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How to Choose and Buy the Best Commuter Bike
What Is a Commuter Bike?
The name probably gives it away… it’s a practical bicycle that you use to travel to and from your place of work, school, college, university, yoga session, ninja class or secret tryst. It’s a ‘to-and-from’ bike that gets you where you need to go with a minimum of fuss. It needs to be simple to use, practical and functional all year round.
Most commuter bikes suit riders with all levels of cycling experience, including recreational and beginner cyclists. They are also more than adequate for weekend leisure rides.
The benefits of commuting by bike are multiple. When you ride to work or school, you don’t contribute to carbon emissions and you’re avoiding a majority of traffic congestion. You’re saving money that would have been spent on fuel or public transport, all while crafting a rad set of quads. Commuting is a source of fitness, fresh air and fun. You don’t get any of that sitting alone in a car in gridlock, for two hours on a Monday morning.
Cyclists live in towns and cities with every kind of terrain imaginable. San Francisco shares its elevation profile with a roller-coaster, while Miami’s flatter than a platter.
Some urban area have immaculately kept road surfaces. In others; the streets are showered with broken glass, riven with cracks and teeming with potholes.
Because urban centers vary so much, so does the ideal commuter bike. But there a number of characteristics that they all share in common.
The Modern Commuter
Maintenance should be minimal on a good commuter. They shouldn’t require frequent and expensive professional attention. A commuter bike is a transportation tool that needs to be resilient day-to-day. Fragile parts belong on delicate road bikes and cheap, throw-away, department-store bikes.
Comfort is a priority. Your commuter bike is going to be ridden frequently. If it’s a means of transport to your place of work or education, you don’t want to arrive tired and sore; soaking in mud, sweat and tears. While style and speed are considerations, the number one priority is day-to-day usability and comfort. This is why commuters usually feature:
Wider, higher-volume, slick or semi-slick tires. These are a commuter trademark and are usually wider than the tires found on road bikes. Though they aren’t as wide as ‘balloon’ or mountain bike tires. They’re a compromise between comfort, strength and speed. Knobbly mountain-bike tires are overkill. Depending on how wrecked your city roads are, you should be fine with slicks or light tread.
…handle rougher city roads, bumps and debris.
…give a cushioned ride and absorb vibration.
…guard against punctures and pinch-flats.
Practicality is paramount. Sure, it’s nice to look good and express your individuality on the streets. But your bike has gotta get you from A to B. In the commuting world, utility is usually a priority over novelty, speed and radness. An impractical, good-looking bike may cause discomfort, be inefficient and discourage you from committing to your daily commute. Of course, this balance is up to personal choice.
You can always have two bikes – business and party. Also, there is no rules against customizing your commuter.
|From left: business, party and ‘business meets party’|
What are the Characteristics of a Commuter?
Commuters come in a range of styles. A common type is evolved from the ‘Hybrid Bike’, which is a do-it-all bike with knobbly tires. It shares traits of both road and mountain bikes. The Hybrid is a compromise, intended to cover some urban needs while still being able to handle a weekend trail or gentle dirt track. The commuter is a dedicated urban transport bicycle with slick (or semi-slick) tires.
Commuters are usually lighter than hybrids, but more rugged than a delicate, traditional road bike. They trade off weight and strength.
Commuters need to be resilient. They are often ridden day-in, day-out, year-round in all weather conditions. They need to able to handle all qualities of roads and the occasional, accidental curb hit. Maintenance should be simple and minimal. Anything too heavy is tiring, while anything too light may be fragile. A good commuter is usually a robust commuter.
Components need to be tough enough for daily use in urban environments. Reliability and strength are priorities.
It’s the “Camel of the Streets”, when you need to carry cargo to and fro. It might be lunch, a uniform, textbooks, art supplies, a yoga mat or nunchakus. But commuting cyclists often need to carry their kit on their bike. This is why most commuters will have mounts for one or more racks. Some even come with one included or as part of the frame.
The eyelets have it. Eyelets not only have the ability to help you mount racks, but they are essential if you want to fit fenders and a bottle cage for hydration. Eyelets for bottle cages are called ‘bosses’. Keep these in mind when choosing a commuter. Life without fenders can be far too wet. Without water, it’s bone dry.
Features of Commuter Bikes
|Depending on the build, this alloy bike is either a mid-priced commuter or a gravel bike|
Alloys are your allies. Aluminum alloys are commonly used on commuter bikes. Their compromise between price, strength and weight make them attractive.
On the downside, Aluminum can be rigid and tend to vibrate, rather than absorbing impact. For this reason, alloy frames are sometimes coupled with a carbon fork. Another downside is that, in the rare instance where the frame cracks, repairs are difficult and expensive.
In general, aluminum is lightweight, affordable and durable.
|Chromoly Steel is comfortable, dependable and in some cases, beautiful.|
Steel yourself, if you like old-fashioned reliability and superior shock-absorbance. Good old steel is still a common choice for new bikes, and will appear in two forms:
- Chromoly: Chromoly steel comes in a variety of grades and recipes. It can be relatively lightweight, has a superior ability to absorb vibration and is easy to have repaired.
- Hi-Tensile: This is cheap, heavy and has inferior shock-absorbance qualities. It will often only be labeled as ‘steel’, with no mention of the words ‘Hi-Tensile’ or ‘Hi-Ten’.
|Full Carbon: tempting…|
Carbon Fiber is lightweight, resilient, compliant and expensive. It’s true that it’s strong and absorbs road vibration.
On the other hand, it can be restrictively expensive and is usually only necessary on performance bikes, where speed is paramount. A carbon fiber bike is more likely to be stolen and will also be very costly or impossible to repair if cracked.
|Titanium: tough, light, comfortable, reliable and expensive. But oh so durable.|
Titanium is a boutique frame material. It is used in aircraft construction, due to its low weight and high strength. It’s rarer than other materials, because it’s more difficult to work with. A titanium bike frame can easily last a lifetime. It’s lighter than steel and has superior shock absorbance. On top of that, it’s highly corrosion resistant and close to rust-proof. It won’t age and isn’t prone to catastrophic failure, as can be the case for carbon fiber.
Essentially, it’s more appropriate for performance bikes, but there are titanium commuters on the market. If your workplace has a parking garage, one of these could be up your alley.
In terms of cost, Hi-Tensile bikes should be cheap. Most chromoly frames will be comparable in cost to aluminum. Lighter, high-end chromoly tubing is more costly than aluminum but cheaper than carbon fiber.
Commuter bikes are usually designed with a more relaxed and less aggressive geometry than road bikes. They have a moderately low bottom bracket, which brings the frame closer to the ground. This allows for frequent stopping and starting in traffic, which requires the rider to regularly put their feet on the ground.
Medium distance rides account for a large proportion of daily commutes. A medium-distance commute calls for a riding position that’s more upright than a road bike, while still requiring the rider to lean forward a little. This gives the rider good visibility through traffic, while being able to gain speed and handle efficiently. Most dedicated commuters fall into this category, including a large number of singlespeeds and fixed gear bikes. This aids good posture and ‘reach’ distances.
Shorter distances can easily be cycled on a bike with more upright geometry. Good examples are classic step-through bikes and cruisers.
They often have swept-back handlebars and a straight-backed seating position, with excellent urban visibility.
Longer distances welcome a more aggressive position, for those who want to get down low on drop bars. This geometry is most exaggerated on road bikes, followed by gravel and touring machines.
It suits long slogs where you won’t need to constantly monitor dangerous traffic. This geometry is shared by aggressive singlespeed and fixed gear bikes with track racer geometry.
If you see manufacturers mentioning the ‘drivetrain’ of their bikes, they are referring to all the elements that contribute to gearing. This includes the chainring/s, chain, derailleur/s, cassette and cogs.
Commuter gearing must be suited to the geographic requirements of your commute. If you are using your bike in an area with moderate elevation, eight speeds will probably serve you well. If you ride in a hilly or mountainous area, you may want to consider eleven or more speeds. Gearing is often easier on a commuter than on a road bike. This makes for a relaxed, seated position on most climbs. If you are super-fit or your commute is short and flat, you may be happy with a singlespeed or fixed gear bike.
External gearing is the traditional system, where one or more chainrings are attached to the crank. Where there are two or more, the chain is moved from one to another by a front derailleur, which is pulled by a cable through the use of a shifter on the handlebar. The front derailleur is attached to the seat tube.
On bikes with multiple gears, the chain links these chainrings to a cassette or freewheel on the rear hub. The cassette or freewheel uses a cluster of sprockets, which are shifted by a rear derailleur. This derailleur is also shifted up and down the sprockets by a cable-actuated shifter (or lever), mounted to the handlebar.
