People become bike commuters gradually.
I think most people become bike commuters gradually, starting little by little, on and off, with what they have. Very few wake up in the morning and decide “I’m buying a commuter bike today and I’ll be riding to work from now on”. It’s a process, kind of organic: as the rider learns and evolves the bike evolves with him or her. As they ride day after day they find things that need to be replaced, modified or added.
At first, most people try riding in a nice weather, during the day so the need for fenders, lights or rain clothing isn’t there in the beginning. They ride on knobby tires until it occurs to them, or someone points it out to them, than smoother tires would make riding on pavement easier.
They will probably try to carry their stuff in a backpack at first, as few bikes come with racks and bags, and for many people who ride in nice weather only, a backpack may suffice.
As they get into bike commuting more and ride more frequently they might discover that they need fenders, lights. They may discover that they want to carry more stuff or run errands and the backpack alone is no longer enough for them.
Somewhere around that time they become “serious” about bicycle commuting. They start looking around for advice and ideas to improve their experience to add flexibility and capacity, as well as some safety features to their bike and their gear. Their choices will depend on the style they want to maintain, their environment, who they’re influenced by, whether they have any friends who cycle and/or commute by bike.
At this stage it’s easy to make the wrong choices either by listening to wrong advice or putting style over function. If you want to be hip and maintain a certain image among your friends a skinny singlespeed bike and a messenger bag may, unfortunately, be your only way to go. Just because everybody does that it doesn’t make it right. Skinny singlespeed bikes are a fad. They have their place and they will work if you don’t plan to ride in extreme weather, over long distance and you don’t need to carry a lot of weight.
If you have a friend who is a roadie or an avid cross country or mountain biker but they don’t commute by bike, they will most likely give you the wrong advice as well. They will be naturally predisposed towards their choice of equipment and may know little to nothing about commuting by bike. A typical racing road bike or full suspension mountain bike are far from ideal commuter bicycles.
Eventually most people will end up buying a bike specifically for commuting one way or the other. They may get it right, or not. They will learn from their mistakes, or not. They will continue bicycle commuting, or get discouraged because they made the wrong choices and just don’t realize that.
As I said in my introduction to bicycle commuting, bicycle commuting has certain characteristics that make it different from cycling as a sport or as a recreational activity. A commuter bike needs to be able to get you and your stuff to work or school in a safe manner while keeping you comfortable and your belongings away from the elements in any weather.
A good city commuter bicycle has fat but slick tires.
Fat tires provide shock absorption which increases rider’s comfort, they also offer better traction and stopping power than thin tires. Fat tires are less likely to fall into cracks in the road, get caught in grates and rain drains which will significantly lower the chances of unpleasant bike accident. The front tire getting caught in a grating or rain drain is one of the top causes of road bike accidents and they almost always end up with the rider flying over the handlebars which is dangerous.
Knobby, off-road tires provide worse traction on smooth pavement, have increased rolling resistance, are noisy and add vibration to the ride. Slick or lightly threaded tires will offer better traction on asphalt and concrete, dry or wet. They will roll easier and be quiet and smooth.
A good city commuter bicycle has puncture resistant tires.
Getting a flat at 7:30am on a rainy day isn’t exactly what even the most hard core commuter would call “fun”. Heck, getting flats at all isn’t fun. This problem is pretty much solved by the modern puncture resistant tires, however. I’m planning to have an article on puncture resistant tires so I won’t elaborate here much. Let’s just say that puncture free riding is possible these days and almost any bicycle can be outfitted with puncture resistant tires.
A good city commuter bicycle has fenders.
Please see my article on fenders. Here is the first paragraph: Fenders are not just to protect you from what’s falling on you. They’re to protect you from what your tires pick up and throw up at you. That includes more than just water, sludge and mud. That includes dog poo, urine, vomit, chemicals spilled on the pavement, oil, grease, pieces of roadkill, basically anything you wouldn’t want to step into when walking as well as small debris and pebbles and those hot, sticky bits of asphalt and tar we see in big cities in Summer.
