Commuting 101: Choosing a bike

A main question you may have as a new bike commuter is what kind of bike you need. There are a lot of options and deciding on one can be confusing. But before you head to the bike shop, answer these questions…

  • What’s the terrain? – Is your commute relatively flat or are there plenty of hills? Are there spots where you’ll ride on anything other than pavement? You may want to take a drive to scout out how you’re commute will look. Take time to look for alternate routes that will keep you off busy roads. You’ll realize quickly that roads look a lot different once you start realizing you’ll be pedaling a bike on them instead of just hitting the gas pedal.
  • How long will it take you? – It doesn’t have to be an exact number, but is your commute gonna take about 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour?
  • What’s your physical condition? – And not just fitness. Do you have any back, hip or knee problems you’ll have to be cognizant of?
  • How will you transport your stuff? – Most commuters have to bring stuff with them. Whether it’s a change of clothes and hygienic items or your laptop computer. Will you be carrying this in a bag on your back or do you want to put it in a bag attached to the bike?
  • Where will you store your bike during work? – Will you need something that can fit in your office/cubicle or will you have a place to park it? Will it be in a secure area where theft isn’t an issue or is there a decent chance that your bike could get stolen?
  • How much maintenance are you willing to do on your bike? – Every bike will need ongoing maintenance to make sure it is a reliable source of transportation. Are you someone that will enjoy spending the time tinkering on your bike or do you want to do as little as possible?
  • What are you looking to spend? – Are you on a tight budget or can you spend the money to get exactly what you want or need?
  • What are your reasons for commuting by bike? – Are you trying to get in shape? Are you more interested in the environmental impact? Are you just trying to make your commute more fun or interesting?

Once you’ve answered these you’re ready to start deciding on the features you are looking for in a bike…