Single chainring drivetrains are increasingly common on new bikes and now have a large range. What this means is that they have an ample gear range for most commutes. Rear cogs are both larger (easier) and smaller (harder, faster) than those on older bikes. Single chainrings eliminate the need for a front derailleur and make your commuter simpler and easier to maintain.
|A double chainring with a front derailleur||A single chainring, no derailleur|
A double chainring can provide more gears, but is also heavier and more complicated than a single chainring.
Internal hubs are not uncommon on commuters. With these systems, gears are tucked away inside the rear wheel hub and are protected from dirt, moisture and damage. They should require less maintenance than derailleurs. The downside is that they are often more costly and less D.I.Y. when they do require repairs. Internal gearing systems usually range from 3 to 14 speeds. 7 or 8 speeds is a good medium for most commuters. With these systems, you can shift gears from a stop – handy for traffic lights!
|An internal hub with a carbon belt-drive|
Belt-drives use carbon-fiber belts to replace chains and do not require lubrication. This means no fear of greasy pants on the way to work. They are smooth and silent. They do require a certain kind of frame design known as a ‘split-frame’ and use a single cog on the rear wheel. This limits them to internal hubs.
While they can be expensive, carbon belts are usually longer-lasting than chains.
When looking at gears, the brand names Shimano and SRAM dominate the market and are indicative of quality and reliability.
Anyone who has cycled in traffic knows how important good brakes are. For a safe and enjoyable ride, effective brakes are essential.
Commuter bikes usually use either of two kinds of brakes:
- Disc Brakes slow the bike by squeezing pads onto a disc, which is attached to the wheel hub.
- Rim Brakes use rubber pads to squeeze against the wheel rim, in order to slow it. They come in a few varieties.
Caliper brakes are attached to the frame or fork by a single bolt. They use curved arms, which must be long and wide enough to fit around your tires. Generally, they are more powerful and easier to center than ‘V-brakes’.
They are suited to accommodating narrower tires. For these reasons, they are commonly used on road bikes. You’ll find them on a variety of commuters; from town bikes to cruisers and singlespeeds.
Cantilever brakes use two separate arms, attached to bosses on the bicycle frame. These were popular on older mountain bikes and are now used on modern cyclocross machines. Newer models are powerful, precise, easy to maintain and easily accommodate wider tires. They are the recommended winter rim brake.
Linear pull brakes (also known as ‘V-brakes’) are a type of cantilever rim brake that uses a single cable and two arms. They allow room for fatter tires and can be adjusted and maintained at home. That said, they can still be tricky to center.
The most important consideration with rim brakes is that they lose some power in wet weather. Winter braking also wears down rims as grit and filth gets attracted to your brake pads. However, they are cheaper than discs and easier to adjust without professional help.
|Disc brake (cable-actuated hydraulic)||Linear rim brake (a.k.a ‘V-brake’)|
Discs cost more than rim brakes, but are now more affordable than they have ever been. They are more powerful than rim brakes, especially in wet weather. They allow for the use of wide tires and don’t wear down your rims.
On the downside, they add weight to your bike and are more complicated to maintain, adjust and repair.
There are two types of disc brake; hydraulic and mechanical. Hydraulic brakes provide greater stopping power and use brake fluid to transmit force.
They are more costly than mechanical discs and trickier to maintain. If you live in a drier climate, you might consider cutting costs and using rim brakes. If you can afford them, disc brakes are recommended.
|Ye olde Coaster brake|
Coaster brakes are also known as ‘pedal brakes’. You might remember them from childhood, when simple bikes required you to push your pedals backwards to stop. They can still be found on some cruisers, town bikes and singlespeeds. There are no pads or discs and braking takes place largely within the wheel hub. Most coaster brakes provide inferior stopping power, compared to rim and disc brakes. When using a coaster brake, it’s recommended to combine it with a front rim or disc brake. This insures against failure.
The Wheel Thing
There are three main materials used to build wheels; aluminum alloys, carbon fiber and steel.
Alloy rims are light and strong. Most commuter wheels use alloy rims.
Carbon fiber is the lightest and most expensive choice, while remaining strong.
Steel wheels are heavy and rarer on new bikes. Some roadster-style bikes still use them.
What Size is Right?
Commuter bikes come in a range of types that use a wide range of wheel sizes. There is no standard, but some sizes are much more common. Here’s the run-down of wheel sizes you’ll find on commuter bikes:
This is the most common wheel size found on modern commuters. It’s the same size as found on modern road bikes. Their large circumference allows them to roll quickly. They are less prone to jounce1 when passing over small cracks, bumps and debris. Because of their size, they are less agile than smaller wheels and may be heavier than them. The weight penalty is balanced out by by the fact that they roll faster than these smaller sizes.
29” (or 29 inch)
This is the name given to 700c wheels on mountain bikes. They share the same circumference as 700c wheels but usually use wider rims. It’s more appropriate to fit wider tires on these wider rims – and narrower tires on 700c rims. With fat tires on 29” wheels, they can make some bikes too tall for shorter riders. Keep this in mind when sizing up a new bike.
650b wheels are smaller in circumference than 700c, but larger than older style 26 inch mountain bike wheels. 650b has been popular with touring cyclists and randonneurs2 for many decades, but has recently gained a renewed appreciation and subsequent application to many bike types.
Because of their smaller size, they may be slower than 700c when shod with narrow tires. However, it’s important to note that a 650b wheel with a large 47c tire is the same circumference as a 700c wheel with a 28c or 30c tire. This also means that these tires have more air volume, which translates to increased comfort and jounce1-reduction on rough roads.
650b wheels are more agile than their larger 700c brethren – and they also accelerate faster. There is another benefit of these mid-sized wheels – and contemporary manufacturers are capitalizing on it. Using 650b wheels, smaller bike sizes stay in proportion and allow a lower standover height.
If you’re a smaller or shorter rider, 650b is well worth your consideration. Some models come with the option of either 650b or 700c wheels. For other models, larger frame sizes use 700c, while smaller sizes use 650b.
27.5” (27.5 inch)
This is mountain-bike lingo for 650b. They’re the same circumference and diameter as 650b but usually sport wider rims for larger tires and rougher applications. Rims will likely be tough, particularly when coupled with the fat, slick tires that fit best on these rims.
You’ll usually only confront 27.5” wheels if you choose to adapt a mountain bike to commuter use.
26” (26 inch)
These wheels used to be the standard on mountain bikes. They are smaller than 27.5” and 650b. As such, they are tough, agile and quickly pick up speed. However, they are noticeably slower than the larger sizes when it comes to maintaining speed over distances.
You may enjoy these wheels with wide and cushioned tires, if comfort is more of a priority than speed. Some cruisers and town bikes will still use 26” wheels for a plush ride.
24″ wheels may be fit to some of the smallest sizes of cruisers, but are generally too small to be efficient during commuting. They are larger than most folding bike wheels.
These wheels are sometimes used on folding commuter bikes.
20″ wheels are common on folding bikes. They are the same size as traditional BMX wheels, but are usually narrower. They’re designed to accommodate slimmer tires that inflate to higher pressures while rolling at greater speeds. Jounce1 is more pronounced on small wheels but they can be strong. They aren’t anywhere near as fast as larger sizes, while allowing folding bikes to pack down to a small size.
16”, 17″ and 18”
Even smaller wheels can be found on the most compact folding bikes. Of course, compromises are rife at this level of tininess. They’re only recommended for short commutes involving public transport.
Commuters usually use slick or semi-slick tires, as they are almost exclusively ridden on urban roads. This means that they don’t need a lot of tread. Of course, if your commute includes dirt roads or particularly neglected asphalt, you might need something more rugged. For most commuters, slick tires suffice for a large part of the year. Lightly treaded tires may be more appropriate for winter.
|Slick and Semi-slick tires|
Commuter bike tires are usually wider than those found on road bikes. This means that they can be run at lower pressures that increase shock absorbance, while still being efficient and decently fast. These days, some road bikes are even welcoming wider, ‘plus size’ tires. A wider tire creates more traction through a wider ‘contact patch’, meaning that more rubber is in contact with the ground at any given time. For you, this translates to a safer ride with more grip, less slippage and more braking power. This is particularly helpful in wet conditions.
When choosing tires for your commuter, the factors to balance are:
Comfort vs. Speed vs. Weight vs. Traction. Wider tires are heavier, slower and more comfortable.
|Mixed Tread – light enough for asphalt, grippy enough for gravel and wet roads|
For mixed riding on both asphalt and the occasional gravel-track, a ‘semi-slick’ or mixed-tread hybrid tire will be more versatile.These are often less slick, more grippy and have some knobs or file tread.
