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Home » Biking, Save Money, Summer of Saving, Transportation

How to Find the Best Commuter Bike for You

Last updated by on October 26, 2013

If you are going to get rid of a car and start biking to work to cut your commuting costs and simply enjoy life more, you’ll want to make sure you have a decent, trustworthy bike to get you to and from where you need to be.

If you haven’t been on a bike in years, navigating bike type, materials, size, and everything else can be an intimidating process. I wanted to help you overcome that barrier, so I put together this post to serve as a guide to choosing a good commuter bike.

Types of Bikes Available for Commuting

commuter bike

There are a lot of different types of bikes out there. Bicycle manufacturers have gotten better at making bikes that fill niche needs for those seeking them.

The reality is that if a bike can get you from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time at reasonable comfort levels, it’s good enough. Some bike types are better than others, however. If you’re finding a new ride, you might as well get the best type of bike. But what’s best is going to depend on the characteristics of your commute. Here are the general categories of bikes available:

Road Bikes: Road bikes were created for bike racing at high speeds on well paved roads. A high-end road bike can be very pricey and use materials that are generally not the greatest in city conditions. These bikes have the thinnest tire widths, slender frames, and are typically created to be light weight to improve speed. Many will have carbon frame components, which provide weight savings, but are not the most durable for rougher rides. If you have a longer commute on smoothly paved surfaces, a road bike can make an excellent commuter bike. Otherwise, I would recommend staying away.

Mountain Bikes: Mountain bikes are becoming increasingly lighter in weight with advanced components. These bikes are built for the durability that is needed on a rough off-road trail. If you have a short/bumpy commute, a mountain bike could make for a great commuter bike. However, the tires are generally not great for road riding, will create high friction resistance, and will wear down quickly. If you don’t want to get sweaty on the ride in to work, you probably want to stay away from a mountain bike.

Hybrid Bikes: These bikes combine some aspects of road bikes (slender frames, lighter materials, many gears) with some aspects of mountain bikes (medium to larger tires, more durable frames, and sometimes shock absorbers). These bikes were designed for short to medium distance cycling over rougher or paved surfaces – which usually make them quite diverse and excellent commuter bikes.

Cyclocross Bikes: Cyclocross bikes, on the surface, might seem like decent commuter bikes, but they were originally designed for off-road racing and have geometries that cater to that. They are more similar to a road bike than a mountain bike, have slender wheels, and many gears – but they are durable. Any decent cyclocross bike is going to set you back a good amount of money, and it seems like overkill to use them as a commuter bike. I would recommend staying away, unless much of your commute is on a long trail.

Touring Bike: Touring bikes are not much different than road bikes, except that they are created with durability in mind. Their frames are usually steel (vs aluminum, carbon, or titanium) and they are designed to carry a high weight load for long-distance bike touring. Touring bikes can make great commuter bikes.

Fixed Gear (Fixie)/Single Speed (Free-Wheel) Bikes: These bikes are kind of the trendy thing at the moment. A fixed gear bike has a rear cog that continually rotates along with the pedals. This means that you can’t stop pedaling once you start moving. The pedals are always moving and you cannot coast. Single speed (free wheel) means you are riding with just one gear but you can coast while riding. These bikes usually have steel frames, thin tires, and have a similar look to a road bike. Those who love them appreciate their simplicity and price point – there are no expensive gear components. No gears also make it tough to climb bills. If you have a very flat commute, Fixies/Free-Wheel can make for an excellent commuter bike due to the durability and lack of components that might take a beating. If you have to climb any significant hills, you will build up a sweat.

When in doubt, it’s hard to go wrong with a hybrid or touring bike for commuting. If you have a flat ride, a free-wheel could meet your needs and offer significant cost savings.

Where to Buy a Commuter Bike

This is key. My first piece of advice would be to stay away from any big box store bicycle. That means no Target, WalMart, Costco, Meijer, Toys R Us, Dick’s – you get the idea (REI might be one exception to this rule as they have certified bike shop personnel, but their inventory is going to be limited). Bikes at these retailers are cheap, and when it comes to bikes, you truly get what you pay for. Cheap bicycles have cheap components that will break on you and otherwise create a miserable ride. And the guy who assembles bikes at a big box store is probably the same guy who assembles the cheap laminate furniture. Just. Stay. Away.

Most local bike shops know their stuff, but some are definitely better than others. Shop around before making a purchase as costs can vary wildly. With local bike shops, you will be able to get a bike that is well put together and most of the bikes they will sell have functional components. Any good bike shop will also fit you for the purchase, which is essential to having a comfortable ride.

You can also find great lightly used bikes on Craigslist, but if you are a born-again biker, you might be better off turning to a local bike shop.

