Maybe you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Maybe you yearn for rippling quadriceps muscles. Maybe the bank repossessed your vehicle. Or maybe, doggone it; you just want to be as awesome as all those shivering and sweating cyclists, dodging potholes and delinquent drivers, which you see every day.
I have commuted using bicycles, sedans, skateboards, motorcycles, roller skates, feet, pickup trucks, scooters, and if the federal government would ease up on highway vehicle restrictions, I’d probably commute in a dune buggy. Nothing beats the sense of daily satisfaction and stress relief as commuting by bike.
Commuter bikes used to be the equivalent of leftovers. People commuted on bikes that their favorite single track trails had chewed up and spit out. Today, the best commuter bikes come in all shapes and sizes, from the $3,000 Shinola Runwell to the $300 Schwinn Discover.
Here’s how to choose.
Do you want to upgrade now or in the future?
Some cyclists prefer to create their perfect bike the Build-A-Bear way. A cyclist might purchase a high-quality starter bike, such as a Motobecane 300ht, and perform a little vivisection. He might swap out the Suntour 80-mm fork for a Fox Talas 140-mm fork. He might switch the tires or upgrade the rear derailleur. If he is an astute road cyclist, he might buy a carbon fiber seat post and fork to reduce weight.
But not everyone has the money or mechanical skills to follow their dreams. If you do not plan to upgrade, may I suggest a folding bicycle?
Check out the Stowabike. When folded, the petite bicycle measures 24 inches in width, 34 inches in length, and 32 inches in height. The handlebars can be removed with a quick-access tool to further reduce the height. Riding on 20-inch wheels, the Stowabike features an integrated rear rack, kickstand, mud guards and a 6-speed grip shifter. It can accommodate riders up to 280 pounds, and best of all, it costs less than a family grocery shopping trip.
Don’t believe me? Then listen to “Happy Customer”, who rides in the Big Apple, collapses the bike before every Subway ride, and uses his belt as an improvised strap to tote the bike while he shops. “There isn’t a better value for a bike like this around,” he says.
But some commuters need more – or less, that is: less size, less weight, less complexity, that kind of thing. It was for them that the Dahon Speed Uno was created. When folded, it measures 11 inches in width, 30 inches in length, and 25 inches in height. It is small enough and light enough at 24 pounds to squeeze into a backpack. Manufactured with high-quality components and sporting an indestructible “fixie” transmission, the Dahon Speed Uno is a dream come true for urban commuters frequenting flat roads.
Should the bike be able to withstand severe weather?
Mother Nature has more armaments than the U.S. Department of Defense: pounding rain, corrosive salt spray, abrasive sand dust, and burning sunlight. A commuter bike may face all of them.
Possible problems that may arise from exposure include:
- Dirty, deformed hub bearings (culprit: dust)
- Rusty cassette sprockets (culprit: rain)
- Ruined shocks (culprit: salt)
- Bad moods (culprit: 6:00 a.m. commutes)
The best-protected bike is the best-made bike, and that means the Diamondback Trace. Built with a 60661-T6 aluminum alloy frame, Tektro disc brakes, 700-cc tires and a Shimano 7-speed transmission, the Trace is the most versatile bike on this list. It is a dual-sport bike, equally comfortable on urban pathways or groomed trails. It has flat, raised handlebars to prevent wrist fatigue or lower back strain. It is a responsive, simple, and a relative bargain at $550 MSRP.
Chronic neglect, however, can kill even the best of bikes. Always keep your chain and gears well-oiled using bicycle oil for dry rides or wax for wet rides. If you often travel in salty conditions, then use Vaseline to protect your shock seals.
Will you need to carry cargo or a child?
“Allezoops,” a London-based cyclist, commutes seven miles each way to work every day. In the morning, he takes a one-mile detour to the “childminder” with his child mounted in a Topeak Baby Sitter child rack attached to the rear of the bicycle frame.
Not all cyclists are so sure of their riding abilities. Many a rider might tow a dog or child in a two-wheeled trailer attached the rear frame. Dog trailers or child seats are best attached to touring bicycles, those two-wheeled machines with wide handlebars, low centers of gravity, relaxed riding positions and a stretched-out frame. Women might choose a cruiser bicycle. Unlike a road bike, a cruiser can be ridden comfortably and modestly in a skirt.
Schwinn sells the Schwinn Women’s Sanctuary, a comfortable cruiser with a 7-speed SRAM transmission, full rain-guard fenders, an integrated rear rack, and a wide, padded seat with spring shock absorbers. You’ll feel like a baby in a crib.
Live cargo demands safety. Stifle your pride and wear a reflective orange vest. Attach a high-powered flashing headlight onto the handlebars for dark evenings and misty mornings. Insist everyone, tykes and all, wear a helmet. Tape your blood type to the bottom of your shoes.
Yet not every cyclist is burdened with children or dogs. Many are college students pedaling to and from the classroom, the gym, and their part-time restaurant jobs. Some stuff their cargo in a backpack, which is a bad idea. Wearing a heavy backpack causes spinal discomfort and ruins a bike’s innate balance. Therefore, most cyclists pack their cargo in saddlebags, also known as panniers. These bags, adapted from the days of the U.S. Pony Express, are draped over a rear rack mounted onto factory-drilled eyelets in the rear tubing. A high-quality pair of panniers should be made from waterproof material and have zippered storage pockets.
How challenging is the trip terrain?
“Fixie” bikes are popular for short commutes. Ultra-lightweight and super-simple, fixies have no hand brakes. Just reverse the pedal direction, and the tires will lock up. With so few moving parts, a well-maintained fixie could be passed down from one generation to the next.
But one man’s commute is another man’s Bataan Death March. In the congested urban areas of North America and Europe, a 30-mile round-trip commute is not uncommon. Some riders will double that number. To be frank, no one wants to cycle 30 or 60 miles a day on a fixie or, for that matter, a Stowabike.
Mountain bikes are also out of the question for the following reasons:
- Riders sit higher off the ground, which improves forward visibility but increases air resistance.
- Shock-absorbing suspensions steal critical energy during hill climbs.
- Riders sit at an awkward forward angle, which increases air drag and causes wrist fatigue.
- Knobby tires increase rolling resistance and wear out 2-3 times faster than a road bike’s tires.
In these situations, only a road bike will do. That is, only the GMC Denali will do. The Denali is a 21-speed road bike available in X-small (16-inch) to X-large (25-inch) frame sizes. It uses traditional drop handlebars and 700-cc tires. Unlike a Mongoose or a Huffy bicycle, the Denali has no frou-frou tricks. It doesn’t care about trends. It has no hydraulic brakes, no fancy frame geometry, no tubeless tires. It is Old Reliable. At 29 pounds, it is not the lightest road bike available, and the brake pads are too small, but the Denali is a great budget bike that does its job day in and day out.
Are you independently wealthy?
Designed for triathlon veterans, the Talon zips through the air like a kid on a wet slip n’ slide. If you want to cruise on your commute at 18-20 mph, this is the bike to get. Believe it or not, similar carbon fiber bikes might cost $2,000-$3,000.
In the same way that every wizard has his wand or every cowboy his horse, so every commuter has his bicycle. Just remember that the best commuter bikes are not necessarily the most expensive! The best bikes fit your commute first and your budget second.