[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Bike Accessories a Commuting Cyclist Needs
Bicycles are not sold complete but usually lack basis accessories which make commuting safe and practical, such as lights, mirrors, fenders, racks, rainsuits, locks, air pumps, patch kits, and tools.
Questions How is a bicycle sold incomplete? What are the different kinds of air pumps? Why is it necessary to carry a pump on the bike? What are the advantages of a cable lock? How can a U-lock be misused? What kinds of mirrors are available? Which headlights and taillights are suitable and why? How should you purchase a bike helmet? Why carry a water bottle? Are toe clips or clip-on bike shoes a good idea? Why use fenders? What kind of rain wear is possible, and why are rain suits usually better? How is a carrier or rack useful? Why should you be careful when purchasing pannier bags by mail order? What other kind of bags can be used?


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Bike Accessories a Commuting Cyclist Needs

An automobile is sold complete, down to the cupholders and ash trays. On the other hand, a bicycle is usually sold stripped down, as if its primary purpose is to be used in a racing event. However, a bicycle that will be used for transportation, whether travel or commuting, will be much more useful and even safer if equipped with the proper accessories. Most of the bicycle commuting accessories I'll mention here are ones that I consider so essential that I wouldn't even consider leaving the house without them. They serve different functions, so the essential equipment on one person's bike won't be exactly the same as the essential equipment on another's.

Accessories to Maintain the Function of the Bicycle

The Air Pump

At one time, the way to fill a bike tire was to take it to the local gas station, but gas station pumps are poor for filling low-volume, high-pressure bicycle tires, and the station can be a long distance from the flat. A pump is even more important than a patch kit because a tire needs additional air periodically whether there is a leak or not.

There are three kinds of pumps that are commonly sold, the floor pump which remains at home, the frame pump which fits within the main frame of a diamond-framed bike, and the mini-pump, which might be attached to the water bottle cage or ride in a bike bag. I consider the floor pump to be a luxury item, as a pump must be carried with the bicycle in case of flats anyway, so I have never owned one. My first mini-pump was a mail-order toy, but I purchased a second one at a shop which works properly. However, I never carry it, as it requires more effort when inflating a tire. I think of it as a spare if anything should happen to the other pump. So, I depend on a frame pump.

It is not my usual practice to recommend consumer products, but I have never had any problem from my Zefal pumps, and great problems from some other brands when I could not find a Zefal. However, my first Zefal was destroyed because it fell off of the bike, so I recommend attaching a pump to the bike carefully, perhaps using a spare leg band or toe strap as a backup. My second Zefal was stolen from an indoor dormitory bike rack, probably by one of the other bike riders who parked there. But I have traveled all around the US and Canada, parking thousands of times, and I have never had a frame pump stolen at any other time.

When buying a frame pump, the pump must fit the spot it must go into almost exactly, so it's a good idea to buy the pump at a local bike shop, where you can check for good fit before you leave. Be sure to also deflate and then inflate a tire using the pump before leaving to make sure that the pump is working OK and has the Presta or Schrader valve adapter necessary to fit your tubes. A pump needs little attention, but you might put some WD-40 or other lubricant on the rod from time to time. I find that my pump gets some water inside after riding in a heavy storm which needs to be emptied out.

The Bike Lock

Many who live in rural areas have never owned a bike lock, but the urban commuter may consider it the most essential piece of equipment.

There is a variety of locks available, but these fall into two types, the cable lock and the U-lock. A cable lock is very handy, as it can be used to secure both the bicycle and its wheels to some object. The cables range from very thin to very fat and heavy. The U-lock can lock only the bike frame or one wheel and the bike frame to some object and is usually heavier to carry, but it is tougher to cut.

There is often a false belief that it is possible to buy a lock so tough that no one can ever open it. However, U-locks can be broken open, like any other, although some come with insurance policies that are worth considering. A combination of devices, say a U-lock plus a cable lock, requires a thief to have the skill and equipment to remove both.

