Bicycle commuting | 16 MIN READ

What to look for in a commuter bike

What to look for in a commuter bike

Whether it’s to adopt a healthier lifestyle, be more environmentally friendly, or avoid the hassles and costs that come with driving a car, the option to commute by bicycle seems to be appealing to an increasing number of people worldwide.

If you already ride a bike for fitness or pleasure, then the switch is likely to be a relatively easy one. For those who haven’t ridden a bike in years, it could prove to be more challenging. While there’s no way to entirely eliminate the difficulty you might encounter when you first start commuting by bike, taking the time to determine your needs and familiarizing yourself with the basics of a bicycle and biking road rules can make this exciting transportation transition much easier.

bicycle commuter

What is a commuter bike?

City, urban, cargo, utility, cruiser. Technically, almost any bike can be considered a “commuter bike” because the determining factor of what denotes a bike as a commuter is how it’s used; if you use your bike for daily commuting or as a primary mode of transportation, it’s a commuter bike. Even though almost any bicycle can be used for this purpose, there are certain bikes that fulfill the role better than others. It’s important to do some research before buying a bike so you end up with one that meets your mission. Skipping this important first step increases your risk of making an expensive mistake that could inadvertently ruin your bicycling experience.

Figuring out what you need

In order to find the perfect bike for you, there are some questions you need to answer to establish your expectations. Be honest with yourself when answering these questions because wishful thinking could result in a bike that is uncomfortable, difficult to manage, or that causes pain or injury.

Why do I want to commute by bike?

The reason you’re making this lifestyle change should be taken into account when choosing a bike. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of commuting by bike is that it’s environmentally friendly or that you can avoid the stress of bumper-to-bumper city traffic. If your primary intent is to get some fresh air and light exercise, then the kind of bike that will best suit you will be very different than if your idea of a commute is a heart-pumping workout session.

bicycle parked

How long will I be in the saddle?

The time you plan to spend riding your bike each day might be one of the most important factors to consider when selecting a bike. A more upright, relaxed riding position is preferred for shorter, lower effort rides, whereas a more aggressive, forward leaning posture is ideal for prolonged rides. For commutes more moderate in length, finding a bike that places you in a neutral position, between the short and long distance riding positions of other bikes. The importance of certain features and components, including the kind of handlebars or saddle type, grows exponentially as the length of your ride increases.

What kind of terrain will I be riding on?

The kinds of roads, trails, and paths you expect to find yourself on should always be taken into account when deciding which bike and components would best suit your commute. If you’re going to be riding on smooth, flat, well-maintained roads, a single-speed bike with no suspension and smoother tires could be all you need. However, if you anticipate rough or rocky terrain, than a geared bike with fatter, knobier tires will be a more appropriate choice. If you prefer to take the long, fun way home, suspension might even become a possibility.

What kind of traffic will I encounter?

The type and amount of traffic you expect to face should be considered; not knowing could put you in an unsafe situation.

Many commuters’ rarely venture outside of a one or two mile radius. If your daily activities limit you to navigating around a college campus, neighborhood, or small town and you don’t expect to be riding over hills, in heavy traffic, or for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time, a lower speed bike (1-3 speed) that places you in an upright position will likely suffice. However, if you’re going to find yourself on busy city streets that require you to deal with stop-and-go traffic and make quick escapes or that are heavily trafficked by pedestrians and cyclists, then a geared bike that offers a more aggressive riding position should be considered. A bike equipped with disc brakes would make such commute more fun.

Part of why there are so many bicycle types and accompanying components on the market is because some are designed to perform better under certain traffic, road, or weather conditions than others. For example, an internal gear hub doesn’t serve much purpose for someone who has a 10 minute commute through a clean neighborhood on a bright sunny day. For someone who contends with dirty, wet city streets and stop-and-go traffic, it not only protects all the moving parts that are required for shifting, but also allows you to shift when you’re not pedaling, such as when you’re waiting at a red light.

What kind of weather should I expect to ride in?

Knowing the kind of weather that you and your bike can safely tolerate is critical to a successful bike commute. Even though there are plenty of rainy or cold weather days that can safely be endured with appropriate equipment and gear, there are also conditions that are not safe to ride in, regardless of whatever gear you may have or the tires your bike is equipped with; knowing the difference between safe and unsafe is key to avoiding a preventable accident.

