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cycling in your work clothes: the short-distance commute

September 14, 2010

Cycling to work

When I first thought about riding my bike for transportation and not just leisure, I embarked on an extensive internet search for any sites with tips and advice on the matter. I especially loved sites that would show the cyclist (and author behind the words) actually bike commuting in regular clothing. That visual proof made it all the more feasible to me. Unfortunately, I found sites of this nature to be in minority to those offering advice on how to pack your clothes in your panniers, how to shower or change at work, and how to commute with basically your wardrobe in your backpack.

Now, I’m not saying that those latter sites aren’t offering crucial information to cyclists who tackle a lengthy or strenuous commute to work each day. But where was the information for someone like me who was only going to be riding an easy two miles to the office and two miles home on most days? Did I really need to roll my clothes using a non-wrinkle method just to bike ten minutes to campus? Should I be dropping off a week’s worth of clothes to my office on Sunday night and taking it home to launder on Friday? Did I need to keep my heels in neat little rows under my desk?

Bikes and Heels

Thanks to sites such as Let’s Go Ride a Bike and Bikes and the City (my first bike blog discoveries that actually spoke to what I so badly wanted to see possible), I understood a different kind of cycling approach to exist. An easy and relaxed approach to cycling that didn’t require a change of lifestyle or of wardrobe.

My commute to campus and home is an easy four miles roundtrip. If I add in a trip to the grocery store, to the public library, or anywhere else that I may need to stop for errands, I may clock ten miles total for that day. This is both the joy and curse of living in a small town and near anything you need to have. (I say curse because on most days I feel like my short bike ride is just a tease and I’m temped to loop around the block just to get a little bit more time outdoors). For this kind of relaxed cycling, I have implemented no real wardrobe or lifestyle changes. I dress as I would for teaching and I stick my bag with my laptop, lunch, and work things in my bike basket. I save the money I’d spend on a costly parking permit for campus and I’m not bound to the bus schedule when getting around. I wouldn’t give up this kind of convenience for the world.

According to a recent article on cycling in Whole Living magazine, only 2% of Americans commute daily by bike. This percentage is all the more striking when considering that over 50% of Americans live less than five miles from where they work. Crazy!

But maybe some of those less-than-five-milers just need more resources on how to incorporate cycling into their daily lifestyle without having to think about clothes bundles in their panniers or shoes stocked up under their desks. And the well-intentioned Whole Living article did little to mitigate some of those fears; the products listed in their ‘must have’ sections included a backpack with a breathable back, shoes with ‘special grips’ on the sole, and possibly the least attractive helmet they could round up. The lock they featured rang in at $80 and they noted having had their models remove their helmets for the photo shoot – despite their disclaimer stating that helmet use is important –  because ‘we all know they [helmets] look a bit ridiculous’.

While Whole Living did get it right by featuring actual bike commuters and showing some really beautiful photography, I was once more left feeling dissatisfied. I would like to see more emphasis on encouraging short-distance bike commuters – who appear to make up a large portion of the working population and whose taking to the road by bike would certainly make a difference – to cycle in a way that’s simple and with little fuss. I would like to see more attention being paid to short-distance transportation cycling as something you can just do; no special shoes, backpacks, or clothes bundling method needed.  Let’s hear it for the daily short-distance riders!

Cycling to Work

49 Comments leave one →
  1. Lara permalink
    September 14, 2010 01:41

    I’m curious–do you commute by bike rather than walk, or drive? I agree that such a short commute doesn’t really necessitate special gear or clothing. When I lived that close to my school or work, I always walked it, but cycling would be much quicker and nicer.

    • September 14, 2010 12:31

      Lara – before I picked up my bike again last summer, I used to walk the distance bc it’s so close. But I think biking it is much better because I get there so much quicker and less sweaty. In terms of being dressed up, I wouldn’t walk the two miles in heels so I would have to wear a pair of flats and then carry these shoes to switch into at work. The advantage of cycling there is that I can easily do it in heels.

      I never drive (to campus). My husband and I share a car and he usually bikes to work a few days a week (his commute is 14 miles round trip). He drives on bad weather days and if it’s really pouring, I’ll have him give me a lift and then I’ll take the bus or walk home.

