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 article to serve as a guide to choosing a good commuter bike.
Types of Bikes Available for Commuting
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.
Fitness, Transit, or Urban Bikes: all pretty much the same thing with different names. These are usually road bikes with flat (vs drop) bars and slightly wider wheels and tires. A great choice for a commuter bike.
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 front shocks). 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 or Gravel Bikes: Cyclocross or gravel 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 or Adventure Bikes: 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 fitness/transit/urban bike for urban commuting and anything other than a mountain bike for rural commuting on well-maintained roads. 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, 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 or Facebook Marketplace, 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 (Facebook Marketplace or 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 – $1,500
- Fitness/Urban/Transit bikes: $700 – $1,500
- Mountain bikes: $800 – $2,000
- Hybrid bikes: $400 – $900
- Touring bikes: $700 – $1,500
- Fixie/Single-speed bikes: $300-$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. They are heavy, mechanically awful, and no fun to ride. Spend a little more and you will be so much happier and probably save more money in the long run.
A few higher-end components to look for in your purchase: disc brakes, at least 10-12 cogs on the rear cassette, and tubeless ready wheels.
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. Jenson 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.
Also – don’t forget to get a good bike lock to protect your investment!
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?