Commuter Bike. . .Start from Scratch or ???
April 4, 2011 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Want A Great Commuter (70%) Road (30%) Bike. How to get there?

I currently have a very old road bike with Reynolds 531 throughout and mostly Campy components (other than Modolo brakes). I have had this bike for around 25 years but it has been very good for me.

However, I would like to upgrade. I was considering something like a Trek Portland, although the disc brakes are a big unknown.

My other choice would be to buy a really good aluminum frame and stick my Campy components on them (although I would go with new wheels). Including a Brooks leather seat that conforms to my butt.

Do you have a communter/road bike that you really love, and what is it? Would it be feasible to just buy a great frame and then outfit it with mostly old but good components?
posted by Danf to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
i personally love my bianchi san jose. it's a single speed, but the bianchi volpe (multi-geared) has a similar frame. being steel, it's not light but very solid and dependable, with a comfortable geometry. the steel frame is good for the bumpy roads too. the san jose was discontinued last year but you can still find it in stores, just ask.
posted by mlo at 10:22 AM on April 4, 2011

I recently built up a new bike around the Soma Stanyan (their lugged steel road frame). I absolutely love it. I use it mostly for city riding; it's absolutely wonderful, with enough clearance for fairly large tires, full fenders, and a Tubus rear rack for panniers. Great bike.
posted by kdar at 10:38 AM on April 4, 2011

I'm really enjoying my Raleigh Detour Deluxe. Definitely recommend the disc brakes: incredible stopping power, even when wet. Good storage rack, room for panniers on the front, generator and front/back lights standard. Fantastic bike.
posted by valkyryn at 10:47 AM on April 4, 2011

Moving brifters and derailers over isn't a huge problem usually. One gotcha can be tubing diameters. Steel frame tubes are usually smaller than aluminum ones.

You may need to change your brakes if you've got long-reach ones and you go with a modern fork. I'd replace the brakes anyway. That's one area where modern technology has really improved, even in rim brakes.

Personally, for what you're doing I like a touring frame, like the Trek you've chosen. It's not as "nimble" (or twitchy steering, if you prefer), but much easier to keep a straight line, a real benefit in traffic. Also fenders are much easier to mount. A nice alternative is a cross-frame, which also has lots of clearance for fenders. I've got a Surly Cross-check as a town bike which I like a lot.
posted by bonehead at 10:48 AM on April 4, 2011

I build a bike up around a cyclocross frame with cantilever brakes and loads of tire clearance and mounts for fenders and racks. I installed an 8 speed Shimano Nexus Red Band internal gear hub and a bar end shifter, but it would be easy to use an old derailleur setup with an appropriate frame. I love it.
posted by exogenous at 10:49 AM on April 4, 2011

See here (RIP Capt Bike) for a good article on brake reach. Twenty-five years old is enough that I'd be concerned about brake arms length on a modern fork.
posted by bonehead at 10:58 AM on April 4, 2011

Regarding the Trek Portland: disc brakes are the best thing to happen to bicycles since wheels. Why anyone is building anything other than disc brakes is well beyond my capability to understand (maybe other than looking cool)

I dream about disc brakes on my road and cyclocross frames!

(Clearly, I consider them to be a pro, rather than a con.)
posted by desl at 11:17 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

What don't you like on your current bike? It's hard to recommend something without knowing what you mean by 'upgrade'.

Just to give some info in here (but I'm totally guessing as to your goals), I have a ~20 year old hybrid that I commute on. I sometimes think about upgrading--it's a bit big heavy (30 lbs), the flat bars hurt my wrists for longer rides, I can't get the rear brake to stop squealing, and the paint is pretty well beat up. But for my 5.5 mi. commute it's pretty hard to justify any of these upgrades to myself, except maybe for for the handlebar/fit issues.

For the hills around my place I am personally thinking about the Sram Apex or Shimano Alfine 11 internal gear hub; I think they would both be great choices.

Some people like the aluminum Nashbar touring frame. Related, one of the reasons I like my current ride is simply that I don't have to worry about theft. You may be similar and not care about the name on the downtube.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:21 AM on April 4, 2011

Why anyone is building anything other than disc brakes is well beyond my capability to understand

I understand that disc brakes end up being slightly heavier; the degree to which this matters varies among different rider sub-populations.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:22 AM on April 4, 2011

I love my Surly Crosscheck, recommended to me in this thread. I use it for the same 70-30 split you're contemplating. It's significantly cheaper than some of those other options as well. They also sell it as a bare frame in case you don't want the complete bike.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:23 AM on April 4, 2011

All of the commuter bikes that I have loved have been older bikes fitted with parts suitable for my commute. My current loves are a Trek 990 mtb from the 90's with a generator hub, thumb shifters, metal fenders and a wald basket and a Trek 700c touring bike from the 70's with a generator hub, bar end shifters, plastic fenders and a rack.

