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Four times a year I teach a workshop called "Be a Bike Commuter" for the local university's community education program. It's mostly based on my experience and information from the League of American Bicyclists. I am looking at making some changes for the next session and am wondering, from other experienced commuters, what things you wish someone would have told you that would have made your first few commutes more successful and/or enjoyable.

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My suggestion would be:

Scout and rehearse your route before you start.

This is really an exercise in two parts:

  • First part is to determine what your initial routes from home to work and from work to home (not necessarily the same, certainly not in detail) are going to be. And to work out where you're going to secure your bike for the day.
  • Second part is to ride the route with no time pressure "off peak" (ideal is probably on a Sunday) so that you know where you're going and you don't get surprised (lost!) when you're riding to arrive on time - it should also enable you clear up any grey areas on your planned route. As importantly, this will give you an indication of how long you should allow for the journey. If you know where you're going and how long its going to take you're going to be more able to focus your attention on riding safely and less distracted by navigation and time concerns.

Once your commute is established I'd suggest that fairly regularly you allow yourself a bit more time (much easier going home!) to explore alternative routes - especially for urban commuters. The most obvious routes are not always the best, you may find shortcuts that are faster or routes that are prettier or have less traffic or smoother surfaces or that you simply like better (or that are not really very different but allow you to vary your route from time to time "just because").

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Chatting with coworkers can be another great way to find alternate routes. –  mouviciel Sep 20 '10 at 8:34
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Google maps is an invaluable tool for finding good routes, too. –  Nik Reiman Sep 20 '10 at 13:03
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+1 for exploring and using alternative routes. –  user313 Sep 20 '10 at 18:19
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Be careful about exploring "off-peak", however... what looks like a reasonable road off-peak, may wind up choked and impassible during rush hour. I tried a new route the other day, and between rush-hour traffic and parked cars, was completely stuck in traffic; there wasn't enough room between the parked cars and traffic to sneak by. –  Brian Campbell Sep 20 '10 at 21:37
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+1 for searching out prettier routes and "just because" :) –  naught101 May 11 '12 at 8:32
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Occupy enough lane to make cars think twice about 'sneaking' by you.

Get fenders even on your nice road bike a wet butt sucks when you ride home and your shorts are cold.

Leave early enough to enjoy the view. My best commute I watched 6 eagles in a field 10' away. Wouldn't have been able to stop for a few minutes if I hadn't left early.

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+1 for the comment on occupying space. LOL for the wet butt comment. It happened to me last Tuesday; maybe I'll get fenders. –  Wayne Johnston Sep 26 '10 at 18:31
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@Kibbee - putting the cold wet shorts back on for the trip home isn't nice! –  mgb Jun 30 '12 at 16:48
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I'm not sure how you'd teach it, but I think an ability to relax and just get on with it has made my commute much more pleasant.

I ride about 12 miles each way, through some fairly busy bits of London. There are some bike lanes, advanced stop lines, separated paths and all sorts of possible things to confuse the new bike commuter, but the thing that obviously gets to a lot of people is that there is just so much going on. The noise, the bustle, cars and lorries going in all directions, shouts from pedestrians, not necessarily at you (but sometimes).

You have to pay attention to the road, its surface, the upcoming junctions and obstacles, but beyond that, just create a little bubble of calm. You might be faster than other people, you might be slower, but don't let them distract you or at least try to reduce the amount of road rage you create.

I see dozens of things on every ride that could (and used) to annoy me - bikes going through red lights or riding on pavements, car drivers cutting up me or other bikes, talking on their mobile phones or turning without indicating - but since I've stopped worrying, I'm enjoying the ride a lot more.

Just worry about yourself and let the others find their own path - and every now and then, just pass a comment to a neighbour when you're waiting at a junction. You'll both be happier for it.

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+1 People do rude/annoying things all the time on the road, and if you're rushing and tense it will seem 100x worse. It's all too easy to arrive at your destination all riled up about what was really a minor thing, which really spoils the experience. –  Will Sep 23 '10 at 17:49
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I still work on the whole relax/be-peaceful thing. It's soooo easy to let the dangerous/malicious/incompetent drivers ruin my day. It's surprisingly difficult to just shrug off vehicular near misses and get back to enjoying the ride. –  D'Arcy Norman Sep 28 '10 at 17:01
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Be as visible as possible, and assume you are invisible.