  2. September 14, 2010 01:50

    I am a fair weather bike commuter, as I don’t currently have any rain gear and that’s not really on my list of priority buys for the time being. However, I do bike to campus to teach in my work clothes when the weather is nice. It might mean that I have to cuff my pants or choose more A-line style skirts and throw on a pair of pettipants or bike shorts underneath, but I’m not one for having to add more stuff to what I already have to carry many days to and from campus.

    I’ve missed seeing your outfits, so it’s lovely to see you in a biking/teaching outfit here!

  3. September 14, 2010 03:19

    what a fantastic post! i cannot believe that statistic about how few people bike to work. i’m also two miles from campus and i bike to work pretty much every day–rain, shine, snow, or humidity–and i pretty much don’t worry about what i wear. if a skirt is long enough to teach in, it’s long enough to ride a bicycle in.
    i’m also blessed by a commute without steep hills or rough terrain, so i can keep a leisurely pace. i’m AMAZED that more people don’t do this. i hate taking the bus which ends up taking 35 minutes door to door (a ridiculous amount of time considering it takes me about 9 minutes to bike to school).
    p.s. a nostalgic note that i miss seeing your outfits.
    and p.p.s. i “tweeted” about this i think it’s such a great post!

  4. September 14, 2010 03:21

    I’ve started driving my bike to work daily. Down here in Mobile, AL it is too humid in the summer to not have a shower either at the workplace or nearby. Believe it or not I am sweating fairly profusely after a 1.5 mi slow ride at 78 degrees. The kicker is that the humidity can be 95%. Fortunately for me and most folks in an urban area a gym is nearby. I lock my bike and shower at the YMCA and walk two blocks to work. Come October (maybe mid-October) I plan to ride in slacks and dress shirts straight to the office.

    • September 14, 2010 16:47

      Wow, Niklas, that’s awesome that you are committed enough to cycling that you shower at the Y and then head in to work. If people were only half that dedicated and biked when it didn’t even require all that much extra planning, we’d have so much less pollution and waste of oil.

  5. September 14, 2010 03:57

    Agree that people with short commutes should just get on their bikes, but with helmets, please. A person generally looks a lot less dorky in a helmet than in an ICU.

  6. September 14, 2010 05:26

    Gosh, you look great. I miss you on academichic! How about some outfit details . . ? (I also love your cycling philosophy.)

  7. imogen permalink
    September 14, 2010 12:08

    Wow! You read my mind with this post. I frequently ponder the wardrobe choices involve in short-distance bike commuting. I wear knee-length skirts & dresses frequently for work and find my only challenge to be flashing the odd person or not having enough ‘room to pedal’. I have a flat bar road bike and have to be careful mounting and dismounting (once again trying to avoid flashing anyone), but I find it suits me and my lifestyle perfectly in that my basket is perfect for my handbag and also great for a quick trip past the supermarket.
    I live in Australia and wearing a helmet is mandatory, i’m lucking enough to have hair that can handle a light sweat & I have found dry shampoo to be a saviour.

    I’ll be interested to see what difficulties and solutions others have to short-distance commuting.

    Ps-love love LOVE this blog

  8. September 14, 2010 12:50

    I live aprox. 15 miles from where I work. I would LOVE to work closer to home so that I could ride to work. The way it is now, the only way for me to get to work is my major highways and congested city streets with no sidewalks. So it’s kind of a bummer. Oh well…. Here’s hoping I find something closer to home….

  9. Janni permalink
    September 14, 2010 13:11

    Vor allem die hölzernen Schutzbleche für $ 119,- sind ja ein echtes must-have…

    Irgendwie sind die Sachen bei Whole Living nicht wirklich nötig, um vernünftig täglich radfahren zu können. Und besondere Schuhe braucht man ja nun wirklich nicht – es sei denn, man hat die völlig verkehrten Pedale!

    Eines allerdings würde ich unterstützen: Das Fahrradschl0ß kann gar nicht teuer genug sein. Nur die wirklich guten Schlösser (i.e. Kryptonite) taugen etwas und haben den entsprechenden Preis. Alles andere ist nur “Spielzeug” und hält einen entschlossenen Dieb nicht davon ab, das Rad zu klauen.