You don't mention what is wrong with your exiting bike and its older frame. Maybe you should just improve your existing bike?

To improve the commuter usefulness of your existing bike, you, or your bike shop, may be able to add fenders, a rear rack, new wheels with a generator hub and LED lights to your existing bike.

Also, a bike similar to the trek bike you linked to, but without disk breaks is the a Fuji touring bike. Fenders could be easily added to this bike.

Also check out this bike

I had disk brakes for a while and I found that their small finiky parts rusted up in winter commuting, frequently rubbed and cost too much to replace the pads and rotors. I live in a hilly place with a lot of salt on the roads in the winter and I commute all year round. These were the avid cable articulated ones so there are much more expensive disk brakes that might be better. I can do an lock up my front wheel with cantilever brakes so I don't feel the need for "more braking power."
posted by bdc34 at 11:28 AM on April 4, 2011

I think you'll get a lot of recommendations for steel touring or cyclocross bikes, and any one of them from a good brand will do you just fine. I have a 2008 Bianchi Volpe and my husband just bought a Surly Crosscheck last week. Both of which are less expensive than the Trek you posted, but you'd have to add the rack & fenders yourself and they don't come with disc brakes. (P.S. Those fenders on that Trek don't look very useful. I prefer full coverage ones that do a better job protecting your drive train from the spray from your wheels.)

I not only use the Volpe for my 20-mi round trip commute but also for long recreational tours (50-100 mi) on weekends. Once a year my friends and I ride from Chicago to Milwaukee and spend the night there (which is just a tad under 100mi) and with a rack and panniers I can carry everything I need. She's a pretty versatile bike (but don't tell her I'm shopping for a single speed track bike right now, I think she'll get jealous.)
posted by misskaz at 11:33 AM on April 4, 2011

(on preview - I spent the last hour writing this so I've repeated a lot of what others have posted since I started)

It might make more sense to stick with your frame - IF it fits you comfortably - and upgrade components. 531 is high quality steel, more suitable for commuting and more comfortable than Al. Campy components are high quality too, but if your bike is that old your rear derailleur may not be compatible with modern wheels/cassette setups. Old campy is pretty collectable too, you might be able to sell your stuff to finance upgrades.

the most important upgrade will be your wheelset. other upgrades to consider are saddle/seatpost, handlebar/quill/stem, derailleurs and shifters and brakes. a good rear rack and pannier makes commuting much more comfortable than carrying a bag on your person.

do you want drop bars or risers? drops are faster especially on longer commutes, risers(or flats) can be more comfortable and give you better visibility in traffic because your head is not tucked down. there are other, less common options, like moustache or touring bars too.
what tire width do you prefer? narrower tires like 28 or smaller have significantly lower rolling resistance but give a much bumpier ride and also require much more attention to the road surface. 32 or 35 or wider allows you to absorb a lot more road noise for a smoother ride as well as roll over obstacles that might cause problems for narrow tires.

There are many considerations that could influence your selections:
How long is your commute?
What are the road conditions?
What are the traffic conditions?
Are you going to need fenders and or racks?
Do you prefer to hammer or take things more leisurely?

The portland is more like a cross bike than a traditional commuter, such as the raleigh detour. If you like to ride hard and fast, I would go with the portland, or better yet, a real cross bike like the Soma Double Cross. If you're more laid back, especially if you live in a pretty flat area, I would recommend something more along the lines of the Breezer Uptown 8. These bikes incorporate a lot of the designs of Dutch bikes, practical bikes that millions of Europeans have been commuting on for decades. Internal gears, chain guards, generator lights, and fenders minimize maintenance and also allow you to ride in regular office type clothes.

