Very affordable commuter/road bike?
April 20, 2011 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Very affordable commuter/road bike?

Me and my SO are starting to get healthier (drink less, smoke less, eat better), and our city is adding new bike lanes this Summer! I've been toying with the idea of getting a decent bike to replace my $30 craigslist cruiser all winter. The only thing I like about it is the internal-gear hub.

More details:

I used to be relatively in shape. Right now I'm 6'1", about 170 lbs. I'm probably going to be riding this hypothetical bike all over for 8-9 months a year. My commute is about 3 miles, and I usually hang out around where I live. I might ride in the winter (tons of snow, lots of salt), but not if it's going to make maintenance a pain in the ass.

Things I'd really like:
  • Fenders and a rack, or at least a frame with the right hardware for me to install those myself.
  • Belt drive, or a compatible wheel/frame setup so that I can install one later
  • Internal gear hub
  • Foolproof wheels
  • I am really, really poor. Calling it paycheck to paycheck would be generous. I can save maybe like $35 a week if I'm lucky.
  • I don't have a ton of experience maintaining or working on bikes. I am mechanically inclined and would love to learn more though.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Given your budget parameters, I would skip the belt drive idea. The frame requirements (split dropouts to pass the belt through the frame) are pretty special and expensive.

I would say that any old mountain bike frame would make a good base. Add fenders and a rack or basket for stuff-carrying. Have a rear wheel built up with a stout rim like the Sun Rhyno Lite or similar, laced to a modern Shimano internally geared hub like a Nexus 8, grab some 26" road tires, and you're in business. You shouldn't need to change much else about a basic mountain bike.

Or you could get a purpose-made version of the same thing, like the Novara Transfer or Trek Belleville. It looks like you're in the $600+ price range if you go new.

If the idea of modding an old bike sounds too expensive or involved, you might check out Rochester Community Bikes - it looks like just the sort of organization to help you out. They say they're out of bikes, but I bet you could learn a bunch, get some help with your project, and maybe some free/inexpensive parts through them.
posted by richyoung at 10:03 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

First thought that came to mind to recommend is a hybrid bike. It seems that they would/could come in all price ranges and would provide the stability that you'd like. I personally haven't ridden one, so I dont' know how comfy they are, but I see a lot of people riding them and they do look comfy without a lot of leaning.

You could also start by going to a professional bike shop and simply getting sized and fitted to make sure you get the right size and the feel of how a correctly-sized bike should feel. Then check for used bikes on your own for your size. Getting the right size is paramount because you don't want to put that extra pressure on your forearms, neck, and wrists from leaning on a too-small/short of bike. (Sorry, I know that kind of jips a bike shop, but I'm sure you wouldn't be the first to do it).

Good luck with your endeavor!
posted by foxhat10 at 10:04 AM on April 20, 2011

Just a thought, but how about putting out a request on Freecycle? If someone offers you something you don't want, just say "Thanks, I already got one!"
posted by Miko at 10:08 AM on April 20, 2011

I ride a fairly cheap mountain bike fitted with road tyres, and it does the job adequately. "Hybrid" bikes seem to have similar frames (minus the suspension) to mountain bikes, but they also seem to be more highly-priced.

I'd completely recommend getting a copy of Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance, too - it's a bible for bikes.
posted by hnnrs at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: My husband is 300+ lbs and has (among many others in our shed) a Novara Transfer w/ internally geared hub. Not extremely expensive, it also has racks and fenders he put on himself. I seem to remember him getting it for only about $400, however, a few years ago. Probably an end of year sale plus REI member discount.

Why belt drive? That knocks "very affordable" far out the window, and not for any real good reason IMHO.
posted by kpht at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: The belt drive thing was just me being hopeful. If there aren't any cheap-ish frames that can accommodate it, it's not really a big deal. I just need something that can get left out in the rain sometimes.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 10:12 AM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: Keep your chain clean and oiled. Shelter the bike when you can. It'll be fine.
posted by jon1270 at 10:14 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One way to do belt drive on the (relatively) cheap would be to pick up an early-90's elevated chainstay frame. In such a frame, the chainstay attaches midway up the seat tube, rather than at the bottom bracket, so the chain does not go through the frame. This avoids the need for an expensive new frame made to accommodate the belt. But the belt itself, and its cogs, are still pretty spendy - you can buy a lot of $10 chains for the cost of that conversion.

If you decide to pursue it, elevated-stay frames were manufactured by Nishiki (first with the idea), Fisher, Alpinestars, Nashbar, and probably several others I'm not thinking of. It was a bit of a fad there for a while.
posted by richyoung at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bike covers look to be cheap enough for budgeting.
posted by rhizome at 11:19 AM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: Alright. I'm really starting to like the idea of cobbling it together myself. I've given up on the belt drive, and am working on a preliminary shopping list. Here's what I have so far:

2× Rhyno Lite wheels
Used/Old model Nexus 8

How should I pick a frame? Are most frames compatible with racks?