I think that explains the need for fenders pretty much. Fenders are useful in any conditions, wet or dry as you never know what you’re going to run into. It could be a perfectly sunny, dry day but you may pass by a construction site or car wash and end up with dirty water on your face and your clean clothes.
A good city commuter bicycle has some cargo hauling capability.
A lot hard core commuters overgrow backpacks quickly. See the how to carry your stuff on a bicycle article for more on backpacks and bags. Therefore, a good commuter bicycle should offer some cargo carrying capabilities. That normally means at least a rear rack that can can be used with panniers, bags, packs or baskets. See my introduction to bicycle bags for more information on bicycle bags.
A good city commuter bicycle has lights.
Whether it’s required by the law or not it’s simply a good idea to have lights on your bike to increase your visibility. Good lights can come handy during the day as well: if it’s raining, foggy or just gloomy and cloudy lights will improve your visibility. And article on lights is coming up.
A good city commuter bicycle is mechanically sound.
If you want your commute to be safe and enjoyable, you need to maintain your bike well. It needs to have working brakes, properly functioning drivetrain, it needs to have straight (true) wheels and it needs to have its parts cleaned and lubricated periodically. It also needs to be checked for loose screws and parts from time to time. The tires need to be in good condition and pumped up to the recommended pressure.
A good city commuter bicycle is comfortable to ride.
Your bike needs to be the right size for you and your position needs to be set up properly for a comfortable ride: saddle and handlebar height, angle and position need to be proper. This will depend on the type of your bike, your physical condition and your riding abilities and preferences.
Other bike features will depend on your commuting distance, type of the route and your abilities.
Few words on Handlebars.
Everybody has a different opinion on handlebars. You will have to try and decide what kind of handlebars you prefer. There are few basic types of handlebars for standard, non-recumbent bicycles: flat bars, raiser bars, drop bars, cruiser bars, trekking (touring) bars and several others that are combinations and variations of the above. Wikipedia has an excellent article on handlebars so I will just point you there instead of repeating all that info.
What this means for most people is the “mountain bike” style bars (flat, raiser) or “road bike” style bars (drop bars, bull horns, etc). Generally speaking a flat handlebar will result in more responsive, nimble steering and more stable feel versus a drop bar, in particular at lower speeds. A drop bar will offer better aerodynamics and more hand positions for longer rides and at faster speeds. Both can be used on a commuter bike, it’s a matter of preference. Although, I prefer flat style bars, definitely. I know people who toured for weeks or even months with flat bars. It’s possible to add ergonomic grips with bar end extension to make more hand positions available. More hand positions allow for changing the position of your hands to avoid hand, arms, neck and back fatigue on longer rides or change the riding position to one that’s more proper for a fast descent or a slow climb. However, for most people who commute only a few miles each none of this will be really an issue. Any type of a handlebar will work.
Also, the type of the handlebar will depend on the type of the bike you have or you will get. Although, there are a road bikes with flat bars. They’re often called “city bikes”, “exercise bikes”, “bike path bikes” or something along those ways. It’s also possible to install drop bars on a mountain bike or touring/trekking bars on any kind of a bicycle.
So… what kind of bike should I get?
I guess you’ve noticed that so far I described the features of a commuter bike but I haven’t really said exactly what type of a bike you should get for your commute. That’s because there is no single answer to this question. As I said in the introduction to bicycle commuting you can ride any bicycle. However, some types are more suitable than others for commuting. If you already have a bike, you should try to use it before you decide to get a bike specifically for commuting. Your existing bike may be good enough to be outfitted with some extras and modified a bit to make it a decent commuter ride. You really don’t need a special bike as long as it has most of the features listed above.
If you are thinking about getting a new bike just for commuting, then there are few things to consider. Some bikes are more comfortable for longer distances, some are designed for quick, short errands, some are capable of carrying more weight, some are capable of off-pavement riding while some are not. So if your commute is only a mile or two you might choose a different bike than someone who will commute 12 mile each way. How much stuff do you need to carry? Will you run errands other than door-to-door commute? Will you ride it on weekends as well, for fun? Do you need to take the bike on a train or in an elevator? Will you keep it in a bike shed/storage or inside your office?
