It’s certainly possible to commute on a road bike. It may be ideal for a very long commute (e.g., 10-15 miles or more).
After all, road bikes are great for fast riding and/or long distance, where efficiency trumps all.
But they achieve that efficiency through aggressive geometry and a stripped-down build, which costs a lot in terms of comfort and convenience.
And it’s comfort and convenience—not pure efficiency—that helps when you’re riding in town, at moderate speed, minding traffic, perhaps carrying luggage…
Of course it’s easiest just to buy a dedicated commuter bike.
And unless you’re a handy mechanic, that might even be the cheapest solution…
But if that’s off the table, then several things can help turn your current road bike into a more practical “daily driver.”
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Here’s how to make your road bike into a commuter
The most important steps are to add a rack, fenders, lighting, and the widest tire that fit.
Consider replacing the drop handlebars with flat or swept-back bars. You’ll probably want a new saddle, too, to accommodate the more upright posture.
Finally, don’t forget a bell!
It’s often more cost-effective just to buy a new bike, so run the numbers before committing to this conversion.
Now, there are a million upgrades and accessories to pick from, so how did I come up with these?
First off, we need a target to aim for. In my book, a “commuter bike” isn’t any one particular design, but does have a few key characteristics.
We’ll go through them one by one, with a quick look at how to accommodate each, and any issues you’re likely to face.
It needs to carry your essentials
You need things for your job. Your bike needs to hold said things.
Simple enough, right?
That calls for some sort of luggage—ideally a rear rack and pannier, for reasons explained in this guide.
What to do
If your road bike has rack mounts, then installing a universal rack is straightforward. That’s the case on most all-around road bikes these days.
(I’ve used an inexpensive Planet Bike mode for years without a problem. You can find it here.)
But newer racing-oriented road bikes, and most older ones, do not have mounts.
In that case, you’ve got a couple options.
The cheapest is to attach a conventional rack to P-clamps. They’re not exactly pretty, but they do the job on the cheap.
The other is to use a removable rack. I’ve had good luck with the Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Tour Rack (available here).
Again, you may have to get a little creative if your bike lacks mounts.
But the frame itself may be a bigger limitation. Carbon fiber has wildly different strength in different directions. So, if carbon tubing wasn’t obviously intended for a rack, then it may not be safe to use one, period.
Read the manual and/or contact the manufacturer to be absolutely sure before install one.
But even then, there are at least two alternatives for smaller loads:
- Use a seatpost-mounted rack. As long as your seatpost is metal, these are a simple and almost universal workaround. The disadvantage is they generally can’t take a pannier (due to the lopsided weight), so you’re relegated to a much smaller trunk bag.
- Use a saddle bag. These look something like a small duffle bag that hangs from the saddle’s rails (those narrow bars underneath). It’s common to see tiny ones for phones and keys, but you can find them big enough for a small laptop and more. I’d start by checking with Rivendell for some expensive but very durable options.
It should keep you clean & dry
More than merely wet, road spray is chock-full of dirt, oil, brake dust, exhaust particles, and any number of nasty things.
Perhaps that’s no big deal in your dedicated cycling clothes, but it’s not something you’d want sprayed up the back of your office attire.
What to do
Install fenders with the fullest possible coverage.
Sizing can be a little tricky, but as a starting point, look for a fender width that’s at least 7-8 mm wider than the tire. For instance, if your tires are labeled 700x28c, then go with 35 mm fenders in most cases. It never hurts to double-check with a mechanic, since tire labels are often a few millimeters off from their actual measurements.
By the way, plastic fenders are preferable to metal. They’re easier to install and much quieter when debris bounces around. Plastic doesn’t have that same retro-classy look, but they win in every other respect.
Which to choose? It’ll depend on your tires, but the SKS Longboards (available here) have always given me decent coverage and not-too-irritating installation.
There are two issues you’ll need to watch for.
As with racks, your racing bike or older road bike may lack fender eyelets and/or brake and seatstay bridges.
P-clamps are an easy (if unsightly) alternative to eyelets. They don’t need to bear weight, so they’re safe to use on carbon frames, provided they have a rubber/plastic liner and you don’t tighten beyond snug.
