Picks

This Is the Summer to Become a Bike Enthusiast

Here’s what you need.

A multitool.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

If you want to understand how New York City is starting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, consider this: The longest lines right now aren’t at grocery stores but outside the bike shops. Even at the city’s quietest, scariest moment, in April, residents were still using the city’s bike share program more than 23,000 times a day. The essential workers of home delivery, ferrying takeout and groceries, traveled on two wheels, too. More recently, bikes have been ubiquitous at the city’s recent protests against police brutality and racism.

It’s the start of the summer of the bicycle.

With airplane travel reeling and vacations scrapped, Americans yearning to get out and about are dusting off their bikes. One SoulCycle addict I know bought her first bike last month. Her takeaway from cycling through a deserted Manhattan? “I feel silly for robbing myself of its glory for my first five years in New York.”

The boom began during the pandemic as gyms closed and officials warned against using public transit. City residents found bicycles were a good way to get exercise and travel from place to place. Bicycle sales doubled in March, compared with the same month last year. Now, even a used bike is hard to find. Cities like Oakland and Philadelphia have also opened streets to people, providing space for kids to learn to ride. But even those that have hardly changed a thing, like New York City, are still seeing ridership go through the roof.

In European capitals, mayors are turning to bicycle infrastructure to relieve pressure on mass transit. Paris has eliminated cars from its major east-west axis, the Rue de Rivoli, and built two-way bike lanes to shadow its busiest subway lines. London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the city center would become one of the world’s largest urban car-free zones.

Welcome to the club, new riders. Prepare to move through your city at a different pace. You’ll start to feel hills you never saw and, without thinking, favor streets shaded by generous tree canopies. You’ll smell restaurant kitchens and hear kids practicing their instruments through open windows. Your mental map of your neighborhood will double or triple in size. And you’ll never have to look for a parking spot.

A word of caution: Just one ride on a bicycle may be habit-forming. You may find yourself exploring places you’ve never been, spending lots of time outside, and listening to loud music in public. Your legs will be sore and your clothes sweaty. You may feel a sudden solidarity with everyone else on two wheels and a blend of pity and irritation for those still behind the wheel.

Some aficionados might spend more on a bike than on a family vacation. But that doesn’t have to be you: A $50 bike does almost the same thing as one that costs 100 times as much. Every bike shop will give you air for free. Biking requires virtually no equipment beyond the bike, but if you do decide you’d like to build out a kit of bicycle accessories, here are some things that Slatesters recommend. —Henry Grabar

Helmet

One nonobvious place to save a few bucks is on your helmet. Buyers might assume that more expensive helmets confer an increased degree of safety, but that’s not necessarily the case. The cheapest model from an established brand will conform to the same safety standards as that brand’s fanciest helmet, and the features added to nicer helmets are of marginal value to the majority of riders. When shopping for a helmet, make sure yours has CPSC certification and comes from a well-established brand like Giro, Bell, Trek, or Specialized, and you can ride in confidence without breaking the bank. (Bear in mind that all helmets should be replaced every five years and after a crash.) —John Whittington

Lock

I bought an OnGuard Bulldog U-Lock for under $17 in 2011, and it’s still holding strong for me. I’ve never had a bike stolen, the lock still functions smoothly, and the price has barely budged since I bought it. I can’t think of anything else in my life I’ve successfully used on a near-daily basis for 9 years! —Christina Cauterucci

Multitool

You don’t need to do your own repairs, but this little workhorse will help you do simple things at home, like raise your seat or remove your front wheel to get the bike into a car. —Henry Grabar

Seat Pack

I love my Topeak seat pack—I use it to store my multitool, an extra tube, CO2 cartridges, a CO2 inflator, and tire levers. I highly recommend one, especially for long rides. This version even boasts a light for added visibility. —Meryl Devulder

Hand Pump

I swear by this hand pump for emergencies. You can throw it in a pocket with your patch kit, and it supports both Schrader and Presta valves on your tires. I’ve had this one for 12 years, and it’s saved me or a friend many times. It’s also great for really small tires (think kids’ bikes) because it can bend into tight places. My floor pump is an AerGun X-1000, which I also recommend highly after having tried a few others. —Greg Lavallee

Fender

Nothing ruins a morning commute like a thick line of wet city street grit on your backside. The Zefal Swan Bicycle Fender will protect you from water spouting up off your back wheel. It attaches quickly to your seat post so you can screw it on if it’s raining and screw it right back off to leave at home if it isn’t. It’s also lightweight, so you can leave it on all year round and barely notice. —Greg Lavallee

Gloves

I wear bike gloves year round. Not only will gloves protect your hands in the event of a bike/car encounter, you’ll also save money by not wearing out your grips or bar tape. My Mechanix Covert Gloves are relatively cheap, machine washable, and breathable enough that you can use them even in hot weather. These are not technically “bike gloves,” but rather “gloves you can use for biking most of the time.” If it’s really hot, you’ll probably want a pair of fingerless gloves and if it’s really cold, you’ll probably want “lobster claws.” —Greg Lavallee

When winter rolls around, I love these woolen gloves from Giro, even though they don’t last long—I rarely get more than a season’s use out of a pair. But they’re worth it, for a few reasons: They’re wool, which breathes. They’re just thick enough to keep your hands warm in moderately cold weather, but also offer enough dexterity to work those all-important brake & gear levers. They work great as liners under heavier “lobster claw” mittens. And the lime-green color is highly visible, which is great for enhancing the visibility of hand signals in the dark commuter hours of winter. —John Whittington 

Lights

A decent pair of lights will help drivers and pedestrians see you coming and going. A fancy light like this can brighten a whole block of pavement. It lets me cruise in the dark, secure in the knowledge that I’m not about to steer my front wheel into a pothole. —Henry Grabar

Shorts

You’ll know when you’re ready for those tight, padded shorts, and once you wear them, you’ll never want to bike in anything else. —Henry Grabar

Bell

I swear by this bell. It brings me joy because of how majestic it sounds. —Tommy Pham

Hook

One of my all-time favorite pieces of bike gear is also one of my cheapest: the humble vinyl-padded hook. I have used them to add bike storage quickly and cheaply to every home I’ve lived in for decades. I’m recommending this model from Park, as opposed to generic hardware store ones, because they’re that much more reliable—it only has one job, so it should do it well! Park’s hooks also come in a range of sizes to cover the wide array of possible wheel configurations out on the market today and are available with wood or machine threads to mount on wall studs or metal shelving, respectively. (This useful resource gives a good overview of bicycle storage solutions.) —John Whittington 

Tire

Tires are the shoes of your bike, and like shoes, it’s hard to find a pair that are suitable for all occasions. Also like shoes, the more practical they are, the less fun they tend to be. That’s why I love these Roubaix Pro tires from Specialized: They have an incredibly tough but supple casing that rejects punctures but still feels nimble and surefooted. It comes in a practical 30mm width, which is narrow enough to feel fast (and still fit most road bikes) but wide enough to deal with the toughest commuter routes. —John Whittington