Let’s start with “what kind of a bike you should NOT get”, and why, OK?
If you want to buy a bicycle specifically for commuting duty steer away from the following types of bicycles.
A racing road bike. These are fragile, not meant for pothole pounding or carrying any significant weight, they have no mounts for fenders and racks and no clearance for fat tires. Riding position is not comfortable for an average person. Steering is twitchy at slow speeds. It’s sometimes possible to retrofit these with racks and fenders using clamps but not recommenced since the frame isn’t designed for the added weight of racks. Carbon racing bikes in particular are unsuitable for any clamp mounting, as it’s possible to crack a chainstay or seatstay when tightening a clamp. Since they have short wheelbase, often there won’t be enough heel clearance for mounting a rack and panniers on the rear anyway. To save weight they have slim, thin tires with no puncture protection. Finally, they have gearing designed for going light and fast. Even if one would manage to put fat tires, fenders and racks on a road racing bike, such a bike may be lacking gears low enough to comfortably haul your stuff up hills and bridges.
A full suspension mountain bike. When you ride a mountain bike with full suspension a chunk of your pedaling energy goes into compressing of the suspension, mostly the rear. Some designs claim to be better than others but it still applies. It’s an acceptable compromise for better off-road performance but complete waste for a commuter bike that will never see any serious off-road action. Unless, of course, majority of your commute is on a serious singletrack, but we’re talking NYC here! Also, full suspension mountain bikes have fewer (or no) options for mounting fenders and racks. And, although, we’re not obsessed here with weight, the suspension adds a few pounds to the bike’s weight. Finally, the complexity adds to higher maintenance costs.
A BMX bike. Unless your ride is a few blocks and you just carry a small backpack a BMX bike just won’t work as a commuter for longer distances. It’s too small for a proper riding position, too small to carry racks.
Fixie, a fixed gear, singlespeed track bike. A fixed gear track bike is a fad, a fashion statement. It’s designed for velodrome racing not for street riding. It has no brakes (technically illegal in NYS), its cornering is limited and tight turns are dangerous since your pedals constantly turn. Both the top speed and low speed (think going uphill) are limited. Gears and brakes were invented for a reason and it’s no wonder that gears and brakes contributed to popularizing the bicycle as a method of transportation. Yes, I know, I heard about the “rider and the bicycle being one” but I’ve also seen so many fixie riders unite with the pavement so often that it’s not even funny. You need to be strong and skilled to ride a fixie in city traffic, most people are not.
A recumbent bike. These are comfortable and great for long rides, tours, leisurely cruising and they can carry weight but they’re less nimble due to longer wheelbase and harder to ride in traffic due to lower seating position. They’re longer than regular bikes, so they may not fit in elevators, they may not fit on a train. They’re usually more expensive too, so unless you have a really good reason for riding a ‘bent, don’t use a recumbent bicycle as a city commuter.
Any bike that is longer than a normal bike. If your commute might involve elevators and subways anything longer will likely present problems. This is the main reason I can’t commute on a Big Dummy: doesn’t fit in some elevators:(
Any bike that is not 100% functional, not properly working.
OK now… what kind of a bike should I get then? And why?
A touring road bike. It looks roughly like a road bike: it has 700cc wheels and drop bars but, unlike a racing bike, a touring road bike is designed to be tough and to carry some significant weight comfortably over long distances. It also has plenty of attachment points for racks and fenders plus plenty of clearance for thicker tires. It has a more relaxed, more upright riding position. It’s slightly longer too and has lower bottom bracket resulting in lower center of gravity which results in more comfortable and stable ride, more steering control at slow speeds and more clearance for your heels when pedaling with panniers mounted. A touring bike also has lower gearing that is more suitable for carrying heavy loads up the hills. Touring bicycles are usually offered with puncture resistant tires and are made of aluminum or steel, not carbon fiber. They often come already equipped with fenders and racks. This is almost the perfect type of a bike for a bicycle commuter who prefers a road bike style bicycle, although might be an overkill for short commutes. But you definitely can’t go wrong with this one. With fat tires these are capable of moderate off-road riding as well.