    • September 14, 2010 16:52

      Janni – we don’t seem to have a lot of bike theft here so I’ve been using a med. sized lock and feeling ok about it. I do LOVE my bike and maybe investing in a good lock would be worth to know that I wouldn’t ever get it stolen. But just something about spending almost as much on the lock as I spent on the bike has made me not do it yet…

      Hmm…maybe something for the christmas wish list? :)

  10. September 14, 2010 13:43

    I bike to work almost every day and it is 5 miles each way. In the summer, I totally wore a black tank and black shorts every day and changed at work because when it is 90 degrees and 80% humidity, there is just no way I’m wearing my regular clothes. I do now, but soon it’s going to be dark when I leave for work and then I’ll be stuck taking the bus. The bike path I take to work is not very populated, goes through tunnels and under some overpasses that are full of homeless people, and police put out a notice that there has been a man exposing himself to women on the bike path… once it is too dark in the morning, I just don’t feel safe. Plus they don’t plow the path in the winter… I’m sad. I’ve only got like a month of biking left!

    • September 14, 2010 16:54

      Christine – that sucks! Is there any way you could take another route to work that would feel safer? I have little experience with staying safe while cycling in less than desirable areas, I wonder how others go about it…?

  11. Lori permalink
    September 14, 2010 17:08

    I do part of my commute by bike (the rest by ferry). When I tell people about it I can see that they are thinking of some sort of complicated outfit changing scenario. I tell them that I ride in my work clothes (I’m an attorney), I just ride slowly and my route is fairly flat.

  12. SAM permalink
    September 14, 2010 17:12

    I think two comments above hit on a struggle of short-distance commuters. I live only 1.8 miles from work, but I am surrounded by major suburban streets and an interstate. Finding a safe route, even if I were to bike 4-5 miles, is quite difficult.

    • September 14, 2010 17:51

      Sam – that is a great point. I live in a college town, so although I take neighborhood streets and sidewalks next to the busy roads (for the lack of bike lanes), I feel pretty safe and am never on the shoulder of a busy road.

      In your case, have you tried the new google maps ‘bike’ function to see if that turns up any better alternatives than the ones you know of? Or perhaps if there is a local bike shop, you can see if the people there (usually cyclists themselves) can advise you on lesser-known paths to get around that are more bike friendly.

      I would also contact the local city hall and the city planner’s office with these concerns. The more people complain about the lack of safety for cyclists and pedestrians, the more cities will feel the need to address these issues.

      Good luck with this! I hope you find some good solutions!

  13. September 14, 2010 17:47

    Even with a 10 mile round trip commute in Portland that includes some hills, I always cycle in whatever clothes I’m wearing for the day. For rain (which is common), I just throw a poncho over what I’m wearing or use an umbrella if it’s not raining that hard. If it’s just a slight drizzle, which is most common, I don’t bother with anything.

    Granted, it’s never that hot in Portland, but I find even on a 10 mile ride with some hills, I rarely get very sweaty, simply because I just ride at a comfortable pace, I’m not in any race to get anywhere, just getting where I’m going.

    A bike can be just like a car for most trips – just hop on and go. There is nothing innately complicated about it.

  14. September 15, 2010 03:04

    Oh, I’m so jealous that you bike to work everyday. I need a commuter bike like yours. I have a bike more like your Raleigh – with a high bar. I haven’t been brave enough to try a skirt like that, yet! But, it is a goal of mine to bike more to work. For now, I make sure to use my bike for all my other transit.

  15. September 15, 2010 04:28

    Great post. The thought of a bike commute has always intimidated me, but you make it sound very do-able. Will you continue to ride once the Midwest winter arrives?

    • September 15, 2010 12:12

      Sarah – my goal is to keep commuting by bike year-round. Midwest winters are really cold but my main concern is that people don’t really clear the sidewalks here. I think there will be all kinds of new challenges come winter but I hope to find ways to keep riding and I’ll be sure to blog about it.

  16. Kristin permalink
    September 15, 2010 15:59

    It is so nice to see a post like this! I bike to and from work every day, but I have the most fortunate route imagineable. The commute is about 1.5 miles each way, and a mile of that follows a scenic route called the Linear Trail right through my little town that follows an abandoned railway bed. I bike in whatever I plan to wear, and on days like today when the weather is nice and the skirt a bit shorter than usual, I just throw on a pair of bike shorts underneath and sort of hope that the older gentlemen passing me on the trail realize there are bike shorts underneath my skirt!

