How far is too far to bike to work?

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Pinch-Flat.com.

Taking the car is expensive, public transit can be cramped, and you’re feeling unhealthy. No worries, all of those issues are solved by the bicycle commute. But, how far is too far to bike to work?

How long will it take? What should you pack? What about sweat? Here I share my experiences of when I commuted to work, which I hope inspires you to get commuting yourself.

The answer to the question “how far is too far to bike to work” is difficult. For some people, around the corner is too far, and for others a 30-mile trip one way is not far enough. After looking through many forums, and questioning veteran cyclists, here’s a chart that seems to be the general opinion of many the commuters.

bike distance chart

Current fitness level

Your current fitness level has a significant impact on the distance you’ll want to cycle. You may be fit enough to cover your commute, or you may need to build up to it slowly. One important thing to remember is how the miles add up. One day of cycling 40 miles is relatively easy for a fit person. Five consecutive days of cycling 40 miles are far more challenging.

My old commute was 10 miles long, and I started work at 7:30 am. While I’m not an athlete, over the course of a few months, I managed to improve my fitness drastically. When I first started cycling, my commute would take around 50 minutes, but I managed to get it to around 35 minutes. I probably had a tailwind to help me, but I still noticed a difference. Not only to my times but how I felt while at work and how I felt in general. However, covering the distance is only half the battle. Any seasoned bicycle commuter will tell you that you need a good plan.

Before you commute

Before you cycle to work you should make sure you ride the route the weekend before to see how long it takes. You can use my simple calculation when planning, but when it comes down to it, you’ll want an exact time. Strava or Endomondo are both great tools for this. I found writing everything down was a great place to start, because it gave me the confidence to start commuting by bike.

To be fully prepared, you should have a run-through before a work day. This way you can refine the process and get yourself ready as quickly as possible.

Compare your normal commute time

I thought that commuting by bike would take a lot of extra time, but when I looked at the numbers, it wasn’t that bad. My commute when driving took around 20 minutes door-to-door. My commute when cycling was around 40 minutes, plus an extra 10 minutes to get changed at work (I got everything else ready the night before).

My route was quiet country lanes and I cycled very early in the morning, which meant I encountered few cars. If you’re cycling through a congested city, it could be much quicker on a bicycle.

These times meant that my commute was an extra 30 minutes longer each way, but I was happier and healthier for it. In the evening, I would walk through my front door 30 minutes later than I would have if I had driven. Except I had already cycled 20 miles, and that was a great feeling.

Arriving at work

Previously, I lived in England and biked early in the morning. Early starts meant that it was too cold for me to sweat much. I worked for a big company, and they had facilities for people who wanted to take showers, and that’s what I did in the summer when it got a little warmer. If your office does not provide showers, here’s an excellent guide on how not to sweat too much on your morning commute.

However, I found the key to sweating less was as simple as just taking it a little easier in the mornings, and wearing fewer layers. In regards to appearance, I put a bit of wax in my hair and was ready to go. If you’ve got longer hair and can’t get away with a bit of wax, here’s a helpful guide on how to fix helmet hair.

I took my clothes with me to, and from work each day in an old rucksack. (A proper cycling bag or panniers would have been far better). I packed it each night, and I left it by the front door. If you have the option, I’d suggest that you take your clothes for the week to the office in bulk. For example, you could drive in one day of the week with all your clean clothes, and at the same time, pick up all your dirty clothes. This strategy stops you from having to pack your bag each night and is one less thing to think about.

Motivation

No matter how well you have everything else organized, nothing will help you if you don’t have the motivation to leave the house when it’s dark and cold outside. Organizing everything is a great way not to make excuses for yourself, but even the most iron-willed of people will start to slip after months of the same thing. Here are my tips to keep motivated:

  • Do not cycle every day of the week if you don’t have to. Sometimes it’s the constant changing and washing of clothes that gets old before the cycling.
  • I loved listening to music on my commute. An excellent playlist or podcast can help the miles pass on days when you’re feeling less inspired.
  • Change your route up. Looking at the same scenery each day can get boring. Keep it fresh and change up the route if you can.
  • Take the scenic route on days when it’s sunny.

In conclusion

So, to answer the question “how far is too far to bike to work?” I’d have to say that it’s largely up to you, but 10 to 20 miles seems to be a reasonable distance – any more than that and it starts to be too much. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and being prepared can help. If you’re a person I surveyed who commutes 30 miles each way, five days a week – you’re a true champ.

Photo: Commuters ride onto the Roosevelt Bridge from Arlington County, Va., into Washington, D.C. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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9 Comment(s)

Peter

I like reading about bicycling and I am an experienced bike commuter but in an urban setting, so it is slower and the open roads with trafffic lights and varied obstacles. I also know some newer commuters and those who don’t like to bike. Based on thier feedback I would use this scale
1-2 Miles Easy for beginner
3-5 Miles Easy for any cyclist
5-10 Miles Doable for most cyclists.
8-12 Miles Perfect match of time and fitness!
10-15 Starting to be a time commitment
15-20 Gotta want to do it
Over 20 Rare breed

Reply
Fred William

Round trip or one way. The article seems to completely blur this point.

Reply
Mike Mcleish

Hi Fred,

Thanks for the comment.

The trip would be for one way.

Reply
Sabrina Smith

So “your not an athlete” but you commute at 20+ mph sustained?? And would you advocate to others that commuting at 20+ mph is a good idea or safe?? I mean in city traffic to achieve 20+ mph average means you are doing insane speeds. And on local trails it means you are probably breaking the speed limits, which tend to be 15 mph. And is generally unsafe on a multi use trail with pedestrians and kids and joggers.

Reply
Corey Burger

If you take a look at average distance from actual travel studies, the average people are willing to bike is ~3-4km. This is pretty consistent across the developed world. Part of the problem we have is that experienced bike riders are willing to go further, which means we assume that it is more reasonable for others to as well.

Reply
Michael Sullivan

Nice to have confirmation that I’m crazy. 36.

Reply
Peter M

A couple extra comments:

In an urban/suburban setting, think multimodal. I used to bike 15 miles to the train. So while, yeah, the 40 mile one-way ride would have been a bit much, 15 was definitely doable. The fun thing I would do, on occasion, was bike the 40 miles to work and take the train back.

I used to work someplace which did not have showers. My solution was to keep some soap and sponges in my desk. When I arrived, I’d go into the bathroom and wipe myself down with a soapy sponge and rinse myself with the non-soapy sponge. I would then put on my nice clothes. I’d take the bike shirt and wash it in the sink and then hang it up to dry. That said, I’m a software engineer so it’s not like I was meeting with customers. My “nice” clothes were usually shorts and a T-shirt.

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@HansVanHoof72

” questioning veteran cyclists” isn’t a neutral approach. A more scientific view, f.i. by K ̈olbl an Helbing ( https://arxiv.org/pdf/cond-mat/0301386.pdf ) , shows that average travel time by bike is about 40 minutes A DAY. With an average speed of 15km/hr and, also on average, 3 trips per day, you moght say that 5km (3 miles) would be the optimal radius of a bicycle city.

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