Finally, re: disc brakes. Disc brakes are awesome, they have incredible stopping power and dont lose performance in wet conditions. Aside from being heavier and more expensive than some rim brakes, they require more specialized maintenance. They can be pretty delicate too, in my experience, you have to make sure you dont crash the rotor into anything (especially your leg -- think meat slicer!). If you're an experienced rider not doing a lot of downhill, you really dont need that much braking power.
posted by headless at 11:39 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: How long is your commute?
Only a few miles but every day, plus errands around town.
What are the road conditions?
Streets, in the PNW so wet streets
What are the traffic conditions?
Not that crazy but can be at times.
Are you going to need fenders and or racks?
Fenders would be nice. I had them on my present Raleigh set-up but clearance is very tight so it was hard to keep them from rubbing, so I just got rid of them.
Do you prefer to hammer or take things more leisurely?
Fairly fast for an old guy

One thing I am seeing is the pref. for steel. Is aluminum not considered appropriate, due to wear and tear, or due to the feeling that aluminum would be overkill?
posted by Danf at 11:43 AM on April 4, 2011

One thing I am seeing is the pref. for steel. Is aluminum not considered appropriate, due to wear and tear, or due to the feeling that aluminum would be overkill?

It is said that steel is more forgiving on your body than aluminium over bumpy roads.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:47 AM on April 4, 2011

Steel, being more massive, absorbs more of the shocks you get from the road. It can also be cheaper than aluminum. The trade off is that it's heavier.
posted by valkyryn at 11:50 AM on April 4, 2011

IMO, the last thing to worry about is frame material. It's true that aluminum is less dense than steel, but it's also much less strong. This means, to make it as rigid as steel, the tube sizes need to be bigger using more material. It turns out that the increased size in the tubes and the lower density pretty much cancel out. Interestingly, titanium is almost exactly in the middle, between aluminum and steel, in terms of the size-weight trade-off.

I've got a high-quality cromoly steel bike and a high-quality aluminum bike. Aside from tube diameters, there's really not a lot to choose from each in terms of bike weight or durability. Frames are noodly or stiff based more on design than anything else. The metal used for bikes doesn't turn out to change the bike very much. Carbon fibre is a different beast entirely, and does change the tradeoff, but that's a much more expensive proposition right now.

You're getting recommendations for steel because it's a bit cheaper at the moment. In the late nineties/early aughts, titanium was flooding the market because of decommissioned military equipment and under-capacity Ti fabs, but it similarly didn't offer any tangible advantages.

The major practical difference for a well designed frame is that the aluminum tube sizes are bigger than the steel ones.
posted by bonehead at 12:03 PM on April 4, 2011

Aluminum is less flexible than steel, so it transfers significantly more of the road vibration to your wrists and ass. Aluminum also has a pretty nasty tendency to develop cracks after several years of riding, leading to sudden catastrophic frame failure. Steel doesnt do that. Also with steel, if you bend or dent a tube, you can pretty much just bang it out straight again. Can't do that with aluminum. Lugged steel is the number one choice of tourers for those reasons and others.

In high end bikes, Aluminum has been completely replaced by carbon. Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, flexible, and can be even stronger than steel. Carbon is pricey though, and nearly impossible to repair. Al frames with carbon forks are pretty popular in mid range road bikes. I've also started to see more steel frame/ carbon fork combos, like this serotta.
posted by headless at 12:06 PM on April 4, 2011

From your answers, it sounds like you'll probably get the most out of a quick hybrid-style bike. Riser bars, a slightly relaxed geometry, eyelets for fenders and rack, 700x32 tires. Exactly what frame DO you have now?

Also, it hasn't really been mentioned, but bike fit is one of the most important factors for bike commuters. No matter how fast you can go, or how expensive your bike is, improper fit can make riding torturous and cause all kinds of wrist back and neck pain and even serious injury. I would highly recommend going to a bike shop and getting a proper fit. Any of the good shops will let you bring in your bike now and help you determine if it fits properly before you upgrade. Peter White has a good (rather in depth) overview of fitting concerns.
posted by headless at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2011

I suggest reading this bike forum thread debating the relative virtues of steel and aluminum frames, which taught me several things I hadn't learned from hundreds of previously read pages about frames and frame designs, including:

The only structural part of an aircraft still made from steel is the landing gear. The toughest material ever formed into tubing is airmet100, heat-treated steel, designed for carrier-landings. This steel has been formed into bike frames, but it was a passing fad.
The old standby, Reynolds 531 was originally designed for aircraft in the 1930s, to be used a internal bracing.

I think steel is safer for commuters because it is much less likely to crumple in a collision with a car than aluminum is. I have had three major crashes with cars on a steel-framed bike, including a head-on where relative speeds were 50+mph, that I walked away from because the steel frame remained intact and threw me up in the air rather than crumpling and pulling me under the car as I think aluminum would have.

