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Commuting and shopping on your bike

Carlton Boyce / 23 April 2019

Cycling is a cheap way of getting to work and to the shops, and it's often faster too, especially if you're battling through heavy rush-hour traffic!

An older couple ride their bikes to the shops

I’m a huge fan of cycle commuting; I’ve lived in both London and Leeds and biked to work in both places, seeing it as ‘free’ exercise that helped me battle the onset of middle-aged spread. It was also a cheap way of getting to work, and often faster too, especially if I was battling through heavy rush-hour traffic.

Of course, it was less fun than driving when it was raining but as I could shower at work, even that wasn’t too bad. (And, because my arrival at work was calculated from the time I entered the gate, it also meant that my shower time counted towards my working hours…)

The health and financial advantages of shopping on your bike are considerable too. And both commuting and shopping on two wheels have huge environmental benefits, benefits that are real and tangible, even if they’re harder to quantity and measure on a personal level.

I do accept that neither commuting or shopping on your bike will be for everyone, but why read through my quick guide to the subject before giving it a try?

The type of bike you’ll need for commuting or shopping

While any kind of bike can be successfully used for both commuting and shopping, you might like to consider a small-wheeled folding bicycle like a Brompton if part of your commute or shopping run involves using public transport.

They’re brilliantly designed to fold up easily into a manageable bundle, and I think this degree of good design and clever engineering is worth the (considerable) premium it carries.

And, given that some of Brompton’s (frankly bonkers) owners have ridden them extensively, including at the South Pole, you might find that you only need one as your multi-purpose, do-anything bike - they’re far better at the long-distance stuff than they look. (This does, obviously, ignore the N+1 formula that cyclists insist reflects the number of bikes any self-respecting cyclist really needs…)

What sort of bike should I get?

The cycling accessories you’ll need

Commuting and shopping on your bike has a lot in common with either mini-adventures or long-distance touring as you’ll need mudguards, a rear pannier rack, and a decent set of lights for all of them.

You can also fit a handlebar-mounted shopping basket. While this wouldn’t be my first choice for touring or commuting it is exactly the sort of thing you need for a spot of local shopping. Most have a handle that you can carry it with, simply slotting into the carrier when you return to your bike.

It’s better to carry heavy grocery items in a set of rear-mounted panniers if possible, as this will keep your centre of gravity low and your bike stable, but a newspaper and a loaf of bread can go on your handlebars with no concerns at all.

But don’t even think about hanging a pair of full carrier bags from the ends of your handlebars, will you? I know we used to do it but it wasn’t a good idea then, and it’s an even worse one now!

Shoppers might think that they can risk a lightweight, low-security cycle lock to save money and weight but the reality is unless you live in an idyllic little village, you’re better off swallowing the extra weight and cost, and buying a heavy duty cycle lock and using that no matter where, or how briefly, you park it.

Commuters might like to consider a briefcase/pannier combination like this one from Evans Cycles. It’s not cheap, but it is waterproof and has a space for your laptop and a water bottle, plus an attachment for your bike helmet. Commuting has never been so practical or stylish.

The cycling accessories you need

Clothing for commuting by bike

While shoppers will be able to wear their everyday clothes - usually because they’re only pottering along a relatively short route - dedicated commuters will want to wear a separate set of clothes to cycle to work in.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you cycling in your suit but you’ll arrive sweaty and smelly and we’ve all worked with a die-hard cycling commuter whose pungent aroma lingers around their desk, even in the depths of winter.

But your usual cycling clothing will work as well for commuting as it will for leisure cycling. The only difference is that you’ll need to either carry your work clothes with you in a pannier or rucksack or leave a stash of clean clothes at work to change into.

No matter which route you take, be sure to have a shower or a strip wash before getting changed. Be aware of your fellow workers though; in London I was forced to have a strip wash in a tiny toilet cubicle with a comically small sink. I did try using the much larger sink in the staffroom, which I thought would be safe as I normally got to work half-an-hour or so before anyone else. I had to stop after just the one trial run though as a member of staff came in early and caught me having a wash in the sink…

How to dress for cycling

Cycle To Work scheme

The Cycle To Work scheme allows you to buy a bike tax-free, and to spread the cost over 12 months. There’s usually a limit of £1,000 and the scheme itself is simplicity itself; your employer buys the bike and you repay them via 12 monthly payments, which are taken from your pre-tax wages, meaning that you don’t pay tax or National Insurance on the repayment amount.

There is often a balloon payment at the end of the period, typically of around 7%. However, even taking this into account a basic rate taxpayer can save up to a third of the cost of the bike compared to buying it outright with cash. Higher rate taxpayers save even more, of course.

The Green Commute Initiative has a higher purchase price limit and the repayment period can be up to 48 months. Otherwise, it is broadly similar to the Cycle To Work scheme and has much the same benefits.

Importantly though, there is no balloon payment at the end as there is with the Cycle To Work scheme, which makes it even more attractive, even without the higher spending limit and the longer repayment period!

If you’re an employer, guidance on the Cycle To Work scheme can be found here and on the Green Commute Initiative here.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.