Nothing beats a well-equipped city bike for sheer practicality. But it’s not all work and no play, either, since the right model can be more fun than you might realize.
All the bells and whistles may cost a pretty penny, but you don’t have to break the bank to get an eminently useful and downright enjoyable bike for urban riding.
Here, we’ll take a look at five price points and what I consider a great value at each. Not the only good values, of course, but a solid price on a bike that’s useful for urban riding and brings something unique to the table.
This list is brief because it comes from a ton of real-life riding as well as probably way too much time spent researching. In fact, I’ve owned the first three for years, ridden the fifth, and am desperately trying to pry my credit card out of my hands before buying the fourth. In other words, they’re all a terrific value for the right rider, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to people I care about.
From a minimalistic all-rounder to a true Dutch bike with every possible accessories, something below should work for just about any commuter or everyday cyclist. Let’s get into it.
$500: the Brooklyn Franklin/Willow for unbeatable ride quality
I’ve raved about the Brooklyn Franklin in my super-long-term review here, which is a must-read if you’re shopping around this price point.
Long story short, the Franklin (and nearly identical Willow) is a classic, steel-frame city bike with the most perfect ride quality I’ve found under about $1700. The secret is longer-than-normal chainstays combined with slightly relaxed head tube and seat tube angles, and a low bottom bracket. If you’re able to fork out around $1700-$3000+ for a Rivendell, then it’s probably worth it. But below that price, Brooklyn is perhaps the only brand that nails city bike geometry so perfectly–let alone at such a reasonable price.
At the $500 mark, you expect unimpressive but totally reliable parts, and that’s exactly what the Franklin and Willow have (and my review covers in detail). And frankly, in the spirit of simple, traditional, practical bikes…that’s exactly what I want anyway.
Also consider: single-speed bikes are fantastic for flatter commutes and city use, as discussed in this article. And Brooklyn made a $400 Franklin single-speed, but regrettably stopped. Upright single-speeds are rare, but a good substitute is the Public Bikes C1 for around $450, depending on promotions.
$729: the Norco Scene 1 for comfy and deceptively quick cruising
Norco made their name in the freeride and downhill mountain biking world. As a Vancouver, BC-based brand, they were (and still are) all over the North Shore, Whistler, and most other MTB hotspots–especially in my native Northwest.
But in the 2010, Norco launched one fantastic pavement-friendly bike after another. They reached their pinnacle, in my opinion, with the release of the Scene in 2018.
It stands out as one of the only bikes on the North American market to use something close to Dutch-style geometry: basically upright posture, very slack head and seat angles, and a fairly long wheelbase. But rather than an ultra-burly steel frame with tank-like components in the Dutch style, Norco went a sportier direction with an aluminum frame and MTB-style components.
How does it ride? Suffice to say that after buying one for my wife, I promptly got my own and had a blast on everything from weekday commutes to length gravel road outings. The upright posture and well-chosen handlebars (more on that below) make it supremely comfortable, but it doesn’t have the bloated and ponderous feel you might dislike about, say, an Electra Townie.
You can spend as little as $569 on the Scene 3 or as much as $999 on the Scene IGH N8, but it’s the $729 Scene 1 that gives the most bang for your buck.
The 2.2″ tires are massive, and frankly a bit overkill for the sort of riding one realistically does on a bike like the Scene. But that’s OK: aluminum frames aren’t the smoothest riding, so the extra air volume keeps vibration down to a minimum.
The hydraulic disc brakes have more than enough power for urban riding, and the 1×9 drivetrain uses a wide-range cassette that got me up steeper hills than I’d normally attempt on a city bike.
Even though the Scene positions you upright, Norco chose wider handlebars that sweep back diagonally, not the slightly narrow bars with fully parallel sweep as you’d find on most Dutch bikes. That improves control and lowers speeds and on rougher ground. It also makes it more comfortable to learn forward into a tough climb.
Long story short, the Scene 1 is the sportiest quasi-Dutch bike you’ll find, and the price is hard to argue with–even accounting for the fenders I wish it included!
As for mine? I eventually sold it. The overlap with my beloved Brooklyn Franklin–see above–was too much to justify keeping both. Otherwise, absent the Brooklyn, the Scene 1 would still be my go-to commuter.
Find the Scene 1 here.
Also consider: there aren’t that many Norco dealers around, so if you have trouble finding a Scene, then consider the Specialized Roll. Additionally, the Marin Larkspur and Kona Coco are in the same vein, if not quite identical.
$995 and up: the Brompton for unmatched portability
A folding bike might seem out of place, but the Brompton is too uniquely brilliant to omit.
Read my long-term review here for the full scoop and some important notes, but below are a few key takeaways.
It has particularly nice accessory and luggage options that make it as useful as anything else on this list, but scaled down to a transit- and apartment-friendly package. Even its fenders are thoughtful (if you choose them) with generous coverage and an ample mud flap to keep your shoes and shins clean.
The construction quality is also superb, both in terms of a beautifully built and finished frame and in terms of all-around durability. Mine required no maintenance beyond tire pressure even after nearly a year of daily, all-weather commuting.
Now, a Brompton isn’t the best choice if you cycle mostly for recreation and you have the space for something larger. It rides excellently for its size, but the reality is that 16″ wheels are not as smooth as full-size ones. And while it handles nicely with a light load up front–such as you might commute with–it is unusually twitchy when ridden without a load. To be clear, it doesn’t turn into a bucking bronco the moment you remove your bag; it just lacks the steadiness most of us expect.
But the small wheels and the load-optimized handling are just the ticket for practical use and tight spaces. It’s also the most compact fold around: just 26″x26″x10″, if memory serves. Getting down to that size call for ingenious design up front and very precise manufacturing so that all those extra joints are sturdy and precise. And it delivers, period.