On preview: Thanks rhizome!
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:24 AM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: Given that you want to learn how to build/maintain your bike, definitely check out your local bike co-op. They are the people to talk to when you want to put a bike together on the cheap. If they're like the ones in here in LA, they'll have used/cheap parts for sale. They will also hopefully have tools and workspace you can use so you won't have to buy a bunch of stuff unless you want to. And experienced people to help you through the process. I'm not sure if Rochester Community Bikes does that, but it's worth asking about.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:42 AM on April 20, 2011

You have a 3mi commute so basically ANYTHING will work. How about an old Raleigh 3sp?
posted by dudeman at 11:47 AM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: How about an old Raleigh 3sp?

Eventually I'd like to be able to take it out for more than just my commute though.

I currently use something like this, without the rack and with a 3sp internal gear hub. It weighs a ton and hauling it up and down my apt. stairs is driving me nuts. I'd rather put together something that is a bit lighter and a bit newer.

Given that you want to learn how to build/maintain your bike, definitely check out your local bike co-op.

I'm planning on heading out to the RCB warehouse on Saturday. Thanks!
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2011

If you're interested in a good value for money bike, it's much cheaper to buy off craigslist or similar, than buying parts and assembling a bike. There is a time investment involved in getting a bike off craigslist, but I think it's usually the best value.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 12:19 PM on April 20, 2011

Are most frames compatible with racks?

Pretty much, but not all: you're looking for a frame with "braze-ons" for rack mounting, and for your fenders, too, of course.
posted by genesta at 12:33 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agree with the others about belt drive. Yeah, it'd be great, but you can't afford it and it has its own problems. I didn't know anything when I started, and now I do all my maintenance myself (it's way more convenient when you commute via bicycle not to have to drop off your bike). You can learn what you need to know, there's tons of good info out there.

Don't get caught up in specifics. You don't need "Rhyno Lite" wheels (no offense), you just need wheels. You're poor by your description, so don't waste it on unimportant stuff. I am not poor, and I commute on a 20 year old hybrid (admittedly, I bought it new). I bought one wheel for it in college (it was too far gone to true), and the rear wheel just had to stay out of true for 10 years or so. I bought cheap wheels for it just last year. This bike with original components would probably now sell for *maybe* $100.

Fenders can be put on almost anything with clearance for them between tire and frame. Easiest is if they have holes near the dropouts for their mounting, but others can clamp on the frame.

Mountain bikes are a good start for you, I think. They're more common now than road bikes (so it's a bit easier to find stuff), and I think there is a bit more available in terms of lower-end components for them. They are also more durable (and, yes, heavy), and any wheel you pick up will be perfectly fine. The upright riding position and flat bar will be similar to what you're used to. You should get a model with no suspension (just adds weight, not helpful for your riding), and pick up smooth tires for it. You can get another set of wheels and mount studded tires for the winter if you want.

A road bike would work too, and would generally be lighter. You have a bit more to be careful of in terms of sizes, compatibility, etc. The late Sheldon Brown is going to be your friend regarding maintenance and other information about older models. The fixie fad is going to not be your friend, as it inflates the market for used bikes--another reason to consider mountain bikes.

This isn't going to be the bike for the rest of your life, most likely. Just the bike for right now. Figure out what works and what doesn't. It is somewhat of an advantage that you don't have much money because you won't waste it on something you don't like. Oh, and the cheaper the bike, the less likely it'll get stolen. You *don't* want to be in a situation where a significant portion of your money is tied up in an easily stolen item. You don't want anything fancy.

It is quite likely that you can acquire what you want for free; people throw out bikes all the time. I'm having trouble figuring out what isn't working well with your current setup (nothing wrong with old bikes, a lot of times). Is it just the weight? What about gearing? Do you know how much it weighs? You can probably find a 30 lb bike for free, if that's an upgrade for you. Maybe 26-29 lbs or so. Generally, though, lighter is going to be more expensive. You can have a quite serviceable bike for little outlay; take your time and find the deals.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:39 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: While internal hubs are cool, and do have some great advantages, especially for commuters, you should strike this from your list. The hubs are expensive, and generally pretty solid, but when they do need repairs they are complicated and pricey. Since your budget is so slim, I would stick with a standard derailleur setup.

In my experience, putting together a bike from parts always seems like it will be cheaper and always ends up more expensive in the long run. It can sometimes be difficult to get parts that should be compatible to work correctly. The cost of little bits like hardware, cables, brackets tends to mount up quickly.

