any, thus the Velo Gods have it planned! Carry basic tools which includes; tyre levers, spare tube, patches, glue, emery paper, pocket pump and a cycling multi-tool.

As a matter of habit, check your bike once a week for anything loose, broken etc. Get these fixed at your convenience rather than finding yourself stranded by the side of the road with a broken chain!

Eyes on the Prize

With everything prepped up, it is time to ride, with safety as your prime concern and prize.

The first thing is to remove those earphones while on the road. You need to be acutely aware of your surroundings and being plugged into your music and plugged out of reality is a hazard both to yourself and road users around you.

Another crucial and easily overlooked aspect is to leave a little earlier than required. You don’t want to be sprinting to work. It should be a slow, comfortable ride, which doesn’t force you to rush things. A newbie error is to stare directly ahead of their front tyre to avoid obstacles, don’t do this. Keep your head level and look farther ahead, this will give you more time to react.

Animals

Indian city roads are filled with animals, cows, dogs and pigs being the most common. Cows generally move in the direction they are headed, they rarely ever change direction. Pass them from the rear. Dogs are perpetually confused, not knowing whether to go ahead or stay back. Be wary, even if the dog is sitting doing nothing. An unseen dog which suddenly barks can be very unnerving for a cyclist and force them into an error. Pigs go like rockets once they have decided their direction, they carry a lot of momentum and even a light touch is enough to cause a crash.

Every once in a while, there will be a car which will pass too close or a motorcycle who cuts right across your front wheel. It is easy to get irritated, but rein in that anger, it will only spoil your ride and make you dislike commuting by bike! In the same manner, be mindful of pedestrians, they are the only smaller and slower elements of traffic than your cycle.

Another unique element of Indian cities are cycling lanes. Well not quite the lanes, but having motorcycles, auto-rickshaws and even cars using them. Often going the wrong direction. Just because you are on a cycling lane, don’t assume you are completely safe. Be as watchful as if riding on the main road!

Other than the above, here are a few handy tips to keep you safe!

Do not be a kerb hugger. This leaves you with no room for manoeuvring as well as it being difficult for vehicles approaching from behind to spot you. The side of the road is also where road debris collects, increasing the chances of a puncture.

Be vigilant at intersections and points where traffic merges. Cross in front of a bigger vehicle only once you are sure the driver has seen and slowed down for you. Big vehicles have a lot of blind spots, they often cannot see a cyclist. An easy way to ensure this, is to make eye contact with the driver, if you can’t see the driver’s face, either directly or in the mirrors, then the driver can’t see you either!

One last thing to be watchful of are parked vehicles. Peek inside the car and see if there is anyone in the driver’s seat. Keep a door’s length distance from the car as you go past it. You will surprised to know of the number of cyclists who get hurt because of opening doors!

Office time!

Now that you are safe in office having fought through Indian traffic, what do you do? First, find a secure parking spot for your cycle. Preferably the building where you work has a dedicated parking for cycles, lock it there. If not, lock it onto a fixed object, close to a CCTV camera or guard! Do not leave things on your bike which can be easily pulled off, like lights, cycle computer etc.

Once your bike is secure and your nerves have settled, hit the shower. If you do not have a shower at work, then keep a supply of wet wipes and deodorant. Together they do a reasonably good job! Assuming in the initial days you will not be commuting everyday to work by cycle, carry and store your work wear a day in advance. This includes shoes, belt, watch etc. You don’t want to be wearing your rather ‘bling’ cycling shoes in office! Keep 15 minutes in hand for all of this before you can actually get to your desk.

Food

At your desk, chances are high that you will be hit by hunger pangs, varying on the distance of your commute. Be prepared! Stock up on a few healthy snacks and energy bars to see you through till lunch. Failure to do so, will see you either binge eating during breaks or being restless with an empty stomach.

As stated above, you can carry your work clothes the previous day when you use your car/ public transport. But what when you become an everyday cycle commuter? There are two options, once a week forego your cycle ride and store clothes for an entire week at your workplace, the other is to carry a change of clothes everyday to work. The latter will require you to either use a backpack or a rack and pannier setup. A backpack is the most convenient, but get ready for a sweaty back and it becomes a tad bit difficult if you need to carry heavier things. The second alternative of a rack and pannier is more expensive, but pays off in the long run. Especially when you consider the money you save on fuel!

Gung Ho

The joy of cycling can often get the better of the cyclist. It is therefore prudent to temper the commute initially. Don’t overdo it in the beginning. Start off slow, commute twice a week and work your way up as per personal comfort.

Find someone who commutes in the general direction as you, and join in. Having a cycling partner is always fun and motivating.

Most importantly commute at a slow and easy pace. Unnecessary hurry will cause riding errors and tire you out. You after all need to have energy to sit in front of your laptop and work!

Don’t make it a chore. Enjoy your commute, if you aren’t enjoying it. Take a few days off and get back. The primary goal of cycling is always to have fun…


If you find your regular cycle commute boring. Then watch this video!

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