No matter how much neon spandex and blinky lights you have, some drivers won't notice you until it's too late, especially if it is rainy, getting dark, and their radio is on. ASSUME you are invisible and they are all out to hit you, and ride accordingly.

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This rule not only works well for cyclists, but also for drivers. Always assume the other guy doesn't see you. –  Kibbee Sep 30 '10 at 1:48
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Since writing this answer, I've witnessed 2 evening commute accidents, one car/pedestrian, the other car/bicyclist. In both cases the car was stopped at an intersection, then started going and "just didn't see" the person they hit. Only minor injuries both times, thankfully. –  Jay Jan 6 '12 at 18:10
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  • Get a bike that is the proper size and adjustment for you. Especially if your commute is pretty long (10k or more). Bad ergonomics on your bike can lead to injuries that slowly creep up on you and can take very long to heal. I've had a thigh injury that was caused by a bad saddle that took 3 months of no cycling to heal!
  • Get cycling gloves. They keep your hands warmer and they provide some extra damping of the vibrations of your handlebars. If R.S.I. is a risk in your profession these vibrations can aggravate it.
  • Try to find out if there are showers you can use anywhere in or near the building (think the local health club). Quite often, against all expectations, there will be. Ask around, ask the building manager or concierge, ask other bike-commuters. Depending on the length and intensity of your ride this can make your workday much more pleasant for you and your co-workers.
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Hmm, but bear in mind its perfectly possible to commute by bike and not need to shower (and without being offensive) - does depend on the commute and one's level of enthusiasm... but a stick of deodorant in your draw along with the emergency socks and undies goes a very long way. –  Murph Sep 21 '10 at 20:24
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If you can't shower at your destination, baby wipes are indispensable. Keep a box in your desk for a quick wipe-down in the WC when you arrive. –  Scottie Sep 26 '10 at 20:57
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I live in Texas (read: hot) and shower just before I leave and change clothing at work. If you leave clean and can sit at your desk for 20-30 minutes and cool off before changing clothes, you shouldn't have any smell problems. –  noah Sep 28 '10 at 15:16
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+1 for gloves, but for a different reason. I wear cycling glove not for warmth or comfort, but for protection. If you wipe-out on your bike, having gloves will almost certainly save you painful injuries to your palms. As a programmer, my hands and wrists are really important for me doing my job, so I must protect them. –  lecrank Jul 26 '13 at 19:22
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Claim your space on busy roads

When approaching parked cars, start pulling out into the road well before the parked car. This gives drivers coming up behind you notice that they're going to have to leave you some space so you can get around the car.

Also, I sometimes pretend to wobble when I hear a vehicle approaching from behind that sounds like it's fast or big. This should worry the driver a bit in thinking you're a novice so that they give you a bit more space.

I guess, I'm saying, be confident in claiming the road you need because not all drivers will be thoughtful enough to give you that space if you don't ask for it.

Hopefully that makes sense, it's a little tricky to describe. But, last week I went out with my girlfriend at the weekend to practice the route she was going to start commuting, and I just felt that by not cycling assertively, she was allowing cars to take up space and get closer to her than they should have been.

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Not sure about the pretending to wobble bit. (Looking around without wobbling, also good.) –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Sep 23 '10 at 0:00
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And "maintain your line", ie when going past parked cars, don't go closer to the kerb just because some of the carspaces are empty. –  pfctdayelise Aug 5 '11 at 6:28
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The Most Direct Route is Not Always the Best

Or in other words. Your driving commute route is usually a horrible bicycling commute route. I purposefully avoid big roads as much as possible and take small residential streets or dedicated bike paths when available, an extra mile on a bike path can actually save you time over a shorter busy commute route, not to mention the savings to your health, safety, and the increase in your general enjoyment. If my commute reminds me of my sunday ride, then I know I have a good route.

You are a bicyclist, there is no reason to endanger your life on the 50MPh express-way when the 25MPH residential street can get you there just as quickly. In California, residential streets are often extremely wide (Parked car + Bike Lane + 1.5Width lanes both ways) compared to dedicated expressways and can be orders of magnitude more safe and comfortable to ride (The pavement is often newer and less broken).

