The No Sweat Way to Bike to Work

17 Apr

I’m cross-posting this story from my Bike Fun blog in the Mountain View Voice because I think the message bears repeating: It is possible to ride a bike and not be a hot mess on arrival!

It’s the 20th anniversary of Bike to Work Day in the Bay Area, celebrated this year on Thursday, May 8. For two decades, casual riders have pumped up their tires and dusted off their bikes for a short ride across town, while weekend warriors have charted longer commute routes and come up with a post-ride cleanup strategy. For people who bike to work year-round, the weeks ahead of Bike to Work Day are a time for answering questions from and giving advice to new bike commuters, like me back in 1997.

Like so many others, Bike to Work Day launched me into bike commuting. I went to a short “getting started” information meeting at my workplace, learned the best way to cross Hwy 101 from the local bike expert, then pedaled the 12 miles to my office in North San Jose. The ride was about an hour so I stowed my clothes in my new bike panniers and cleaned up at my workplace’s gym locker room when I arrived.


Over the years I kept it up once or twice a week during daylight saving time, whenever my work sites gave me access to a shower. Bike commuting was a great way to get miles in when I was training for triathlons and long century rides. When I wasn’t training per se, two hours a day a couple of times a week was a great workout.

Then I took a job in Palo Alto that was less than five miles from home. It was too short to be a workout and hardly seemed worth putting on lycra and packing my work clothes, plus a towel and toiletries. Five flat miles just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Then one day in late summer I slapped myself on the forehead and said to myself, “It’s only a 25 minute ride, why do you need to change clothes anyway? Just wear your work clothes.” I put a summer dress with bike shorts underneath, slipped on flat shoes and stowed my laptop, purse and heels in my bike pannier. I rode slowly, keeping my heartbeat down at the equivalent of a walking, not running, pace. When I arrived at the office I took a moment to switch into my heels and cool down before walking in the building. No sweat!

It worked so well I was biked every day that week, then the next, and the next. Somewhere along the way I figured out that heels aren’t hard to bike in so I stopped packing my shoes. And I learned that if I stopped and took off a layer as soon as I started to warm up I could arrive sweat-free wearing almost anything, even a suit.

Bike in Suit

It helped that I started reading blogs from bike commuters in cities like Chicago, Boston and Portland. If they could ride in a professional dress there, even during the cold and stormy winters, California would be easy. And it was. Once I got a proper raincoat and boots, I was able to keep riding every day through the rainy season.

When I switched jobs two years ago to one back in North San Jose, I learned to combine my bike commute with a Caltrain ride so I could keep commuting in my work clothes. Occasionally, I’ll pack my work clothes and ride the full 13 miles to the office when I want a workout. But 95% of the time I choose my multi-modal bike + Caltrain commute. That way I can bike to work every day instead of 1-2 times a week.

There are lots of ways to make your commute no- or low-sweat. Here are my top tips:

  • Ride slowly. Save your workouts for the weekend or the times you’re planning to clean up on arrival.
  • Don’t worry so much about wasting time going slower. If you don’t change clothes at the end of your ride you’ll save at least five minutes.
  • Remember that it’s cooler in the morning here than in the evening. If you sweat on the way home you can always shower there.
  • Nothing heats you up like wearing a backpack or messenger bag. Get a rack or basket instead and get that bag off your back.
  • Underdress so you’re a little chilly for the first 5 minutes of your ride. As soon as you feel like you’re starting to warm up, pull over and strip off a layer.
  • Stow some wet wipes or a towel at work just in case you sweat more than you expected.
  • Consider partial clothing changes for your commute. Replace a dress shirt with a t-shirt or flat shoes instead of heels.
  • Wearing a helmet doesn’t have to mean you’ll have a bad hair day. Sweating, not the helmet, is the bigger cause of helmet hair. Experiment with different helmets and/or hair arrangements until you find what works. For me, all I have to do is finger comb my hair on arrival.
  • Riding a more upright bike helps. The extra windchill from being upright cools you, and somehow being upright discourages riding hard.
  • I installed a front basket so I can grab everything I need while I’m riding or walking my bike. I can strip a layer off and stow it without pulling over and my train pass, my phone, and my sunglasses are all at my fingertips.
  • Not packing clothes means I have room in my panniers to pick up a few items at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Are you riding to work on Bike to Work Day this year? Will you wear your work clothes or wear cycling gear and change on arrival? How far is your trip?

Bike in heels


Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Around Town


12 responses to “The No Sweat Way to Bike to Work

  1. kghotz

    April 17, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    This is so helpful! I’ve also found that by riding slowly and peeling off layers as I go, I can complete my 6-mile commute relatively sweat free. I saw your advice on avoiding helmet head on another page — something about making sure your hair is thoroughly dry and styled before putting on your helmet. I couldn’t believe what a difference that made even for my pixie cut!

  2. labicichica

    April 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Great tips! I love that you share your growth experiences as a utilitarian cyclist.


    April 18, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Hello – My husband and I love your blog’s practical tips and sense of fun! I discovered your blog after seeing your column in the MV Voice. I have a 6 mile (one way) commute and do a partial change of my pants and shoes — I can’t imagine biking in heels!

    • ladyfleur

      April 19, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad you found me here too! Partial clothing changes are a great wAy to do it especially in bad weather.

  4. Andrew Hsu

    April 20, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Nice article! It reminds me of another article on bike commuting I read a while back in which the punchline was a quote from some European person saying, “Americans don’t know how to bike commute properly — they ride much too fast!”. Would you mind me sharing this link with my company’s bicycling mailing list in prep for bike to work month?

  5. johnc

    April 21, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Great tips! E-bikes are great too for no-sweat commutes, I’d definitely consider getting one if I had a longer commute.

    • ladyfleur

      April 21, 2014 at 10:12 am

      I agree. If I didn’t have the train and had to ride the full 14 miles in to work I’d definitely want and e-bike.

  6. Mira Patel

    April 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks for the great tip, hoping to be recovered from my bike injury by “Bike to Work” and “Bike to Shop” day! I do the partial change with a shirt change cause I go from super cold SF to South SF (total 3.5 miles with bus, and Caltrain). Luckily as a scientist my clothes need to be long pants and comfy shoes. Hair I try to keep frizz free with a beanie – not sure yet what the best option is for it though – I have hard to deal with hair to begin with.

  7. bikiegirl

    April 24, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks! I’m sharing this on the Bikie Girl Bloomers Facebook page! And, I have to ask: do you leave your bike shorts on all day? Are they padded shorts? I found that uncomfortable when I tried it, which is why I started making unpadded bike shorts for commuting. Some women tell me they prefer padded shorts, even for short commutes. Leaves me wondering if a “mini-pad” would be ideal for that purpose.

    • ladyfleur

      April 24, 2014 at 8:08 pm

      My commute is short so I don’t usually wear padded bike shorts. When I do it’s usually in the summer for modesty reasons. I usually take them off not long after arriving at work, but sometimes forget. A lightly padded undershorts would probably be good for a lot of women.

  8. Guido Stahlmecke

    April 29, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Hello – I’m used to wear bike clothing, my commute is around 25km one way. So no chance to stay completely dry and wear work wear during my trip. Also – I always try to beat my record times … 🙂 . But actually to sweat is not a problem – the company I work for has excellent change rooms and showers. So I enjoy every ride – without thinking about how to stay dry.


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