If you live in a place that is known for an abundance of rainy days or slush and snow, then you’ll need to ensure that you, your bike, and its components are resilient enough and designed to endure inclement weather.

cyclist in traffic

Do I need to be able to carry cargo or loads?

Some bikes are more cargo-friendly than others. For many daily commuters, a means to carry their belongings is one of the biggest requirements. If there’s a chance that you’ll be hauling around bulky or heavy loads, then it’s imperative to find a bike that can safely carry cargo. If a backpack on your person is all you need and you’re certain that there will never be a future need for on-bike storage, then cargo carrying is irrelevant. It’s worth mentioning that even though a backpack is an obvious, convenient method of transporting your belongings, regularly carrying a heavy bag on your back could lead to back pain and related issues.

What is my starting fitness level and physical condition?

Your starting fitness and current physical condition are two significant considerations that should never be overlooked. Furthermore, you should always be honest with yourself about your needs because failure to do so could leave you frustrated and wondering where you went wrong. If you already ride a bike regularly, then the extra miles during your commute might not be even the slightest bit challenging. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, it might take your body some time to get used to the new physical demands. Many people who start commuting by bike are starting an exercise routine for the first time in years. There are plenty of components and features that can make the ride more comfortable and attainable. Other things to take into account are preexisting health conditions and any other aches or pains that you may be experiencing. When in doubt, consult with your physician prior to beginning any new physical or athletic activities. Bicycling is a fun, healthy way to get to work, as long as it’s approached in a safe, responsible manner.

Where will I store my bike once I’ve reached my destination?

If you need to leave your bike outside, then it’s imperative that you take certain precautions to ensure your bike’s safety and security. Unfortunately, there are plenty of opportunists out there who pursue busy areas, hoping to find either an unlocked bike or a bike with a lock that’s easily removed. Investing in a quality bike lock is one way to protect your bike. If bike theft is a genuine concern, a folding bike that can be taken inside your workplace might also be a good option.

bicycle locked

How much maintenance am I willing to do?

Bikes are cheaper and easier to buy and maintain than cars, but that doesn’t mean that they’re zero-maintenance machines. Some bikes require more maintenance than others, mostly depending on design and components. Some cyclists enjoy the technical and mechanical challenge of tinkering around with their bikes, whereas others would prefer to drop it off at their local bike shop. If learning how to work on your bike or taking regular trips to your local shop doesn’t appeal to you, then you can also opt for a bike equipped with components that require less maintenance.

What is my overall budget?

Unless your commuter bike is going to be pulling double duty as a racer or subjected to rugged terrain, having a top-of-the-line bike is likely overkill. It’s better to initially invest in a middle-of-the-road bike from a trusted manufacturer until you have a better grasp on what you do or don’t need.

Bike Types Worth Considering for Your Commute

Bicycles come in all shapes and sizes. Most are equipped with components that can be swapped out or have features that allow the attachment of add-ons, offering countless ways to meet consumers’ varying needs. If you aren’t a bike enthusiast or don’t often find yourself in places where others enjoy riding their bikes, you may not have noticed the differences from one bike type to another.

The City Bike

Perhaps the most preferred bike type by commuters, the city bike, or utility bike, has earned its reputation of being the best to fit the bill. As the name suggests, they’re designed for short, moderately paced rides through mild urban terrain. Comfort and practicality take priority over speed and efficiency, which explains the upright sitting position, fewer gears, and a noticeably greater weight than road bikes. City bikes usually come equipped with saddles that are larger than the usual road or mountain biking saddles, chain protectors and wheel fenders to keep the dirt away from you and your bike’s critical parts, as well as features to affix racks, fenders, lights, and bells.

city bike

Cruiser

Cruisers, commonly called “beach cruisers”, are especially popular among those who enjoy leisure time at beaches and parks. The frame is designed to provide a comfortable entry and egress as well as an upright riding position, handlebars that are gentle on the back and shoulders, and a saddle with a suspension system that makes bumps easier to tolerate. These bikes generally come equipped with fat tires, which are better suited for shorter distances on paved roads. Ultimately, the cruiser’s features make it a more forgiving ride for those who need additional support or cushion. There are a variety of accessories on the market that allow you to customize your cruiser to better suit your needs, such as racks, fenders, and saddlebags. Some of the cruiser’s most redeeming qualities are also its weaknesses. The relaxed frame geometry and fat tires make for a slower, heavier ride, but since speed isn’t at the heart of the cruiser’s design, it doesn’t take away from the appeal of these vintage-vibed vehicles.