How Much to Spend on a Commuter Bike

There are going to be exceptions to these guidelines, but here are some recommend price ranges for new bikes (Craiglist is a dif. story). Any higher is probably overkill. Lower may result in poor components and a bike you’ll quickly want to upgrade.

  • Road bikes: $700 – $1,300.
  • Mountain bikes: $800 – $1,300
  • Hybrid bikes: $400 – $900
  • Touring bikes: $800 – $1,300
  • Fixie/Single-speed bikes: $350-$500

I realize these may seem pricey if you’re only used to seeing big box prices. If driving your car less is the result, this will be money well invested. Cheap bikes SUCK. Spend a little more and you will be so much happier.

Getting Fitted for a Bike

The most under-appreciated, overlooked component of shopping for a new bike is the fitting process. Bikes come in all kinds of frame shapes and sizes. Using one that is too large or small for your height, inseam, or arm length can result in an uncomfortable ride.

You’ll want to ensure:

  • the standover height
  • saddle height
  • saddle position
  • and stem

are within the range for your body measurements and then adjusted properly. Competitive Cyclist has a nifty bike sizing calculator to give you some guidance and REI has some good tips as well. If a bike shop does not know how or is not willing to properly fit you, you should take your business elsewhere.

The most common fitting error I see is a saddle that is too low. You want your leg to be about 90% to full extension when at the bottom of your pedal motion so that you can use the full power of your entire legs. I see many people with almost a 90 degree knee bend and I get achy just thinking about it. You won’t get very far very fast that way and could easily hurt yourself.

Test it Out!

Once you’ve found the right bike at the right price, see if the bike shop will let you take it for a little spin so you can make sure it is a comfortable ride. Outside of a little saddle pressure, everything else – your neck, legs, arms, and shoulders should feel comfortable. If it doesn’t, keep looking. There’s nothing worse than spending good money on a bike that leaves you dreading on a bike.

Commuter Bike Discussion:

  • What type of bike do you use for your commuter bike? How much did it cost?
  • What tips do you have for first-time commuter bike buyers?

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • Carla says:

    Raleigh makes great mountain bikes for $350. It may not be the smartest road choice, but it hasn’t failed me yet!

  • Leah says:

    I actually went with a cyclocross bike for my commuting. Raleigh RX 1.0. I’m pretty darn happy with it. Lots of hills and rough roads and gravelly shoulders in our area. I think I spent $1100? Then all the accessories which add up: bags, lights, shoes, locks, etc.

  • Colby says:

    I actually converted a road bike that I purchased a couple years ago into a flat bar. Basically a road bike frame with mountain bike handle bars a hybrid of sorts. While I wouldn’t recommend buying a road bike new and doing this, I was just utilizing what I already had lying around. I found this increases my maneuverability and allows for a better position when braking quickly. With frugality in mind I would start your search at if you want new or find a deal on craigslist. Also, like Leah eluded to you probably should look at what accessories you might need and account for them in what you spend. Staying visible to drivers is crucial, so I would build from there.

  • Ryan says:

    I just recently started biking to work and to run errands. I have an 8 year old Raleigh Sport road bike which saw a lot of use in my late teens/early 20’s, but sat with two flats for the previous 3. Finally got the push I needed to use it again (first time for commuting) from another financial blog. My work is only 2.9 miles away, but the roads are really rough, so the road bike isn’t the best….but I already had it and it is in great condition, which can’t be beat 🙂

  • G.E. Miller says:

    Wow – lots of Raleigh fans here!

    If I remember correctly, my first bike ever was a Raleigh banana seat bike. Yes, it was badass.

  • Andy says:

    First things first- I love any post that encourages bike commuting! However, I have to fully disagree with the assessment on cyclocross bikes- especially from a budget standpoint. As a long time CX racer and daily bike commuter I can’t imagine better bones for a commuting rig than a cross bike- especially if you’re hoping for one bike to do it all. A few reasons:

    – Cyclocross bikes often come with rack and fender mounting eyelets that significantly increase versatility.

    – The wider frame and fork geometry allows for wider tires that can be a huge comfort benefit on potholed city streets (and again- increased versatility).

    – Many cross bikes don’t have compact racing geometry- especially entry and mid level bikes. In my mind- a correctly fit cross bike is much more comfortable than most road-dedicated setups

    – With the influx of interest in cyclocross prices are being driven down as more of the manufacturers clamber to ride the wave. I think you can secure an excellent, bulletproof cross bike for a very reasonable price.

    -Last but not least- as I said- they can do it all! Road tires = speed machine, knobby tires = dirt road warrior, rack and fenders = perfect sturdy commuter.

    Couldn’t ask for more in my mind than a single, sturdy bike than can do it all…

    • G.E. Miller says:

      I agree that Cyclocross are good bikes – but I just think that for most people who need a basic road commuter, they can be a bit overkill for need given the price. If you use the bike for other uses, including some trail, it might be a great choice.