Commuter tire sizes on 700c wheels usually sit between the widths of 28mm and 35mm. These sizes are designated as ‘28c’ and ‘35c’. Anything over 35c can get heavy. Less than 28c is intended primarily for speed and will be firmer, less forgiving and more susceptible to punctures. On 650b tires, sizes between 42c and 47c are popular, as they give a similar circumference to a 700 x 28c to 700 x 30c tire.
Sizes are written in the format: ‘700x28c’, where ‘700’ refers to the wheel size (700c) and ‘28’ describes the tire circumference (in this case, approximately 28mm). You’ll find this sizing written along the side of the tire.
For 700c and 650b, tire sizes are written in millimeters (ie 28c, 35c, 47c). For mountain bike wheel sizes (29”, 27.5”, 26”), they are usually written in inches (1.75”, 1.95”, 2.30”). History has left us with a mess of conflicting sizing standards that can become confusing. There is a more precise, universal reference standard known as E.T.R.T.O.4, which may either enlighten or bamboozle you.
Never fear, because we have a breakdown of…
Commuter Bike Tire Sizes and Widths
You would rarely want anything narrower than 28c for city streets. 32c is reasonable as a large size. The upper limit would be about 35c, before tires become heavy and slow. Hybrid-style bikes may have tires as wide as 42c.
Anything narrower than 28c is fast, but more susceptible to punctures and pinch-flats.
29” (29 Inch)
29” is the mountain bike version of 700c. It is possible to put slick or semi-slick tires on a rigid 29” mountain bike and convert it to a commuter. 29” wheels will use wider rims than most 700c wheels and wider tires are safer on these rims. To know the full range that is suited to your rims, refer to the details printed on the rim or the manufacturer recommendations. Of course, these fatter tires will be comfortable and tough, but heavier than narrower 700c options. You’ll find these on some hybrid bikes.
Because 650b wheels are smaller than 700c, they are often fit with wider tires to give them a similar circumference. Their wide volume makes them comfortable and cushioning on bumpy rides. They are increasing in popularity. Subsequently, a larger number of high-quality options are becoming available every day.
Popular sizes for city commuting are between 42c and 47c. 650B x 47c is equivalent in size to 700c x 28c.
If you’re using 27.5” tires, you’re probably converting a mountain bike to commuter use. These rims are the same circumference and diameter as 650b. They are usually wider than most 650b rims and suit a wider minimum tire size than that which can be fit to a 650b rim.
26” tires are only useful on some cruiser bikes, a few town bikes and when converting an older mountain bike to street use. 1.5” to 1.9” are some of the narrowest widths available, but these result in a somewhat rigid ride and a slower, smaller diameter wheel. Some 26” rims are not built to handle the high pressures of narrower tires.
The safest tires to use are most likely 1.95” to 2.125” slicks or semi-slicks.
20” tires are frequently used on folding bikes. The tires used on 20”, commuter-focused folding bikes are narrower than those used on 20” BMX wheels.
Common sizes sit between 20 x 1.10” and 20 x 1.50”.
It’s a good idea to invest in a sturdy pair of tires, with decent grip and puncture protection. ‘Sidewalls’ are the sides of the tires. If they aren’t strong, they can wear out before the tread. They can also puncture or pinch-flat easily. A pinch-flat results from impact with a sharp edge (such as a curb), where the sidewall is ‘bitten’ by the wheel rim. There’s nothing worse than having to repair a puncture every few days.
Good tires are a great contribution to safe riding.
Most commuter bikes feature flat handlebars to allow the rider to remain upright.
This has two benefits:
Comfort: The rider does not have to assume the ‘hunched’ posture of the road cyclist.
Visibility: Flat bars allow the rider to sit upright and maintain visibility through traffic.
Shorter bars can help with negotiating traffic. It’s advised to keep them no narrower than shoulder width, to maintain ergonomic comfort.
|Flat Bars||Upright Bars (with sweep)||Drop Bars|
Some riders prefer drop bars, particularly for longer commutes. They reduce upright visibility.
A variety of ‘swept-back’ and angled bars are available on new commuters and as after-market options. These can be easier on the wrists or offer a more casual ride position.
The Contact Points
The ‘contact points’ are the three places where your body comes in contact with your bicycle; your saddle, your pedals and your handlebars (grips or bar tape). These parts of the bike are not as technically complex as the drivetrain or bottom bracket. Nevertheless, they are incredibly important. Customizing the contact points is relatively inexpensive and can make a huge difference to your level of comfort.
Grips and Bar Tape
|Ergonomic grip||Standard flat bar grip|
Grips can make or break a longer commute. Thin or uncomfortable grips can result in soreness or fatigue. Cheap grips can be made of poor material that wears out quickly. Some riders are partial to ergonomically shaped grips. Again, it’s easier to know what works for you by getting your hands on some examples at your local bike shop.
|Bar tape: pads and personalizes|
Bar Tape is used on curved ‘drop bars’, like you see on road bikes. Thinner bar tape is more likely to absorb road vibration. This can result in sore hands and wrists, especially after longer rides. Padded bar tape is more likely to insulate against shock on uneven surfaces. An added bonus is that bar tape comes in a variety of colors and patterns, giving you options to stylize and coordinate the look of your bike.
Riders of commuter, hybrid and cruiser bikes sometimes choose plush and squishy seats. However, excessively cushioned saddles can be misleading. This ‘squishiness’ is uncomfortable on longer rides and will be felt in hips, thighs and bottoms on longer rides. This can cause numbness due to restricted blood supply.
|Women’s saddle||Unisex saddle|
Moderate padding is ideal, ensuring that your weight is supported by your sit-bones. You might also want to consider ergonomic and health-conscious seats that take reproductive and groin health into account. Saddle choice is highly subjective and most riders will change the seat on their new bike. The easiest way to choose a new saddle is try a few out at your local bike shop.
Sometimes you’ll get lucky and buy a new bike with decent pedals. But more often than not, pedals will be the first thing you’ll replace. Even high-end bikes can come with shoddy plastic examples only intended for temporary use.
Why is this? Well, pedal preference is very personal. Also, what’s up with pedals that need special shoes? Do you want them? Do you need them?
Flat pedals can be made of plastic or metal and usually have some level of grip. You can easily move your feet from the pedals to the ground and back again, without having to ‘click’ in and out. With flats, you can wear your everyday shoes and there’s no need to carry or store a spare pair at your destination. The main drawback is that they are less efficient than other pedals, particularly on climbs.
‘Clipless’ pedals come equipped with a very confusing name. These pedals require cycling shoes to use. There is a ‘cleat’ on the sole of cycling shoes, that requires riders to ‘click’ in and out of pedals when removing their foot from them.
There are different systems of clipless pedal, with the most common being Shimano’s ‘SPD’. ‘Time’ pedals are also highly suited to commuting as they allow the rider to quickly click their shoe out to the side of the pedal.
|‘Time’ clipless pedal||Shimano ‘SPD’ clipless pedal and shoe|
Clipless pedals increase efficiency, especially on climbs, as they pull the pedals on the upstroke. Some cyclists see clipless pedals as daunting, but it takes a very short amount of time to become familiar with them. Once you’re accustomed to clipless, using them soon becomes second nature. You can even buy cycling shoes with recessed cleats. You can walk comfortably in them, without clip-clopping along.
|Toe Clips let you wear your own shoes|
Toe Clips are the precursor to clipless. They feature a ‘cage’ over the pedal that allows you to insert any shoe and achieve a similar upstroke pull to clipless pedals. They aren’t quite as efficient as clipless and can be more difficult to use. They need to be snug, but riders also need to slide their shoe backward out of the pedal cage before stopping. A number of cyclists are still dedicated to these pedals.
Along with tires, the contact points are the first parts that owners are likely to replace on a new bike. It’s an easy way to personalize the comfort, feel and style of your new machine. If they feel good straight-out-of-the-shop, there’s no need to swap them out. But if a change to the contact points feels like treating your hands, feet and butt to a surprise party – go for it! Saddles, pedals, grips and bar tape are all inexpensive to replace and easy to adjust for novices.
The Eyelets Have It
|Rear racks usually attach to eyelets on the seatstays and at the dropout|
‘Eyelets’ and ‘mounts’ refer to the drilled holes or mount-points on the frame, where you can attach essential and useful accessories.
Many commuting cyclists will seek eyelets to attach rear racks, at a minimum.
To avoid winter misery and a streak of filthy gutter-water along your back, it’s important to ensure that your commuter bike has mount points for fenders. If not, you can attach a rear fender to your seat post.
