As a new commuter, choosing a bike can be overwhelming.
There’s so much variety in bikes and components.
It’s fun, but a lot to navigate.
After all, anything that successfully gets you to and from work is a “commuter bike,” so this umbrella term covers an enormous variety.
Good commuter bikes do have a few essentials in common…but only a few.
Spending your money well depends on asking the right questions.
And what are they? You’re in the right place.
Looking back, these exact questions could have save me hundreds (and probably thousands) on trial and error over the years.
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1. How much do I really care about riding fast?
Yes, we all want to get to worker quicker rather than slower. But things like traffic lights make an enormous difference in how long a bike commute takes.
In the city, Lance Armstrong wouldn’t get to the office that much faster than yours truly.
If your commute is stop-and-go like most, then understand that a “fast” bike won’t radically shorten your trip.
If you’re thinking about commuting on an aero road bike, then buy it for fun or for training use. Those are perfectly good reasons.
Just don’t expect it to shave off much time, unless your commute involves miles of open pathways.
2. Will I ride in everyday clothing, or change clothes later?
Using regular clothing is one of the best ways to make cycling a part of daily life.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s very much possible to bike to work without showering. I’ve done it for years, and—since I know you’re wondering—my colleagues were none the wiser.
As long as you take it easy, like the effort of a brisk walk, you can skip the special clothing and avoid changing at work.
If that appeals, then it’s critical to choose a bicycle that positions you mostly or totally upright.
Granted, some sweat is inevitable in hot and/or humid climates. But even if you opt for an e-bike to get some exercise with less sweat, you’ll still want an upright position. (Perhaps even more so, since the motor more than offsets any lost pedal power.)
3. Am I willing to pay for lower maintenance?
You will have to adjust and even repair your bicycle at times.
Tire pressure is a given, but it’s trivially easy once you know the right tire pressure.
Beyond that, we’re usually talking about minor but frequent attention to the drivetrain and brakes. But you can spend more to do less of those things.
If you’re averse to getting your hands greasy, or you’re in a harsh climate that eats chains and cogs for breakfast, then look for:
- A belt drive
- An internally-geared hub (or single-speed bike!)
- Disc brakes (ideally hydraulic) or roller/hub brakes
A commuter bike equipped with all the above starts a bit over one grand. I’ve recommended a terrific one here, alongside some other well-spec’d options at several price points.
Again, there’s no eliminating maintenance whatsoever. And these features are more “black-box” than their conventional alternatives, so they will need the attention of a professional (or a very capable amateur) every few years.
But as far as day-to-day maintenance goes, these component choices will keep it to a bare minimum.
4. How much storage space do I have?
Your bike will need to fit at home, at work, and perhaps on the bus or train in between.
What’s more, it might need to be carried through several stories of tight stairwells.
If you’ll only deal with spacious or outdoor storage, then a standard bicycle makes sense. They’re the cheapest and nicest-riding, all else being equal.
But what if that just won’t work?
Bikes can actually fit in spaces as small as 23″ x 23″ x 11″, give or take. That’s the folded size of a Brompton, which is probably the most compact on the market, and the default choice for mixing cycling with transit.
Besides, if your outdoor bike storage is risky or inconvenient, then it’s easier and safer just to bring a folding bike indoors.
Unlike folding bikes, mini velos have rigid, one-piece frames and standard components. But they use small wheels, which reduce the wheelbase by at least 9″-10″ and wheel height by ~5″.
They’re ideal when you don’t need a suitcase-sized folding bike, but a full-size one is still cumbersome.
In brief, it’s important to think about everywhere your bike will need to park or even pass through.
A regular bicycle will feel smoother and cost less, but that doesn’t help if its size is hard to live with.
Bicycles are simple, but picking the ideal one isn’t. However, the questions above will point you in the right direction, as will these more detailed tips.
Are you a fitness fanatic whose commute doubles as interval training? You’ll probably enjoy one of the sportier hybrids.
Do you prefer to cruise to work in dignified comfort and pick up a bag of groceries on the way home? You’ll be a happy camper on a traditional Euro city bike.
Or do you just need a quicker way to cover the last mile between the bus/train and the front door? A folding bike would make life easier.
But these are all details.
They’re a long way of saying: the right commuter bike is the one that makes it easy to stay active, stay safe, and enjoy the freedom and fresh air.