  17. September 16, 2010 00:39

    Oh how I wish I could bike commute to work. Its a 20 minute drive on the freeway and there is no where to shower there. Plus I live in Arizona so I would be oh so sweaty by the time I arrived. With that said my hubs and I only have 1 car so he commutes to class by bike. It’s like a half hour ride for him and he can shower in the locker room and it’s his favorite part of the day. I guess for now I will have to vicariously live through him. Love your blog!

  18. September 16, 2010 10:54

    I live 7 km (about 4.35 miles) away from work and prefer to bike there and back when the weather allows. As the road is mostly asphalt sidewalks on gentle slopes and plains and my IT office dress code is “remember you’re neither in a gym no in the night club and you’re fine”, I bike in my office pants (=jeans or khakis) and take a spare t-shirt with me. If I choose to wear a dress, I add a bicycle pants underneath and skip the t-shirt because my summer dresses are open enough on the back. My handbag goes into the front basket. :)

    I must confess I didn’t buy a helmet until this Tuesday, but now I do wear it too, mostly because of added visibility if I happen to go on the street.

    • September 16, 2010 12:03

      Olga, sounds like a great commute. And I had to laugh – your office dress code is awesome – wise words indeed!

  19. September 16, 2010 12:25

    Looooove cycling to work in my “work-clothes”! About 40 minutes per day (back and forth; not too bad at all).
    The more dressed up I am, the better!

    Even though we have sooo much rain here in Amsterdam, its not holding me back :)

  20. erinsuzanne permalink
    September 17, 2010 00:56

    Love this post, as well! I treat my short-distance commute (about 2 miles each way, very flat) the same way you do- I feel like I can wear whatever I’m going to wear for teaching, including heels, and it gets me to work much faster than either walking or taking the bus. If it’s raining, I throw my rain gear on over everything, and choose my footwear a little more carefully. Because I teach in a big high school, I would have the option of showering in the gym locker room, but have never felt overly sweaty upon arrival. I do keep hair ties, deodorant, and a hairbrush in my desk so I can tidy up if I feel the need. I have folding metal panniers on either side of my bike, so even when I’m hauling a lot of stuff, I can stash it comfortably.

  21. September 17, 2010 01:22

    Absolutely lovely! Takes fashion to a whole new level for me, one of the best pictures I have seen with the feet and the bike and the leaves!

  22. Ruth permalink
    September 17, 2010 02:43

    I love the blog! You echo many of my beliefs about biking as an ethos. I live in Chicago and bike about 8 miles each way to and from work daily while wearing my work clothes, including skirts. I manage great, and usually arrive sweat-free by keeping my work-stuff in panniers on a rear rack of my trusty and faithful road bike. After biking all summer I’d like to try to make it through at least part of the winter, and would LOVE to see or hear of tips related to winter riding or winter bike commuting. All of your lovely pictures with your various bikes make me want to start taking pictures while riding! Thanks again for the thoughtful posts!

  23. September 17, 2010 22:24

    I really appreciate this blog, and others like it, for exactly what you outlined in your post: that it makes biking short commutes seem really do-able (plus, I get to pretend I’m European). I work a mile from my very casual office and it always seemed kind of daunting, thinking about what to wear and how my pink cruiser might be seen by the local faux Lance spandex squad. But when I finally decided to do it, the only thing I switched from what I normally would wear is my bag (formerly: neon yellow Marc Jacobs – now: neon yellow Janzen backpack and only because I don’t have the most stable basket and you can spot this thing from space). It’s even better than walking because I can wear cute shoes and dresses I would never find comfortable enough to walk in, but are fine for pedaling. It’s just so normal in the end.

  24. September 18, 2010 17:03

    I don’t get very sweaty in Flagstaff since there isn’t much humidity and morning temps are usually cool in the morning during the summer and rarely gets that hot even in the afternoon. If I lived in a more humid summer climate (Louisville, my previous home comes to mind) I would definitely wear shorts and a t-shirt, pack work clothes and shower at work. Experience tells me there is no way I would not arrive to work a pool of sweat if I biked in a humid climate, even if I biked at an easy pace.