‘Bosses’ are the name for eyelets that let you attach a water bottle cage. At a minimum, most commuters will want one bottle to satisfy their quenching needs.
|3x sets of Bottle Bosses||3x Bottle Cages in use|
A decent commuter bike will come ready with all three of the above. Some bikes even come with a rack and / or fenders pre-attached or integrated into the frame. This might be something to consider when calculating the value of your new commuter.
The only commuting cyclists that need a suspension fork are those that have to ride all or part of their commute off-road. These days, there are a lot of great big-volume tires that roll fast and act as ample suspension on rough city roads.
For most of the needs of commuters, suspension isn’t necessary. It adds weight, complication and maintenance needs to a bike. In exchange, they offer a level of comfort that isn’t usually required for urban riding.
Keep in mind that a decent suspension fork adds significant cost to a bike. Suspension on cheaper bikes will probably be heavy and ineffective. In short, suspension for commuters is overkill.
Extras and Accessories
|Free electricity: dynamo lights|
These are the first accessories you’ll need after you’ve purchased your ideal commuter:
When looking at your options, consider USB-rechargeable lights. They reduce waste and don’t require removable batteries. Another battery-free option are dynamos, which use the motion of the wheel to generate electricity. They sit against the rim or are incorporated into a wheel hub. You’ll need to ensure hub dynamos are built into your new bike.
|Lock both wheels to your frame and your frame to something stationery|
A chunky ‘D-Lock’ or similar is recommended. Cables are usually breakable. Remember to buy a lock big enough to secure your wheel – together with your frame – to something secure and stationery.
As previously mentioned, this is a seasonal essential. If you have mount-points on your bike, you can attach rigid fenders and leave them there all winter. If not, you can buy a removable fender that attaches to your seatpost.
|Fenders using frame and fork mount points||This collapsible seatpost fender doesn’t use mounts|
If you rock a rack, you won’t wreck your back. If you use panniers, you can carry far more than you could comfortably tote in a backpack. This moves weight off your shoulders and lessens the chances of arriving at your destination with a sweaty back. Consider whether you need panniers – and if you need a front and / or rear racks. If you need both, aim for a touring bike. There are many innovative rack models to consider, such as a porteur in the front or saddlebag at the rear.
|There are many options for cargo, including a saddle-bag rack (left) or porteur front rack (right)|
This is an accessory that covers the chain and often the chainrings. It protects your legs and clothing from grease. On cheaper bikes, these can rattle and rub against the chain. Higher quality options can be quiet and give peace of mind.
Some commuters come equipped with a chainguard, racks, fenders and even lights. This is definitely something to keep in mind when considering your budget.
As mentioned above, the importance of a good lock can’t be understated. You may need two locks to secure both wheels to the frame and the frame to a stationery object.
|A nutted rear wheel axle and the necessary ‘box wrench / pedal spanner’|
Nutted axles may require you to carry a tool in order to change a flat tire. However, they can deter thieves by making thievery attempts more obvious. Often, they won’t bother. Quick-release levers make your wheels easy to steal. Your safest bet is to lock your wheels to your frame and to something stationery. You’ll notice that bike messengers almost exclusively use nutted axles.
If you are locking up your bike in public spaces, as most commuters are, your safest bet is an inexpensive and nondescript bike. Unless you are guaranteed a secure place to park, an expensive bike is tempting fate.
Most manufacturers will have a range of sizes available for each bike. In the U.S., this can be given in either inches or centimeters. If you aren’t an experienced cyclist, this may hold little meaning for you. Don’t fret.
Basic sizes may be given as: S / M / L / XL – or similar. Each of these sizes should have a height range associated with them (for example, M = 5’7” to 5’10”). These are great as a rough guide, however…
There’s no such thing as an ‘Average Medium’. Sizing is not the same across all bikes and manufacturers. A ‘Medium’ on one model can be the same as a ‘Large’ in another model. In addition, we all have differing proportions, in comparison to our full height. Some of us have shorter or longer arms, legs or torsos.
More specific measurements are given in centimeters or inches, relating to frame size. This often refers to the length of the seat tube. For mountain bikes, inches are used (ie 14”, 16”, 18.5”, 20”). For road bikes, it’s in centimeters and will look like: ‘52cm’, ‘55cm’, ‘58cm’ etc. Commuter bikes may be measured in either centimeters or inches. This may allow you to get a ‘frame of reference’ (if you will) in comparison with different models and other bikes you have owned, but even these sizes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and between bike styles (a 52cm town bike is very different from a 20.5” mountain bike).
|A typical geometry chart|
If you’re determined to perform your entire bike purchase process online, you’ll have to check the manufacturer’s ‘Geometry Charts’ and compare these measurements to you own (after measuring your own ‘reach’, ‘standover’ etc). These charts may seem complicated at first, but learning how to read them is rewarding.
Sizing Yourself Up
‘Standover’ height is the distance from the ground to the top of the top tube. If the bike has a sloping top tube, this measurement is taken halfway along the tube. On a commuter, you’ll be regularly stopping and starting in traffic and having to put a foot or two down at the stop lights. When you have both feet flat on the ground, there should be between one and two inches between the top tube and your precious assets. Measure your inseam with a measuring tape and add this ‘one to two inches’ to attain your optimum standover height.
Saddle height will be easy to adjust if you purchase a bike with an appropriately-sized frame. If the frame is undersized, you may not be able to raise the seat up high enough because you’ll run out of seatpost. If the seatpost is raised past its ‘maximum insertion level’, it can fatigue, bend or break. If your frame is too big, you won’t be able to lower the seat enough and your standover will be nonexistent, exposing you to potential groin injury. Yowch. A ‘step-through’ style bike suits shorter riders or anyone who wants an easier time of swinging a leg over the top tube. This includes cyclists who prefer to wear dresses, skirts or jeans while riding.
Reach is the distance from your saddle to your handlebars.
Too long – and you’ll be stretched out. This will not only cause soreness, but will reduce your visibility and your handling dexterity.
Too short – and you’ll feel cramped and hunched, or excessively upright. Maybe your elbows will knock your knees.
But… how to be sure? You can find online guides that explain how to measure yourself for an approximate fit, but the best solution to this problem is to visit your local bike shop. They can offer you a professional fit and match you to appropriate bikes. You can even test-ride bikes and get a feel for the size and type that suits you.
You can spend the absolute minimum on a bike and end up dealing with rapidly failing components, repair fees and the cost of shelling out for replacement parts.
|This mid-priced commuter received glowing reviews. It sports a low-key alloy frame, a chromoly fork and disc brakes|
You can spend top-dollar and get a beautiful, high-end machine. It may be the perfect commuter or it may be a delicate race machine. The lightweight racer won’t cope with potholed city streets and curb hits . It will eventually get scratched and possibly, stolen. Even the perfect commuter attracts wily thieves.
You can spend moderately, compromising between performance and cost. Aim for a sturdy, low-key, medium-weight bike with resilient parts. This type of machine can last you for years.
‘Budget’ vs. Bullhockey
The main thing to consider when buying a new bike, is value for money regarding durability. Some models may seem almost too-good-to-be-true. They usually are.
|This super-cheap bike appears to come with all the ‘bells and whistles’|
Super-cheap bikes often come equipped with low-quality components that won’t last. They can also make your ride experience miserable. As the parts fail, you’ll end up spending more money on upgrades and repairs. This money could be better spent on a reliable, higher quality bike that you can trust.
As we’ve seen, a commuter can be any kind of bike that suits your regular riding needs. But because they are intended for daily use rather than performance – and because they are prone to thievery, they’re usually mid-range. That said, there is a vast price-range.
At the top-end of this range are lightweight carbon-fiber road bikes, which can cost as much as you are willing to pay. They should have high-end componentry and a forgiving ride.
In the mid-range are bikes from $600 to $1800. These may have a carbon fork and will feature a quality drivetrain. Alloy frames may be of superior and lightweight manufacture.
For the most budget conscious buyers, classic town bikes can be picked up from as low as $250. But you’ll want to check on the quality of components. From $450, bikes may feature disc brakes and an aluminum frame. Components will probably be mid-range and moderately heavy, but reliable. As long as you get the sizing right, these bikes can fill requirements.
Types of Commuter Bike
When choosing the best commuter bike for your needs, here are some basic criteria to consider:
Distance will narrow down your best options. How far are you commuting? See the Geometry section for a detailed discussion of how your bike type is best suited to the distance of your commute.
Gearing is also directly related to the distance of your commute. If you live in a hilly area you’ll need a wider range of gears to ease your climbs. You might roll down hills or really push it on the flats. These days, a single chainring can cover the needs of most commutes and reduces your maintenance needs. If you live in a flatter area or are very fit (or looking to get that way), you may want to stick with a singlespeed or fixed gear.
