Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Commuter-Specific Bikes

For the next week or two, I'm going to explore the various types of bicycles out there, and discuss their relative merits and disadvantages when used for practical transportation.

A couple of things before I start:
First off, please note the title of this blog. I'm imagining that anyone really interested in reading this stuff is probably looking to save a few bucks, or may have very few bucks to begin with (a position with which I can very much sympathize), so I'm not going to be looking at spectacularly high-end machines. One of the most frustrating things a potential beginner in many fields will hear is "don't bother even trying unless you've got a large amount of money to spend."

For example, if Bob chimes in on a bicycle forum and says "hey, I start a new job on Monday, and I need a bike to get there, I've got $350 to spend, what's a good inexpensive bike?" and Charlie immediately responds with, "you're not going to find a good commuter bike for that little money, I'd save up until you have at least $950 to spend and get a Brand X Commuterficator," Charlie is neither answering the question, nor is he being helpful. Actually, he's being the opposite of helpful, because he's just going out of his way to discourage Bob under the guise of imparting words of wisdom. Charlie is being a tool, bad Charlie! Bob needs his bike right now, and for him $350 is probably a lot of money, the idea of having to save up more than twice that much before even contemplating actually going to work is both ridiculous and overwhelming. Hey, I'm sure Bob would be thrilled to ride to work on a Merlin Newsboy, but his budget is probably more Jamis X1

 For the most part, the kind of bikes I'll be using for examples will be in the $400-800 retail price range, and as we go along I'll talk about finding and reconditioning old bikes with a budget of under $100 (that's where the REAL Broke Cycling begins). Of course for any given style of bicycle there will be a wide variation of price options from "Yard Sale" through "Ludicrous," but the fact is that most bicycle-shop bikes start in price somewhere around $350 nowadays, so that's what we have to work with.

The other thing to keep in mind is that I'm talking about these bikes in terms of their ability to get you and your stuff from where you are to where you need to be. So when I say "time trial bikes tend to be bad choices for grocery shopping," you shouldn't be thinking, "but wouldn't want to do a time trial on a hybrid," because, well, you're on the wrong blog.

So, with all that out of the way, let's look at the most obvious category of commuter bikes: bikes that are actually marketed as commuter bikes.

You can tell it's for commuting because it says "Commuter" right on the side!
Pictured above is my own commuter-specific bike, or as I affectionately call it "My Tax Refund." I bought this in the spring of 2011 and have put over 5,000 miles on it since this picture was taken. I've also replaced the handlebars, fenders, cranks, tires, a rim, chain and a few other parts because I wore them out or broke them. It's a good bike and I ride it a lot, maybe in the not-too-distant future I'll put up a picture of what it looks like now. This specific model is made by Jamis, but it has a lot of traits in common with bikes that are marketed as "City" or "Commuter" specific bikes such as

  • Upright riding position
  • Fenders
  • A Chainguard
  • An internally geared hub
  • Heavy-duty tires
  • Attachment points for racks
  • Swept-back handlebars
  • A somewhat retro aesthetic
  • A kickstand
In addition to the stock setup, I had added to the bike 
  • Lights
  • A front basket
  • A rear rack
  • A large saddlebag
  • A water bottle cage
  • A more comfortable saddle
Commuter bikes are available in various wheel sizes, this particular one has 700c wheels (about the same diameter as a road racing bike, but with much fatter tires) but you can get them with mountain-bike-size 26" wheels or in a few oddball sizes as well. Different models come with different levels of accessories, and in the more expensive (over $1,000) price range, you will often find options such as integrated racks and dynamo lighting. 

This style of bicycle goes back a long way and before the industry started producing various narrowly-defined categories of (largely sport oriented) bikes, it was pretty much what people thought of when they thought "bicycle." 

In its modern incarnation it is often similar to a hybrid bicycle with commuting-specific add-ons. In fact, some companies simply use one of their hybrid frames and add fenders, a rack and some swoopy handlebars and call it a commuter bike. In most cases this is pretty much fine, because although they may cost a bit more than a basic hybrid, the price difference may still be less than if you'd added the accessories as aftermarket purchases (but do the math, sometimes you ARE better off just buying a hybrid or mountain bike and accessorizing to your satisfaction). 

Bikes like this tend to be good for short-to-medium range rides (say 2-10 miles) at a moderate pace. The upright riding position puts more weight on your tailbone and creates more wind resistance than a sportier configuration, but it's still entirely possible to use bikes like this for longer commutes, light touring and charity rides (I've done up 80 miles in a day on mine, while toting a camera and musical instrument). The handling tends to be pretty stable and predictable, and most of them can accommodate baskets and bags without too much difficulty. 

My particular bike has fenders, which are essential when you ride during or after rainy conditions, and a chain cover, which means I don't have to worry about my pants leg getting dirty or caught. It also has an internally-geared hub, which is a common feature on the higher-end of the price scale (my particular model retailed about $700 , not that I paid that much for it, and came with an 8-speed hub). Internally geared hubs are nice for transportation bikes because they are a sealed system, with most of the moving parts inside unlike derailleur systems. Because they don't use a front derailleur, they allow you to cover the chain, and they offer a fairly wide range of gearing. The disadvantages of internal gearhubs are higher prices (I damaged the rear rim once, and to replace the wheel would have cost about five times what it would have cost to replace a standard wheel, so I simply replaced the rim and laced it to the original hub), fewer gear options and a bit more hassle in fixing flats (gearhubs are always bolt-on, you can't use a quick-release axle). Overall, though, they're nice if you find a bike in your price range that has one. 

Other options are standard derailleur gearing (often only a rear derailleur in 7 or 8 speeds) or singlespeed bikes. Some singlespeed or internally-geared bikes may have a coaster brake, but many commuter bikes have some sort of handbrakes. 

From the transportation perspective, there are few disadvantages to this type of bike other than the fact that they tend to start at a higher price point ($500 and up). They are not particularly fast or agile, and are not made for extremely rough conditions, but will handle pavement and light trail use with relative ease and are usually zippier on the road than a mountain bike or cruiser. They tend to run a bit on the heavy side (particularly some of the traditional European style bikes such as the classic "Dutch Bikes" which can run upwards of 50 lbs) making some of them less-than-ideal if you live in an upstairs apartment and don't have a safe place to lock up at street level. 

Some examples of commuter-specific bikes (there are hundreds) in the sub-$700 price range:

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