Choosing a Commuter Bike

Day’s Verse:
I spread out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

Psalm 143:6

So you’re interested in commuting by bike. Often one of the first questions people have when they start thinking about using a bike as a means of transportation is “What kind of bike should I use?” I’m going to provide a little bit of bike purchasing advice that’s based on my experience, but you don’t actually need a special bike for commuting. All you need is a bike in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry your stuff.

However, lots of people buy commute-specific bikes, for good reason, so I’m going to throw my $0.02 in. I emphasize planning and thinking before going out and buying a bike because most people buy a first commuter bike and then later wish they’d bought something else. My discussion below is aimed at to helping you home in on features you want so you can buy the right bike the first time.

Choose Features

Define your list of needs.
When you decide to go by bike, first think about a XXX factors:

  1. What is your budget? You can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000 on a commuting bike. Expect to spend between $750 and $1500 for a good commuting bike from a reputable bike shop.
  2. How often do you want to ride? Think about what your long-term bicycling goal is. Do you want to ride 5 days a week year round, whenever the weather permits, or just every occasionally?
  3. How many miles will you ride? You’ll probably want a different bike to ride 10 miles each way than if you ride 2 miles each way. If your normal commute is long, consider a multimodal commute where you drive or take the bus partway, park, and ride the rest of the way.
  4. Do you want to use this bike for other things? If you want to take this on long club rides, on gravel trails, for towing a trailer, or for other specific uses, make sure you find a bike that supports those activities.
  5. How hilly is your commute? A 50-lb Dutch-style bike is great in flat New York City, but on the hills of San Fransisco, you’d probably prefer something a bit lighter-weight. Single-speeds and fixed gear bikes are popular right now, but aren’t so practical for most everyday bicyclists.
  6. Do you want to carry stuff on your bike? Many bike commuters use a rack and panniers (saddle bags), but a backpack or messenger bag also serve many commuters well. If you want to go the rack-and-pannier method, budget extra for those items. Some bikes do come equipped with those, but many don’t.
  7. Do you want to ride in the dark? Some commuter bikes come equipped with dynamo-powered front and rear lights already. Most bikes can support lights, but budget for a good, bright front light ($100 to $150 is about typical) and a couple of blinking rear lights ($30 to $40 each).

Refine your list of needs.
Once you’ve thought about that, ride your current bike (if you have one) on your commute for at least a month. Keep a list of the things you like and don’t like about it. This, like the planning above, will help you start getting a better sense of what you actually want out of your commuter bike.

What Kind of Bike?

With your refined list of needs in hand, you can start thinking about what kind of bike would serve your needs. I’m not going to recommend specific bikes because there are so many excellent “urban” or commute-specific bike models out there these days and every commuter’s needs are different. However, check out bikes from Trek (and associated brand Gary Fisher), Specialized, Jamis, Surly, Giant, and any of the other major brands.

Features to Consider
Features to look for that make a bike good for commuting can include:

  • Fender mounts
  • Rack mounts
  • Dynamo-hub powered front- and rear-lights, if you want to avoid the hassle of batteries — either way, plan on buying lights and using them day and night
  • Sturdy frame
  • Comfortable geometry for you — this can mean anything from a road bike with drop handlebars to a fully upright cruiser-style bike
  • Gearing suitable for your terrain
  • Reasonable weight — many Dutch city bikes and cruisers tend to weigh in at over 40 lbs, which becomes a lot of weight to haul around if you’re riding any distance or up any hills
  • Easy-to-use shifters — you can always learn new shifters, but odds are you’ll develop a preference as you try different things, and it’s worth having shifting you like since you do it often
  • Place for a bell — much nicer than having to holler “on yer left!” constantly
  • Smooth, fairly skinny tires

Here are three different commuter bikes that all have most of the features listed above.