Comfort is always important. But if you stick to short rides and cruising, a ‘town bike’ or cruiser will be ample. They’re heavier and less efficient, but so laid back. You can make comfort a priority.
Terrain is a consideration. Most commuters are restricted to asphalt-clad urban environments. If you regularly take a dirt-road route, a hardier bike might be up your alley.
Is cargo a concern? Keep in mind that some pure road bikes don’t have mounts for racks. The same will go for most track bikes, some singlespeeds and a proportion of folding bikes.
Now, we can move on to the many faces of the commuter bike…
Commuter Specific Bikes
|This killer commuter comes with a CroMo steel frame, carbon fork, 7-speed internal hub, carbon belt drive and 650b wheels|
These bikes are built specifically with commuting in mind. They are tough enough to handle broken city streets, cobblestones, light dirt and traversing over the odd grass patch.
Strictly built for cities and transport, but often just fine for leisurely weekend rides or even touring.
These bikes have a ‘semi-upright’ ride position; slightly leaning over the bars, with plenty of visibility through traffic.
Weight is a moderate compromise between strength and efficiency, depending on the frame material. Many commuter-specific bikes need to be light enough to be carried up stairs.
Urban commuters are most commonly sold with aluminum alloy and steel frames. On rarer occasions, you may find carbon fiber or even titanium specimens. Frames are not as beefy as those found on a hybrid or mountain bike, but are strong enough for long-term city use.
Rims are usually aluminum and made tough enough to handle the occasional accidental curb hit. The most common size is 700c. 650b options are also available.
Tires are most often slick or lightly treaded, at most.
700C options usually range between 28c and 35c, with 35c being more than enough.
650b options are most common between 42c and 47c, but can start as narrow as 28c.
Most commuter-specific bikes have mounts for fenders, at least one rack and at least one bottle cage.
These bikes come fit with both external and internal drivetrains. Internal drivetrains may have as few as three gears, while external drivetrains may sport up to 27 speeds. 22 speeds usually covers steep terrain.
1x (single) chainrings now have a wide range and cater to most climbs.
2x (double) chainrings will be common and should offer all required gears.
3x (triple) chainrings are more common on older bikes and tourers. They’re heavy and generally ‘overkill’.
Brakes can be disc or rim. Rim brakes are cheaper and usually come in caliper or v-brake style.
These bikes are optimized for medium distance commutes. They also suit short distances and many are just fine for longer rides.
|Hybrids have chunky tires|
In addition to city use, hybrids need to be built sturdily enough to be ridden on hardpack dirt, gentle trails and light gravel.
Hybrids are more of an all-rounder for someone who only wants to own one bike. Buyers may have a limited budget or limited space available for bike storage. Sometimes, this decision is based on a desire for simplicity or because the user is an infrequent cyclist.
Ride positions vary from semi-upright to more relaxed, mountain-bike-style.
Hybrids are heavier than commuter-specific bikes, due to their intended use in heavier-duty situations. They may employ an alloy frame in order to reduce weight.
Frames are usually aluminum alloy, as a good compromise between price, weight and strength. They are built more heavy-duty than some commuters but less so than mountain bikes.
…need to be tough enough for some light off-road use and hardpack dirt roads. Hybrids may be sold with wheels in 700c, 650b, 27.5” or 26” sizes.
Hybrid tires are usually wider than the average commuter, often ranging between 35c and 42c on 700c wheels.
Mounts are usually provisioned for fenders and racks.
More hybrids are equipped with external, rather than internal drivetrains. Average ranges are from 8 to 27 speeds.
1x and 2x drivetrains are sufficient and common on newer models.
3x chainrings are heavy and outdated but work fine if you’re resurrecting an older bike.
Hybrid bikes may be fit with a cheap, low-end suspension fork that is usually heavy and ineffective. This makes them complicated and more difficult to maintain. Modern gravel and adventure bikes use wide, forgiving tires in place of suspension. Suspension isn’t necessary for light off-road use.
Most hybrid bikes use disc brakes. V-brakes are found on cheaper, newer models and some older hybrids.
Hybrid bikes are intended for short to medium distances and gentle weekend trails.
How are hybrids different to most commuters?
- Hybrids are able to travel on gravel trails.
- Hybrids sit somewhere between a tourer and a mountain bike.
- Hybrids may or may not have a front suspension fork.
- Hybrids almost always have flat handlebars.
|This singlespeed folder uses 17″ wheels|
Folding commuter bikes have a build that balances strength, foldability and a weight that suits portability.
Folding commuter bikes are usually used where short ride distances are combined with public transport.
These bikes fold easily (ideally) for transport on trains, buses, ferries, hovercraft etc.
Riders usually sit very upright on a well-fit folding bike. On hypercompact models, riders can be somewhat hunched or cramped.
Hopefully, a folding bike is lightweight to aid portability. Generally, cheaper models are heavier.
Aluminum is common on mid-range commuters. High-grade lightweight steels, carbon fiber and titanium are used on high-end frames. Heavy, hi-tensile steel is used on heavy, budget models.
Folding bike wheels are almost always smaller than those found on a regular commuter. 20” wheels are common. These are the same diameter and circumference as standard BMX wheels but with rims made to withstand higher pressure tires.
Other folding wheel sizes range from 16” to 22”.
Hypercompact folders can sport wheels as small as 8”, while folding bikes with full-size 700c wheels do exist. These are usually intended for compact storage, rather than commutes.
20” tires inflate to pressures between 85 and 110psi and are narrower than those found on BMX bikes. The average range is between 20” x 1.50 to 20” x 1.10.
Folding bikes can have rack, mudguard and bottle-cage mounts. It’s just as likely that these mounts are overlooked in order to aid foldability. Sometimes, manufacturers create proprietary racks that save space and reduce excessive articulation.
Folding bikes come with both external and internal drivetrains. Single chainrings are very common, as they save space and weight. 2x chainring models are not rare. Folding bikes exist with anywhere from 3 to 30 speeds. A 1x drivetrain is sufficient for commuting.
|This high quality folder uses minimal rubber suspension and space-saving proprietary racks|
Folding bikes sometimes have suspension. It’s an unnecessary complication that adds weight to a bike that’s already complicated. However, small wheels do get jouncy1. Minimal systems (such as those using rubber suspension) can lessen impact and are a good compromise. Suspension adds cost.
Folding bikes may use rim or disc brakes. Many quality folding bikes opt for rim brakes; in order to save space, save weight and reduce complication.
Folding bikes are optimized for riding short distances as part of a ‘multimodal’ commute that incorporates public transport and cycling.
You pay extra for foldability and weight reduction. Achieving both is costly for manufacturers.
- Speed. It’s reduced by the use of smaller wheels.
- Handling can be twitchy but sharp with smaller wheels.
- Comfort is compromised by a smaller frame and smaller wheels.
Flat-Bar Road Bikes
|A full-carbon, flat-bar road bike|
Flat-bar road bikes are lighter than commuter-specific bikes and hybrids. They’re racier and more aggressive.
Flat-bar road bikes suit longer commutes at higher speeds.
Flat handlebars make for a ride position that’s more upright than that found on road bikes. It also provides better visibility through traffic. It’s usually more leant-forward and aggressive than other commuters.
Flat-bar road bikes are lighter than most other commuters. They are also more delicate.
Aluminum alloy and carbon fiber frames are common. Alloy frames may be fit with a carbon fiber fork, to aid jounce1-reduction. High-end chromoly steel is a possibility. These bikes will often use the same frame and fork as road cycling models.
Wheels are almost always 700c. A small minority may use 650b wheels on smaller frames or in ‘plus’ sizes.
Flat-bar road bikes use tires that start on the narrow side, from 23c. However, many commuters will opt for something wider (around 25c to 30c), to cope with city streets.
Flat-bar road bikes may not have rack or fender mounts. They will usually have mounts for bottle cages.
Drivetrains are usually external. They use components that are usually lighter and more delicate than those found on dedicated urban commuter bikes. 22 speeds is the standard, with 10 to 24 speeds common on newer models. Older bikes may have up to 27 speeds. Drivetrains are mostly 2x. Some newer bikes use a 1x drivetrain with an 11, 12 or 13 speed cassette.
Rim brakes are used on lighter, older and lower-cost models. Disc brakes feature more on newer and more expensive models.
Flat-bar road bikes suit medium to long distance commutes, ridden at higher speeds.
Prices are higher for a lighter bike with higher-spec components.
- Strength, because these bikes use delicate road bike frames.
