A Beginner's Guide to Cycle Commuting 2: Safety Wear and Other Equipment

MICK ALLAN delves into the murky world of bicycle safety...

Helmets: There is a widely held misconception that cycling is a dangerous activity but the simple fact is that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the dangers by a factor of twenty to one. Presented like that it seems irresponsible not to ride a bike! In the UK there is no legal requirement to wear a helmet whilst riding a bike, it's a personal choice issue but very few people believe that wearing a helmet is a bad thing. Wearing an approved cycle helmet is a kind of insurance against the highly unlikely chances of you suffering a head injury so if you choose to wear one make sure it fits your head in accordance with the manufacturers instructions. And remember, it's designed to structurally collapse during an impact so it will definitely need to be replaced if you ever crash it.

Lights: A helmet is only one of many items of safety equipment available to us. As everyday cyclists living at this latitude the day will come when our ride home (if not our ride to work) will be in the dark. It's common sense but there is also a legal requirement to carry approved lights on our bikes during the hours of darkness. Modern LED lights are a joy to use; bright, eye-catching and easily removable when we lock our bike up. With no old fashioned bulbs to blow they rarely fail and the Light Emitting Diodes which give them their name use very little energy so dim bike lights are almost a thing of the past.

Reflectors: Reflectors and modern retro-reflectives work by bouncing light back to its source and are a brilliant passive safety aid. One of the difficulties we have as cyclists is quickly communicating what we are, where we are and how fast we are moving to other road users. Flashing lights have come to be associated with cyclists but they can make it difficult for other users to judge their position. Reflectors allow us to assemble a three dimensional moving image of ourselves. Reflective ankle bands, wheel reflectors and pedal reflectors are particularly good at announcing ‘cyclist!!!' In addition to communicating exactly what we are other road users can more easily determine our location, direction and velocity. They're cheap to buy and free to run too.

Lugging loads: Unless it was designed for competition your bike's frame has threaded inserts or ‘eyelets' which are there for a back pannier rack. Many bikes come with a rack already fitted. A good sized pair of pannier bags will carry many litres of shopping, recycling, or ring binder files. Additional carrying capacity might involve a front rack and panniers, a front basket and a rucksack. If you don't need capacity for a ton of stuff a messenger's shoulder bag will devour a laptop and a change of clothes quite happily. For epic loads; logs for the fire, newspaper recycling, bags of kitty litter and the like consider a dedicated bike trailer. Such a rig takes you into the kind of carrying capacity most people would consider to be car boot territory.

Clothing: Whoever said; ‘There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing' was definitely a cyclist. Like any performance gear cycling clothing is designed to be layered. A wicking base-layer followed by a thermal layer (or layers depending on the season) followed by an outer breathable/ waterproof shell. Each layer is designed to collect perspiration from its interior surface and transfer it outwards, delivering it to the inside surface of the next garment. The particular features of dedicated, cycle specific clothing will often do what other clothing does and then some. A cycling jacket for example will have a long cut to protect the lower back when bent over the bars, a long cut in the arms to accommodate the ‘arms forward' position and it'll have a high moisture capacity breathable  membrane. It will work as a jogging or general outdoor jacket whereas a jogging jacket might not work very well when pushed into cycling duties. Cycling winter gloves work as winter gloves, winter gloves don't necessarily work as cycling gloves. This doubling-up of roles means that equipping yourself for all weather cycling should cost little more than you'd spend anyway.

High performance cycling equipment has a place in everyday cycling but you don't need to dress up like a Tour de France rider just to go to the shops. The main thing to remember is that cycling generates a lot of heat. You'll start off quite happily but after five or ten minutes of pedalling will probably need to cool down, here's where the garment layering and cycling specific garments come in to play. You can shed clothes or just vent, open up your sleeves and ‘pit vents' to allow air through-flow without compromising your waterproofness.

Read more in this series:

Choosing the Right Bike, Sizing and Equipment

Cycle Security

Maintenance and Roadside Repairs.

Adjusting to Life with Your New Bike