However, the proper use of a lock plus having a good location for the bike are much more important than the kind of lock. On the University of Alabama campus, I commonly saw one bike attached by its rear wheel with a U-lock to the bike stand, and the adjacent bike attached by its front wheel by another U-lock to the same stand. A thief could pick either bicycle to steal, leaving the one wheel still attached to the bike stand, and then ride off by "borrowing" a wheel from the neighboring bicycle. See Tips and Tricks for Bicycle Commuting for more suggestions on how to prevent theft.

A Tool Kit, Patch Kit, and Extra Tube

I always carry these because little problems can occur at any time. Mini-tool kits are also available, but some are much better than others. As an alternative, you could just buy the basic tools. As a minimum, I suggest tire irons (which are plastic nowadays), regular and Phillips medium and small screwdrivers with short handles, a small adjustable wrench or 8, 9, and 10 mm metric double-ended wrenches, a small Allen set, and a chain tool. Patch kits can be the traditional round patches, which are used with glue, or the recent glueless patches. An extra tube is important in case a tire cannot be repaired. (*** WARNING *** I recently purchased a Bell "Deluxe Tube Repair Kit" {2440501005} at a discount store, and the glueless patches would not hold.) See How to Fix a Flat Tire for more information.

Accessories That Improve the Safety of the Bicycle

The Rear View Mirror

I don't use a mirror on my bike, as I am adept at turning my head and looking behind without swerving. However, I highly recommend a mirror for new cyclists or for anyone who has trouble looking back and riding straight ahead at the same time. Mirrors are also a good idea for those who have raincoats with hoods or wear capes, which block looking backwards.

Looking in a popular bicycle supply catalog, I see mirrors that attach to 1) the helmet, 2) glasses, 3) the frame, 4) the handlebars, and 5) the brake hood, so there are lots of options to choose from.

Headlights and Taillights

In my recent survey, I was pleased to see that most cyclists were using lights front and rear, as (according to Riley Geary) 56% of all fatalities on bicycles occur to those riding at night, even though very few cyclists ride after dark. In addition, in other surveys, those doing a lot of night riding tend to have fewer accidents than those who do little. Therefore, a disproportional share of these nighttime fatalities must be with those not properly equipped. In every town where I have lived, I see bike riders out late at night without even a reflector.

There are those who advocate using just a large, flat yellow SAE reflector in the rear. While this reflector is much more visible when a car light is shining on it than is a CPSC reflector, it fails to be of value when the car does not have headlights on, when the headlights are ineffectual (dirt, fog, rain, or snow), or when the headlight beam is pointing the wrong direction (a sharp curve or a dip in the road). Therefore, I recommend both a rear light and a rear reflector.

The most popular taillight is the blinkie. Some cyclists very much dislike these lights claiming that the blinking might have a harmful effect. I fail to see it, but many models have a steady mode, if that is what you prefer. Because of the LED's (Light Emitting Diodes) in these lights, they last a long time on a set of batteries. For further savings, use rechargeables.

For headlights, there are three possibilities, all of which present problems, the small battery operated light, the generator light, and (for want of a better term) the water bottle battery light.

The lights that one can find in a discount store which operate on two batteries are very poor. The light has a dim, narrow beam which can't be seen from the side, the battery will fade on a single six mile ride, and the whole unit self-destructs very quickly, even from riding on smooth roads. I know this from experience, having purchased such a light for temporary use when my generator light's reflector fell off and broke. I see some similar-looking models advertised in my cycling catalog which use four AA batteries and are advertised with a longer run time, but I am dubious. (Note: a cyclist wrote before I could purchase one of these, saying that he had found only one of the AA lights satisfactory.) Fortunately, new lights are coming on to the marketplace which have LED's instead of bulb. The LED's will last thousands of hours, and the batteries will last one to two hundred hours, making these lights economical, and they are also brighter as well. So far, I have not seen a bicycle headlight or headband mounted LED which I have considered suitable, but I have purchased a couple of flashlights, with fairly wide and bright beams, which could be mounted on the bike with a home-made holder. I assume that within the next five years or so that some excellent bike LED lights will be developed, but one never knows.