The Road Bike Option
Commuter Bike Options: 1
This road bike has a touring geometry, which makes it more upright and less aerodynamic than a racing bike. It has a rear rack and the option for a front rack, fenders, lights, a wide range of gears, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is comfortable for riding short distances in regular pants or longer distances with bike shorts. The tires are narrow (23x700C), high-pressure, and puncture-resistant, with a reflective sidewall for better nighttime side visibility. I ride this bike on my daily 40-mile round-trip commute.

The Hybrid Bike Option
Commuter Bike Options: 2
This is a hybrid bike with a very upright geometry, curving handbars and comfy grips. It has a rear rack and fenders, some cheap clip-on lights, very low gearing that makes climbing hills easy, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is quite cushy and comfortable for riding in regular pants for short to intermediate distances. The tires are slightly wider and medium-pressure, not puncture-resistant or anything special, really. I like to ride this bike on short errands when I just want to wear regular clothes.

The Cargo Bike Option

Commuter Bike Options: 3
This is a workhorse bike, a Specialized Hardrock with a Free Radical Xtracycle extension on the back that makes hauling large loads feasible (but not pleasant, particularly up hills). I converted it to have drop handlebars some time ago, but now I think I’d like to go for a more upright geometry with handlebars like the red bike. It has a fairly cheap headlight, extremely low gearing that’s necessary when it’s under load, and it weighs a ton. The seat is comfortable enough for regular pants but padded shorts help. The tires are extremely wide, puncture-resistant, and durable. I like to ride this when I go on trips to the grocery store or to pick up things that don’t fit in a regular set of panniers.

As you can see, there are many different options when you buy a commuter bike. Generally, if you buy a good brand from a reputable shop, you’ll do well.

In addition to the bikes billed as “urban bikes” or “commuter bikes” — many of which come either equipped with commuting essentials or readily accept them — consider touring bikes like the Jamis Aurora, which are built to carry heavy loads and be very comfortable over long distances; and cyclocross bikes (I had a LeMond Poprad, an excellent commuter but no longer manufactured), which tend to be very strong but lightweight and often are rack- and fender-compatible.

The Latest Cool Things
A word on some gimmicks:

  • Carbon fiber isn’t necessary on a commuter bike. Many bikes come with carbon fiber forks and seatposts, and it’s the latest cool thing for bike technology. Carbon fiber can make a bumpy road feel smoother on a ride, but a good steel bike can have a very similar feel without the downsides of carbon fiber (primarily its propensity to shatter or crack when impacted). Whatever you choose to commute on, make sure it’s a rugged bike that can take some banging around.
  • Fat, knobby tires aren’t good for riding on roads. Unless your commute includes some singletrack or a path covered deep in large gravel, look for smooth tires. Many people ride on fairly skinny tires to reduce rolling resistance, and that’s a good idea for long-distance or race rides. However, for everyday commuting, slightly wider tires — 32 to 38 for a 700C wheel, or 1.5 to 1.75 on a 26″ wheel — can cushion your ride and make it feel a lot less bumpy. Be sure to pump your tires up every week, and I recommend getting puncture-resistant tires like the Specialized Armadillo or the Continental Gatorskin. These cost more but save you the hassle of dealing with frequent flats*.
  • Disc brakes have pros and cons. Lots of commuter bikes are coming equipped with disc brakes, which have incredible stopping power under any conditions. If you’re planning on riding through a snowy, icy winter, or if you plan on regularly carrying 50+ lbs down big hills, by all means consider disc brakes. However, be aware that disc brakes tend to be finnicky and require frequent readjustment, and replacing the brake pads on disc brakes is twice as expensive as and significantly more complicated than replacing pads for rim brake pads. Normal rim brakes work very well for most normal commuting applications and they’re much less finicky and expensive than disc brakes.
  • Internal hubs. You can get up to an 8-speed internal rear hub. This is pretty cool. I’d definitely recommend considering a bike with internal gearing, as having the rear gears sealed away will save you all that time you’d spend cleaning off the cassette (you would clean the cassette regularly, right?). Also, my understanding is that these tend to last a very long time. However, be warned that the shifting is different from on a standard bike, and unless you’re already a bike mechanic, you wouldn’t be able to adjust much — internal hubs are extremely complicated.
  • Ten and 11-speed cassettes. These days, many bikes have 10 or even 11 cogs in the cassette. This does give you lots of options, but be forewarned that you’ll have to replace your chain very frequently — every 1,000 miles or so — if you decide to go with a 10- or 11-speed bike. Also, when you account for gears you shouldn’t use to avoid cross-chaining and duplicated gear ratios, you don’t tend to boot very much from extremely high numbers of gears. I recommend going for an 8- or 9-speed cassette, which will give you a good range of gears for climbing hills while also lasting a long time (unless you live in a very flat place, in which case you could always go the single-speed route).
  • Single-speed or fixed-gears. First, let’s define our terms. A single-speed bike has a freewheel that allows you to coast and back-pedal, but you only have a fixed gear ratio — just one cog in the front and one cog in the back. A fixed-gear bike requires you to pedal all the time; there is no coasting or back-pedaling on a fixed-gear bike, which makes going up and down big hills painful and hard on the knees. It, too, has a fixed gear ratio. I’m not into fixed gears, frankly, but I can see the appeal of a single-speed if you lived in a fairly flat area (or wanted to get really buff): It’s a simple setup with a lot fewer parts to keep adjusted and clean, a big boon in the winter when bike components can get very gunky very fast in rainy/snowy parts of the country.

