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Commuting 101: Choosing a bike

by Commute by Bike

A main question you may have as a new bike commuter is what kind of bike you need. There are a lot of options and deciding on one can be confusing. But before you head to the bike shop, answer these questions…

  • What’s the terrain? – Is your commute relatively flat or are there plenty of hills? Are there spots where you’ll ride on anything other than pavement? You may want to take a drive to scout out how you’re commute will look. Take time to look for alternate routes that will keep you off busy roads. You’ll realize quickly that roads look a lot different once you start realizing you’ll be pedaling a bike on them instead of just hitting the gas pedal.
  • How long will it take you? – It doesn’t have to be an exact number, but is your commute gonna take about 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour?
  • What’s your physical condition? – And not just fitness. Do you have any back, hip or knee problems you’ll have to be cognizant of?
  • How will you transport your stuff? – Most commuters have to bring stuff with them. Whether it’s a change of clothes and hygienic items or your laptop computer. Will you be carrying this in a bag on your back or do you want to put it in a bag attached to the bike?
  • Where will you store your bike during work? – Will you need something that can fit in your office/cubicle or will you have a place to park it? Will it be in a secure area where theft isn’t an issue or is there a decent chance that your bike could get stolen?
  • How much maintenance are you willing to do on your bike? – Every bike will need ongoing maintenance to make sure it is a reliable source of transportation. Are you someone that will enjoy spending the time tinkering on your bike or do you want to do as little as possible?
  • What are you looking to spend? – Are you on a tight budget or can you spend the money to get exactly what you want or need?
  • What are your reasons for commuting by bike? – Are you trying to get in shape? Are you more interested in the environmental impact? Are you just trying to make your commute more fun or interesting?

Once you’ve answered these you’re ready to start deciding on the features you are looking for in a bike…

