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 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, and scooters. 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?
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.
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)
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 to 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.
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 U.S. Pony Express days, 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. 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.
Are you independently wealthy?
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.