- Security, because your bike is more expensive and more attractive to thieves.
- Comfort. These bikes are racier, but less comfortable than a dedicated commuter.
City / Town Bikes
|This high-end titanium town bike sports a carbon belt drive, disc brakes and a Rohloff internal hub. Ride position is upright|
‘Town bikes’, ‘City Bikes’ and ‘Dutch Bikes’ are often heavy, usually solid, upright and casual. Classic, sweeping shapes with step-through frames are popular. They have a low standover height and suit wearing dresses, skirts and casual clothing.
These bikes suit short, cruisy commutes with a basket (maybe).
You sit very upright on these bikes. They often have wide, swept-back bars that leave the arms akimbo.
|Dutch Bikes: the classic resilient town bike|
There’s no getting around it. Town bikes are almost always heavy.
Frames are usually steel (and frequently heavy, jouncy, high-tensile steel at that). Sometimes, aluminum.
Wheels are often 700c (sometimes written as 28” which is an older ‘roadster’ size). Older bikes actually use a rarer size 28” wheel. They may also be 27.5”, 650b or 26”.
Rubber is often at the fat end of the spectrum, from about 32c to 38c.
Town bikes may come fit with a basket or rack. They often have rack and fender mounts. They may or may not have a mount for a bottle cage.
External drivetrains are common. So too are internal gearing systems, with 3 to 8 speeds. Drivetrains are usually 1x, with a narrow range. Singlespeed to 8 speed are common, though 3, 7 and 21 speed models have become standard options.
The Town Bike is heavy and must be stopped. In the rim brake category, we have V-brakes and calipers. Coaster brakes still exist on some new models. Disc brakes are rare.
A town bike welcomes a short ride. They’re great for brief commutes, errands, corner-store trips, flower deliveries and riverside ambles. That’s what every romantic cycling image will tell you…
Most town bikes are a cheerfully cheap, low-cost option. They’re simple and not necessarily low-quality.
- Weight. Tradition dictates that sturdiness and durability are prioritized over speed.
- Climbing ability; due to an upright ride position, low gear range and aforementioned heft.
- Distance; also due to the upright ride position, low gear range and aforementioned heft.
- Gear range, usually for the sake of simplicity and price.
- Resilience is a hallmark of well-built Town Bike specimens.
- Maintenance is minimal and usually simple.
- Baskets and Racks often come included with your town bike.
- Comfort. Town bikes are relaxed and upright, with wide bars for cruisy boat steering.
|A stylish E-bike with a concealed battery and mid-drive motor, proprietary front rack and Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal hub|
E-bikes are built solid. Frames are often bespoke designs, integrating mid-drive motors and batteries.
E-bikes suit long-distance commutes and are great for carrying large amounts of cargo. They suit older riders and are also a great introduction to cycling for less fit people. If you are in physical rehabilitation from an injury, E-bikes can be a great way to build up strength or to return to exercise. Consult your doctor, then your lycra retailer. E-bikes are the only choice if you keep losing your driver’s license. They are also the tool of choice if you have a penchant for overtaking and dispiriting hard-working pedalers on analog commutes.
Ride positions are often quite upright. They can get pretty casual too.
E-bikes are still considerably heavier than other bikes. They need to incorporate a motor and battery. If you live up a flight of stairs, consider the prospect of carrying 44-55lbs of mid-priced E-bike.
E-bikes are built of every frame material, with aluminum alloys being fairly common. On high-end rigs, carbon fiber really lightens the load.
700c wheels are very common but wheels as small as 20” are used, particularly on cargo E-bikes.
On 700c wheels, tires are usually within the range of 28c to 38c. You can get away with fatter rubber on an E-bike, as efficiency is less important.
An E-bike commuter should come with rack, fender and bottle-cage mounts. If you’re going to shell out for the extra watts, it makes sense that your bike is capable of carrying extra weight. It has the power.
External derailleurs are common, in conjunction with a hub-driven or mid-drive motor between the cranks. Drivetrains can also use internal hubs. Many electric bikes use what is known as ‘power assist’. This means that you aren’t just relying on the motor for 100% of your power. You still have to pedal. You can set the motor to kick-in at a certain point or use it as a boost on difficult climbs. Any machine that doesn’t use your own energy isn’t really a bicycle. That would be an electric moped.
E-commuter bikes don’t need suspension but many of them do feature a suspension fork. These are often sold as ‘Hybrid E-bikes’. The weight of the fork is less of a concern. However, they still complicate maintenance and add to the cost of a bike. Much as on other bikes, low quality suspension is a drawback, not a feature.
Brakes are almost always discs. If you are adapting an older bike into an E-bike, you may be using the existing rim brakes. If you’ll be traveling at higher speeds, disc brakes are recommended.
Electric bikes suit long commutes.
Electric bikes are definitely more expensive than your average bike. Expect prices in the thousands of dollars for quality choices.
- Weight and the ability to carry your bike. You’ll feel it if your battery runs flat, too.
- Maintenance. Repairs are costly and not D.I.Y. for most folk.
- Charging, which you need to set some time aside to do. Power also adds to costs.
- Carbon emissions, unless you only recharge with renewable sources.
- Fitness. E-bikes offer the temptation of relying on the motor alone.
- E-bikes can replace your usual car or public transport commute.
- E-bikes assist rehabilitation from injury and can suit older or disabled riders.
- Fitness can be built up through the use of an E-bike.
- Long distances can be ridden by E-bike, longer than previously possible by pedal alone.
- E-bikes save money that would have been spent on fuel and public transport costs.
- Extra weight and cargo is easily carried on an E-bike.
Singlespeeds are minimal, simple and usually lightweight.
|A mid-priced chromoly steel singlespeed in low-key ‘black to silver-grey fade’ (also available in less-theftproof color choices)|
Singlespeeds can be used by any cyclist over shorter distances or in flatter areas. Otherwise, they suit riders who possess an extra level of fitness or are looking to gain it.
Ride position is often a little more ‘forward’ and aggressive than on an average commuter or hybrid. Usually, it isn’t as aggressive as on a road bike with drop bars. It can also be quite upright, depending on the frame geometry and handlebar height. Bikes with track frames and / or drop handlebars ensure a racy stance.
Without the encumbrance of gears, shifters and drivetrains, singlespeeds are generally much lighter than geared commuters with the same frame material. Hi-tensile Steel models are the heaviest. Chromoly Steel bikes are comfortable and light, while Aluminum frames are light but more prone to jounce. A carbon singlespeed is pretty much the lightest possible commuter available.
Steel is common. Chromoly steel frames are compliant and forgiving on rough surfaces. They are lighter than their Hi-Tensile steel counterparts and cost slightly more. Hi-ten is cheaper, heavier and jouncier without having a strength advantage over chromoly. Aluminum frames are also common. Carbon fiber is much rarer. Alloy frames sometimes use a carbon fork to reduce vibration.
Wheels are almost always 700c. Some manufacturers are starting to cotton on to the benefits of smaller 650b wheels with the comfort of fatter tires, around 47c.
When commuting, most singlespeeds will use tires between 25c and 35c on 700c wheels.
650b wheels will often use tires between 42c and 47c. These sizes are chosen in order to cope with rough city streets, while still maintaining speed.
Singlespeed bikes may or may not have rack mounts. They may or may not have fender mounts and they may or may not have bottle bosses. Singlespeeds built on track (velodrome) frames have none of these.
Most drivetrains are external, with one chainring and one single-cog freewheel on the rear hub.
Most models use caliper rim brakes. Some models use coaster brakes. These are more common on older bikes.
For most people, singlespeeds suit short to medium rides and flatter terrain. If you are a stronger cyclist or looking to become one, you might consider a singlespeed for longer jaunts.
Due to their simplicity, singlespeeds are usually cheaper than other commuting options. Some punters do end up paying more for good looking bikes with exotic components.
- Ease. With only one gear, they require greater fitness for climbs and long distances.
- Distance. Many cyclists are only able to ride shorter distances on a singlespeed.
- Climbs are definitely more difficult with a single gear.
- Security. Flashy singlespeeds are more stealable than other commuters.
- Maintenance doesn’t get much simpler than a singlespeed bike (except for a fixed-gear).
- Security. It’s easy to secure with few parts. A low-key singlespeed won’t attract thieves.
- Weight. Most singlespeeds are pleasingly lightweight.
- Aesthetics. A good-looking minimalist bike can be a style icon, in some circles.
- Fitness. Singlespeeds contribute to a higher level of fitness.
