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Vienna Pedaler: Bicycles Go to College

Bringing a bike to college is a good idea, but there are a few things you should bear in mind

We all mark the change of the seasons in different ways, but two things tell me the end of summer is drawing near. First, my "summer help" lets me know they'll soon be going off to college. Then we are visited by a number of college students and their parents, wanting to get a bike ready to go away to school. And I have to say, I think it's a great idea to bring a bike with you to college, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

First, why bring a bike to college? Well, they are a wonderful, practical, affordable way to get around. Most college campuses have limited and often expensive parking, and the distance from the parking lot to your classes might be considerable. If you're a daily commuter, you can probably park your bike a lot closer to your class than if you drive, and depending on where you are, it might even be easier and faster to ride to classes than to drive. If you're living on campus, having a bike can give you a cheap and easy way to get around, as well as a great way to get exercise and explore. 

Now, it's a sad fact that college campuses can be risky locations when it comes to bike theft. So investing in a good lock is absolutely essential. What kind of lock is good for a college campus? Well, it depends a bit on your specific situation. If you are a commuter, and you're leaving your bike for an hour or two while you are in class, you might be able to use a lighter, less expensive cable lock. If you leave your bike for the entire day, I'd suggest you invest in a better, more theft-resistant lock, such as a "U-Lock" or stout chain or bar lock. Check with your local bike shop for options and advice. You might also look at my Patch article on the subject here: .

Living in campus housing with a bike can present special challenges. While some schools offer secure, indoor storage for your bike (perhaps in the basement of your dorm or similar space), many don't offer such provisions. You may find yourself faced with the unpleasant prospect of having to leave your bike outside all the time, exposed to possible theft and the wear and tear caused by the elements. What can you do to make the best of a bad situation?

To protect from sun and rain and other forces of nature, you should consider getting a cover for your bike. It's not a perfect solution, and 24/7 exposure will make for a short life for most covers (typically made of vinyl or nylon), but better that than having your bike open to nature. Of course, prolonged storage outside also presents a greater risk of theft, so you need to use the best possible lock you can afford. Such locks can be mighty heavy, but if you lock your bike in the same location every night, you can simply leave the heavy lock attached to the rack, and use a lighter lock when you're out and about.

If you have an expensive, high-quality bike you really like, there's one other thing you might consider: substituting a "beater" bike for your campus life. It doesn't have to be a poor quality bike, just one that looks unassuming — one you won’t worry as much about damage or theft. An added benefit of such a bike is it's less likely to be stolen, as well. Typically bike thieves look for flashy bikes that are poorly secured. So, if you have  scruffy-looking ride, well-locked, you just might manage to keep it for your whole college career. When you graduate, you can pass it on to a younger student or you might even find it handy as you go out into wider world. You'd be surprised how handy a beater bike can be.

Now, it is a good idea to get whatever bike you take with you checked over and tuned up by a shop, unless you have the skills to do it yourself. It's already getting a bit late in the season to take care of this, so don't wait any longer. Get it to your favorite shop now so they have the time to get it in tip-top shape and back to you in time for school to begin. Then when you get to campus, you'll be all set to get around and have fun on two wheels under your own power. Take it from me, you'll be glad you did.

J J Madden August 13, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Thanks, Tim. Excellent advice. Just not sure if the bike my son's taking constitutes a true "beater". His brother took good care of it - may need to scuff it up bit. : )
Amelie Krikorian August 13, 2012 at 06:04 PM
I brought a beater bike to college and it was terrific for getting around campus... except when it was raining or sleeting. The bike itself never got stolen, but the nice basket I had on it did, several times, and the cover as well. In fact one morning I went outside to get my bike to go to class and found that because it had been sleeting the night before, someone in my dorm had taken the cover off my bike to put it over his! So if you really care about keeping your bike protected from the elements, investing in a cover that you can run your lock through somehow is worth it.
Wien August 14, 2012 at 01:37 PM
And if you get a beater (or a new bike) for college, I'd suggest getting a mountain bike or other bike with low-pressure tires. Before I knew any better with regards to bike maintenance, I rode my Trek mountain bike my entire first couple years; it sat outside all year, no cover, and basically never needed air. Get the lowest-maintenance bike you can - that's why I suggest MTBs with low pressure tires...don't get a roadie that takes 125psi and needs tire inflation every couple days. Because trying to do any maintenance, chain, or wheel work outside a dorm isn't happening. Now that I have nice bikes and think back to my Trek, I laugh about how little I did to maintain it. But I have to be impressed with the durability; it sat outside for two years, then outside (but under a patio awning) for another two years, never covered with a bike cover, never maintained properly, and it's still kicking. It's still at my parents house and they still loan it to local Boy Scouts for big bike trips where someone needs a bike with more gears. That bike is probably 15-20 years old...although needed a serious bike shop tune-up after college.
Tina August 15, 2012 at 12:14 AM
After my first bike got stolen in college (I didn't have it locked at all because I didn't like it anyway, so it was kind of a "good riddance"), I bought a new one and I kept it in my dorm room. Yes, it was a tight fit, but I didn't trust any lock enough to leave it outside all the time. If I were in college now, I'd buy a foldable bike, as they take up a lot less room -- I'm actually kind of surprised that Tim didn't suggest that, given that he has so many of them in his shop! (I know he's not trying to advertise here, but still, a foldable bike is a perfect solution for someone who doesn't have a lot of space.)

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