  • Multiple gears vs. one gear – This touches on budget, terrain, maintenance and where you’ll store your bike. In most cases buying a bike with one gear (either single-speed or fixed gear) will save you money over buying a bike with multiple gears. This should be taken into consideration when thinking about where you will store your bike. If it’s in an area where theft is a possibility, spending less on a bike is a good option. Also having a single-speed or fixed gear bike will save a lot of time on maintenance as there will be no need to keep your bike in tune.The potential negative of opting for one gear is the fitness level you may need. If you’re ride to work is mostly flat, then it will probably be no problem. However riding one gear on hilly terrain requires a higher level of fitness and should be chosen carefully.
  • Used vs. New- This, obviously, has a lot to do with your budget for a bike. If you are low on cash, finding a used bike is the best option. This can also be a good choice if you are forced to store your bike in a place where theft is possible. The downside to buying a used bike is the need to do additional maintenance on it. If you have the knowledge to do this yourself, then used can be a good choice. However, if you want to make sure you are getting a bike that is put together correctly and has no problems, then buy new.
    • Buying Used – There are plenty of places that you can find a used bike. The first place I would look is to friends and family. If they have a bike that they are not using or are ready to get rid of, you can often get the best price plus know the history of the bike and how well it’s been taken care of. From there, I would start with the local classifieds. This will give you a chance to look over the bike before a purchase and know what you are getting into. From there, an online marketplace such as eBay can be a good choice. You will often find the best deals here, but be aware of scammers and buying a bike sight unseen. You may want to take a bike you buy online to your local shop to have them look it over before you ride it.
    • Buying New – Your choices when buying a new bike are online, a department store and your local bike shop. I can’t think of a case where I would ever recommend you buy a bike from a department store such as Walmart, Target, etc. These bikes are often cheaply made and not put together correctly. From there, I say your choice depends on your level of skill in bike assembly and maintenance. If you are relatively new to bikes and have never worked on one, I highly recommend visiting your local bike shop. While the sticker price will be more than a department store or online, their expertise in bike assembly and maintenance is a very smart buy. You don’t want that bike falling apart on your commute! Also, many bike shops will give you a deal on ongoing maintenance if you purchase the bike at their shop. However, if you are well familiar with bikes and are comfortable assembling and maintaining them, then buying online can be your best choice to get a good bike and save money.
  • Road vs. touring vs. cyclocross vs. mountain vs. commuter specific vs. comfort vs. folding bike- There are pros and cons to each of these and I’ll take them one at a time…
    • Road Bike – In most cases this will be the faster bike. It is often the lightest choice and the geometry of a road bike usually puts you in a position to get the most out of each pedal stroke. The downsides are there are no places to store anything on the bike (i.e. panniers) and there is often very little or no room for fenders. The tires on most road bikes are often very skinny and can be susceptible to flats on uneven pavement or terrain. Also, many people will find the positioning on a road bike uncomfortable.A road bike is a good choice for someone that is looking for the fastest trip to work, has smooth terrain and is comfortable with the positioning on the bike.
    • Touring Bikes – These bikes are built for long bike trips. They usually come ready to handle both fenders and panniers and have a more comfortable rider position over road bikes. The downside is that they are often expensive bikes and can be hard to find. It will take a bit more money and some patient searching to find the right one.A touring bike is a good choice for someone that already has access to one and is looking for a more comfortable ride.
    • Cyclo-cross Bikes – as the term ‘cross’ implies, this is a hybrid of a road and mountain bike. Used for racing everything from pavement to wooded trails to gravel roads, these bikes are designed fast and lightweight like road bikes, however are built strong to endure the punishment of off-pavement racing.A cyclo-cross bike can be a great choice for commuting as it’s fast on pavement but can take the abuse of running through the off-road terrain you may end up using on your commute. These bikes, in general, don’t accept standard bike racks, so you’ll be without the use of panniers, however if your goal is to go the fastest while still having the option of going off pavement, this may be the choice for you.
    • Mountain Bike – These bikes can often be made into a great commuter. You can often find them for cheap (or covered in dust in your basement). They have plenty of clearance for fenders and some can accept a bike rack and panniers. If you are buying one specifically for commuting, try looking for one without suspension as this isn’t needed in most cases of commuting. Also, you’ll want to get some slicker tires than normal knobby mountain bike tires so you’ll be able to roll faster. The rider position of mountain bikes is often more upright than a road, touring or commuter specific bike which makes for harder pedaling up hills. It is also often the heaviest of the choices.A mountain bike is good for someone that is on a tight budget as a cheap one can be easily found. If you are looking for a fast trip to work and/or have hilly terrain, this may not be the best choice. I recommend a mountain bike as a commuter for people that are on a tight budget or are just looking to give commuting by bike a try.
    • Commuter Specific Bike – There has been a new wave in the bike industry the last few years towards making bikes specifically for commuting. They are often made out of steel and have a more relaxed, comfortable position that road bikes. The tires and wheels are made stronger and more durable for the stresses of commuting. Also, many of them come equipped with fenders and braze ons for bike racks. For gearing, most of them are setup with one gear.I believe a commuter specific bike is a great choice for someone that is in decent fitness and is looking for something that is the best combination of the above choices. The rider position and bike geometry allow for a faster commute than a mountain bike. However it is more comfortable than a road bike and often is setup for things like fenders and panniers.
    • Comfort Bikes – These bikes are often very similar in rider position and geometry to a mountain bike, however it changes many of the features to make them extremely comfortable for the rider such as more upright position, kickstand, more comfortable seat (often with suspension), better tires for road and plenty of reflectors.These are great bikes if you have a relatively flat ride to work, aren’t looking for the fastest and/or have some physical ailments that make the more upright position the most comfortable. These, also, can often be had for very cheap.
    • Folding Bike – If you are someone that needs to store their bike in the smallest space possible and have relatively flat terrain, then this is the perfect bike for you. While they aren’t extremely widespread (so finding one used can be hard) they are still not extremely expensive and may be the perfect choice.

Although this article was long, don’t let that scare you off from searching for the right bike. If you are just wanting to try out this whole commuting by bike thing, grab whatever bike you can get and give it a try. As you learn your riding style and terrain better, you’ll be able to make a good choice in the future.

 
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34 Responses to “Commuting 101: Choosing a bike”

  1. Tim,

    This is an excellent post that will definitely help newbies buying a bike.

    By the way, not all folding bikes are just for riding on flat terrain.

    The Montague full size folding mountain bikes have anywhere from 18-24 speeds, allowing commuters to negotiate hills and accellerate quickly at stop lights (important when riding among impatient motorists in rush hour traffic). Montague’s mountain bikes even have drop outs for panniers, fenders, water bottles, etc. (very useful if you’re commuting with a brief case, change of clothes, an AirZound bike horn etc. and want to commute regardless whether skies are sunny). The bike also folds quickly so it can be stored next to the rider’s office cubicle or in a small storage closet.

    For longer commutes on typically congested and rough roadways, a Montague would be my choice (outfitted with slicks), hands down.