If there are no bridges, either, then you can choose fenders like these SKS Raceblades. (I’d suggest the “Long” version to maximize wrap-around coverage, if it fits your bike.)
The other concern is frame clearance. It’s often impossible to fit a fender around a tire that’s wide enough for city/commuting use. Here, again, are SKS Raceblades to the rescue. The short ones don’t need to pass through the frames, and the longer ones comprise two pieces connected by a narrow bracket that won’t interfere.
(A third and very minor issue is toe overlap. Road bikes have shorter wheelbases than most, which limits toe-tire clearance during sharp, low-speed turns. Fenders will reduce it further. There’s no real danger, but it’s a nuisance when your foot strikes the front wheel.)
It should help you see & be seen
Lights are a must-have. Even during broad daylight, they make you more visible to drivers.
What to do
You’ll virtually never find dynamo lighting on a production road bike, but that’s all right: rechargeable clip-on lights are affordable, effective, and zero-effort.
This front-and-rear pair from Cygolite has served me well, and I struggle to think of a case where you’d need to spend more.
Fortunately, clip-on lights are almost perfectly universal. There’s almost nothing that can go amiss.
Two pro tips to use your lights properly:
- Point them a little bit downward. Aiming straight ahead blinds oncoming cyclists while mostly missing the ground.
- A flashing mode draws more attention, so use it during the day. A solid mode is better for illumination and easier for others to track, so use it at night. Never use the a strobe setting; it’s incredibly disorienting (even in daylight) and, rarely, can trigger seizures.
It should have wider, softer tires
Most hybrids and city bikes have tires around 35-50 mm wide, if not more.
That’s for good reason: they absorb road vibrations, take the edge off bumps, and improve traction in all conditions.
What to do
“Wide” is relative for road bikes. That’s actually one of their biggest practical limitations.
Some models might accommodate 35-mm tires. If yours will, then by all means use them! But 28-32 mm is a more realistic upper limit.
Some older bikes, made when rock-hard skinny tires were still in vogue, are even more constrained.
Just keep two things in mind:
- Use lower pressure to actually reap the benefits of your new, wider tires.
- Plan in advance for fenders. They need to fit between the tires and frame/fork, which limits tire width even further.
Once you figure out clearances and widths, it’s hard to go wrong.
But those can be tricky. Whatever the max tire width, a fender will reduce that by 6-10 mm (depending on the model) since it has to fit in between while maintaining the same tire clearance.
Realistically, you may have to choose between wider tires or full-coverage fenders.
Or, if you do want to max out tire width, then go with Raceblades or similar fenders. They get around clearance issues, at the cost of a little less coverage.
It needs a bell
Bells are more civilized than screaming “ON YOUR LEFT!” as terrified pedestrians (or other cyclists) rightly panic.
It’s better for everyone.
Now, it’s not rocket science here, but I’m partial to this bell from Crane, out of Japan. It’s beautiful, with a clear and pleasant sound that still works decently in the rain.
It’ll go on every city bike I ever own.
It should allow for upright posture
Now that we’ve covered the simple accessories, it’s time for the most complicated but most transformative potential change: riding position.
A (more) upright posture is more pleasant for the stop-and-go, heads-up riding of most commutes.
It’s also more comfortable, particularly when wearing normal clothes (or casual cycling apparel) that don’t stretch like crazy to accommodate hunched-over riding.
If your bike requires a second wardrobe, then it’ll be hard to make cycling a part of daily life.
Road bikes use drop handlebars to encourage a powerful and aerodynamic torso angle. It’s undisputedly faster, but less practical.
What to do
Drop-to-upright conversion is not a simple task. It can easily end up more expensive than getting an affordable, entry-level hybrid (I’ve recommended some here).
But, if you’re handy, then it can also be a fun and affordable weekend project.
You’ll need three things.
Road brake levers are distinctive. They’re long and they travel far, so the handlebar needs to curve away sharply to leave room for its full range of motion. Look at a drop bar from the side, and you’ll see what I mean.
That means they’re incompatible with most other handlebars.
However, there are a couple that work with your existing road levers. That means no lever and cable replacement required.
The easier way
These are known as mustache handlebars, like the Nitto Albastache—my personal favorite—or Soma’s version. They basically rotate the drop-bar “hooks” up and out, which gives a swept-back hand position that still accommodates road levers.
