Guide to Buying a Commuter Bike

December 16, 2016
Guide to Buying a Commuter Bike

Buying a new bike is a big decision and one that shouldn't be taken lightly. Whether you plan on bike commuting every day or just one or two days per week, you'll be spending significant time in the saddle, racking up many miles on those wheels. You need a bike that you look forward to riding every single day.

If you want to get the most bike for your hard earned dollars, a bike that you'll truly love and cherish, taking some time to learn what's available and how to choose the right bike will pay off big time.

Ready to start shopping for that new commuter bike but aren't sure where to start? Use this article as a guide to help you make sense of all the options available and to figure out which is the best bike for you.

What to Look For When Shopping for Your Perfect Bike

In our previous article, Getting Started Bike Commuting, we gave a quick overview of the factors that should inform your buying decision when shopping for a commuter bike.

Distance: How far do you plan on riding every day?

Terrain: What type of ground will you be riding on?

Comfort: How comfortable do you want to be while riding, and would you be willing to give up some speed for a more comfortable ride?

Gearing: Do you need multiple gears to make riding up hills easier? Do you prefer the simplicity of a single speed bike?

Rack compatibility: Do you plan on installing front or rear racks to hold pannier bags?

With these factors in mind, let's focus in on what to look for in a bike that will match your style and riding preferences.

Finding a Bike That Feels Good

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You can have the most stylish, eye-pleasing bike in the world, but if it doesn't feel good to ride, there's a chance you'll give up on bike commuting altogether. To make the most of your investment of both time and money, you need a bike that you actually look forward to riding. You need a bike that feels good.

Rider Position

Generally, for shorter rides that require less exertion, a more upright and relaxed riding position is preferred. You'll find many hybrid bikes, classic bikes and urban bikes with this upright and relaxed position.

For longer rides, with sustained effort and exertion, a more athletic, forward leaning riding position is preferable. Road, triathlon, and track bikes all have this aggressive forward position.

For the average bike commuter who rides moderate distance with some sustained effort and physical exertion, a riding position that falls midway between a fully upright position and a fully forward position is the ideal blend of comfort and performance. Urban and commuter-specific bikes such as flat-bar road bikes feature this intermediate riding position.

Gearing

If you ride primarily on flat ground, a single speed or fixed gear bike (bikes with one gear) may be all you need. Still, some like having multiple speed options even when riding on flat ground.

If your daily ride requires you to ride up inclines of any grade, having the right gear set up will make life much easier. You'll find commuter friendly bikes with as few as two gears, and as many as 27 gears.

To help you make sense of the gearing options available, here is a brief overview of the different drivetrains you'll find on commuter friendly bikes.

External Drivetrains

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide commuter gears external

The most common multiple gear set up is the external drivetrain. It's what you'll find on most road, mountain, and urban bikes. A set of sprockets at the front which are connected to the pedals and a set of sprockets connected to the hub of the rear wheel are joined with a chain. Derailleurs move the chain between the sprockets when the shift lever at the handlebar is actuated.

While there are external drivetrain bikes with over 30 gears, urban bikes usually have between 18 and 27 gears, which is really all you need. External drivetrains are smooth shifting, reliable and have stood the test of time – although do require occasional maintenance.

Internal Gear Hubs

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide internal hub

Instead of having all the gear sprockets on the outside of the bicycle, an internal gear hub has its gears nicely contained within the hub of the rear wheel. From the outside, the bike's drivetrain looks very similar to that of a single speed bike. You'll find commuter bikes with internal gear hubs with up to 8 speeds.

Here are some key benefits of internal gear hubs:

● Easy maintenance. All the moving parts of an internal gear hub are sealed and protected against water, dirt, grit and any bumps or dings that could damage the gears. You just need to make sure your chain is kept clean, lubricated and properly tensioned.

● You can shift gears from a stop. Unlike external drivetrains, you don't need to be moving to shift gears. You can be standing still and shift into any gear you'd like. Many cyclists also find it easier to shift gears while riding up a steep hill with an internal gear hub.

Singlespeed & Fixed Gear Drivetrains

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide single speed

Singlespeed and fixed gear bikes have only one gear. Just a chain, and two sprockets. These drivetrains are comparatively low maintenance, and although they lack multiple speeds, many find them to be great for riding around town.

The main distinction between single speed and fixed gear bikes is that single speeds coast, and fixed gears don't. On a fixed gear bike, when the wheels are moving, the pedals are moving too.

