Cycling 101: How to Bike Boston

With more and more paths being created and improved along the Mystic River--now is the time to get out on a bike. New to cycling and want to find out some first steps--read the article by volunteer and avid cyclist, Tom Meeks. Even if you are a cycling guru--you might learn about some fun new shops or tips. Finally, checkout our Mystic Greenways Initiative to learn about our efforts to connect 25 miles of paths from the Mystic Lakes to Boston Harbor. Want to see the new paths around Everett, Malden and Revere--join Amber Christoffersen, Greenways Director, as she leads a tour on August 14

Proposed Title: New to Biking in Boston; Check out these Tips

By Tom Meeks

As we enter the height of the summer, and continue to enjoy long days, folks might begin to entertain the notion of finally getting out there and getting on a bike—something that can be quite intimidating and confusing if you’ve never done it before. Let me try to help you make sense of it all. Also—because this needs to be said, no matter how preachy and obvious it is—by getting out on two pedal powered wheels you’re helping the environment, you’re improving your health and if the biking bug really bites you, you may just find that freakish sense of nirvana that many hardcore pedalers boast about.

In speaking with a multitude of area cycling experts the one thing that resoundingly came back loud was proper fit of a bike and gear.  Right in Medford Square, and close to the proposed Clippership Connector is JRA Cycles. The have been a proponent for the proposed ½ mile connector--which will help make 10 miles of contiguous bikes paths from Wellington Circle  to the Mystic Lakes. Other area bike shops, Landry Bikes (Boston) and Belmont Wheelworks (also a sister shop on Elm Street in Somerville) are renowned for their service, selection and professionalism. Let them help you, it’s what they do 24/7. I recently had a destroyed tire replaced and my cables adjusted by a mechanic at Landry Bikes in less the time it took me to pick out a pair of gloves—and I knew what I was looking for.

One thing you’ll need to decide before wandering into a store is what you want the bike for. Are you looking to do long country bike rides, city touring, city commuting, mountain biking or a mix of the above? That will dictate where you should go to shop and what you should expect to pay for a bike, but I can’t stress enough that getting quality components (gears, shifters, wheels and brakes) is essential. It will cost you more up front, but it will save you time and money in the end. The following article “Getting Stared” on bicycle.com gives you some great baselines on fitting cost and selection.

Some may feel Wheelworks and Landry might be too steep for that first bike and may jump to considering other options like Craigslist and eBay, but getting good professional help for beginners can be a huge difference maker and there are other, cheaper/refurb options out there such as Quad Bikes over in the Radcliffe Quad of Harvard University, the Broadway Bicycle School across from the Cambridge City Hall Annex as well as Cambridge Used Bikes over in East Cambridge, and of course Bikes Not Bombs in Jamaica Plain. All offer used and refurbished bikes and also sell parts. The Broadway Bike School also provides bike maintenance classes as does the City of Cambridge (see more at the Community Development Department’s "By Bike" page). 

Getting a “starter” bike to gauge your interest level and then trading up as your use and activity on that bike increases, is not a bad idea. 

Other more niche stores in the area include Cambridge Bikes by MIT that specializes in urban and commuting cycles and Bicycle Belle close by to the Porter Square T stop which centers itself around “family friendly cycling.” Belle also hosts bike related socials and meetups as does Crimson Bikes, just south of Harvard Square on Mass Ave that serves as a hub/host for community weekend rides of all levels. 

Bicycle Belle and Broadway Bike School are good places to drop by and have that initial conversation about “getting on a bike.” Cambridge’s CDD as part of its CitySmart programs offers information programs and community outreach as well.  Heading north up the Mystic River Watershed, there’s Quad Bikes in Arlington and The Bike Stop right off the Minuteman Bike Path after you pass the high school. When biking, it’s always good to know where the local bike stores are should you require maintenance (flats and worse) or assistance to get you back on the road—carrying a small pack of bike tools, a pump and a spare inner-tube is a wise choice.