  • Chris says:

    I wanted to emphasize some points and also offer further points to think about when buying a commuter:

    – Look at flat rear racks with straps/bungee cords to tie anything to your bike
    – Consider purchasing baskets for the front or rear so you don’t have to bike with anything on your back (can someone say sweaty AND uncomfortable?)
    – I can’t reiterate how important lighting and visibility is. Things happen, you get a flat, you’re late coming home, or there’s a detour and you don’t want to be stuck out there in the dark. I’ve ridden in the dark home and it’s a terribly unsafe and scary experience. To address lighting:
    – You should look at investing in one of those neon yellow or orange workers vest due to their high visibility. They look dorky, but it’s better to be seen than not to be seen. Period.
    – Bike lighting is expensive, and some might consider it a necessary evil. HOWEVER, you can make do-it yourself bike lights that are better than anything you can buy, are super cheap, and are literally a snap to transfer between bikes. I bought the three pack small CREE flashlights at Costco for under $20. The flashlights have bright (which is very bright!), low, and flashing settings for light emission. Then, I used a velcro strap around the open part on top of the plumbing “T” to secure the light from flying out. Here is the link for the do-it-yourself:
    – If you have a road bike with skinny tires (typically sized 700×23), consider getting a wider tire to commute. A 700×25 and higher are wider, more durable, absorb road vibrations, and are significantly less prone to getting flats. The trade-off is speed because they offer more rolling resistance… which could be worth it to you if you commute on rough roads or consider that it takes 20ish minutes to repair a flat.

  • Rachel says:

    This article was perfect timing. I have been looking at bikes and was so confused by all the options. I currently own an old mountain bike that I take out on trails sometimes, but I want to start doing more errands by bike and ultimately eliminate our 2nd car. Given that I work from home, I really have no excuse. The options and prices are so confusing. My coworker recently offered me her hybrid bike for $50 because she bought a newer one. I am going to give it a go!

  • MonicaOnMoney says:

    I’d love to start biking to work but I live too far. Thanks for the great information though, hopefully I can use my bike to bike to work when I get a job closer to home.

  • GirlInBoulder says:

    Two years ago when I moved to my current location, I went looking for a good bike which would be my primary transportation. I ended up getting my bike at a local bike shop for about $450; it’s a hybrid called a Giant Escape. (I am a lady, but they have a men’s version as well.) I could not be happier with it! The only thing I took issue with was the uncomfortable stock seat, which I quickly replaced, and now it suits me perfectly. It’s in the same class as ~$600 bikes, yet for some reason is much cheaper. I’ve seen my friends’ “trendy” bikes have all kinds of problems; I’ve been on my bike nearly every day for the past two years and it hasn’t needed anything other than regular maintenance.

    A couple tips I have:

    -When deciding to buy a bike, you also need to budget in all the accessories you’ll need (e.g. helmet, lights, bike rack, baskets, etc.) Those costs really do add up, so do your research first.

    -If you’re looking at baskets, consider getting cloth baskets that hook on to your rack. I had those metal folding baskets for awhile, as I also use my bike for groceries, but they add a ton of weight, and they can’t be removed quickly. I bought some cloth panniers on Amazon that clip on and off easily, that I can stuff more into than my old metal baskets.

    -Invest in a good headlight and taillight! It’s crucial that drivers and other cyclists are able to see you. If you’re doing any riding past early evening, you’ll want to get a headlight that lets YOU see where you’re going (as opposed to just letting others see you). I bought a “Planet Bike Blaze 2 Watt” for about $50 that works great for night riding and visibility.

    -Find out if your city has bike paths, or streets with designated bike lanes. If possible, plan your route through these. It’s never fun riding awkwardly on the shoulder of a busy road, or trying to dodge pedestrians on a sidewalk.

    • GirlInBoulder says:

      One more thing – make sure you get a good U-lock, that is appropriate strength for the level of theft in your city. For example, I think Kryptonite has a lock made specifically for New York City-level bike theft! Cable locks can easily be snipped, and you should try to avoid them. Originally I bought a cheapo Master U-Lock at Target, but then I heard that cheap U-locks like that can be broken off by a simple swing of a hammer! Plus, the locking mechanism on that one ended up sticking quite badly after less than a year of use. I now have a Kryptolock Series 2 that is a bit heavier, but a better quality lock in general, and I haven’t had any issues with the locking mechanism.

  • brent says: for great bikes at like half-off prices

  • Ryan Choyeski says:

    Talking about fixed gear bikes, you need to check out “Fixation” on Netflix. Insane. Never new how big of trend this has become.

    Great article. Especially since I’ll be moving to Scottsdale and looking for a reliable and affordable bike to take short trips to local coffee shop and nearby mountain to go hiking. I’ll have to look into the hybrids.



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