I would go for the best used bike you can afford, with most standard components you can get for the money. I often see nice used road and mtb for sale for less then $100 on Craigslist. The main things is to get a bike that you can ride away from the sale. This way you have a working commuter, and you can then replace/upgrade parts as necessity and money allow and call for.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 12:57 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! For now I'm going to take my old cruiser down to the co op and see if I can get it patched up so I have something to ride for now. I'm pretty sure I'm going to need help with the chain, brakes, and tires.

After that it's craigslist for a cheap road bike.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:05 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a similar question awhile back. I came to the conclusion that while I thought I wanted a bike with reliable commuter features (like the internal hub) what I really wanted was a very cheap bike that would survive a lot of punishment without being heavy.

I ended up converting a light road bike ($60 on Craigslist) into a single-speed freewheel (cost: about $35 and maybe 1 hour of my amateur repair efforts) and it was the best commuter bike in the universe. This is it.

I only replaced it (with the exact same bike) after an unfortunate theft, and my maintenance is limited to applying lube and, at one point, getting the hub repacked for $5 because I don't have the tools for that.

You say you're not mechanically inclined but wouldn't mind learning, which is exactly where I was when I did this. Most of the work is easy -- stripping unneeded parts off the bike, shortening a chain, and using some spacers to move the chainrings around.

posted by zvs at 7:54 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

In addition to Sheldon Brown, one person worth listening to about bike commuting on a budget is Kent Peterson.
posted by drwelby at 11:38 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can put together a reliable single-speed _really_ cheaply. People regularly throw out perfectly good steel road bikes with horizontal dropouts (important that they're not vertical so you can tension your chain), and you can buy one for small change. These will quite often have the mounts for a rack also.

A single-speed wheelset compatible with such a bike might run you $100 or so, off ebay or the like. You can usually use the original cranks, and just attach a single-speed chain (another $10 or so).

It'll be ugly, and hipsters will laugh at you, but it'll be perfectly functional. I couriered on similar contraptions for years. It'll be mechanically simple, easy to maintain than something with shitty cheap gears (which will get really frustrating really fast), and less confusing than something more sophisticated while learning what does what.

With a bit of scrimping and looking around ebay and craigslist and so on, total cost to get something reliable on the road = about $150.
posted by chmmr at 8:04 AM on April 21, 2011

Response by poster: with shitty cheap gears (which will get really frustrating really fast)

That's why I wanted to avoid a derailleur. Right now I'm thinking about cannibalizing the wheels (incl. the 3sp internal gear hub) from the cruiser and throwing them into a lighter road frame. Does that sound like it'd work?
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:10 AM on April 21, 2011

I don't see why not, provided the frame will accept the rim. In my experience throw-away road frames tend to be spaced for 27" rims. That means if you put in a wheel with a 700c rim (which is slightly smaller in diameter), a standard brake won't reach. But you can get brakes that have a longer reach that will.

Your rims will probably have their size engraved or otherwise marked on them.

Frames are made to accept hubs of specific widths. But steel frames will flex enough that you can bend them in or out a bit to make a hub that's technically not made to fit the frame work just fine.

So in answer to your question - maybe. You can work it out for sure by checking the measurements on everything beforehand. I tend to prefer the trial and error method, sometimes weird configurations actually work.
(Which is how people come up with things like this: )
posted by chmmr at 8:34 AM on April 21, 2011

chmmr: $100 for the wheelset? I just replaced my old hub with a BMX freewheel, which could not have cost me more than $20. I guess that depends on the model of freehub/freewheel you're converting? My knowledge falls short here.
posted by zvs at 11:52 PM on April 22, 2011

zvs: Well, it's always possible to do things more cheaply. For a while I was using a wheel with a flip-flop hub I found at the Ceres bike shed in Melbourne. Total outlay $0.

I was saying roughly $100 for a new, ultra low end 700c wheelset off ebay or the like. I'm not sure what you mean when you say you replaced your hub with a BMX freewheel.
posted by chmmr at 10:28 PM on April 23, 2011

Response by poster: Quick update. Some drunken asshole busted 3 or 4 spokes on my rear wheel when he tried to steal my bike. The chain was a lost cause, so I replaced it.

Me and the SO's bikes are both in working order. I'm going to ride down to RCB on Saturday and buy a frame, or swap my bike for a lighter one.

Thanks again askme, I really appreciate all of the help. I'll post pictures of the frankenbike if that's what I end up doing.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:55 PM on April 25, 2011

re chmmr:

I think I have a terminology problem, but I mean that I have this 14T BMX freewheel screwed directly onto my hub, after removing the old 10-speed gears.
posted by zvs at 3:16 PM on April 26, 2011

Response by poster: Quick update: after riding my gf's tiny road bike all summer, I finally scrounged enough money to get a well maintained nishiki from RCB. Thanks for all the help.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 10:06 AM on November 5, 2011

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