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De-Evolution of a Commuter Bike

by Ted Johnson

Did your commuter bike come into your life with a different purpose?

I found this comment at Reddit:

I’ve realized that every single commuter bike I’ve ever seen is a Frankenstein-like combination of pieces. Racks, fenders, tires, frames – despite the recent appearance of “package deal” commuters, where the rubber meets the road I almost never see them. Instead I see an almost endless range of repurposed bikes.

I’m very close to admitting that my mountain bike isn’t really a  mountain bike anymore. It’s a Diamondback Apex and, when I bought it 14 years ago, it was out of my league as a rider. I aspired to be adequate to the awesomeness of this bike. I’m not sure I ever fulfilled that. It’s a de-facto commuter bike now, but I hold onto the notion that it’s ready to attack any single-track trail that I might decide to try.

Ted's Commuter Bike

This is one of two bikes I own, the other being a Dahon folder–my preferred commuter bike because it doesn’t remind me of my failure as a mountain biker the way that my Diamondback does. But the Diamondback has been chosen to be my winter commuting bike for obvious reasons: It’s sturdier, and has wider tires. But it’s the accessories for the winter commute that seem to push this bike ever farther from it’s true calling.

I have a Planet Bike Superflash (a) attached to a Vaude Silk Road Plus rack-top bag (b). These transfer easily between this bike and my Dahon, and the mini panniers don’t interfere with my heels on the smaller bike. The Silk Road Plus comes with a rain cover for when the weather gets wet.

The Delta seatpost rack (c) allows me to believe that I can pop this thing off, shed some weight, and shred up some trails. It hasn’t been removed in more than a year, since the last time I needed to tow a Trail-a-Bike. (In other words, not because I needed to blow any minds in the mountains.) This rack pivots on the seat post, and often rubs against my tires. I can’t help thinking that a different style rack might work better for me, but it would be less easily removed. For now, I’m clinging to the dream.

It was surprisingly difficult to find a commuter mug that was shaped for a bottle cage. I finally found this Trek Soho commuter mug (d) at a bike shop in Austin, TX. My only complaint is that it’s stainless steel on the outside, but plastic on the inside. (Plastic!)

On the handle bars, I have a Planet Bike Beamer 3 headlight (e). It’s pretty good. However, I’m considering getting a Cygolite MiliOn 200 USB LED Front Light, which can be recharged at work from my computer’s USB port.

The newest addition is the Vario Shockblade fender (f). I haven’t encountered any mud, slush, or even water since I installed this. All it’s done so far is bring back happy memories. Simply looking over my handlebars and seeing a bouncing plastic fender reminds me of when I used to ride a 100 cc Yamaha farm bike (in the Peace Corps, in Cameroon, but that’s another 100 stories).

Finally, I’ve got some new Schwalbe Marathoner Winter studded tires (g). These, more than anything, have given me the confidence to try winter commuting. When the streets are dry I simply inflate them to full pressure (60 psi) and the studs hardly contact the pavement when I’m upright. When snow or ice is present, I deflate them a bit (40 psi), enlarging my footprint and increasing the stud factor.

So the title of this post is “De-Evolution of a Commuter Bike.” But, if you study evolution beyond popular culture’s understanding of the word, you’ll learn there is no such thing as de-evolution. (Sorry, Devo fans.) Evolution is not progressive (inevitably leading to more advanced or complex forms). Rather, evolution it’s adaptive. This bike has adapted to a new role as commuter bike, and it’s getting more use than ever. If I view commuting as a lower calling than exciting mountain biking, that’s my issue. This bike is a success story.

 
Burley nomad 229

7 Responses to “De-Evolution of a Commuter Bike”

  1. AdamDZ says:

    I think most people become bike commuters gradually, starting with what they have. Very few wake up in the morning and decide “I’m buying a commuter bike and I’ll be riding to work from now on”. It’s a process, kind of organic, the bike evolves with the rider. Eventually some people may end up buying a bike specifically for commuting but it till wouldn’t be one of those dedicated commuter bikes as people might be afraid they’re too narrowly specialized. The same happened to me I rode whatever I had. At one point I bough a bike specifically for commuting but as my needs changed and evolved I ended up building my own around a mountain bike frame. Mountain bikes make the best commuters. I think a lot of the dedicated commuter bikes available now miss some of the points and shoot for style rather than function. I know some people love the Dutch style cruisers but nothing beats a modified MTB as a nimble, tough and flexible utility bike.

  2. @AdamDZ – I agree, many stock “commuter” bikes miss the boat on several levels.