Test ride bikes.
Next, go to your local bike shop — or used bike shop, if you have any in your area; a commuter bike doesn’t have to be new, just in good condition — and test ride some bikes. I don’t just mean ride around the parking lot a little bit, either. Once you have your list of bikes narrowed down, ask the shop if you can take it for a longer test ride. If you can, ride it the length of your commute. Bring along everything you’d want to carry to simulate the commute conditions as closely as possible. Test ride the level of bike you can afford. Many bike shops have good commuter bikes starting at $500 to $700. The higher the price, the nicer the components get, and that usually that means increasingly good shifting and fancier brakes. Extremely high-end components often aren’t so great for commuting because they’re built to be lightweight rather than durable, and commuting is all about finding a durable bike to keep you rolling.

Now that you have thought about features you need, explored different options, talked to your local bike shop, and test ridden at least 3 totally different types of bikes, you’re ready to buy your bike and start commuting. Remember, all you really need for commuting is a bike — any bike — in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry stuff. Now get out on the road and get rolling. I hope you find commuting by bike as enjoyable as I do!

* Learn how to change a flat tire and always carry everything you need to do so. Every commuter will eventually get a flat, and it’s just smart to be prepared for the inevitable.

One thought on “Choosing a Commuter Bike”

  1. Great post! You’ve done a nice job in summarizing all the things that one needs to consider when getting a commuter bike. Really great advice! I’ve just switched from riding my trusty Trek mountain bike (with non-knobby, Armadillo tires) to a new Dutch bike. Since I live in Chicago – flat grand city of the Midwest, a heavy Dutch bike works for me. My mountain bike is a steel bike, though not as heavy as my Oma, so I was already used to a somewhat heavy bike.

    A couple of additional comments about choosing the right bike and gear:
    * Consider storage – Many folks in the city have to carry their bike up and down stairs so you should think about where you will be storing your bike and how quickly and easily you can access it. I’ve been carrying my steel-frame mountain bike up and down the stairs for a few years and if my landlord hadn’t offered a first-floor spot for my new Dutch bike I would not have purchased it.

    * Messenger bags – I have a great Chrome bag that I’ve been carrying for years and I love it. However, carrying a laptop and gear has taken it’s toll on my shoulders over time. The weight of your gear and the added sweat-marks from carrying a bag are good reasons to consider panniers and/or baskets in my opinion.

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