You don't say whether your "old" 531 is designed for 700C or 27" rims. If the latter, you can get 700C aero rims (such as Mavic CXP-30s if they're still available), which are very resistant to going out of true, and have clearance for fatter tires (I use semi-slick 700X40s) and even possibly those fenders, though you will have to find some good long reach brakes if you choose to go that way.
posted by jamjam at 1:04 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Exactly what frame DO you have now?

It was a rebuild from an insurance claim, so all I can remember is Raleigh and 531 tubing. It matches the International in the general appearance and what the lugs look like but all the paint was stripped by the time I got it, since the rear fork had to be re-welded due to getting rear-ended by a car.

A good friend who owned a bike shop put it together for me.
posted by Danf at 1:14 PM on April 4, 2011

Hmm. I think I would just keep the road bike as it is and start from scratch. That way you'll still have a pretty decent road bike for going on group rides or whatever, AND a purpose built commuter. The Soho DLX looks pretty natty, has disc brakes, fenders, internal hub, rack, and belt drive, things that will be much appreciated in PNW weather. Similar bikes include Kona Dr. Good, Redline Metro, Novara Fusion. or Giant Escape City.
posted by headless at 2:02 PM on April 4, 2011

I agree with Bonehead, fit is a lot more important than frame material.

What you are seeing about aluminum is that it isn't exciting to most bike people. It is not as "fast" as Ti and carbon fiber. Fast cyclists like it but they usually want something more exotic. Non-fast people love steel. They don't like Aluminum and the non-traditional fat tubes, they don't think there is craft in the welds, they don't think it can take the abuse of their favorite bike activity, steel can be repaired, etc.

Here are some bikes by Jaims: Aruora and Coda. Those happen to be steel.

You might want to go back to your bike mechanic friend and ask him what he thinks you should do now that you are interested in upgrading.
posted by bdc34 at 3:28 PM on April 4, 2011

the disc brakes are a big unknown.

Try riding a bike with disc brakes. You will be amazed.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:33 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well I had this assumption that there must be better frame materials, even for commuting, than Reynolds 531, since this is over 25 years in the future from when I got this bike rebuilt.

This is not necessarily true. (?)
posted by Danf at 5:12 PM on April 4, 2011

Not without spending a huge amount of money, and even then for not an enormous benefit for a non-racer.
posted by bonehead at 5:51 PM on April 4, 2011

Well I had this assumption that there must be better frame materials?

Not without spending a huge amount of money

It also depends where you buy. Here's a disc-ready titanium cross-bike with rack-eyelets for $1695.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 11:11 PM on April 4, 2011

That Motobecane is a decent bike, but it's still 17 lbs (some sites have it at 19lbs built out). My steel Surly is roughly the same, and my aluminum Da Vinci is a scootch heavier, but it has the touring racks on it. The only practical advantage to Ti is that it doesn't rust. That's nifty, but a paint job will last decades for steel or Al.

What I meant was that the only way right now to get a dramatic change in weight is to go carbon: a typical example. That's $3500 for a 2.5 lb frame (+fork), compared with typical 6 lbs for a steel/Ti/Al frame (+fork). So, that's a 3-4 lb saving in weight for ~$2000 extra, call it $500/lb (or $60/oz or so).
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on April 5, 2011

oboy, a big hipster nerdfight about bikes, with all the requisite penis-jousting about frame materials and weight and gears and whatnot! This looks like a job for the lonefrontranger!


I think you should consider a bog standard midrange cyclocross frame with a similar setup to your existing roadie (size, fit, etc.); I'd go with Redline, Specialized, or maybe something from Bianchi's Gran Fondo line. I'd avoid the Surly line, they are overpriced for what you get. The Surly cult reminds me of the whole Bridgestone cult of the 80s and early 90s. They're not really bad bikes per se, but they're heavy, machine-welded basic utility bikes that have somehow gained this whole cult mystique surrounding them that leads people to believe they are something special. For about the same price, you could get a much lighter, better made frame from a local builder, if you're just looking for a frameset. I'd urge you to investigate local builders if that is your preference.