    The best commuters are built by necessity, not appearance. So a stock aluminum hybrid frame with single wall rims, a light load rear rack, suspension seatpost, plastic fenders and a bell generally doesn’t a great bike for real commuting, though everything matches. And the great commuter bikes that come stock with most things you need (think Civia) are pretty darn expensive, especially for those of us who ride to save some cash!

    Additionally, by spec’ing a bike yourself and adding accesories as you go, your bike becomes more a part of you. You learn more about the bike, and optimize it by experimenting with products that provide the best commute. What you end up getting in the end is a goofy machine with ill-matching components and accessories, but it does two things – 1. people who know little about bikes will never steal it because it looks so weird, 2. Its a friggin awesome machine that will get you there and back in the best condition.

  3. Rob E. says:

    I’ve seen some appealing commuter builds, but I didn’t really consider them even when I knew I was buying my bike primarily as a commuter bike. I wanted options on how I was going to use my bike because I don’t have room for a selection of bikes. My commuter bike is also my hauling bike, my ’round-towner, and, should I ever get around to it, my touring bike. If all I was going to do was travel to work and back, an actual, purpose-built, commuting bike /might/ do the trick, but for given that almost any complete build has some specific use in mind, there’s just not a great option for an “everything” bike. And while I’ve seen some appealing stock commuter bikes, more appealing to me is picking my components and doing it myself. And it’s probably fairly rare that someone is a commuter to the exclusion of other cycling activities, and even commuting varies so much from person to person or place to place that even if you make a stock bike with all the most common “must-have” commuter components, it’s still only going to appeal to a small subset of the market. I like those bikes. I’m glad they’re out there, and I hope they become more popular, but right now they seem like they’d apply to too narrow of a subset of people, and it doesn’t surprise me that we don’t see them often.

  4. Sue J says:

    It’s only recently that what’s been called “commuter” bike has been actually designed for commuting, especially commuting in weather. The “designers” didn’t really know what commuting entails.
    Commuters tend to be dedicated enough to have figured out what features are important to them, so are mroe likely to design their own… but I’m really glad to see that there’s more out there that would actually *work* for the newbie (fenders, easy to use cargo space…)
    Whilst the “commute and don’t ride at all otherwise” person is going to be rare, more common is the “time for another bike to dedicate to commuting” rider.

  5. LBJ says:

    “This is one of two bikes I own, the other being a Dahon folder–my preferred commuter bike because it doesn’t remind me of my failure as a mountain biker the way that my Diamondback does. But the Diamondback has been chosen to be my winter commuting bike for obvious reasons: It’s sturdier, and has wider tires.”

    When I read this, I couldn’t help but think that you should check out one of the Montague mountain bikes – a full size folding mountain bike. You also might light the Montague better for your winter commute than the Dahon, if you’re looking for a winter-commuter-folder, that is…anyway, you can take a look here if you’re interested: http://www.montaguebikes.com

  6. I would think that most cyclists that decide to commute by bike would start with a bike that they already have. I now have three generations of touring bikes, a Specialized Expedition (1986), a Cannondale T2000 (1982), and a custom Bike Friday New World Tourist (2008). The oldest bike works great for commuting and shopping. It has about 20,000 miles on it but still works well. I wouldn’t use it for long distance touring anymore, however. I also have an older mountain bike that would also be suitable for commuting. As long as you take care of your bikes and they were of high quality when you bought them years ago, they should serve you well as a commuter bike. They may not look so pretty anymore, and their gearing may not be state of the art, but you probably don’t have to worry about someone stealing them.

  7. Scott Redd says:

    I did kind of the opposite from the other commuters responding. Having never owned or ridden a serious bike, I walked into a Trek store asking to be outfitted with a commuter bike. This was when gas was $4 a gallon and I was getting fat.

    They set me up on a sturdy hybrid 7300 with a rack, fenders, panniers, and lights. I really took to cycling and within six months, was itching for a road bike, and then a cross bike. I still used the hybrid for grocery shopping and foul weather commuting, but began to settle into a different style of commuting on a single speed road bike.

    Now I ride either the single speed road bike or a Trek Earl (also single speed) with a rack, but usually I just use a messenger bag.

    I no longer have the hybrid, but sometimes I miss it.

    Biking is all about tweaking until you find what works for you, discovering what you want, then scrapping it all, and again rediscovering what works for you all over again.

    By the way, I’ve now lost about 45 pounds since I started bike commuting. I’m lean, fitter than ever, and also save thousands of dollars a year on gas, insurance, car payments, and parking. This stuff really works.

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