A cyclocross bike. It’s another type of a road bike that is designed for cyclocross sport which is a type of bicycle racing but takes place on road as well as off-road, including wooded trails, grass, mud, etc. It’s almost a cross between mountain biking and road racing. A cyclocross bike looks like a road bike but it will be tougher than a road racing bike, it may have some mounts for fenders, even for racks. It has clearance for thicker tires, although not as thick as a touring bike, and stronger and tougher cantilever brakes. It also has lower gearing more suitable for hills. Not to be confused with a cross bike which is another name for a hybrid bicycle.
A hybrid bicycle, a.k.a comfort bike. It’s a bike that features general road bike geometry but it’s designed for recreational use. This type of a bike uses 700cc wheels and a frame that resembles a road frame, but with very upright sitting position, thicker tires and flat or cruiser handlebars. These can handle road as well as moderate off-pavement riding. They may or may not have mount points for fenders and/or racks. The bikes in this category vary widely and this would be my least recommended type of a bike for a city commuter. They tend to be heavier and feature lower quality parts. This type of a bike may have front suspension fork as well. Very upright sitting position may seem like a great feature but it’s actually not. As you become a stronger rider you will gain a natural tendency towards more forward bent position as it provides more pedaling power and it’s actually better for your back (yeah, I know, counter-intuitive but I’ll explain it in another article). However, if your commute is short and not very strenuous a hybrid bike will work fine.
A cruiser bicycle. Just like a hybrid bike this would be on the bottom of my recommendation list unless your commute is short and easy. These are usually clunky, bulky, heavy, sluggish beasts that put style over function. But they often have racks and very fat tires and are generally pretty tough. So, yes, it’ll work for our purposes.
City bike (Euro style), or a roadster. This type of bicycle has all the advantages of a hybrid and a cruiser but in a more though-out package that is targeted at a city rider who rides relatively short errands while wearing regular clothing. It’s possibly one of the most common used bicycle types in the world. It’s designed for moderate city riding and comes with fenders, racks, lights, chain protectors, basically everything a commuter might need, while adding some distinct style that many people love. They are on the heavy side but generally feature higher quality components. This type of bicycle often features internal gearing hubs and less speeds than a typical twenty-something speed bicycle, as well as dynamo hubs for powering the lights. Also, they generally feature a step-through frame so it’s easier to get on and off while wearing regular clothing or even a suit or a dress and massive chain guards to protect your clothes from the chain grease as well as rear wheel covers to protects your clothing from getting into the rear wheel’s spokes. A city bike is not meant for long hauls, but if your commute is mostly city, mostly flat and only a few miles long you can’t go wrong with this type of bicycle if you want both function and style.
Fitness bike, a.k.a. urban commuter bike. This is a relatively new type of a hybrid bicycle. It is a hybrid after all: it has road bike frame and road bike 700cc wheels but flat handlebars. However, it’s built for speed and features high quality components and light construction. This kind of a bike generally has road bicycle drivetrain and it can go fast. It’s agile in traffic too. It has thicker tires than a road bike but not as thick as a touring bicycle. It has a more sporty, forward sitting position than a hybrid or a cruiser. This type generally has mounts for fenders and racks and clearance for fatter tires and is usually offered with puncture resistant tires. It has moderate cargo carrying capacity: more than a typical road bike can carry but not as much as touring bicycle. It does make a decent urban commuter bicycle when equipped properly.
A commuter bicycle. Yup. Those started popping up in the recent years. Although, this is tricky: a bike that is being marketed as a “commuter bicycle” may be nothing more as repackaged hybrid, urban or mountain bicycle with added fenders, racks, lights, mirrors, puncture resistant tires and higher price tag. It could be any of the above bikes sold as a package that makes it suitable for commuting. There is nothing inherently wrong with that other than you may be overpaying or the bike may have lower quality components. However, some of those commuter specific bikes are indeed a decent bikes designed for a city commuter with proper geometry, handling and features: racks, fenders, lights, puncture resistant tires.
