Monday, March 17, 2008

Biking to work, even if you're a high-maintenance fashionista

When people hear that I commute to work via bike, they usually say something like "Wow! That's so cool! But I could never do it because..." and then they rattle off whatever excuse pops into their head. Perhaps their hours are too long, or their office's dress code too strict, or their home too far away.

I have one thing to say to them: if this high-maintenance girl can bike to work every day, anyone can (well, not anyone, but you get the idea). Here's how to make it work.


You need to create a routine around going to bed, waking up, packing lunches, packing your clothes, and the like. You also need to figure out the logistics – where you will store your bike, what clothes you will wear while biking, etc.

My bike chilling in the foyer.

Also, get your gear in order. This means procuring a bike, keeping it in good working order, and learning how to ride it (including how to work all the gears). This also means buying cute and functional workout clothes and athletic shoes, a good helmet, bike locks, a backpack (in which to store your purse and work clothes while biking), and any other necessary provisions.

Cute, comfortable workout shoes are a must.


Many of us treat our cars like lockers; when you don't have the safety net of a backseat and trunk, things can get dicey. The key is to pare down your stuff and create a routine around packing your entire day into a backpack you can comfortably wear while biking. Here's a summary of the things I pack for my day:

Lunch: Bringing lunch from home is the true key to saving money and eating healthfully. I'm pretty lazy in this area, and depending on the other things in my bag, I don't always have room for a homemade lunch in my backpack. However, I can usually squeeze in a sandwich and a piece of fruit for lunch.

Rigid plastic containers (I like the ones that IKEA sells) are awesome for storing food and keeping it from being crushed on the journey to work. Also, many workplaces have fridges where you can keep goodies such as peanut butter, jam, yogurt and the like – just be sure to keep your goodies away from sticky-fingered co-workers!

Packing a lunch the night before seems like a good idea. I will never be organized enough to do it, but it seems like a wise solution.

Have jewelry, will travel.

Jewelry: I have picked out my favorite jewelry and put it in a little padded box that lives in my backpack. When I arrive at work each day, I just open the box, pick out a necklace, ring or pair of earrings that goes with my outfit, and voila! I'm ready to rock. At the end of the day, as I'm changing back into my workout clothes, I take off my jewelry and put it back in the box.

If, like me, you have a large jewelry collection, rotate the contents of the box, so you can enjoy every piece in your collection. But leave Grandma's pearls at home – if (God forbid) your backpack gets stolen or something, you don't want to lose any priceless heirlooms. If you wear a wedding ring, there's no reason you can't keep it on as you ride. Many earrings (lever-backs or studs) can be worn while biking, also. Necklaces too, but I hate the thought of my necklaces getting sweaty/dirty.

Shoes: I pack my work shoes in the smaller compartment of my backpack, to keep them from dirtying up my clothes and purse.

My backpack, waiting to be unpacked after a
long day. It's all there: shoes, jeans, shirt, and even some
light reading I enjoyed during lunch.

Work clothes: As I'm drifting off to sleep each night, I plan what I'm going to wear the next day. Then I quickly pack it in the morning. I don't advocate packing your outfit the night before, as your clothes will become more wrinkled/creased this way. You could lay them out, though.

Something warm: My workplace is cold. About once a week, I pack a neutral-colored cardigan in with my clothes. I slip it on at work as needed, then take it home to be laundered when it gets gross. Luckily, I live in a temperate climate where I rarely need anything warmer than a light jacket, both for outdoor jaunts and sitting in the office. If you aren't so lucky, I would recommend keeping warm outerwear in your office as needed.

Sunglasses and sunscreen: Sunglasses make you look sharp while protecting your eyes from UV rays. As for sunscreen – after using up a little bottle of makeup remover, I filled it with sunscreen, and take it wherever I go, since I burn very easily. I refill it as needed. When you're biking, be aware of what parts of you are exposed to the sun and slather accordingly. An oft-overlooked part is the hands: they get more sun than you think, and can age quickly.

Makeup and deodorant: Since I wait until I'm at work to apply face powder, my powder lives in my purse. Depending on how sweaty you get, it may also be a good idea to keep some deodorant in your bag so you can freshen up before you head into work. Obviously, I also keep other girly accouterments with me – oil blotting papers, a hairbrush, and lip balm/lip gloss.

Keep a scarf in your bag for greasy hair days.