For my money, there simply is no more practical bike on the market if space is a constraint.
A quick note on pricing: Bromptons range from the baseline B75, which is a steal at $995, to partially titanium versions with dynamo lighting and extensive racks and luggage for upwards of three grand. That’s a staggering range, but the $1200-$1700 range should cover 99% of needs and uses. Note that the frame is identical on all versions, titanium parts notwithstanding.
The options and trade-offs are worth a whole article of their own, besides my aforementioned review. But for now, play around with the bike builder on their website to get a sense of what you’d need to budget.
$1300: the Breezer Doppler Cafe Plus for getting off the beaten path
If the Norco Scene is a city bike that’s deceptively fun for other purposes, then the Breezer Doppler Cafe Plus is an “other-purposes” bikes that’s deceptively useful around town.
Breezer is the namesake brand of Joe Breeze, one of the co-inventors of mountain biking way back in the day. He’s as prominent as anybody in the industry, but his Breezer brand never grew into the size or visibility of a Trek or Specialized or Giant.
Nonetheless, he’s an ingenious bike designer, consistently on the more practical side of recreational bikes and the more reactional side of practical bikes. And nothing epitomizes that balance better than the Breezer Doppler Cafe Plus.
The build kit is actually reminiscent of the Norco Scene 1 mentioned above, but with a few higher-end differences.
The 650b wheel size has been around for generations, but it has caught on–perhaps bigger than ever–during the last few years. The Doppler line does it right, with 47mm tires on tubeless-compatible rims. The 1×10 Deore drivetrain is simple and tough–I’m continually amazed at how modern Deore outperforms pricey XTR from a decade back–and the lowest gear of 40×42 is just enough to handle steeper dirt routes.
While I normally don’t get into the weeds of gearing on city bikes, I stress it here because everything about the Doppler Cafe Plus is dirt-friendly. It is not a rough-and-tumble mountain bike, to be clear, but the cushy tires, hydraulic disc brakes, and slightly forward lean are spot-on for a mix of pavement and other surfaces in all weather. Again, not wildly different from the Norco Scene 1 on paper, but the Doppler’s posture is better suited to speed and its less oversized tires are more agile.
It’s still a highly practical commuter, thus on this list, thanks to included fenders and, best of all, a dynamo hub powering a Busch & Mueller IQ-XS headlight. That’s a terrific light that I’ve personally used and liked. At 70 lux, it’s vastly brighter than the entry-level lights most dynamo-equipped bikes include, so no upgrades needed (although a dynamo-powered B&M taillight seems like an obvious addition).
I’m inclined to call it a gravel bike, seeing as it’s not as upright and cushy as a “proper” city bike, yet far tougher and more versatile than a road racer. But if I could only have a single bike for all situations with zero modifications (perish the thought!), then the Doppler Cafe Plus would be it.
Find the Doppler Cafe Plus here.
Also consider: in-store availability is tough for most Breezer models. And if buying online won’t work, then check out the Marin Muirwoods RC (with an internally-geared hub!). It’s a bit cheaper, and still similar in spirit, but unfortunately lack dynamo lighting.
$1900 and up: the entire WorkCycles line for multi-generational car replacement
WorkCycles is the high-end brand for Dutch bikes.
Not just Dutch-style bikes as I so often refer to, but ones actually made in Amsterdam.
They have a handful of models that I’m going to oversimplify and lump together here, since they all serve practical purposes perfectly.
Most WorkCycles models (especially the Fr8 pictured above) are “multi-generational” in two senses. Firstly, the frames are practically indestructible and every moving part is as internal, sealed, and hands-off as possible. With occasional maintenance–as with a car–it will serve your children and probably theirs.
Secondly, the modular cargo design can carry multiple generations of your family at the same time. North Americans find this odd, but it’s not uncommon for the Dutch to ride with *at least* two children on such a bike as this.
The Gr8 and Fr8 have extra-flexible sizing, so it’s easy to share a single bike between parents and older children. They accomplish this with an extra-slack seat tube that greatly lengthens the saddle-to-handlebar distance as you raise the seat.
Note that these are heavy bikes. The lightest model, the Secret Service, seems to start at roughly 40 lbs with minimal accessories. A fully-equipped Fr8 will weight half again that much. All that to say, don’t count on loading on the rack of a bus or carrying them up stairs on a regular basis.
I’ve enjoyed riding the more traditional WorkCycles Omafiets (“ohma-feets“) on typical city terrain and even a bit of smooth dirt–all at very modest speeds, of course. It’s a dignified ride: stately, collected, and restrained. If that’s not your idea of fun–if slightly rowdier riding or higher speed is the goal–then any of the bikes above are both more suitable and more affordable.
And if you’re unsure whether this is even the right type of bike to consider, then check out this article where I’ve covered the pros and cons in more detail.
But to the right person, a WorkCycles is worth its substantial weight in gold. You won’t get decades of car-like utility by pinching pennies or groaning about grams.
Also consider: many people love the posture of a Dutch but can’t deal with the weight and cost, and don’t quite need to haul an entire family. If so, then the right accessories will turn a Norco Scene IGH N8 into something not too different.
We’ve run the gamut from an ultra-portable Brompton folder to a behemoth WorkCycles utility bike, with three terrific middle-of-the-road options as well.
Each is a fantastic value in its own right, but only if it’s a good fit for where and how you’ll realistically ride. For instance, if you prefer the sportier side and commuting is more of a bonus or afterthought, then consider a hybrid as featured in this guide.
Anyhow, step one is to figure out what everyday cycling will actually look like. All answers are “right” answers as long as they’re frank!
Whenever, wherever, and however you incorporate cycling into everyday life, it will pay benefits you never expected. So have fun, stay safe, and above all, get out there!