  25. September 18, 2010 17:18

    I think part of what plays into this as well is social norms – for instance, a couple of years ago we were in Tokyo in mid-July, and it was about 90 degrees with 95% humidity the whole two weeks we were there. On the bus from the airport into the city, there was water literally pouring down the sides of the bus, but it wasn’t raining. In this climate, of course you get sweaty, and we were soaked in sweat constantly from about 8am until 11pm, but so is everyone else, and nobody cares. Guys take off their suit jackets on the train, but other than that, they just keep towels around their neck to mop up the sweat with, and that’s just how it is. It was pretty nice, actually, because at least there wasn’t the social pressure of being gross tacked onto the uncomfortable temperature and humidity.

    In Lithuania, where we lived for a year, some body odor smell is just a natural part of life, and people aren’t really bothered by it, unless it’s really extreme. It’s not like you smell it everywhere you go, but when in close proximity to people (on a bus, etc), you definitely notice it.

    In the Netherlands, it’s not unusual for people to come to work a little bit wet, because many of them walk or ride bikes, and it rains a lot. That includes “suits” like lawyers and businessmen, who go to work in their suits. It’s ok, you dry off. No worries.

    We have a very distinct preference for appearing perfect in public in America, I feel.

    It’s not that any one of those cultural varieties is necessarily “the right way”, but they do influence how the people in those countries view their modes of transportation, how they dress, what requirements they have of themselves, etc. Our cultural norms play a big part in what we are or aren’t willing to do.

    • September 20, 2010 16:33

      Yes, it all is what we decide is socially acceptable behavior/appearance. When in Europe, I always walk everywhere and am mostly in places with no air conditioning (this is true for Germany, Austria, Romania, France, Prague…most European places aren’t equipped with AC the way we are in the US). So you just get hot and sweaty and accept that as part of your summer experience. It is much more socially accepted to have the seasons and elements show on your clothing/body when arriving somewhere there and I find that attitude more relaxed and stress free.

  26. September 19, 2010 08:44

    Just found your blog and love it :) I normally walk to work as it is soooo close, it’d probably take me as long to get my bike out as it would to walk to work! We have to keep our bikes on our apartment’s balcony (which is a pain for getting in and out) as my old bike was stolen from our (secure!!) car park.

    If I do cycle though, it is always in my “work” clothes as I am too lazy to change/shower at work!

    I love the basket you have on the back of your bike. Where is that from? And also, where is your helmet from?

    Thank you :)

    • September 20, 2010 16:30

      Hi Emily and welcome to the blog! My basket is a just a simple wire basket I picked up at my local bike shop. I then went to a craft store and picked up some flowers and decorated it. My helmet is a Nutcase helmet in powder blue. Hope that helps!

  27. Petra permalink
    November 14, 2010 21:12

    Hi, I live in England and bike to work in all weathers. During the summer, it’s possible to wear everyday clothes but in heavy wind, rain and winter conditions, I find it much easier to wear more appropriate biking clothes and change at work. Incidentally, I love the photo of you with your bike but wonder how you manage to mount and ride in such a tight fitting skirt, without it compromising your modesty. I have tried this out several times at home and found that skirts without flare just do not work on a bike. Sadly, there are no pictures of you in the saddle but if you’ve overcome this problem, do tell us how!!

    • November 15, 2010 01:34

      Petra – that particular black skirt has quite a bit of stretch to it and I find it very easy to hop on the saddle and bike. No modesty compromised. I think the key is to get a pencil skirt that has stretch to the fabric. I actually prefer those to ‘flowey’ skirts because they stay in place and the wind doesn’t blow them ‘open’. I can’t wear that black skirt on my road bike because of the top bar but with the step-through frame, it’s really no problem.

      Awesome that you bike year round! Hearing of others who do it makes me feel like it’s possible, so thank you for sharing that!

  28. September 30, 2011 11:04

    This is just what I was looking for :)
    I live 1 mile from my new job and share the car with my wife (She is a teacher and her school is 5 miles from home).
    I walked for a couple of days and it takes me about 20 minutes to walk. I was planning to get a bike to reduce the commute time. This is the first site I found that made me feel comfortable with riding the bike in my regular casual work clothes!
    Thank you so much for this!! I’ll buy a bike this weekend.


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