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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Buying the right commuting bike

Image of bicycle shop in New York City
From the Boston Globe, 07.27.08:

When it comes to 2 wheels, there are countless choices
So you want to get back into bicycling after all these years. Or, perhaps it's time to upgrade from your old gray mare to something more sleek and sexy. Shopping for a new bike can seem overwhelming, especially for neophytes. Fortunately, a wise (Belmont) Wheelworks employee like Michael Simon is on hand to help--and to pose all the right questions.

"What sort of riding are you doing?" the veteran salesman typically asks dazed and confused customers like myself. For fun or fitness or both? Occasional or hardcore commuting, casual cruising, or some specialized sport? Mainly riding on roads or pavement plus dirt paths? For many, the debate is between a road bike and a hybrid or mountain bike - and it often comes down to handlebars. "Usually [clients] have in mind drop handlebars, or they want to be upright," Simon said.

For rides or commutes of 1 1/2 hours or less, Simon suggested a bike with flat handlebars. This puts the cyclist in an upright position with hands set far apart for greater stability and a clearer view of the road. Older bikers or those with poor flexibility often prefer riding upright. A hybrid's longer wheelbase (the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels), compared with a road bike, also means improved steadiness. "More stability means more confidence," said Simon. "We have a lot of interest in hybrid-style bikes for people who want to ride to work maybe twice a week."

Another consideration: comfort. A hybrid also will typically have wider tires than road bikes, making for a more cushioned ride. All these factors can make hybrids appealing to less confident riders (though their longer wheelbase can make hybrids slightly slower to respond when maneuvering). Most commuter bikes are in the same category as hybrids, he added; they have thinner tires than mountain bikes but wider than road bikes, and some include suspension systems. (Read more.)
As discussed earlier on this blog, many fossil fuel refugees appear to be flocking to bike shops with an enthusiastic desire to become bicycle commuters. The "right" bike is a critical component for effective and fun bicycle commuting. Many visitors to this blog and my bike commuting tips site inquire about appropriate bicycles for commuting. In response, I created a page with suggestions for buying a bicycle.

The Boston Globe article cited here offers many helpful tips, beginning with finding a trusted quality bicycle shop and consulting with shop staff. A good bike shop is a great partner for successful bicycle commuting. Don't even consider the cheap bikes sold by big box discount stores. The article also mentions several specific suitable models, including the Trek 7.3 FX, Trek 7000, Specialized Globe and Globe 6, or Bianchi Valle. Of course, many other brands offer comparable models, including most notably the commuting bike pioneer Breezer Bikes.

In general, for commutes less than 10 miles, I agree that a hybrid bicycle is likely the best choice. For my own commuting, I use a two-year-old Novara Randonee touring bike to make the 17-mile ride between home in Sacramento and office at UC Davis. For some multimodal commuting and around town rides, I have two hybrids, a Bianchi Boardwalk and a Jamis Commuter. I also own a road bike and a mountain bike, which I've used for occasional commute rides.

For many years the bicycle industry chased the athletic cycling consumer with high performance technological enhancements. The resulting carbon fiber wheels, carbon fiber cranks, and 10 gear cassettes offer almost no benefit to everyday bicycle commuters. We need reliable transportation, not high speed advantage. Thankfully, the bicycle industry is now producing a greater range of commuting-specific bicycles. This variety can overwhelm the new bicycle shopper. So before entering the store, consider your commuting needs, do your online research, find a trusted bike shop that welcomes beginning bicyclists, and make test rides on several models.

What advice regarding bicycle choices do you offer new or prospective bike commuters?

Image: Ed Yourdon
Visit: How to choose the right bike for you,
Visit: Bargain Basement Bikes: a false economy?, BikeRadar
Visit: Get giddy over that new bike, The Oregonian
Visit: Commuter bikes: Balancing roads, personality, San Francisco Chronicle
Visit: Beginning cyclist tutorial–buying your first bike,
Visit: Local experts weigh in on how to buy a proper bike, (University of Georgia)
Visit: Commuter Bike Off!, Huffington Post
Visit: Tuesday Tips: Buying a Bicycle, Washington Post
Visit: Run on bikes leaves slimmer pickings at some shops, Associated Press
Visit: Interest in commuting by bike on the increase, Boston Globe
Visit: Bikes made for commuting are hot!, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Bikes com in all shapes for all people, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Getting comfortable on a bike, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Buying a Bike: new or used?, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Massachusetts: Bicycle shops reap windfall, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Anonymous said...