I have been using generator lights for many years, and I find them very suitable for riding in the country at night and on touring trips. There are no batteries to fade or go bad, and the light gets brighter while going downhill. The beam is very wide and thus visible from all sides. On the other hand, a generator light is not very bright in city traffic and goes out each time you stop at a red light. Mounting a generator light is frustrating because it usually won't work immediately due to a poor connection or ground somewhere, but you don't know where. Once mounted, it will work for years without attention. My biggest problem with generator lights has been that the headlights tend to tear up after a number of years of use, and I can't find a replacement for them. In addition, generator lights have become scarce, and the ones I have seen for sale recently are made of cheap plastic, so I wouldn't recommend them. Peter Jon White does have a very nice but somewhat expensive generator for sale ($90; also a cheaper model at $28). The light must be purchased separately, and there are various models. I noticed one with an expensive ($6.00) and non-standard bulb, so check on this. The best bulbs are ones you can buy locally, as you never know when a bulb will go out.

I have no experience with bottle battery lights, so I'll say just a little about them. They are popular with commuters because they have bright beams and run off of rechargeable batteries. Most of the batteries are sized to fit within a water bottle cage (which needs to be a sturdy cage), and they charge overnight. Things I don't like about these lights include heavy weight (OK for commuting, but unsuitable for general riding), poor chargers (easy to overcharge), high prices ($60 to over $300 and replacement bulbs about $20), and beams that are not visible from the sides. Some of the best have smaller NiMH batteries and smart chargers, but these tend to be more expensive as well.

Some cyclists have been making their own bicycle bottle lights. One can purchase nicad batteries or a small SLA (sealed lead-acid) battery for this purpose. Recently, a cyclist in touring@phred.org noticed some bicycle-sized automobile fog light in Walmart which would be very suitable for making a home-made bottle light. The cost is only $20 a pair, and the lights are 20 watts in power. If you do make your own light, remember that improper recharging of a battery drastically reduces its lifespan, so be sure to get a good charger which is matched to the battery that you are using.

While on the subject of lights, I should mention the best place to mount one. The advantage of wearing a light on the head is that the light points wherever you happen to be looking; however, a light in that position makes the cyclist look more like a pedestrian than like a vehicle, which could encourage a motorist to cut in front of you. In addition, a light mounted that close to the eyes is partially blinding in fog or snow. And finally, a light mounted low best reveals bumps and holes in the road. I have a front carrier on my bike, so I mount the light there, in front of my handlebar bag, as the best location. For those without handlebars and front carriers, I think mounting off of the brake bracket is superior to a handlebar mount if possible.


Because I have an article Why I Am Opposed to Mandatory Helmet Laws or because I don't wear a helmet myself, many people think I am opposed to the use of helmets. In my opinion, the dangers of a head injury while bicycling and the effectiveness of a helmet in preventing such injuries have both been greatly exaggerated. If not wearing a helmet will prevent you from cycling, by all means wear a helmet. If wearing a helmet will prevent you from cycling, by all means don't wear a helmet.

If purchasing a helmet, I suggest either trying it on at the bike shop to make sure it fits comfortably or else to get an agreement that you can return it if it does not fit comfortably, as I have found fit to be more of a problem than ventilation. If price is the problem, a $5 helmet is most likely better protection (for what that's worth) than a $160 helmet anyway, although it may not fit as well.

Accessories That Enhance the Usefulness of the Bicycle

A Water Bottle

A water bottle is not a necessity when commuting as it is when touring, and if your commute is short, you may wish to do without it altogether. However, I always carry mine on my trip to town, at least during warm weather, because I never want to ride thirsty. It's also handy for washing off my hands should they become dirty.