If you are new to the area, spend a weekend or two just exploring local residential streets, hop on over to google maps and find the a way to use small streets to get to where you need to go (often this involves riding through the residential maze and with at least 5 or 6 street changes). Practice your route at least once and carry a printout of the route with you at least the first few times.

I do have the right to a lane, even on the busiest streets, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone respects this right and not everyone is aware of this right. During Busy commutes, drivers are often distracted in many different ways (putting on makeup, drinking coffee, worrying about being late, etc.) and can be unaware of bicyclists, nothing will ruin your day more than an accident on the way to work.

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This is good for any ride, not just commuting, but sometimes people think that since they're "only" commuting it's not as important:

  • Proper clothing does make a difference!
  • Inflate your tires properly!
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There is no such thing as bad weather. Only the wrong clothes! Doubly so on a bike. –  Ernie Sep 20 '11 at 19:17
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You may find it easier on your commute, depending on the length of the ride and how much stuff you have to carry with you, to invest in racks and panniers rather than a backpack or messenger bag. My finding has been that weight "on the bike" is much less noticeable than weight attached to your body. If you commute with a full change of clothes, pair of shoes, kryptonite U-lock, laptop, and shower gear you'll find that your bag will become quite heavy. Might make your ride less cumbersome with that stuff in a luggage bag instead of across your shoulders.

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Never, ever listen to music while cycling. As Scottie says, "Cyclists use their ears like rear view mirrors."

Of course, you should also have a traffic side mirror.

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+1 - I know there are differing opinions, but this isn't training for most commuters - it's urban riding in traffic. Will add a warning to the notes I hand out. –  Gary.Ray Sep 30 '10 at 5:15
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I wish I could mod this up more - what changed my mind was when I ploughed into the back of a waiting-in-traffic car with Walkman on. I felt so stupid and the track I was listening to was not worth it. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Jun 3 '11 at 9:34
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I would not agree on this. Riding 10K+ at night in a lonely road can be pretty boring. Only if there was some music to pump you up. You know like keep you spirited, excited about the ride. –  Starx Jun 3 '11 at 11:39
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you might be surprised how incredibly rude people can be. I'm actually a second generation commuter & have been riding to work my entire adult life, and still am floored regarding how little consideration for your life those in cars take. And commuting puts you in the line of fire for the worst driving behavior--drivers are cranky on their way to work and even worse on the way home.

So my advice would be: prepare to see some unseemly behavior.

(p.s. I live in a really friendly bike town too (Portland, Oregon))--compared to a lot of places this is bike-paradise.

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Get a seat bag and have at least one spare innertube, a multi-tool, spare CO2 (if that's your inflator of choice, a frame pump otherwise), and park a $10 bill in there. It's not a matter of 'if' you have a mechanical, but 'when'. Anticipate it, prepare for it, and deal with it.

More than once (because I don't learn quickly) I got as far from either end of my ride and had a flat. I ended up riding home on my rim, which is BAD.

Additionally I have a laminated photocopy of my driver's license in case I'm unresponsive, but that may be overkill.

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The importance of layered clothing.

On my earliest bike commute on a crisp fall day, I put on a coat and headed out. At first I was cold, but after a mile or two I got comfortable. Halfway up my first hill I warmed up and unzipped my coat. At the top of the hill I took it off. By the bottom I was freezing again and put the coat back on. And then again on the next hill...

Anyway, over the years I've found that a wind shell plus various thin layers is key to cold weather comfort while commuting.

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A Norwegian friend of mine is fond of saying "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices. –  Greg Jun 3 '11 at 18:23
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Maintain awareness of your surroundings when riding in marked bike lanes. Two friends, and I know of others, have had collisions with cars while in clearly marked bike lanes. Apparently, some cyclists assume they are safe just because they are in a marked lane and thus drop their attentiveness.

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Yes! Cars turning right seem to completely forget there is a bike lane. If you're passing stopped traffic and it starts to move again, slow down and match speed with the car in front of you. –  noah Sep 28 '10 at 15:21
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Gear down and raise your cadence.