  • Multiple gears vs. one gear – This touches on budget, terrain, maintenance and where you’ll store your bike. In most cases buying a bike with one gear (either single-speed or fixed gear) will save you money over buying a bike with multiple gears. This should be taken into consideration when thinking about where you will store your bike. If it’s in an area where theft is a possibility, spending less on a bike is a good option. Also having a single-speed or fixed gear bike will save a lot of time on maintenance as there will be no need to keep your bike in tune.The potential negative of opting for one gear is the fitness level you may need. If you’re ride to work is mostly flat, then it will probably be no problem. However riding one gear on hilly terrain requires a higher level of fitness and should be chosen carefully.
  • Used vs. New– This, obviously, has a lot to do with your budget for a bike. If you are low on cash, finding a used bike is the best option. This can also be a good choice if you are forced to store your bike in a place where theft is possible. The downside to buying a used bike is the need to do additional maintenance on it. If you have the knowledge to do this yourself, then used can be a good choice. However, if you want to make sure you are getting a bike that is put together correctly and has no problems, then buy new.
    • Buying Used – There are plenty of places that you can find a used bike. The first place I would look is to friends and family. If they have a bike that they are not using or are ready to get rid of, you can often get the best price plus know the history of the bike and how well it’s been taken care of. From there, I would start with the local classifieds. This will give you a chance to look over the bike before a purchase and know what you are getting into. From there, an online marketplace such as eBay can be a good choice. You will often find the best deals here, but be aware of scammers and buying a bike sight unseen. You may want to take a bike you buy online to your local shop to have them look it over before you ride it.
    • Buying New – Your choices when buying a new bike are online, a department store and your local bike shop. I can’t think of a case where I would ever recommend you buy a bike from a department store such as Walmart, Target, etc. These bikes are often cheaply made and not put together correctly. From there, I say your choice depends on your level of skill in bike assembly and maintenance. If you are relatively new to bikes and have never worked on one, I highly recommend visiting your local bike shop. While the sticker price will be more than a department store or online, their expertise in bike assembly and maintenance is a very smart buy. You don’t want that bike falling apart on your commute! Also, many bike shops will give you a deal on ongoing maintenance if you purchase the bike at their shop. However, if you are well familiar with bikes and are comfortable assembling and maintaining them, then buying online can be your best choice to get a good bike and save money.
  • Road vs. touring vs. cyclocross vs. mountain vs. commuter specific vs. comfort vs. folding bike– There are pros and cons to each of these and I’ll take them one at a time…
    • Road Bike – In most cases this will be the faster bike. It is often the lightest choice and the geometry of a road bike usually puts you in a position to get the most out of each pedal stroke. The downsides are there are no places to store anything on the bike (i.e. panniers) and there is often very little or no room for fenders. The tires on most road bikes are often very skinny and can be susceptible to flats on uneven pavement or terrain. Also, many people will find the positioning on a road bike uncomfortable.A road bike is a good choice for someone that is looking for the fastest trip to work, has smooth terrain and is comfortable with the positioning on the bike.
    • Touring Bikes – These bikes are built for long bike trips. They usually come ready to handle both fenders and panniers and have a more comfortable rider position over road bikes. The downside is that they are often expensive bikes and can be hard to find. It will take a bit more money and some patient searching to find the right one.A touring bike is a good choice for someone that already has access to one and is looking for a more comfortable ride.
    • Cyclo-cross Bikes – as the term ‘cross’ implies, this is a hybrid of a road and mountain bike. Used for racing everything from pavement to wooded trails to gravel roads, these bikes are designed fast and lightweight like road bikes, however are built strong to endure the punishment of off-pavement racing.A cyclo-cross bike can be a great choice for commuting as it’s fast on pavement but can take the abuse of running through the off-road terrain you may end up using on your commute. These bikes, in general, don’t accept standard bike racks, so you’ll be without the use of panniers, however if your goal is to go the fastest while still having the option of going off pavement, this may be the choice for you.
    • Mountain Bike – These bikes can often be made into a great commuter. You can often find them for cheap (or covered in dust in your basement). They have plenty of clearance for fenders and some can accept a bike rack and panniers. If you are buying one specifically for commuting, try looking for one without suspension as this isn’t needed in most cases of commuting. Also, you’ll want to get some slicker tires than normal knobby mountain bike tires so you’ll be able to roll faster. The rider position of mountain bikes is often more upright than a road, touring or commuter specific bike which makes for harder pedaling up hills. It is also often the heaviest of the choices.A mountain bike is good for someone that is on a tight budget as a cheap one can be easily found. If you are looking for a fast trip to work and/or have hilly terrain, this may not be the best choice. I recommend a mountain bike as a commuter for people that are on a tight budget or are just looking to give commuting by bike a try.
    • Commuter Specific Bike – There has been a new wave in the bike industry the last few years towards making bikes specifically for commuting. They are often made out of steel and have a more relaxed, comfortable position that road bikes. The tires and wheels are made stronger and more durable for the stresses of commuting. Also, many of them come equipped with fenders and braze ons for bike racks. For gearing, most of them are setup with one gear.I believe a commuter specific bike is a great choice for someone that is in decent fitness and is looking for something that is the best combination of the above choices. The rider position and bike geometry allow for a faster commute than a mountain bike. However it is more comfortable than a road bike and often is setup for things like fenders and panniers.
    • Comfort Bikes – These bikes are often very similar in rider position and geometry to a mountain bike, however it changes many of the features to make them extremely comfortable for the rider such as more upright position, kickstand, more comfortable seat (often with suspension), better tires for road and plenty of reflectors.These are great bikes if you have a relatively flat ride to work, aren’t looking for the fastest and/or have some physical ailments that make the more upright position the most comfortable. These, also, can often be had for very cheap.
    • Folding Bike – If you are someone that needs to store their bike in the smallest space possible and have relatively flat terrain, then this is the perfect bike for you. While they aren’t extremely widespread (so finding one used can be hard) they are still not extremely expensive and may be the perfect choice.

Although this article was long, don’t let that scare you off from searching for the right bike. If you are just wanting to try out this whole commuting by bike thing, grab whatever bike you can get and give it a try. As you learn your riding style and terrain better, you’ll be able to make a good choice in the future.

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