Belt Drivetrains

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Instead of using a chain to connect the front and rear sprockets, belt drive bikes use a heavy-duty carbon fiber belt. This belt can last twice as long as a normal chain and doesn't need lubrication, therefore staying relatively clean.

Belt drives are primarily set up on single speed bikes but are also found on bikes with internal gear hubs. Several different styles of bikes are available with belt drives, including many great urban bike options. Generally, belt drive bikes are more expensive than those with standard chains, but their smooth, silent ride and low maintenance can make it worth it.

Brakes

Riding through the city amongst the traffic means you need to be able to stop on a dime. Finding a bike with responsive and reliable brakes is essential for the bike commuter.

Rim Brakes

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You squeeze the brake lever and two rubber pads squeeze the rim of your bike wheel, slowing you down until you come to a stop. Caliper brakes are the most common brakes used on all styles of bikes. They are reliable, relatively easy to maintain, and responsive. Caliper brakes are generally less expensive than disc brakes and come standard on most entry-level bikes and performance road bikes too.

Disc Brakes

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide disc brake

A technology brought across from cars and motorbikes, disc brakes are known for their incredible stopping power and brake control. You squeeze the brake lever and two brake pads housed within a caliper squeeze against a disc mounted to the hub of your wheel. Disc brakes have become standard on mountain bikes and are found on many urban bikes. They are reliable in all weather conditions, strong, and require less maintenance than caliper brakes.

Disc brakes come in two variants – hydraulic and mechanical. Mechanical disc brakes are typically cheaper and use a mechanical wire to connect the brake lever to the brake caliper. Hydraulic brakes are typically more expensive but these use sealed hydraulic fluid to control the movement of the brake pads. Hydraulic systems typically offer the lowest maintenance and greatest performance.

On Road Functionality

Most bike commuters do the majority of their riding on pavement, either on dedicated bike paths or bike lanes on the road, but not all pavement is equal and you may find yourself riding on severely bumpy roads and cracked up sidewalks. You may occasionally find yourself riding on stretches of gravel as well. When it comes to terrain, you'll look to your wheels and tires to help you ride safely and comfortably.

Wheel Size

There are a few wheel sizes to be aware of, however, 700c wheels (aka 28in) are by far the most common. This wheel size shares the same rim diameter as both road racing bikes and 29in mountain bikes.

If you’re looking at mountain bikes, then you’ll likely also see 26-inch and 27.5-inch wheels on offer. These smaller wheels offer greater strength, lower weight, and easier maneuverability.

Tire Selection

Tires connect you to the road and are your primary source of traction and shock absorption.

Most urban bikes come equipped with either smooth or lightly tread tires, which should be all you need for city riding. Tires on urban bikes are often slightly wider than those on standard road bikes. Wider tires offer more traction, and tires made specifically for urban commuting are generally more puncture resistant.

Tire Sizing

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide commuter tyres

If you're shopping for a complete bike, you won't need to worry about hand selecting tires because the bike will have with the right tires already installed. But, with regular riding, your tires will eventually wear out and you'll need to replace them.

When you look at the sidewall of a bike tire, you'll see a number pairing that looks like this: 700x28. That's the tire size. The first number, 700, is the diameter of the tire which corresponds with the wheel size. The second number, 28, is the width of the tire in millimeters. 700c tires come in a range of widths from 19mm all the way up to ultra-wide mountain bike options. Most urban bikes use tires in the range of 700x28 to 700x42.

Choosing a tire size should be based on the terrain you ride and the comfort you'd like during your ride. Generally, wider tires offer more traction and shock absorption.

Commuter-Specific Niceties

If you plan on using your bike only for commuting and perhaps leisurely rides on the weekends, there are a few commuter-specific features to look for when shopping for a bike.

Rack Compatibility

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide racks

In "Getting Started Bike Commuting," we went over the different ways to carry your personal items to and from work.

If you plan on using pannier bags, you need to make sure the bike you choose can accommodate front or rear luggage racks. The majority of urban bikes do have mounting holes to install racks, and certain models come stock with racks already installed.

While some road bikes can accommodate racks, many cannot. So if you plan on using a road bike as your commuter, don't assume that you can install racks on it.

Fender Compatibility

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide fenders

If you live in a climate that sees lots of rain, you'll want to look for a bike that can accommodate front and rear fenders. Unless you want to show up to the office covered in mud and road grime, a good set of fenders will be your best friend.