Hair: While biking, I use bobby pins and a metal-less hairtie to get all hair off my face/neck. When I arrive at work, I usually just brush out my hair and wear it down, though sometimes I'll use the bobby pins/hair tie to do something more exotic with it. I recommend keeping a scarf/headband in your bag to wear in your hair when it's looking greasy or simply needs a pick-me-up. Scarves are wonderfully versatile, and everyone is bowled over by a cute scarf for some reason.

The Ride Itself

Ready…set…go! Here are some things I do to keep the ride safe and pleasant.

Enjoy the silence: It may be tempting to listen to music while pedaling away, but I don't recommend it. Why? It's important to be aware of the sounds around you – cars coming up behind you, for instance. Also, not listening to music helps you be in the moment – to enjoy all the sights, sounds and smells you don't experience when you're traveling the same route in a car.

Respect all traffic laws: Don't piss off pedestrians by riding on the sidewalk, and obey all traffic laws. Ride on the right side of the road, stop at red lights and stop signs, and so forth. Also, especially in urban areas, consider using hand signals to tell motorists when you're going to turn.

Be hyper-aware of the cars around you: Especially in the city, people tend to make turns without signaling, or will stop suddenly to parallel park. Sudden maneuvers can be dangerous to bikers if you're not prepared; luckily, you are blessed with a nimble vehicle (and quick reflexes, I hope) that can help you steer away from a a collision.

Focus, and have fun: Pay attention to your body, especially how your fitness level increases over time. Play around with the gears on your bike and find the one that's most comfortable given your fitness level and the terrain. Vary your route to and from work. Chat with pedestrians at stoplights. Drink in the scenery. Let your mind wander a little, while still focusing on what you're doing. I get some of my best thinking done while making my way up the hill toward home – not sure why, but I enjoy it, and look forward to it, though the uphill slog is rather punishing.

Words to the wise

Miscellaneous things I've picked up on the way that are especially relevant to high-maintenance women like me.

Plan outfits in advance. Periodically, devote an evening to raiding your closet and devising a bunch of outfits. (This is also a great time to identify clothes you don't wear, and to get rid of them). Create a lookbook - either in your head or by taking photographs of the outfits you've created. Sure, it sounds obsessive, a little advance planning saves future headaches. In the morning, you won't have the luxury of trying on six different outfits - you simply have to pack one. Thus, you need to know which pants go with which shoes, which bra goes under which top, and so forth. Speaking of bras...

Don't forget your bra. When packing my outfit in the morning, it's common for me to almost forget to pack a bra. Don't overlook this. Also, remember to pack those easily-overlooked bits of your outfit, like a belt, tights, socks, etc.

Be prepared for aches, pains and more. Especially when you first begin biking, your quads and butt will be sore. In addition, you may get a bit sore/chafed in the crotch (this goes away quickly, I promise!).

You will also be exhausted when you first start. You may want to go to sleep much earlier; you may also have a hell of a time waking up in the mornings. Don't despair – your body (and your schedule) will adjust.

You may also get cramps at other times during the day, especially in the evenings. I tend to terribly painful cramps in my feet and calves – taking vitamins and eating healthily helps fight them. Lastly, be prepared for the soreness in your legs/butt to give way to nice muscle tone, as well as overall improved cardiovascular fitness and nice, clear skin!

Little things that make biking all that easier and more pleasant

Having a secure place to lock/store your bike, both at home and at work: In the past, I brought my bike right into my place of work (a high rise downtown) and stored it in a closet steps from my desk. It was an ideal solution; then, building management announced that bikes were henceforth banned from the building. This was such a shock to me that I actually stopped biking for awhile. Now, I lock my bike in a parking garage under the building, using both a U-lock and a cable lock. Happily, in my apartment building I am able to store my bike in a secure foyer steps from my front door. Anyway, it pays to scope out places to keep your bike secure, as well as to invest in quality locks so you aren't distracted from your work by worry that someone is stealing your favorite mode of transportation!

Having a short trip: You have more control over this than you think. I lived in a suburb (far away from everything, really); then I got hired at my current job. For awhile, I commuted 30 minutes or so by car; then I moved much closer to my job, to a nicer, more expensive apartment in a great neighborhood – all with the idea that I could easily bike to work. It was a win-win situation for me: great apartment, great neighborhood, lower transportation costs. Living close to work makes my life easier in so many ways. You will be amazed by how much more happy and relaxed you are once you don't have to battle traffic in your car! Again, it's not for everyone, but if you're a young person just staring your career, why not try out a new neighborhood?