    Respectfully,
    Larry Lagarde
    RideTHISbike.com
    Ph: 504-324-2492
    Urging bicycling for recreation, commuting, health and a better future.

  2. Fritz says:

    Larry, can these full-sized folders be used for multi-modal commtues, though? My understanding is that these types of bikes are more to facilitate travel on airplanes.

  3. Paul of N.W. GA says:

    I live in very hilly terrain and my two bikes have wide gearing.

    I started with a 21 speed hybrid and changed the gearing down to 18 inches, allows climbing a steep hill at 4mph. I used this bike for almost a year, now it’s a back-up.

    Then I added a second bike, a 27 speed full touring (Love it) with low gearing of 20inches. It also has a front hub generator to power my lights (front and rear), can carry four panniers (lots of groceries and such) and has a Brooks saddle (very comfortable).

    After a long day at work I don’t always feel like struggling up hills or fighting a headwind. Low gearing makes my commutes great everyday!

  4. Mike in Florida says:

    There is another category of road bike which is gaining favor—the “sport road” bike. Slightly less racy than a full on road race bike, but not as heavy as a touring bike. My Gunnar Sport has room for 700x28c with fenders, has rack and fender eyelets, and a more upright position. There are other choices, too. Of course, this is just a return to the functionality road bikes USED to have decades ago, but it’s a welcome return. Commuting on some road bikes is like driving an Indy car to work. No room to carry stuff(unless you use a Carradice), no room for fenders.

  5. Fritz says:

    I see a lot of cyclocross bikes used for commuting also. Room for fenders, wider tires, but with some of the lightnessl, speed and performance of road bikes. Like Mike’s “sport road” bikes, CX bikes have a more relaxed geometry for a more forgiving ride.

  6. Fritz, that depends.

    Other Transit Mode=Personal Motor Vehicle – Yes.
    If the other mode of transit is a personal motor vehicle, the Montague full size folding bike could be pulled out of the trunk of a car/suv, unfolded & you’d be on your way.

    Other Transit Mode=Mass Transit – No.
    Montague makes/sells a carry bag for their bikes so you could carry a full size folder aboard a bus or subway train but that’s too much work in my opinion. Also, due to the larger size of a folded, full size bike, there’s a greater risk that a bus driver or commuter train conductor or subway employee may deny boarding, particularly if it’s rush hour and there’s standing room only. Also, if there’s significant walking or stair climbing, this would be uncomfortable with a 30 lb bike slung over your shoulder. Instead, I’d go with a micro or mid size folding bike that does roll when folded (examples: Gekko, Giatex, Mobiky Genius, etc.).

    Larry

  7. Fritz,

    To see how various folding bikes fold & unfold, take a look at some of the folding bike videos on RideTHISbike.com like this one:
    http://ridethisbike.com/2007/03/video-how-to-fold-129-gekko-folding.html

    Alternately, here’s another link to several other folding bike videos.

  8. David says:

    Only one comment… anyone seeking to commute by bicycle: do not be affected by ‘sticker shock’ when purchasing a bike that might be more than your mortgage payment. The key to buying a good bike from a local bike shop is to make sure you get what you need. The article did a great job outlining what your decision making process ought to look like.

    I would only add that every local bike shop I have ever been to only requires that you have your helmet along so you can test ride different bikes. Most shops I’ve been to will give you a cue sheet and send you out to make sure you get a good feel on the frame. One shop told me to take the bike for a week before making a decision! That was the exception – but the dealers want to make sure you are thrilled with your new ride rather than just making a sale.

  9. [...] are heaps of blogs and websites dedicated to every possible aspect of bicycle commuting, from choosing a bike, clothing and equipment, to doing your own repairs and even instructions on the best way to fold a [...]

  10. Matt says:

    Handlebar shapes?
    Does anyone know of a good place to read about handlebar shapes for commuters? My commuter-specific hybrid (Specialized Globe) has flat bars, but I see people commuting with curved road-style bars, and sometimes bullhorns.

    I understand that road bars give you a few different hand positions to reduce fatigue, which is something I sometimes wish I have . I’m assuming since mountain bikes use flat bars, they give you better control, but I don’t know if that’s true. And what’s up with the bullhorns, anyway?

    I’ve heard that V-brake levers and road-brake levers are not interchangable. If I ever decided I wanted road handlebars on my bike, would that be possible?

  11. Fritz says:

    Matt, Here’s my article on handlebar styles. I think it’s time to revisit this topic.