Some urban bikes come with fenders but many don't and you'll need to purchase and install them after you buy the bike. There are many styles to choose from, you just want to find a set that fits your bike well.

Comfort and Personal Preference

Sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference. The nice thing about bikes is that they're very easy to customize and there are tons of different components available to truly make your bike your own.

Appearance and Style

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There are so many styles available, from the old-school elegance of a classic 3-speed to the utilitarian urban bike. Style is all about personal preference, and while some styles may not make for the most efficient machine, it’s got to be something you feel good about riding.

Bike Fit and Sizing

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide size chart

A bike that fits well is a joy to ride. A bike that doesn't fit well can be painful and potentially dangerous. Finding a bike that fits right is best done in person but here are a few tips that will help with the process.

There are three main measurements to look at when finding a correctly fitted bike.

Minimum Stand Over Height: When you straddle a bike with your feet planted flat on the ground, there should be a 1-2 inch gap between the bike's top tube and your groin. The minimum stand over height is dependent on the size of the bike frame and cannot be adjusted, you have to choose the right size frame for your body size.

Saddle height: Sitting on your bike with your feet on the pedals, when you push your foot down on the pedal, your knee should be slightly bent at the bottom of the downstroke. The saddle height is adjusted by moving the seat post up or down. A bike too small will run out of available seat post before this height is achieved. Too big, and the seat post will likely stay hidden within the frame.

Reach: The distance between your saddle and handlebars is an important measurement in the overall comfort of the bike. You want to make sure you don't feel too cramped or too stretched out.

Enlisting the help of your local bike shop when finding a bike that fits right can be incredibly helpful and can save you time, frustration, soreness and potential injury. To find out more about key bike measurements and what they mean, read our guide to bike geometry charts.

Choosing a seat

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There's a reason road cyclists wear those padded shorts. One of the most common complaints you hear from new cyclists is that their seat is uncomfortable. While it's true that some bike seats are uncomfortable, with a little foresight, you can find a seat that’s not a pain in the bum.

Choosing a bike seat, known as a saddle, is a matter of personal preference and relies on factors such a body shape, weight, dimensions of the bike, and many others. Here are a few simple tips to help get you comfortable.

● Try it out. Test riding a bike is always the best way to see if it's "your bike" and within a few minutes of riding you should be able to tell if the seat will work for you.

● Make sure your saddle is adjusted right. Before you look for a replacement, it's a good idea to make sure your current saddle is properly set up. The wrong height, angle or horizontal positioning of the saddle can all lead to discomfort.

● Don't be afraid to upgrade your saddle. If you find a bike that you love, but the seat isn't your favorite, don't let the seat turn you away from the bike. Upgrading the saddle is a common thing to do and it’s a small investment compared to the rest of the bike.

Grips

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While only small, the grips can make a big difference to the feel of your bike. Like saddles, there are many styles to choose from and trying out a few varieties is the best way to find grips you like. If you're buying a complete bike, you may find that the stock grips are great but if they aren't then changing them is easy and cheap.

Many bike commuters have embraced ergonomically-shaped bike grips as they reduce strain on the hands and wrists.

Pedals

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide pedals

Most commuter friendly bikes come standard with flat pedals (aka platform pedals). If your ride is short and moderate, flat pedals may work just fine, but if your ride is longer, or takes you up and over hills, you may benefit from either caged or clipless pedals.

Pedals with cages increase your pedaling efficiency by allowing you to apply force on the upstroke as well as the down stroke. This is helpful when riding up hills, or in wet conditions when your feet could slip. Caged pedals can be used with normal street shoes, which can be very convenient when commuting.

Named ‘clipless’ for their lack of cages, clipless pedals require cycling specific shoes with cleats that click into the pedals. Clipless pedals are incredibly efficient as you can apply force evenly throughout the entire pedal stroke. The average bike commuter may find them excessive, but if you have a longer commute, you may find that clipless pedals make your ride much more enjoyable. Releasing the foot with a simple twist, they’re typically safer in use than caged pedals.

Styles of Commuter Friendly Bikes Explained

Okay, now that we've gone over the factors that affect your bike buying decision, let's take a look at the different styles of commuter friendly bikes available.

Urban Bikes

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Urban bikes are a relatively new category on the market and are designed to meet the needs of the city rider and make for great commuter bikes. They're built for street and city riding and are tough enough to handle the occasional patch of gravel, cobblestone or dirt path.