I finally got a job close to my house and I'm in the market for a commuter bike. Thanks for the info.

I am currently looking at the KHS Green. I'm hoping for a test ride at my LBS this week. It has everything a utility bike should have, except lights. It even has the rarely seen integrated rear wheel lock.

dr2chase said...

Here's my stab at the problem, for my wife, who is resuming biking after a 15-year hiatus. We had non-standard constraints -- she wanted it to be black, I insisted on something that could run the big Big Apples, because I want a safe bike on crappy roads.

One downside of the very large tires is that the wheel locks (available from, when they are not on vacation) don't fit around the largest tires.

A friend of ours was looking at bikes, the Jamis Commuter seemed like one of the better choices on her list for someone over 40 (who does not have fat tires on their requirements list). I think it has better (not MTB-style) handlebars, and a threaded, adjustable stem, which permits more up/down/etc tinkering to make old hands comfortable.

Abhishek said...

I recommend buying a cheap bike. Craigslist if full of used bikes. Some general knowledge about bicycle wear and tear will make it easy to not buy a lemon! So buy an older mountain bike and put 1.5" wide tires on it. That will keep it inexpensive and more importantly you will offset buying costs faster with gas savings! That helps in motivation to keep riding.
I ride a hybrdized 12 year old Specialized Rockhopper. Bought it for $40 from a friend, put tires on it and offset that cost in the first month itself. Motivated by it, I added a rack and fenders and now do much more stuff on it.

Paul Dorn said...

Shek: Thanks for your comment. With all due respect, I disagree. I think it's more important to get the right bike, and not simply the bargain bike. Bicycles are inexpensive, period. Especially compared to gas and car payments. New and returning cyclists should get a bike that assures a satisfactory experience. People won't persist with bicycle commuting if their "cheap" bike breaks down frequently, doesn't fit properly, and isn't right for their commute needs. Get the right bike.

E to the M said...

I bought a bike this year (Trek WSD 7000) and while I didn't buy specifically for commuting I find that I do bike commute several times a week now.
I live in VT and would like to bike commute year-round but am concerned that the tires on my Trek are too smooth for winter riding. Do you have and recommendations for winter commutes? Should I look for knobbier tires or a whole new bike? What's the best way to dress, etc?

Anonymous said...

Hey, have you seen this video with tips for biking to work?

dr2chase said...

e to the m:

for winter (snow/ice) biking, studded tires, you can get them from Get your clearance/sizes right, because carbide studs will make themselves some clearance if they need it, even if that means cutting into your frame. The tire you choose depends on the mix you expect of snow, ice, and pavement. Snow tires have a much higher rolling resistance.

for clothing, follow tips at, and/or look at blog entries from loons like me. I expect your weather is colder than mine, and the amount of toe/ear/finger protection required varies from person to person (I get very cold toes).

In urban areas, at least, be prepared to replace your chain and perhaps your derailer jockey pulleys at the end of the winter; the sand and salt are rough.

Paul Dorn said...

@ dr2chase:
Thanks for for your helpful response to winter riding question. I'm a Cali bicycle commuter, i.e. cold weather wimp. All I know is that people all over the world do indeed bicycle commute during the winter, even in Chicago! I'm especially impressed by Terri Felton of Madison, WI.

Nice to think cool as we approach dog days of August.

Anonymous said...

I started commuting this spring. I did some research online (not crazy extensive!). The best thing I found was the test rides that I took. I went to different bike shops so I felt I was getting an honest cross reference, not just the bike or brand any certain shop was pushing. The bike I bought, a Schwinn World Avenue, was about $550 on sale which was about $200 less than I had budgeted for, which was fun because then I bought some accessories that was needed (like a good floor pump!). I have had so much fun doing this I want to get some type of set-up for the winter. I live in the mountains and will need a bigger tire for a rougher ride.

Anonymous said...

One issue that perhaps could be addressed is "how many gears to you really need?"