Another option to getting up and out for that first ride might be to rent a bike and go on a tour. Urban AdvenTours in Boston provides such a launching pad with great hands on attention to clients’ comfort levels and objectives. Another good confidence builder are the two bi-annual “family friendly” rides that the Cambridge Bicycle Committee (former member speaking here) organizes. They roll along at a comfortably casual pace and are led by a police escort. The bikeshare Blue Bikes (owned by Lyft) stations is another low point of entry. For around $2.00, you can hop on a sturdy, easy to mount steel steed. Some folk get an annual membership ($99.00) and ride the convenient transit solution for both recreation and as a means of getting around. 

Once you get a bike—and again, depending on your use—you’ll need clothing, equipment and accouterments. If you can buy local, it may cost more than Amazon, but you’re getting professional advice and supporting local businesses. Helmets are legally required for anyone under the age of 16. A helmet won’t make you more safe when riding but it will prevent head injury if you have a crash. I recommend it and make sure it fits you well and is adjustable enough so you can put a cold weather cap under it during the winter months. You are legally required to have front and rear lights after dusk. If you’re just riding around the city where you just need to be seen, I prefer the USB rechargeable solutions, they’re lightweight and overall cheaper. If you’re doing longer in the dark rides where street light is scarce, you’ll likely have to spring for a high lumens solution that will likely come with a heavy NiCd battery. 

As far as clothes go, dress in layers so you can add and take off as need be. Wicking material is key as well as a breathable waterproof outer layer. Most stores now sell more casual bike clothing that’s more hop off the bike and go into the office than just plain Day-Glo Lycra wear. Shower Pass, Ralph and Betabrand have been leading the change in active casual, but again it’s about purpose and use. If you’re biking in the winter, carrying a slightly warmer and cooler pair of gloves in your bike bag is a smart idea.

Given you’ll want to take your camera to the Mystic River Watershed or your laptop to the library a bike bag is a must, be it a backpack, a courier bag or panniers, having one that’s waterproof and suits your need is key. Ortlieb, Timbuktu and Chrome are leaders and the best way to really see how the bag works for you is to check them out off the shelf, the best selections I’ve seen are at Cambridge Bikes, Hilton's Tent City also in Cambridge and REI over in Fenway. 

Now you’re equipped and locked and loaded. One thing before you hit the street is to know the rules of the road. Folks will tell you bikes must behave just like cars on the road. Well yes and no. Minimum and maximum speeds don’t apply to bikes and there are streets where cars cannot make a right on red, but bikes can. There are several other exceptions. Here you can find a good summary of the Mass Bike Laws governing bikes, but be aware townships will have variations and additional rules. One main one is where and if it’s permissible to bike on the sidewalk. Places like the Esplanade and Fresh Pond will also have specific rules for those areas. Sharing the road with cars and paths with pedestrians does offer it’s challenges. Making eye contact and communications as you pass is a good idea. A bell is a good idea. 

When dealing with cars, it’s best to err on the side of caution. It’s better to be alive than dead, and trust me, the simple physics of it, have a two-ton car winning all the time. Above all be alert. In an ideal world of you obeyed all the rules, nothing would ever happen. Mostly that is the case, but better safe than sorry.

Once you’re out and rolling you may want to pull down the Strava GPS app to track your miles and that will likely mean a Quad Lock case and mounting post. 

As far as community goes, many of the shops and organizations mentioned above have mailing lists and regular events. They’re a great way to make bike buddies or find a group ride with expert leaders/navigators. One such event I particularly like is the Somerville Bike Committee’s Bike Talk Social Hour at the Aeronaut Brewery.

Other than that, have fun and be safe, it’s also good to be aware of the advocacy groups like Mass Bike and the Boston Cyclists Union who work hard to promote biker’s rights, improve infrastructure and make biking safer and more accessible for all.


See you on the road. 

About the author: Tom Meek is a writer, instructor, engineer and activist living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays and short stories have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe Cambridge Day and The Charleston City Paper. Tom rides his bike everywhere and hopes for a less carbon future.