cruiser bike

Hybrid

The hybrid’s features make it one of the most versatile bike types on the market, earning it the nickname of Jack-of-all-trades among bicycles. Its frame is designed for comfort and components can be swapped out to tweak the rider’s position, or adjust to weather conditions. Wider tires allow for a more comfortable ride over bumpy surfaces, like gravel. Its standard features make the hybrid better suited for longer distances and capable of climbing hills, if you’re up for the challenge.

Tip: Higher air pressure in the tires will make higher speed, lower pressure will make rides on bumpy terrain more tolerable.

hybrid bicycle

Single speed and Fixed Gear

As the name might suggest, single speed bikes have one single speed option; that is, they only have one gear. Having one gear means less maintenance. It also means the only way you can speed up is by pedalling harder and climbing long, steep hills is going to be extra challenging. A common misunderstanding is that fixed gear, commonly affectionately called “fixies,” and single speeds are one in the same, but fixies are actually a type of singlespeed bike. What sets a fixie apart from other single speeds is that you cannot coast on a fixie; in other words, when you stop pedalling, your bike stops moving immediately. The simple ability of being able to coast makes a standard single speed a safer, more practical commuter bike. Fixies are not recommended to inexperienced cyclists because their inability to coast puts the rider at much greater risk of getting into an accident or seriously injuring oneself once fatigue sets in or in an attempt to stop.

fixed gear bike

Road

Road bikes are a great option for people who have a long distance to cover on their commutes. Designed for speed, they’re more aerodynamic than other bikes, with an aggressive forward-leaning riding position that’s more comfortable over extended periods of time. Smooth, skinny tires are standard on road bikes, but can be traded in for tires that are wider or with more tread. The riding position and handling characteristics of a road bike is going to be difficult for novices to adjust to, which is why they’re not recommended to those who have limited cycling experience. Commuting by road bike is only recommended for people who already own and ride one.

road bike

Gravel, adventure, and cyclocross

Even though gravel, adventure, and cyclocross bikes aren’t the same, they’re so similar that they are worth discussing together. These bikes have geometries similar to those of road bikes, but adjusted for comfort. They are equipped with wider tires to improve performance on gravel and challenging terrain and make longer commutes more comfortable. The versatility and durability offered by travel, adventure, and cyclocross bikes make any one of them a good option for commuting.

gravel bike

Mountain

Mountain bikes are designed to tackle challenging off-road terrain, which is why most come with a suspension system; suspension makes them less efficient on-road. Unless you plan on riding over some rough, rocky paths, a mountain bike might be more bike than you need. Because most commuters don’t encounter terrain that requires additional shock absorption, fatter tires and a padded saddle is all the suspension you’d need, cost less than suspension, and won’t add unnecessary weight to the ride.

mountain bike

Useful features to look for in a commuter bike

While there’s no standard commuter category in the bicycle classification system, there are still certain features you want to look for when selecting a bike.

The Frame

The frame can be thought of as the core of your bike, making it the most important part. It’s the one part that serves as the main connecting port for all of the bike’s other parts, so it’s imperative that it fits you and meets your requirements well. Bikes frames are commonly made out of carbon fiber, aluminum, or steel.

Preferred by most competitive cyclists, carbon frames are exceptionally light in weight, offer the smoothest ride, and won’t corrode or rust. Unfortunately, carbon frames cost significantly more and don’t handle abuse nearly as well as their aluminum and steel counterparts. The extra cost of a carbon frame might give you an advantage in a race, but if you’re commuting, then it’ll prove to be a waste of your hard earned money. Steel and aluminum frames are excellent options for commuter bikes because they provide adequate strength and can withstand some abuse. While both are resilient metals, steel is generally a better option for commuters because it’s not as stiff as aluminum which results in a more comfortable, forgiving ride. Since it’s easier to manufacture, steel bikes are often more affordable than aluminum.