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  1. Learn how to fix a flat tire and practice it at home. You don't want to waste a lot of time when you're on the road and stressed about being late.
  2. Carry everything you need to fix aforementioned flat: Two tire levers and a patch kit should be fine.
  3. Check your patch kit from time to time, and make sure you (a) have enough patches and (b) the glue hasn't turned solid.
  4. One neat trick I learned for finding the flat when you can't hear it over the passing cars and you forgot your portable bathtub: Pump up the tube and hold it up close to the extremely-sensitive skin between your nose and mouth. Rotate the tire around until you feel the air blowing. You will look funny while you do this.
  5. Finally, put some Slime in your tubes, and you'll cut down on the number of times you have to worry about points 1 through 4. It will make your tires heavier, but you're commuting, not racing.
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Stand on pedals to ride over cracks and bumps

When you're going over bumps, pot-holes, and cracks in the pavement/asphalt: stand (put all your weight on) the pedals and lift your bum off the seat; and coast (without pedalling) over the obstruction. Doing that is more comfortable for you, and for the bike.

(P.S.: I do this wearing bike shoes which clip to the pedals; I have little experience of how easy/safe it would be to do when unclipped).

Also, do this when you're going over a smooth speed bump (which would otherwise tend to eject you from the saddle).

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A well maintained bike (tire pressure, oil chain...) with the proper equipement makes a big difference.

Good mud guards are definitly one of the best improvements I had on my bike along with a good lighting system (cars seem to leave a wider space when they overpass).

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The one thing l would recommend is puncture proof tyres, I use the Specialized Armadillo range. Only twice in 3 years has anything managed to puncture my inner tubes. I live and commute in a large city, lots of broken glass and other nice stuff and that's what's in the cycle lanes!

Don't skimp on clothing it makes a different l have purchased some sealskinz clothing. Seems pricey however its worth all the money and more.

Also remembering that I'm not training or in a race, taking it easy once in while :-)

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Allow for cool down time once you get to your destination.

I've always found that when I'm actually rolling I never feel that hot or sweaty, but as soon as I stop at my destination and don't have the wind on me anymore - BAM! - I'm sweating like a pig. Not a good look when you are about to start work. So I always try to arrive 10 minutes early so I have a chance to cool down and stop sweating.

If your destination doesn't have air conditioning, it's sometimes worth stopping at the nearest place that DOES have air conditioning (shops, library, highrise building foyer, etc) to sit quietly for 5 min to cool down. Then ride nice and easy to your final destination looking fresh and clean ; )

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Assume that every vehicle that passes you is also pulling a trailer, so that you won't be surprised when it happens.

Also be aware (at least in my area) that city busses have their engines in the back, so they 'sound' further away than they really are.

Cyclists use their ears like rear view mirrors.

Better yet, get a rear-view mirror.

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Pack light. Leave whatever you can at work, and only pack tools that are appropriate to the distance that you are travelling. Cycling is much easier with less weight!

For example - on my previous commute the distance was short enough that if I got a puncture in the middle of the ride, it would be quicker to walk the rest of the way than repair it at the side of the road. I decided to leave a replacement tube, tyre levers and a pump at either end of my commute, instead of carrying them with me.

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This is subjective, but I (very nearly) almost carry everything with me it lives with the bike (each and every one of my bikes should, but sometimes doesn't, have its own complete kit of tubes, levers, patches, boot, pump and multi-tool) - why? Because then I always have it with the bike... –  Murph Sep 23 '10 at 20:26
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Maybe it's just my area, but most cyclists I know leave a lock on the rack at work so they don't have to carry it with them. –  Kibbee Sep 30 '10 at 1:50
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Yeah, I've seen people leave a lock places to save carrying it and thought that it was a good idea - but you give a potential thief plenty of time to work out how to pick the lock under cover of darkness with no interruptions. In my area, I avoid it - I guess it depends where you are and how trusting you feel! –  Will Sep 30 '10 at 7:29
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Make sure there is somewhere safe to put your bike at the other end.

I Just started commuting to work by bike and I turned up at the front door of my office absolutely exhausted on Tuesday expecting to just be able to take my bike up to my office in the lift.