Toe Clips

For those who are beginning bicycling, toe clips and straps look awfully dangerous. I bought some for my son, and he told me that he didn't want them. I said, "Just let me put them on your bike and let us ride down to the store and back, and if you don't like them, I'll take them off and never mention them again." On the way back home, he said to me, "Thanks, dad, I like these a lot."

For those who are used to bicycling, toe clips and straps look poor compared to clip-on pedals. However, I have seen several people fall due to clip on pedals, while it is easier to get out of toe clips and straps, and in addition, toe clips and straps can be used with any shoes.

I don't recommend toe clips and straps for everyone. I think it's better, when learning how to ride, to use plain pedals. In the city, with constant stops, plain pedals might be better anyway. Another possibility is to use just the toe clips by themselves without the straps. Then, it is even easier to remove the foot. When using toe clips and straps, the straps should not be tight anyway, to make pulling the foot out easier.

Recently, finding toe clips of the right size has become more difficult, as the manufactures are selling clips large enough for the whole foot to go into, not just the toe. If the top clip is the right size, the ball of the foot is on the pedal, not the small of the foot. In fact, one of the advantages of toe clips is that they ensure that your feet are in the proper position, provided they are the right size to begin with.


Although there are a few hardy souls who say they don't mind riding in the rain without fenders, I find that the bike tire slings mud and water directly into my eyes. On the other hand, a fender can cause a bike to skid or even flip if snow, mud, sticks, or tar-covered rocks get jammed between it and the tire, so fenders should be used with caution under these conditions. There are some partial fenders, designed to be used with suspension-equipped mountain bikes that are probably unjammable.

Most people get plastic fenders of one kind or another, but I was disgusted with the first pair I tried and have used steel fenders (which are still being manufactured by Wald) ever since. My steel fenders, which weigh half a pound more than plastic ones, have lasted 64,000 miles and are going strong. I did need to use a hacksaw and an electric drill to install them though, which would probably be unnecessary with the plastic ones.

Rain Suits

There are a number of choices here which are more unalike than they appear.

Some cyclists' strategy is to let themselves get wet but to wear clothing suitable for wet-weather riding, that is, synthetics or wool. This strategy requires that you bicycle at a rapid pace and have a place to clean yourself up, change, and hang your clothes to dry at work.

An old favorite was the poncho, which is now hard to find. The poncho is essentially a waterproof tarp with a head opening in the middle of it which includes a hood. You ride with the tarp spread out over the handlebars and rear rack, moderately protected from falling rain but unprotected from spray, splashes, and wind-tossed rain. The tarp has trouble staying in place as well. On the other hand, ventilation is superb.

More easy to find is a rain cape, with the basic strategy of covering your back but leaving the front open for ventilation.

Most waterproof rainsuits are very good at shedding water; however, they have the opposite problem of allowing sweat to build up inside. In some cases, you will be nearly as wet with the rainsuit as without it. The least expensive are made of waterproof nylon. The most suitable of this type have good ventilation openings in the back and under the arms. In cool weather and on a flat ride, one of these might be acceptable. Jacket and pants will probably cost under $100. Ultrex rain gear is the next step up. I haven't used an Ultrex suit, but the fabric is supposed to be less waterproof but porous to air flow, allowing moisture to escape while cycling. The cost for a complete suit is about $200. I use an Gore-Tex rainsuit, which costs well over $300. Gore-Tex is very waterproof and is supposed to be the most breathable fabric, but I still get pretty sticky when climbing a hill. A simple trick is to unzip the front of the jacket under such conditions. In any event, getting sticky is much less objectionable than getting soaked.

The cost of one of these rainsuits may seem excessive, but compare the cost with the alternate of driving the car to work on rainy days over the lifetime of the suit. My first Gore-Tex suit lasted ten years. It's wise to buy these suits while they are on sale, which is fairly often.