Let's say you need to go as little as 5 mph with 60 rpm on those tough uphills, and will pedal no more than 18 mph (only going faster when coasting). That is probably the profile of the middle-aged bike commuter/shopper.

When we bought a bike for my wife, the 3-speed with internal gears seemed attractive, but she thought she needed more to get the low gear for the hills. The other choice in a shop with a lot of selection was the usual 24 gears, most of which we never use. We both have 24.

dr2chase said...

Paul, Shek:

There are people hopping on bikes now, who are not sure how well they will take to them. My wife is one example, we have a friend who is similarly interested-yet-uncertain. People in this position are not necessarily bicycle mechanics, but they may be married to one, or have a friend who can fiddle with bikes. A new, good, bike, though cheaper than a major car repair, is often a good deal more expensive than a minor car repair. A used bike is one way to get across the I'm-not-sure gap.

If you know what you're doing, you can buy a used mountain bike (or a cheap new bike) and do a few upgrades to turn it into a very acceptable commuter. For example, ditch the knobby tires, get some nice fat slicks ($40-$80). Maybe that's enough -- uncertain commuters are not likely to ride in the rain. Or, add fenders ($60). And so on.

But, this does presume the presence of someone who can tell the difference between a good used bike and a rotten one, and who can do the necessary upgrades. There are bike shops who will help, too -- I bought my middle son a fine used bike from Quadcycles (Arlington, MA, and they deserve the plug) and when I mentioned that I wanted something a little easier to roll than the stock knobbies, he recommended a pair of Michelin Country Rocks, and they were right on the money -- easier than a knobby, a little tougher (suitable for a young teenage boy) than a full slick.

E to the M said...

Thanks for the tips dr2chase & Paul!

Anonymous said...

I have been commuting by bike off and on since 1999. (on for the last two) I just replaced the old KHS Mountain bike with a TREK 7.2 FX. If I were of a mind like Mr. Shek, I would have restored the KHS, and still might, since I didn't succeed getting rid of it on Craigslist. I am not a bike tinker, so a new bike was in the cards.

I also wanted to move away from the mountain bike. The 720mm wheels on the new bike have a lot less rolling resistance, and I am old and fat. That also means the eight speed cassette is nice. If I were younger, I would agree with the poster who questioned how many gears do we really need. I need them and, fortunately, know how to use them.

Kevin Love said...

Shek said
"Craigslist if (sic) full of used bikes"

Kevin's comment:
Be careful!!! Craigslist is a common way for bicycle thieves to attempt to sell their stolen goods.

Remember, if the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Kevin Love said...

One thing that concerns me is that electric bicycles were not mentioned. They can be very helpful for commuters, particularly in hilly environments. Or for people (like myself) who are not 20 years old anymore. :)

clark said...

kevin, if you're not 80 either, give it a little more time. i was terrible at first, huffing and puffing up baby hills. but after a couple months at it [on a daily basis] and some significant weight loss, i got a lot better. and i'm 28 years past 20. one thing that was also helpful was i started going on weekly recreational rides with a group of experienced riders.

clark said...

it's the accessories that will cost real money. some of these can easily move between different bikes. i have five bikes now... tastes change, and weather varies wildly around here. my favorite summertime bike is a kona dew deluxe. $650 and worth every penny! and it is outfitted with a rear rack [$50]; waterproof expanding panniers [$120]; rear blinky light [$20]; and front headlight with rechargeable battery pack [$150]. also have helmet, gloves and various high-tech clothing that all cost money. all this stuff makes life a lot easier, and if i was still driving 13,500 miles a year like i used to i would be essentially buying most of it every month. i stopped short of the bike computer and clip type pedals and special shoes that all the 'serious' riders use!

Nico said...

Very cool article! I just moved to Sacramento with my wife and immediately upon our arrival, after visiting a handful of LBS's, we bought a pair of matching Trek 7000s... SO cool!

Since then, the bike-bug has bitten me and to complement my commuter purposes, I also purchased a road-bike... loads of fun!


Kate said...

I'm not sure if it's the same in the US, but a lot of Australian cycling shops seem to be selling reconditioned bikes. They get them as trade-ins, do some fixing up and make some part replacements to make sure they're sound, and sell them as a cheaper alternative to a brand-spanking-new bike. Some shops even offer a warranty on these.