    V brakes require more cable pull than the dual pivot calipers used on road bikes, so the levers are different. I’ve heard of adapters and drop bar levers that will work with V brakes, but I have no experience with them.

    For additional hand positions, bar ends on your flat bars might be a good option.

  12. Rhome says:

    Anyone interested in offering some free expertise?

    Recently started commuting and trying to throw in the occasional fitness ride on weekends. I’m on a flat-bar hybrid style steel bike now. About 25 lbs. I’m fond of it but concerned that I might outgrow/wear out the low level components and I’d also like to work my way up to longer fitness and group rides in the future.

    Commute is about 13 miles each way, adds up to 50 – 80 miles a week depending on the weather and my motivation level, not counting what I do on weekends. Fair amount of hills when I try to avoid busy roadways. I’m using a backpack.

    I’m looking at stuff with a ceiling of $800 if I get through the winter and feel that my current steed needs an upgrade.

    Thoughts?

  13. Jeremy says:

    I have one exception to what you mentioned about ‘cross bikes. I have two cyclocross bikes in my stable, a Cannondale ( dedicated to cross racing) and a Motobecane (which I use just for commuting). I chose a cross bike for commuting for exactly the reasons you state: fast like a road bike, but sturdy like a mountain bike. However, in my research for a good commuter rig, I noticed that many of the larger “brand name” manufacturers now have rack mounts on their cross bikes, and some have pre-drilled holes for fender mounting as well. Both of my bikes have braze-ons for standard rear racks, and the Motobecane has braze-ons for a front rack as well. For me a cross bike was a great compromise between speed and durability, allowing me to get “sneaky miles” in during the week and save on gas, etc.

  14. taka says:

    I am almost agree with your opinions. Just one thing about safety of folding bicycle. Other bicycle such as MTB has safety standard to meet. However, folding bicycle and electric motored bicycle can be exception in some countries.

    People buy folding bicycle because they seems convenient. However, due to folding mechanical structure, they tend to be mechanically weaker than other bicycles. Folding bicycle has some big advantage however, unless people have specific reason to buy them, it is better to choose other type bicycles. That is my thought.

  15. There was a time when bike makers made a folding bike by essentially cutting the frame in half and welding in a hinge. That time is passing.

    Within the last 5 years, a variety of exciting folding bike designs have hit the market – and more are on the way.

    As Tim pointed out, there is no, one bike that is perfect for everyone. Folding bikes do serve a variety of cyclists quite well though.

  16. taka says:

    I agree most reasonable priced folding bicycles are safety. But, I commented about mighty safety problem for cheaper folding bicycles which light bicycle users are interested in buying.
    Folding bike safety tests were conducted by third party last time since the number of accidents were increasing in my country. Some problems were found out from those tests.
    I imported few folding bikes myself and use them often when I take with my car. I think they are excellent tools for some purposes.

  17. AC says:

    Hi,

    – I hope thie is the right place for this…

    I’m going to give commuting a go and need some advice.

    I’m a SS mountain biker and do not have any geared bikes. I test drove my route today and it’s 12 miles with essentially no hills. The only hills are highway overpasses, so I’m sire I can push a big gear over with no problems since they are short, plus I will have a rolling start. The bike I’m going to use for commuting is a GT 9′r and is currently set up as 32×18 with Schwalbe Big Apple slicks. I don’t even want to try commuting with 32×18 because I will never get there… It took me 30 minutes to drive the route today and with 32×18 it would take >2 hours. Maybe not 2 hours, but it wouldn’t be much fun spinning out for 12 miles.

    I need a taller chainring, so this is where I need some advice.
    I can either get a new set of road crankset or just a bigger chainring for my current mtb cranks.

    Jensonusa has a clearance on 105 cranks, which are 53×39 for $45. I don’t need anything highend, so this seems like a killer deal.

    If I get a mtb chainring I will go with the big ring, which should be a 44t.

    So, my question is if I go with road cranks is it unrealistic to try commuting on 53×18? I have some 20T cogs, so I could do a 53×20. I know once I’m rolling I can push this gear, but I’m concerned about starting. Is it too tall?

    Or, should I just go with 44×18?

    I know this is subjective, but I’m looking for some general advice so I can get started.

    Thanks!