- Flip-Flop. Many new singlespeeds come equipped with a ‘flip-flop’ hub. This helps riders learn fixed gear riding and gives them the choice to ride fixed in drier seasons.
|Fixed Gear Track bike||Flat-bar Fixed Gear||Singlespeed or Fixed Gear with a flip-flop hub and ‘bull-horn’ bars|
Fixed gear bikes are minimal, simple and usually lightweight. Many do not feature mount points to attach brakes, as they are built for velodrome use.
Fixed gear bikes can be ridden by many cyclists over shorter distances or in flatter areas. Otherwise, they suit riders who possess an extra level of fitness or are looking to gain it. They have a following in niche cycling communities.
Ride positions are similar to those found on singlespeeds.
Weights are comparable to those of singlespeed bikes.
The same frame materials are used for singlespeed and fixed gear bikes.
Wheels are almost always 700c. A small number of riders experiment with 650b wheels.
Tires are similar in size to those used on singlespeeds. As the rear tire is ‘skidded’ to brake, it’s a good idea to have a tough, high quality rear tire. A wider tire can provide a large contact patch for stopping.
Many track frames are minimal with no mounts. They may or may not have rack mounts, fender mounts or bottle bosses. Track (velodrome) frames have none of these. You can always attach a seatpost mounted fender where mounts are absent.
Most drivetrains are external, with one chainring and a single cog that is fixed onto the rear hub. This means that the rear wheel keeps moving as long as the pedals rotate. They move in unison, linked by your chain. You can’t coast on a fixed gear bike.
The maximum number of rim brakes used on a fixed gear is usually one. This is a front brake. The rear fixed cog acts as a brake but this technique takes some effort to master. Some skilled riders (including bike messengers) use only the rear fixed hub to stop. This is illegal in many areas and does not provide an instant stop. It’s more of a skid and can be dangerous if a chain were to break. A front brake is encouraged.
For most people, fixed gear bikes suit short to medium rides and flatter terrain. If you are a stronger cyclist or looking to become one, you might consider a fixed gear bike for longer jaunts. The need to ‘always be pedaling’ can be tiring if your quads aren’t up to snuff.
Fixed gear bikes can be much cheaper than other options. That said, it isn’t uncommon for enthusiasts to pay more for good looking bikes with exotic components.
- Ease. With only one gear, they require greater fitness for climbs and long distances.
- Distance. Many cyclists are only able to ride shorter distances on a fixed gear bike.
- Security. Flashy fixed gear bikes are more stealable, due to their elevated level of radness.
- Safety, especially if a chain breaks. Riding a fixed gear requires practice.
- Comfort. Riding a fixed gear requires concentration and maintenance of momentum. Some people experience sore legs from continual pedaling. Knees can become stressed from ‘skid-stopping’.
- Maintenance doesn’t get any simpler than with a fixed gear bike.
- Weight. Most fixed gears are pleasingly lightweight
- Cred. The ability to ride a fixed gear can muster respect in some circles.
- Aesthetics. A clean, stripped-back fixed gear can look pretty darn good.
- Fitness. Fixed gear bikes can contribute to a higher level of fitness.
- On climbs, the momentum of a fixed drivetrain wastes no potential energy.
- ‘Riding fixed’ uniquely synchronizes your movement with the bike’s machinery.
- Security. Low-key, low-cost fixed gears won’t attract thieves and are inexpensive to replace. Most thieves can’t ride a fixed gear bike!
The Difference Between Singlespeeds and Fixed Gear Bikes
On a fixed gear bike, you can not coast. When the bike is moving, you are always pedaling.
On a singlespeed, you can coast. You can roll down hills without pedaling, no problem. Many singlespeeds come with a ‘flip-flop’ rear hub. This has a fixed-gear cog on one side and a coasting freewheel on the other. This allows you to ‘flip’ between the two, giving you a chance to practice fixed gear riding or to choose to ride fixed, seasonally.
|A low-cost, low-key Road Bike that won’t draw thieves|
Road bikes are lighter than urban commuters and have thinner tubing. Road bike geometry is aggressive.
In the context of commuting, road bikes are good for longer commutes at high speeds.
The ride position on road bikes is ‘forward’ and aggressive, head-down, bent-over in the drop bars.
Road bikes are definitely lighter than your average commuter. 15 to 23lbs is a common range.
Aluminum and Carbon Fiber frames are common. Some alloy frames use an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork. This helps to alleviate vibration without costing as much as a full carbon bike. There are also a number of high-end chromoly steel frames. These are comfortable on uneven roads.
Wheels are almost always 700c. They’re narrow and lightweight. Alloy rims are common on mid-priced bikes. Carbon fiber rims are specced on high-end machines. Recently, more road bikes have come onto the market, using 650b wheels with bigger-volume (‘road plus’) tires.
Road bike tires are traditionally between 18c and 23c. For commuting, this is a narrow size and won’t be very resistant to punctures, rubble and pinch-flats. It’s also not so comfortable.
If you plan on using a road bike as a commuter, you may want to check that it has enough clearance for 25c to 28c tires, at a minimum. Some road bike frames allow for tires as thick as 32c. All these widths relate to 700c wheels.
For 650b wheels, a recent trend is the use of ‘road plus’ tires, with a favored width of 47c.
A lot of road bikes will not have mounts for racks. Some do. Road bikes may or may not have mounts for fenders. Most road bikes do have bottle bosses to attach at least one bottle cage, often two.
|Spend less to deter thieves!|
Drivetrains are usually external. They use components that are usually lighter and more delicate than those found on dedicated urban commuter bikes. 22 speeds is the standard, with 10 to 24 speeds common on newer models. Older bikes may have up to 27 speeds. Drivetrains are mostly 2x. Some newer bikes use 1x drivetrains with 11, 12 and 13 speed cassettes.
Rim brakes are used on lighter, older and lower-cost models. Disc brakes are more common on newer and more expensive models.
Road bikes are suited to longer commutes at higher speeds.
Prices are higher for a lighter bike with higher-spec components.
- Strength. Frames and components can be delicate. Wheels and tires are thinner.
- Security, because your bike is more expensive and more attractive to thieves.
- Comfort. These bikes are racier, but less comfortable than a dedicated commuter.
- Maintenance. Complicated, high-end components require more skill and money to repair.
- Convenience. If you smash the commute you’ll arrive sweaty and in need of a shower.
- Speed. Road bikes are fast and efficient over long distances.
- Agility. This is the bike you want for nimble handling.
- Weight. The low weight of a road bike can be a great relief on climbs and long rides.
- Lycra. If skin-hugging synthetics are your thing, a road bike gives you the ultimate excuse.
- Fender mounts. A muddy backside is a miserable way to start the day.
- Strong wheels with a high spoke count. At least 32, even 36 spokes.
- Steel or Alloy frames are more affordable and less stealable than a carbon fiber bike.
- Carbon fiber, if you have the budget and a safe place to park. It’s light and comfortable (but much more attractive to thieves).
|A good Touring Bike is a real workhorse|
Touring bikes are built similarly to commuter-specific bikes. They aren’t as beefy as a mountain bike, but they are strong enough to handle cargo and a variety of road surfaces.
Touring bikes suit long distances, ridden at a more casual pace than on a road bike. They have the ability to carry large amounts of cargo while doing so. They ride asphalt and hardpack dirt roads in all seasons.
Ride position can be upright on flats and forward in the drops over long distances. It is less aggressive than a road bike stance.
Touring bikes sport a moderate weight that is a compromise between long-distance efficiency, comfort and strength. 23lb to 33lbs is a conservative range, similar to commuter-specific bikes.
Chromoly Steel is a reliable and common choice for a touring bike. Aluminum alloy specimens are also widely available. Carbon specimens are available on some high-end off-road touring bikes but is not preferred by many touring cyclists, as once cracked it is difficult and costly to repair. Tubing is thinner than many hybrids and most mountain bikes. It’s similar in width to road bikes but with heavier gauge tubing and thicker walls.
Wheels are often 700c. 650b is not uncommon and highly suited to touring. Rims are usually strong alloy with a high spoke count. Many older models exist with 26” wheels.
Tires are often wide enough to cope with a variety of surfaces but not so wide that they compromise speed and weight. For commuting, 32c to 38c is a considered range. Tires should be tough enough to resist punctures and prove durable. Road tourers may have clearance for tires as wide as 700 x 50c. For 650b wheels, 42c to 47c suits road applications.
It will have mounts, eyelets and bosses for racks, fenders and multiple bottle cages… or it ain’t a tourer.
Drivetrains are usually external. A good tourer uses reliable, hard-wearing components. Traditionally, touring bikes have around 24 to 27 gears on a triple chainring. There are also other options available on 1x and 2x drivetrains. Newer 1x and 2x options offer a similar range to older 3x models, by using a wide-range cassette. Internal drivetrains, such as those using the 14-speed Rohloff internal hub, do exist.