Working someplace with a relaxed dress code: I have the incredible luxury of working in a creative environment with no real dress code. However, not everyone is as lucky. Personally, I think fancy business clothes can handle being carefully folded/rolled into a backpack for a few minutes while you ride to work. Some people may have the option of keeping their clothes at work – in a locker room, for example.

Being an early riser: Depending on how far from work you are – and the traffic in your area - riding to work may not add that much time to your commute. However, packing lunches and clothes will add some time in the morning, since you pretty much have to pack your entire day into a backpack. It really pays to cultivate a routine that involves going to bed earlier, and waking up earlier. If you already find yourself with extra time in the morning, more power to ya.

Paring down your haircare routine: I know, I know…blasphemy, right? The key here is to figure out what works for you, but I will say this: it really pays to take the fuss out of haircare. For example, every third day I wash my hair, apply mousse and straightening gel, and blowdry it; other than that, I throw on a shower cap when I shower. It saves loads of time, and my hair looks better for not getting washed and blow-dried to death. When I arrive at work, I don't have to fuss with it. I just run a brush through it and I'm good to go. I urge everyone to do less to their hair – less heat-styling, less washing, less everything. You hair will perk up, I promise!

I keep my workout clothes right by my bed, so I can grab and go.

Finding superstar products: I'm no product whore (wait…am I?) but a few well-chosen products can make your bicycle-filled life much easier. In the realm of clothes, wonderfully comfy athletic shoes, attractive workout clothes, and a spiffy pair of shades will make you proud of your unorthodox commute (and will bring you admiring glances in the elevator).

In the realm of beauty products, an eyeshadow base keeps my makeup from sliding off as I bike to and from work – I favor MAC Pain in Bare Canvas, but Urban Decay Primer Potion is good, too. As for mascara, Blinc Kiss Me Mascara is the most no-fuss, non-irritating mascara I've ever tried, and doesn't budge - until I'm ready to take it off, in which case it slides off easily with a bit of hot water.

As for foundation, I'd say ditch it entirely. Biking in foundation isn't particularly good for your skin, though you could apply it once you arrive at work. I make do with a good SPF moisturizer and a dusting of loose powder. Exercise can help you skin clear up, and who needs a ton of makeup when you already have beautiful glowing skin, right?

A summary of my routine

7:30/7:40: Wake up, shower, and put in contacts. Put on makeup, except for face powder (this gets put on in the bathroom at work). Pack my purse, clothes, shoes and lunch into my backpack.

8:30/8:40: Bombs away!

8:50: Arrive at work, lock bike, and head up to my floor to change into my work clothes, pat on some powder, and take my hair down. Fold workout clothes and put them in backpack.

9-5: Work, or pretend to work.

5:00: Head back to employee bathroom and change back to biking clothes. Pin hair back and off my face. Pack work clothes into backpack and skedaddle.

5:20/5:30: Arrive home, sweaty and disgusting. Jump in shower for a quick rinse-off.

After shower: Unpack backpack; put clothes away (if they are still reasonably clean) or in hamper. Unpack shoes, stuff them with newspaper to keep odor at bay, and store them in appropriate place.

11ish: Hit the sack and mentally choose next day's outfit.

Yay! So that's it! Hope that was enlightening.

Here is some further reading about biking to work:


drwende said...

Very cool post! I'm not going to start biking 20 miles to Scottsdale ;-) but your reasoning and how you talk about this is a great model generally for figuring out how to work in various resolutions for living better.

lindsey kathlene said...

lol...totally written like someone who has good skin and doesn't have to wash their hair every day. :-P

seriously though, i just get ready for work and bike the way i am. i only have to go just over a mile and i have a big cushy one speed cruzer. i put my purse and lunch in the back basket, strap it down with a bungee cord, and if i'm going to the gym that day, i put on my gym backpack (but i hate wearing the backpack, it detracts from the cute-girl-on-bike factor). i put on my kitten heels or flats, cart the bike down the front steps, get on, and glide away. i bike in skirts too, since i've always worn biking shorts under them anyway.

Forever Chic said...

Aw, man, I wish I had a bike with a basket. It would work especially well on Sundays when I head to the farmer's market.

I'm wary of biking in anything but athletic shoes though. It seems dangerous, and can ruin the shoes. So be careful! :)