The Janitor/Doorman said no way, citing health and safety. He did point me to a place on a disused stairwell where they allow someone else who works in the building to store their bike, but he said that they were bending the rules as technically it was a fire exit, it's just that no one was using that half of the building so it wasn't an issue at the moment.

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One more for the list - "prehydrate" - that is, start drinking water some time before your ride. Starting out dehydrated is painful and totally unnecessary!

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I'm lucky to live in a country where the bike is an accepted means of transportation. Lots of bike lanes, and bike friendly traffic lights (some places). But that's countered with a lot of rain and wind.

When you start biking, don't overestimate yourself. When your condition improves, speed increases accordingly. And listen to your body (if your heart appears to be jumping out of your ribcage, you probably went too fast).

Be prepared for bad weather. If necessary invest in a good rainsuit because you will get wet. And not all offices have showers. Besides, driving while wet has risks of cooling down, which is often underestimated.

As a positive note, biking is fun. It improves your health. You see a lot more of the surroundings. And you can play little games/challenges with yourself.

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Leave Your Car At Work -- You Don't have to Commute Both Ways Each Day

If you drive in with your bike, then commute home leaving your car at work you can get away with only commuting one way per day. You also have your car at work if an emergency comes up, or in case of extreme inclement weather. It's amazing how many people don't think that this is an option, and it makes a lot of sense for people with small children and people just getting started commuting by bicycle.

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The problem is "extreme inclement weather" can also hit in the morning.. –  Ian Sep 23 '10 at 15:53
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In the UK we tend to get our unexpected bad weather in the morning. However when I lived in Cambridge you never wished to drive on a wet day, as so many people swap from bikes to cars the tropic jams got a lot worse! –  Ian Sep 23 '10 at 18:26
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Use a Route Planning Website

I use Cycle Streets in the UK, it provides you with a fastest, balanced and quietest route from A to B. I assume there are similar sites for the US as well.

There are also various applications you can download for your smartphone that will give you a route from where ever you are to where ever you need to go, useful if you take a wrong turn or need to go somewhere new.

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Buy clip in shoes/pedals if you are going to ride in the rain

Clip in shoes/pedals made riding in the rain much better. Prior to that, it was difficult due to my feet slipping from the pedals. They are easy enough to unclip from if you ever need to in a hurry.

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I've read through all the answers here, but if I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, it would be: "Be prepared for everything." I now pack my road bike with enough of everything to last me if I had to camp out for the night (water, protein bars) plus my rain gear, a tarp, and all of the equipment I need to do minor repairs.

Part of this also includes what I saw in a prior answer: "Know your route". I moved to a new office building earlier this year and it totally changed my route, so I walked it first (took me 3 hours) before I rode it. That helped me get a sense of the traffic and things to avoid.

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Biking in the dark isn't as scary as biking at dawn/dusk

When I first started bike commuting and the sun got low in the sky in the evenings, I'd leave work and try to get home before the sun went down. I didn't realize then that that was the absolute worst time to bike because the low sun meant that it was in driver's eyes, making bikes very difficult to see, even with lights and bright clothes, I just wanted to get home before it got dark.

Now when the sun starts getting low, I wait until it sets before leaving work rather than try to beat the sun home. Once the sun sets, then my lights and reflectors are much more visible to cars. And with a decent headlight (which is much cheaper now than it used to be), seeing the road is not a problem at all.

You still have to worry about nighttime visibility and watch for cars without headlights.... unlit cars are exceptionally hard to see against a background of headlights (and early in the night biking season, car drivers aren't used to turning on their headlights when leaving work so might drive quite some time before they notice) Bikes too are more difficult to see against a background of headlights/taillights, but even so, I'll still take biking in the dark over biking at sunrise/sunset when drivers are struggling to see against the sun. I've biked behind some cars at sunset where I couldn't see through their windshield myself due to dirt and/or scratches, so I really don't think they could see well enough to drive.

Make sure you have adequate lights and reflectors. At a minimum, front and rear lights and reflectors, reflective spokes or tires, and reflective pedals or ankle bands (the motion lets cars know that you're a bike). I have a helmet headlight/taillight since I feel that the higher position makes it easier for cars to see me, especially if I'm stopped in traffic.

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