Suspension is usually only seen on fully off-road touring bikes.
Disc brakes are common on new tourers. They are the safest bet when carrying large loads and enduring inclement weather. They also allow any width of tire allowed by your frame or fork. Cantilever brakes are a great rim-brake option, as they allow for wide tires and can be powerful. V-brakes are a cantilever type with less tire clearance. They may be less powerful and a bit more difficult to adjust. They are also a viable option. Some older tourers may use caliper rim brakes, but these restrict tire widths.
Touring bikes suit long distance commutes while carrying large loads.
Touring bikes are available in a wide range of prices. A quality touring bike will not be cheap and will use higher-spec, hard-wearing components.
- Visibility, if using the drop handlebars that are so prolific on touring bikes.
- Price, as a higher-spec touring bike is intended to carry more weight than your average commuter, over a wider range of terrain.
- Comfort. Touring bikes are comfortable over long distances, on climbs and with cargo.
- Strength. Tourers are built to withstand adversity.
- Four season reliability is a guarantee, with fender provisions and strong brakes.
- Versatility is a hallmark of the tourer. Many can handle both city streets and dirt roads.
- Cargo is no problem. Touring bikes just beg to be loaded up.
A touring bike may be overkill for your commuting requirements.
|Full-carbon, drop-bar gravel rig||Alloy, flat-bar gravel commuter with a carbon fork|
Gravel bikes are built tough. They’re lighter than a touring bike with more aggressive geometry. Tire clearance is ample.
Gravel bikes are good for riding long distances on poorer roads or varied surfaces. They also suit a partial or full dirt-road commute.
Gravel bikes are often more aggressive than your average commuter, in that they usually use drop bars and a less upright geometry. However, they are less aggressive than a pure road bike, with slacker angles. This makes handling less twitchy than on a road bike.
Many gravel bikes are lightweight. It’s a niche bike that often caters to enthusiasts. They can be as strong as a commuter-specific bike but lighter.
Aluminum, carbon fiber and chromoly steel options are available. They are built light and strong.
Strong, light wheels are popular in both 700c and 650b sizes.
Tire clearance is generous. Look for models allowing at least 700 x 50c or 650b x 50c tires, so that you can use your gravel bike for more than just commuting.
Gravel bikes usually have mounts for fenders, racks and water bottle cages. Make sure yours has all three.
The most popular drivetrain configuration is external, with a 1x chainring and a 10 or 11 tooth cassette. 12t and 13t cassettes also exist. As do some 2x drivetrains. No 3x chainrings here.
Brakes are mostly discs.
Gravel bikes suit medium and long distance rides.
A good gravel bike is not a cheap option for a commuter bike.
- Maintenance. Gravel bikes usually have high-end, high-tech components.
- Security. More to steal and more to lose.
- Visibility, as a gravel bike will usually put you down in the drop bars.
- Price. Gravel bikes deliver versatility for a proportionate cost.
- Strength and Weight. Gravel bikes are built tough and light.
- All weather capability comes built-in on a gravel rig.
- Versatility is the main benefit of a gravel bike. They ride well on-road and off.
- Cargo is no problem. Many gravel bikes haul ample loads.
- Clearance, because a gravel bike fits much wider tires than a road bike.
- Comfort. Compliant frames and fat tires give a smooth ride.
A gravel bike is more suited to commuting than a pure road race bike. But one of these is only recommended if you intend to use it for more than just transport (unless you are the rare commuter that rides thirteen miles on a gravel road to your destination).
They are great for commuting, but you are paying more for a bike with much greater potential.
|Street-suitable? This rigid, singlespeed mountain bike has 29″ wheels with mixed tread tires|
Tough, probably overkill for most commutes.
They’re made for off-road use.
Slack, to keep weight toward the rear on descents. Flat handlebars keep you upright.
Aluminum and carbon fiber predominate. Chromoly steel can be found on older and boutique builds.
Strong alloy or carbon fiber wheels in 29”, 27.5” and 26” on older bikes.
Wide tires and clearances for off-road use. It’s more difficult to put narrower tires on some mountain bike rims as they are wider than those found on your average commuter. Slick tires are available in 29”, 27.5” and 26”.
Mountain bikes usually have mounts for fenders, racks and water bottle cages.
1x and 2x drivetrains are rife. 3X drivetrains exist on older bikes. Most are external. Anything from 11 to 24 speeds is common.
Many have a suspension fork, which isn’t needed on most commutes. Others have full suspension, which is excessive and somewhat wack for urban purposes. ‘Rigid’ mountain bikes are rarer and have no suspension.
Brakes are mostly discs. V-brakes and cantilevers are common on older and lower-cost bikes.
Mountain bikes are heavy. They can be tiring on longer rides. Cross-country bikes are lighter than other mountain bikes and only have front suspension. They’re more suited to commuting.
Anywhere from cheap to ridonkulous.
- Weight. A slack, chunky bike is slow and heavy on the road.
- Speed. Fat tires are heavy and slow.
- Strength and Weight. You can get away with hitting a few curbs or riding down stairs.
- All weather capability is provided by a stable frame and disc brakes.
- Comfort. Mountain bikes have laid-back geometry and fat tires for that ‘couchy’ ride.
Mountain bikes are generally overkill, unless you live and commute in a rural area. If they are up your alley, look for a ‘rigid’ mountain bike that has no suspension. If you’re set on suspension, go for a cross country bike. They’re relatively upright, lightweight and racy.
Direct Sales vs. Local Bike Shop
Buying a bike online is a world apart from the experience of choosing a bike from your local bike shop. The benefit of a direct sale from the manufacturer, is that you aren’t paying for the middleman. If you’re buying a bike from an online retailer, they don’t have to pay for rent of premises and they don’t need to pay an experienced, professional mechanic to assemble and tune your bike. For these reasons, you pay less.
|Direct to your door…||…or face-to-face?|
On the downside; you don’t get the benefit of sitting on the bike, test-riding it or getting a feel for it. Even looking at your prospective purchase ‘in-the-flesh’ can be reassuring. Your local bike shop (or ‘L.B.S.’) will assemble, tune and fit your bike for you before you ride away. They will usually offer you a warranty deal and a minor servicing for free within the first few weeks of purchase.
Whatever route you choose, there are benefits and drawbacks. However, if you’re not a DIY mechanic, assembling and tuning your bike may be a learning process that requires the purchase of tools. Once your bike is delivered, it’s highly recommended that you take it to your L.B.S.2 to have it professionally assembled and tuned. This will ensure that you can feel safe and certain that your bike is protected from any undue wear.
Saddled Up and Ready to Ride
Choosing a commuter bike shouldn’t be a chore. It’s a step toward fitness, independence, savings and fun.
There’s a lot of information on commuter bikes and a large range to choose from. But once you’ve narrowed down your choices by focusing on your needs and priorities, it becomes a lot easier.
A commuter doesn’t have to be high-end and it doesn’t need to outshine the bikes around it. In fact, it’s best when it blends into the background, feels comfortable and maintains its resilience. But it can – and should – also be a quality machine.
A commuter should be tough, efficient and low-maintenance. If it’s too expensive it may attract thieves. If it’s too cheap it may cause you trouble, need expensive upgrades and put you off what should be an invigorating commute. Choose wisely and ride on!
- Jounce – A sensation between jolt and bounce.
- L.B.S. – Local Bike Shop.
- Randonneuring – A long-distance cycling discipline.
- E.T.R.T.O. – European Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation.
- Dean Gambale, Choosing Specialty Metals for Corrosion-Sensitive Equipment
- Titanium Processing Centre, Does Titanium Rust?
- John Allen, Adjusting Direct-pull Cantilever Bicycle Brakes (“V-Brakes ®”)
- Sheldon Brown, Bicycle Rim Brakes
- Handbuilt Bicycle News, The renaissance of the 650b wheel
- David Arthur, What width tyres are best for you?…
- Gregory Kopecky, The Verdict: 650b & Road Plus
- Jan Heine, Why Contact Points Matter: Handlebars
- SQ Lab – Sports Ergonomics, Saddle Ergonomics Explained
- Dean Koh, Hands On: Contact Points For Your Bike III
- The Everyday Cyclist, Contact points maketh the bicycle
- The Hub, How to: Contact Points
- The BikeExchange Team, Bicycle Frame Sizes
- Surly Bikes, Bike Fit
- Pure Cycles, How to find your Inseam and Standover Height
- REI, Bike Fitting Basics
- The BikeExchange Team, Understanding Bike Geometry Charts: What They Mean and How To Read Them