  18. gowestgirl says:

    I’ve been commuting to work for about a month on my Specialized Hardrock. The mountain bike has simply proved to me that I can bike to work but I knew right away I wanted something with a more upright position. The up right position allows a better range of vision and is easier on my back. I just feel less vulnerable as well. I tried several models. My favorite by far was the the Breezer! It had everything I could want but at the moment I just can’t justify the price so I went with my second choice the Specialized Expedition with the ladies u-frame. It is being built for me with the addition of fenders, rack, kickstand, and a few other accessories (still well under the cost of the Breezer). I see a lot of cyclists in my town on Mountain bikes but an increasing number seem to be traveling on comfort, commuter and cruisers.

  19. Ready 2 Ride says:

    Hello to all, I’m trying to purchase my first bike for commute. What’ s the best bike economically and good for a begginner to purchase ? Thanks in advance for your input.

  20. liz says:

    Does anyone have any idea what the differences in speed would be between a cyclocross bike and a road bike? I am torn.

  21. FritZ says:

    Liz: What distance? For anything under about 20 miles the speed difference will most likely be fairly minimal, especially if you have road tires on the cx bike.

    The cx bike will give you more flexibility on weather and terrain, IMO.

  22. Todd says:

    Most ‘cross bikes – unless they are designed specifically for racing – will have rear rack mounts. The racing-specific cross bikes are typically noticeable too from their much higher price tags and abundance of carbon and such.

  23. raul jabol says:

    What is the tyoical weight of a good bike regardless of type?

  24. In response to raul jabol who asked “What is the tyoical weight of a good bike regardless of type?” I would say try to keep the bike under 30 pounds. You will enjoy riding the bike more and ride it more often.

  25. [...] “Cyclo-cross Bikes – as the term ‘cross’ implies, this is a hybrid of a road and mountain bike. Used for racing everything from pavement to wooded trails to gravel roads, these bikes are designed fast and lightweight like road bikes, however are built strong to endure the punishment of off-pavement racing. A cyclo-cross bike can be a great choice for commuting as it’s fast on pavement but can take the abuse of running through the off-road terrain you may end up using on your commute.” re: commutebybike.com [...]

  26. [...] Commuting 101: Choosing a bike at Commute by Bike [...]

  27. TN says:

    I went with an electric bike and Love it. My commute is 14 hilly miles by bike & 5 miles by train. I pedal when I feel like exercising, throttle when I’m on low sleep/sick/it’s bitter cold out/I don’t feel like it. I don’t need to mess with extra clothes/showers at the office. My bike is a $1400 pathfinder mini, built rock-solid, 20″ wheels so it’s low profile/fits great on the train. If you get one, get a good one. We’re now a 1 (paid off) car family now, and I love not having to fight traffic, take my car into the shop, pay for insurance/tag.

  28. This article is very good and gives important information for choosing a good bike. Here are some tips that also you can follow. Road bikes are designed for riding on paved streets and to ride fast. You can choose this bike if you want to travel longer distances at higher speeds. If you want to drive on snowy roads. Mountain bikes do not go as fast as road bikes. These bikes have wide tires.

  29. Great article, thanks for sharing it. i’m really impressed. i’ll have to link my friend to this site, he’s just getting into cycling.

  30. richelieu says:

    Personally, I find headwinds far more of a problem than any hill. A good gear range is important but I am yet to find a bike ( other than electric assist) which will make headwinds a breeze (excuse the pun).

  31. Bike Lover says:

    Nice read, I definitely prefer a good road bike to get me to work.

  32. Excellent article and like how all options or discussed for varying conditions of a commute. Being from Portland, Oregon a bike friendly mecca, here in south Texas it’s very different commuting. Whereas I road my touring bike exclusively in Portland, fenders, wet weather, etc. Here I find myself hopping on the mountain bike to get around for curb hopping, riding sidewalks, cobble and brick, and old pot hold graveled roads. Disc brake is nice for lots of stop and go riding as are the multiple gears for hauling a trailer and or panniers. My winter commuting experiences of Colorado called for this same type of ride, ability to put fat home made snow tires was a lot of fun for steep icy climbs with a mountain bike. Nice article. Thanks.

  33. Jared says:

    I think it all depends on how rugged your terrain is and how fast you want to go. A road bike will still be a little faster and lighter than a mountain bike with slick tires. Also, if you use a steel-frame road bike, you’ll get some natural shock-absorption (compared to an aluminum mtn bike frame). I’ve weighed out all the pros and cons here: Road Bike vs Mountain Bike for Commuting. Personally, I like using a road bike with cyclo-cross tires, some of my friends prefer a hard tail mtn bike with slicks.

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