There are many styles that fall under the urban bike umbrella. Of most interest to bike commuters are styles that embrace the geometry and moderate upright riding position of flat bar road bikes, and add the convenience of dedicated luggage and fender mounts. Urban bikes often feature wide street tires or lightly tread tires that give the rider plenty of traction across many riding conditions.

Urban bikes come with a wide range of drivetrain options including external drivetrains with up to 27 gears, internal gear hubs with up to 8 gears, single speed and fixed gear options and even some models with belt drives. If you're looking for a serious bike for commuting short to medium distances, urban bikes are a great place to start your search.

*Distance: * Great for everything from short to medium distance commuting

*Terrain: * Pavement, can handle light gravel and dirt

*Rider position: * Moderately upright

*Gearing options: * External drive train with up to 27 gears, internal gear hubs, single speed and fixed gear, some belt drive options

*Wheel size: * 700c

*Tires: * Road bike and commuter tires up to 700x42

*Rack compatibility: * Rear and front rack compatible depending on model

*Fender compatibility: * Yes.

*Brakes: * Caliper or Disc depending on model

Flat-bar Road Bikes

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If you want the high-tech, high-performance features of a road bike, but want a more comfortable, upright riding position, then a flat-bar road bike could be the ticket. While drop road handlebars are great for racing and long distance riding, they aren't ideal for city riding. Flat handlebars along with a more relaxed frame geometry, positions the rider taller for better visibility when riding near traffic and offer a more comfortable ride. A lightweight frame and components, 700c wheels with road bike tires, and external drivetrain with up to 33 gears make a very quick bike that can tackle any hill.

*Distance: * Great for moderate to long distance commuting

*Terrain: * Pavement, can handle occasional gravel and dirt

*Rider position: * Moderately upright

*Gearing: * External drive train with up to 33 gears, great hills

*Wheel size: * 700c

*Tires: * Road bike and commuter tires up to 700x32

*Rack compatibility: * Rear rack compatible depending on model

*Fender compatibility: * Yes.

*Brakes: * Caliper or Disc depending on model

Hybrid Bikes

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide hybrid bike

Hybrid bikes incorporate design elements of road bikes, mountain bikes and touring bikes, resulting in an all-purpose bike that leans towards leisurely riding. Hybrid bikes are good for city riding, can handle bouts of dirt and gravel and offer a very upright position and often a cushy seat for a comfortable ride.

Wider tires with light tread make it easy to transition from the sidewalk to the street to gravel or dirt. Some hybrid bikes offer front suspension to smooth out the ride and reduce impact on your hands, arms and wrists. The upright riding position might make your daily commute a little easier on your body. For those who prefer a more relaxed pace of riding and want a bike that will get them to work reliably, a hybrid may be the way to go.

*Distance: * Great for shorter, leisurely commutes

*Terrain: * Pavement, gravel, dirt and wet conditions

*Rider position: * Upright and relaxed

*Gearing: * External drive train

*Wheel size: * 26-inch or 700c

*Tires: * Wide smooth or lightly tread tires

*Rack compatibility: * Rear rack compatible depending on model

*Fender compatibility: * Yes.

*Brakes: * Caliper or Disc depending on model

Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide commuter urban

For the minimalist bike commuter, single speed and fixed gear bikes are great options if you do most of your riding in the city. Reliable, low-maintenance and incredibly stylish, single speed and fixed gear bikes are perfect if you want to just jump on your bike and go. No gears to fuss with, just you, your pedals and the street.

Single speed bikes are great if you want simple, but still want to be able to coast. Fixed gear bikes are for those who could care less about coasting and wish to feel fully connected to the fluid movement of continuous pedaling.

Single speed and fixed gear bikes used to be difficult to find but these days there are many great styles and models to choose from in just about every price range.

Some single speed and fixed gear bikes are rack compatible, especially those with more relaxed geometry and upright riding position. Some of the racing inspired fixed gear bikes feature a very aggressive forward riding position and while they can be used for commuting, are designed more for speed and the average commuter may not find them practical.