They’re also closer to the width and reach of standard drop bars, so the handling won’t feel wildly different, nor will they thrust you bolt-upright.
This is a relatively simple swap, but it doesn’t give the fully relaxed, cruising-around-town sort of feel you might want.
But I still suggest starting here.
Otherwise, things get complicated fast, as we’re about to see…
The harder way
If you do want an even more relaxed feel, then you’ll want some sort of swept-back bars.
(This article covers them in depth, walks through a few other commute-friendly options.)
- Generally, look for hand position at a natural angle: at least 30-60° of sweep.
- Flat or 1″ rise is fine to start with.
- Finally, look for bars that place your hands in line with the stem or just a bit behind it. Otherwise, you may find yourself so upright that it harms the bike’s handling. More on that in the next section.
There are more handlebar options than I could even begin to list here, but Velo Orange is basically a one-stop shop.
Just remember that all except mustache bars require new brake levers, shifters, and probably cables and housing.
Brake levers and shifters
Now, the tricky part.
You’ve decided mustache bars aren’t the right feel, and it’s time for something more upright or swept-back.
Totally doable…but you’re going to need new brake levers (as explained above).
And because those new levers won’t be integrated “brifters,” you’ll also need new shifters.
And fresh cables and housing while you’re at it, just in case the old ones are too short.
Here’s what to look for:
- Road brake levers use 23.8-mm clamps. Virtually all others use 22.2-mm clamps. Some handlebars are available in both, but most flat/upright bars are only 22.2 mm. Choose the bars you like, then the levers to match.
- Your brakes probably require short-pull levers (referring to how much cable they retract when squeezed). Confirm your brake specs, then make sure the levers you want have a short-pull option.
- Shifters are a little easier. Cable pull does vary, but many road drivetrains have a trigger-shift option that’s compatible out of the box. Simply buy it; don’t mix and match. (Or try something universal, like bar-end shifters in friction mode, assuming their external diameter fits your new bars’ internal diameter.)
Now that you’re more upright, your old saddle is probably no longer a good fit.
Road saddles are narrow because they’re designed for a forward lean. But as you sit upright, your sit bones rest at a different angle. They’re effectively wider, so you need a wider saddle to match.
But there are dozens of terrific choices, and it’s far too personal (in anatomy and in riding style) to give a blanket recommendation.
Check out this closer look at saddle fit and comfort for some other tips.
First, check for handlebar and stem compatibility.
Stem clamp diameter is 31.8 mm, 26.0 mm, or 25.4 mm. Most newer bikes use 31.8 mm, which is convenient since it fits any handlebars (using shims like these if needed). If your stem is smaller, then your handlebar options are a little more limited, so you’ll need to pay attention.
Second, make sure your center of gravity doesn’t shift too far back as you sit more upright.
Road bikes have short chainstays and steep head- and seat-tube angles. That’s well balanced when you’re in a typical, forward-leaning position. But sitting upright also shifts your weight backward, so the balance is no longer as intended, which can create a twitchy or unnerving feel. If that happens, then consider a longer stem or shorter-reach bars.
Is all this worth it?
To commute on your road bike, you’ll at least need to add a rack and pannier, a pair of fenders, some clip-on lights, and perhaps wider tires (if they don’t interfere with the fenders).
Those are all straightforward additions, if not totally universal.
Handlebar changes can totally transform the feel of the bike, from race-y to (somewhat) relaxed. But they complicated fast if you want to use anything besides mustache bars. New levers, new shifters, clamp compatibility checks, cable replacement…it’s a bit of a headache.
Cost-wise, it’s hard to call, but a full-on, upright handlebar conversion (with all it entails) will run at least a couple hundred bucks as a DIY project using new but inexpensive parts.
If your road bike will serve purposes beyond commuting, then add those accessories, but keep the existing handlebars (or try mustache/Albastache bars which don’t require new levers).
But if commuting is your sole use for that road bike, simply sell it and buy a more suitably equipped hybrid or city bike. You may need to add luggage and fenders anyway, but you’ll avoid the expense and hassle of overhauling the cockpit.
If that makes sense, then here are a few more articles that may help you find the right match.