Another parameter to consider when choosing a bike is frame size. It’s imperative that you find a bike that fits your body size; an ill-fitting bike could result in various related pains, cause injury, or even result in an accident. Height and inseam length are the two main determining factors when sizing a bike. While a professional bike fit would be excessive, consider asking the staff at the shop to ensure your sizing is on-point. If going to a bike shop for a fitting isn’t an option, don’t worry; there are bicycle sizing charts available online.

Tip: When standing over your bike, there should be a two to four inch top tube to body clearance. This space is necessary for safe, comfortable clearance and is especially noticeable on longer commutes, when you frequently have to stop and put a foot on the ground.

Suspension

Suspension, which is a component that absorbs shock from bumps and landing impacts, comes standard on mountain bikes and sometimes on hybrids and cruisers. On bumpy terrain it can make your experience smoother and more comfortable, which ultimately also improves your control. You can find a suspension fork on nearly all mountain bikes and some hybrid bikes; rear suspension is exclusive to mountain bikes.

If you’re going to be riding on asphalt, pavement, or another kind of smooth surface, suspension is largely unnecessary and will only add cost and weight to your ride.

Tires

Tires are a simple way to improve your control, safety, and overall comfort which is why it’s imperative that you select the most appropriate tire width, and tread for your commuting needs. Terrain and weather are the two most significant factors to consider when choosing tires.

If you live in a place with distinct seasons and plan on commuting year-round, you will likely need summer and winter tires. Summer tires should be smooth and fast rolling and the winter ones with notable tread. Smooth or dry terrain can be safely ridden with smooth, low tread, skinny tires, but wet or rugged riding surfaces require tires that provide more traction. Wider tires with greater tread are safer and more efficient on rough or wet terrain, including snow, because the added tread offers more grip. Different tire widths and treads are available to accommodate a whole slew of riding terrains.

cyclist snow

Tip: If your ride feels a bit bumpier than you’d like, adjusting the tire pressure could ease your discomfort. By experimenting with tire pressure, you’ll be able to find the optimal setting that provides both comfort and traction needed for your particular ride.

Gearing

Your gearing requirements will depend heavily on the terrain. For most commuters, having multiple gears isn’t necessary because their commute takes them over flat ground, making single speed and bicycles with fewer gears ideal. However, if you have to ride over hills or bridges, then it would be in your best interest to get bike with broad gearing.

Gearing on most bikes is provided by a lever-actuated derailleur that moves the chain across the gears on the cassette, allowing you to adjust your cadence independent of speed. Recently, internally geared hubs have become popular on city and urban bikes.

An internal gear hub is especially advantageous if you plan on riding through dirty roads or during the snowy winter season, as you likely to drive on salted roads. The protection offered by internal gear hubs keeps your gear set in good working order significantly longer because it reduces the amount of direct exposure to the elements. Another unrelated benefit if you expect to encounter traffic lights is that you shift while sitting idle at a red light. Many bikes with internal gear hubs are also equipped with belts instead of chains.

gearing hub

If you’re looking for as little maintenance involvement possible, a belt drive system might be the answer. Belt drive systems are an alternative for chains and come with some key advantages: they’re cleaner and last twice as long as a chain. They require virtually no maintenance, short of hosing off the dirt off the belt.

Brakes

While commuting by bike you will be forced to deal with a surprising number of obstacles, ranging from curbs, sidewalks, and pedestrians to cars and construction zones. Being able to stop quickly and suddenly while remaining in control is the number one ask for a commuter bike. There are several brake options, but rim and disc are the two most common. Rim brakes apply the stopping force to the rim’s outer edge whereas disc brakes apply force to a rotor that is mounted to a hub.

While all brakes will stop a bike, a quality brake will provide good modulation, which is the ability to precisely and accurately control the amount of clamping force with a given amount of brake lever input. In other words, it means you can scrub off as much or as little speed as you want without tire lockup. When it comes to modulation and stopping power, disc brakes can not be beaten.

If in your search for a new commuter bike you’re stuck between a bike with rim and a bike with disc brakes, get the one with disc brakes. Disc brakes provide significantly better stopping power than rim brakes, require a lot less maintenance, and are very resilient to weather conditions, since they are located far away from the tires and thus the debris.