*Distance: * Great for short to moderate city riding

*Terrain: * Pavement, can handle occasional gravel and dirt

*Rider position: * Moderately upright to forward-leaning and aggressive depending on model

*Gearing: * External drive train, some belt drive options available

*Wheel size: * 700c

*Tires: * Road bike or commuter tires, up to 700x35 depending on model

*Rack compatibility: * Rear rack compatible depending on model

*Fender compatibility: * Yes, depending on model

*Brakes: * Caliper mostly, some classic inspired models feature coaster brakes

Road Bikes

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide commuter road bike

If you cover significant distance on your daily commute, you may consider using a road bike. While most road bikes do not have the commuter friendly features of urban or flat bar road bikes, they can still be used effectively as commuters. For cyclists that ride longer distances on the weekend, before or after work, ride in the occasional road race, and already have all the cycling gear and clothing, using a road bike for commuting may make the most sense.

The lightweight frames and components, skinny tires, and athletic riding position of road bikes allow the rider to cover substantial distances very efficiently. However, mounting racks and fenders on road bikes may be difficult or impossible to add on certain models, so you may need to use a backpack to carry your belongings.

*Distance: * Long distance

*Terrain: * Pavement

*Rider position: * Forward leaning, athletic position

*Gearing: * External drive train with up to 33 gears (20 or 22 more common)

*Wheel size: * 700c

*Tires: * Road bike tires

*Rack compatibility: * Possibly depending on model

*Fender compatibility: * Possibly depending on model

*Brakes: * Caliper mostly, increasing number of models use disc brakes

Touring Bikes

fullpage buying a commuter bike complete buyers guide commuter touring

If you want to be able to mount heavy racks and fenders to your bike then a touring bike may be perfect. Touring bikes are intended for very long distance travel and are designed to carry significant weight on front and rear racks. Touring bikes are often heavier than standard road bikes but are still efficient traveling machines.

Touring bikes can accommodate wider and tread tires for better traction and handling in the dirt or in wet conditions. They feature a more relaxed riding position than standard road bikes but still put the rider in a forward, athletic position. A touring bike may be excessive for the average bike commuter, but if you have a lot of stuff to carry and need to ride a long way, it may be perfect.

*Distance: * Long distance

*Terrain: * Pavement, gravel, dirt, wet conditions

*Rider position: * Moderate forward-leaning, athletic position

*Gearing: * External drive train

*Wheel size: * 700c

*Tires: * Road bike and wider, touring specific tires

*Rack compatibility: * Yes, designed for heavy loads

*Fender compatibility: * Yes

*Brakes: * Caliper or Disc

Folding Portable Bikes

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If you need to store your bike inside or take it on public transport but space is limited, a folding bike could be the solution. While there are some models with full-size 700c wheels, most folding bikes feature smaller wheels, often 20-inch. The frames of folding bikes can be broken down, folded up into a neat little bundle and tucked away when not in use.

*Distance: * Short to moderate distances

*Terrain: * Pavement

*Rider position: * Upright

*Gearing: * External drive train

*Wheel size: * Mostly 20 inches, some models with 700c

*Tires: * Street tires

*Rack compatibility: * Some model feature racks or rack mounts

*Fender compatibility: * Yes

*Brakes: * Caliper

Electric or Power Assisted Bikes

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E-Bikes are the fastest growing category in bicycles. Equipped with an electric motor, these provide assistance to the rider. The most popular versions are known as ‘Pedelec’ or Pedal Assist, where the motor only assists while the pedals are in motion from the rider.

While some may look at this bike style as ‘cheating’, it may prove perfect for those with longer commutes, hilly terrain or if you just want some extra speed among the traffic.

Such a bike still comes at a premium in price and you’ll need to ensure it stays charged. Additionally, the motors and batteries can add a significant amount of weight, so you’re best to avoid these if your commute includes flights of stairs. Read our article on market leader Bosch and their eBike system to find how these bikes work.

Distance: Short to long distances

Terrain: Pavement or off-road depending on model

Rider position: Upright

Gearing: Internal or external drive train

Wheel size: 26, 27.5 or 700c

Tires: Street tires

Rack compatibility: Some model feature racks or rack mounts

Fender compatibility: Yes

Brakes: Disc most common

Choosing the Right Bike for Your Commute

As you can see, there's a lot to think about when buying a new commuter bike but it doesn't need to be difficult or overwhelming. If you can identify how you plan on using your bike most frequently, your buying decision will be well informed and your bike will be a great investment that saves you money on fuel, gives you great exercise and makes getting to work fun!

And if you want to get a head start on your bike search

● Use the search function on our homepage to find a bike shop near you that has the style of bike you're looking for

● Head to your local bike shop to test ride some bikes!


Now that you know everything there is to know about commuter bikes, check out other BikeExchange guides to provide all the info you need to know on a variety of topics;


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