The whole Al vs. steel argument is a tired old horse from 2 decades ago that just needs to fucking die already; modern Al frames are durable, light, have great ride characteristics and suppleness, besides which most of the perceived "harshness" or "flex" in any frame's ride comes down to the wheelset and tire choice anyway, so the marginal added stiffness of Al can be cancelled out by using a decent set of 32° wire spoke wheels with fat knobby tires run at a medium pressure (50-60psi). Oh and, the best thing about a CX frame is that it is relatively cheap to get a spare road wheelset, so that you can easily swap from your heavy duty wheelset shod with knobby fats to your lightweight wheelset shod with skinny slicks if you want the options to take it fast touring / summer commuting or roadie group riding vs. trail riding / gravel road backcountry touring or winter commuting.

Any midrange CX frame generally offers bottle mounts and brazeons for racks and fenders. Upper end Euro-style racing rigs? not so much. But hell even my brand new 2011 Specialized Crux Elite full carbon 'cross bike has cage mounts and fender bosses, so whatever. CX rigs are true do-everything bikes. In fact, not only did I commute to work on it today (due to the insane windstorms we're having) I also intend to race it on Sunday in the Boulder Roubaix road race (half dirt, half pavement) because I don't want to subject my uber-spendy Campag Record 11 equipped high-end custom carbon roadie to gravel rash.

I'd avoid hydraulic discs for the simple reason that while they are wonderful on our dualie 4" travel fat-tire MTBs that we ride on technical trails, they are a fiddly pain in the ass to bleed and maintain, and IMO would be worse than useless on a daily commuter where your entire intent is to minimise maintenance. One sticky piston or just a brain fart where you pull off a wheel to change a tire, or put it on a rack (or lock it securely), and then either you or someone else accidentally squeezes the brake lever whilst the wheel's out, will bind your calipers shut, ruin your day and potentially leave you stranded. Mechanical discs, eh, maybe but I've no experience with them, I've had teammates who complained endlessly about them, and they're pretty heavy. Something else to consider is simple physics: on a skinny tire bike, your contact patch with the road is so small, and discs are so powerful that I'd be afraid of overwhelming the contact patch, which leads to lockup/skidding and control problems in wet, muddy or gravelly conditions.

I would shy away from anything singlespeed since your intent is for a do-everything versatility bike. You need gears for that, and anyone telling you differently is young, high or both. Granted I do have a fixie (Pista track bike) and a San Jose singlespeed, and they do have their uses and get ridden a bunch, but keep in mind that I also have seven bikes in my stable, and neither of those two would be my desert island bike.

I wouldn't bother trying to salvage your components; you're up against the law of diminishing returns there. You would likely spend more trying to piece together stuff onto a new frameset than you would just getting a decent stock midrange bike with OEM components. Look for SRAM Apex or Shimano 105 level components if you can manage it.

ymmv - lfr
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:06 PM on April 5, 2011

We just stick a folded over piece of cardboard between the pads when removing wheels on hydraulic-disc bikes. Learned that a decade ago now.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:39 PM on April 5, 2011

We just stick a folded over piece of cardboard between the pads

sure, we do that in the workshop too, and usually there's even a handy bike box nearby to whip off a piece with your utility knife.

keep in mind this is a commuter bike. so, you're going to remember to do this every last single time you remove a wheel to fix a flat or lock up? In the pissing down rain by the side of the road? Dammit, where'd that little slip of cardboard go in my bag... ah, nevermind.

Cantis can be a pain to adjust but they're a lot more reliable for your average joe commuter. Hydros have a relatively steep learning curve, and more importantly, on a skinny tire bike, unless you weigh somewhere north of 250#, physics is your enemy.

Remember the 6 or 8 months in oh, 1998 or so when everyone flocked to put V-brakes on their 'cross bikes? Yeah, thought so.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:04 PM on April 5, 2011

Flats? I remember them from back when we rode on road bikes.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:35 PM on April 5, 2011

All kidding aside though, Cyclo-cross isn't much of thing around here, what with the North Shore steps away, but the commuters I know swear by them as a fabulous utility scoot, which is why I pointed Danf at the titanium one. I didn't really think about the wheel-removal aspect, as I personally won't leave any of my bikes unattended more than a minute or so, even with the mandatory skookum lock, nor do my friends.

I had a full carbon-fiber bike back in the day, it was great, but the noises it made freaked me out. Started riding aluminum after that , and both myself and everyone I know eventually had to warranty our frames, which does tend to prejudice me back toward steel or titanium. Once again though, we tend to BREAK our frames, as opposed to wearing them out.

I too, have never figured out the Surly hype.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:54 PM on April 5, 2011

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