Disc brakes can be mechanical and hydraulic, both types are extremely capable and are almost always a good upgrade over the conventional rim brakes. The mechanical disc brakes are notably cheaper, but do not offer the stopping power of their hydraulic counterparts. Hydraulic disc brakes should be your first choice, with mechanical disc brakes being a close second, followed by the traditional rim brakes.

Saddle

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of a decent saddle - especially if you’re going to spend more than 15 minutes riding. A saddle that doesn’t properly fit your body can leave you with aches and pains, sores, and even be injurious to you. With so many saddles on the market, there’s no doubt that a saddle with the perfect ergonomics and comfort features that provide adequate support is out there. Some saddles are designed with anatomical cutouts to prevent pressure on soft tissue that could otherwise result in numbness and pain. Before settling on a saddle, try it out to make sure it jives with your body. Remember that it will take a few days for you to adjust to your new seat, so don’t judge prematurely.

bicycle saddle

Cargo compatibility

Not all bikes are capable of carrying loads, so if one of your primary requirements is to be able to carry cargo, then it’s imperative that you confirm the bike you’re hoping to purchase is able to accommodate your needs. There’s a variety of carrying options available, including baskets, racks, and panniers. Beware that a bike loaded with even a moderate load can handle significantly different than when it is unloaded. If you plan on carrying bulky cargo, make sure it does not interfere with the controls of the bike and compromise safety.

Some other things to consider before choosing a bike

Electric Bicycle

An electric bike, or an e-bike, is an excellent option for anyone who needs or wants an extra boost of power. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about e-bikes is in how they function; it’s assumed that the bike does all of the work. Most e-bikes are equipped with pedal assist, meaning that power is only generated when the rider is pedalling; when the pedalling stops, so does the ebike-provided power. While uncommon, a few bikes come equipped with not just pedal assist, but throttle based power, too. The throttle on an e-bike is similar to one on a motorcycle and must be activated by the rider. Throttle e-bikes are uncommon for a reason: they can be more difficult and less safe for beginners because they have to consciously activate power. The top speed of e-bikes is between 20 and 28 miles per hour, with most battery charges giving you at least 30 miles.

A common belief about why people opt for e-bikes is that they provide assistance to those who lack a certain level of physical fitness, enabling them to take up cycling. While electric bikes certainly do increase accessibility to a large group of people, there are plenty of situations where an e-bike makes sense even for those who would normally overlook it. For example, if you’re hoping to avoid breaking a sweat, or at least sweat less because you’re conscientious of your office hygiene, then an ebike might be a simple solution.

e-bike

Folding

With its ability to be folded into a compact, easy to carry package, folding bikes are increasing in popularity. They are an excellent option for people who have to combine modes of transportation (car, train, bus, bike), who don’t have a reliably safe place to leave a bike once they arrive to their destination, or who don’t have a place to store it at home. Great strides have been made to improve the comfort and resilience of folding bikes, making them safer and more comfortable than ever before.

folding bike

Weight

If your only purpose in buying a bike is to commute, then weight isn’t an especially important factor to consider. It’s unlikely that you would notice a 10 lb between two different bikes on a mild commute. However, if you live in an apartment or condo, you might find yourself having to carry it up and down stairs, which can be frustrating at best and dangerous at worst. Be mindful of carrying feasibility when choosing a bike that will be making regular trips up and down the stairs; opt for a bike that isn’t difficult or dangerous to carry. A folding bike can be a viable alternative to a standard bike for those who prefer something less challenging to haul through stairwells.

Bicycle Insurance

While insurance might be one of the last things that comes to mind when you think about bikes, it should be one of the first. Even the most prepared person can find themselves in a situation they simply couldn’t have planned for. Running out of spare tubes on your third flat, discovering at the end of a workday that someone has cut through your bike lock and run off with your ride, or even bike damage from an unaware motorist opening their door can all leave even the biggest planners fumbling. A good backup plan for unexpected situations is having someone you can count on to help you out when they arise. The people at Velosurance have encountered their fair share of bike situations and emergencies, so they understand what it feels like to be left feeling stranded, sometimes, literally. Velosurance, a bicycle insurance agency created by cyclists, offers insurance policies that include coverage options that help you plan for the unexpected, including roadside assistance, theft, and accident-related damage. Policies are customizable, which means there’s a policy for just about everyone.

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