A hardtail or rigid mountain bike (MTB). Ahh, my favorite! And the world’s too. It’s the most popular type of bicycle in the world. A hardtail mountain bike has no rear suspension, but has a suspension fork. A rigid mountain bike has no suspension at all, rigid fork. This type of a bike is probably the most versatile, flexible, and adaptable type of a bicycle. It has all the advantages of a mountain bike: it’s rugged, has 26″ wheels with fat tires, powerful brakes, it’s nimble and agile, it’s stable at low speeds but it’s more efficient than a full suspension mountain bike. They often have mount points for racks and fenders. Even if they don’t their frames are usually tough enough to be retrofitted with racks and fenders using clamps (unless it’s a carbon frame!). A rigid mountain bike with slick tires can be almost as efficient road machine as bikes designed for riding on pavement while still retain some abilities to go off road. Mountain bike wheels are also generally stronger than 700cc road wheels in the same price range. A rigid mountain bike has often the hauling capacity of a touring bicycle. It also has superior traction and breaking power to any other type of bicycle.
A folding bicycle. This type of a bike is pretty much designed for a commuter or a traveler. It folds in half and has compact frame and easily retractable parts to pack it small enough to put it in a bag and carry on mass transit or store it inconspicuously in the office. They come in various sizes and with various sets of features but pretty much all of them are guaranteed to to fit a commuter needs. Folding bikes are the only bikes allowed on Metro North, LIRR and PATH trains during the rush hours. They also may be the only answer to at-work storage issue for many people. The most common folding bike is the one with small wheels, but mountain bike folding bikes exist as well. The most known makers of folding bikes are Dahon and Bike Friday.
There are some compromises, of course: they can’t carry a lot of weight, for example. They’re more expensive due to increased complexity, engineering demands and smaller market. It’s easier to damage a folding bike if enough force is applied at the joint, than a solid frame. Since they have very long seatposts, steering tubes and stems these are also easier to bend or break. Therefore, extra care is required when riding a folding bicycle. Some folders may even offer suspension but I’m not sure if it’s worth the increased complexity. Also, ride comfort suffers from the small wheel size and often shorter wheelbase. Generally, the longer the wheelbase and the larger the wheels, the easier and smoother a bike rolls over obstacles. Many folders will suffer from a bumpy ride and twitchy steering then. They are sold with or without racks. It’s better to buy them already with a rack since standard bicycle racks (except for beam racks) will not fit on most of them.
There are more bicycle types available. The above are just the types most common in the USA. There is the English Roadster, the Dutch Bicycle, there are the freight bicycles, there are tricycles and tandems of all sorts and shapes as well. Except for the roadster and the Dutch bike the other bikes are not really suitable for urban commuting.
Finally, there is the recent longtail bicycle, such as Surly Big Dummy, Yuba Mundo, Kona Ute and Trek Transport. This trend was started by Xtracycle who offers both a complete bike, the Radish, as well as an extension to a standard bike, the Free Radical. Xtracycle created a standard and a system of longtail accessories for different utilitarian purposes: carrying large loads, carrying wide or long loads or even carrying up to two children in kid carriers on the rear deck. An Xtracycle compatible bicycle can be reconfigured with different accessories. Surly Big Dummy is the first, and so far the only mass produced bike built around the Xtracycle platform. The other longtail bikes mentioned above are not compatible with the Xtracycle accessories. Although with some tweaking Yuba and Xtracycle bags can be used on each other. These bikes are excellent cargo haulers. The Xtracycle and the Big Dummy are particularly known among utility cyclists. People even toured the world on Big Dummies! Yuba Mundo is the toughest and heaviest of these and the others are newcomers to the show. The Kona Ute uses 700cc road type wheels, all the others use 26″ mountain bike type wheels.
However, considering the requirements of an average urban bicycle commuter the longtail bicycle is too long to be practical. It won’t fit in many if not most elevators, many apartments and offices as well. It won’t fit on most Metro North and LIRR trains. But if that doesn’t present a problem for you, a longtail bicycle is an excellent utility bike and worth checking out!