A final word, whatever rain clothing you choose, make sure it is highly visible. White or light clothing is not visible against the sky, and dark clothing of whatever color is not very visible against a dark background. Bright yellow, green, and orange are more visible under a variety of conditions.

Carriers or Racks

While it's possible to carry your lunch and supplies in a pack on your back, the room there is limited, and you still need to carry a spare tube, a patch kit, a repair kit, and some rain gear. In addition, you may want to buy something on your way home.

A carrier is useful even if you don't purchase panniers to go with it. I sometimes get large parcels from the post office which I attach to my rear carrier with cord for the eleven-mile journey home. My front carrier is used to support my handlebar bag, and I attach my light to it as well. On a couple of occasions, I have carried a car battery on the front carrier, so it could be recharged (because the vehicle hadn't been driven in three months).

Bags and Pannier bags

When purchasing bags, the first thing that you have to keep in mind is that the catalogs lie about their size. For instance, my front bags for touring are 1,020 cubic inches each and the rear ones are 1,875 inches each. These are huge bags, far too big for commuting. But when I look in the bike catalog, I find rear bags advertised at 2,878 cubic inches each and front ones advertised at 2,070 cubic inches each. The front bags would have to be over 10 x 20 x 10 inches and the rear bags nearly half again as big! They could not possibly be that large. Thirteen years ago, I purchased some bags from REI for local riding that were supposed to be expedition sized. I knew they were no such thing, but I was shocked when I got them to see how small they were, being just big enough to hold one shoe box or two two-liter drinks each. Although sold as rear bags, they would fit comfortably on the front carrier being 10 x 14 x 5 inches, or 700 cubic inches each, not counting the foot cutout, which would make them about 600 cubic inches or less. I recommend if buying your bags mail-order to get the measurement in inches (that is, ask for the length, width, and depth) rather than cubic inches.

There are two other common problems with the panniers I see for sale. One is a design based on a foolish fear of the panniers getting too close to the rear axle. Sometimes the bags stick up well above the rack for this reason, which makes it difficult or impossible to strap a package to the rack. There is absolutely no reason for the axle to be visible. If you had a flat, you would remove the bags before doing any work anyway. The second problem is that some bags lack a foot cutout, so that when you ride, your heel hits against the bag.

For these reasons, I highly recommend not buying a bag by mail order sight unseen unless you are the kind of person who doesn't mind sending things back. It's a shame that most bag manufactures have such a poor idea of what cyclists need, but it won't help for cyclists to continue to use their poorly designed bags. Instead, buy your bags locally or see what other commuters are using. Because I could not find suitable panniers for touring some years ago, I made my own, and you might want to try making your own commuting bags.

Handlebar bags have their own problems. Ideally, such a bag should rest on the front rack, as mine does, but few bikes are equipped to carry such racks, and even the racks are hard to find. So instead, most front racks are designed to hang up in the air, which can cause steering problems. I recommend small handlebar bags if unsupported.

Duffel bags are also sold for on top of bike racks. Two problems here: the weight is carried high, and there's no room for an additional package.

Underseat wedges are also sold, along with an occasional bag that fits within the frame. These are used for carrying tools and perhaps a spare tube.

Cycling Clothing

I'm not going to discussing cycling clothing here because it is not necessary to wear it. I just wore my work clothing when traveling to work. For those who can change before working, wear whatever suits you. I highly recommend wearing shirts and jackets that are bright, colorful, and highly visible.


Riding in All Weather Conditions

Getting Started: Carrying Capacity  Shows Paul Dorn's choice of panniers for commuting and other kinds of travel.

The Joy of Fenders  A very nice article by Frank Krygowski which is similar in scope and nature to this article.

Headlight Plans  Instead of purchasing a bottle lamp, Aaron made his own SLA light for $71.

Headlights  Drew Bryden also created his own headlights, and he provides full details about how to do so.

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