Help me find the perfect commuter bike
March 5, 2013 9:04 PM   Subscribe

I bike to work occasionally in warm weather, and my crappy road bike is not too well suited for the task. I'd like to find something more appropriate for commuting.

Desired features:
- Slightly more comfortable riding posture compared to road bike.
- More forgiving of the occasional pothole (roads are not in great shape around here).
- Capable of holding some sort of bag (for me, any messenger bag or backpack = guaranteed huge sweat spots at all points of contact). Nothing huge, just enough to fit a laptop and a shirt or some such.
- Gearing sufficient to take the occasional hill without breaking a sweat.
- As lightweight as possible and capable of maintaining a decent speed when required (no two-wheeled tanks please).
- I would like to spend under $1k, and prefer new over used.

Also, do I want one of those belt-driven, internally geared things that seem to be getting more popular these days?

posted by Behemoth to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I ride a sturmey archer 5 speed myself and it gets me up most hills I meet. Many of the big bike companies have internal gear bicycles in their lineups. A decent shop should have something in stock you can check out in person. A chain case can provide all the cleanliness of a belt drive without all the expense of being an early adopter. Roller chain is so well suited to bicycles I'd stick with it for the time being. Shifters come in many styles for sturmey archer so if you wanted to run road bars and a bar end shifter you could. I have drum brakes and they are a touch heavy but they don't really hold me back from commuting in any way.

I think the buzzword is now "urban cycling" but they are basically modern versions of old raleigh bicycles; 38mm wide tires for smooth riding, an upright postion, rear rack usually and fenders. The Torker Graduate has all you want I think (and drum brakes!) though it doesn't come with a rack or bags, I think you could still get away under a thousand.
posted by glip at 9:46 PM on March 5, 2013

Best answer: For under a thousand, you'll probably trade between aluminium and steel frames. Aluminium will be lighter and easier to get up a hill, but it give you a bumpier ride. Steel will be heavier and harder to get up a hill, but it won't shake as much over bumpy roads. Steel will be cheaper.

You might find a carbon fibre framed bike under a grand, but you may want to look that it has the "bosses" or screwholes to which you might attach racks to hold bags. I think it is harder to machine carbon frames to have these bosses, but it has been a few years since I went bike shopping so maybe the machining process has changed.

As to what you might prefer, head to your local bike shop and test ride. Preferably where you will encounter conditions you'll run into on your commute.

Set aside about $150 or so for clipless pedals and shoes. This will make a huge improvement in your daily commute.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:37 PM on March 5, 2013

Best answer: I have a Jamis Coda Comp (well, the femme version), and it's an excellent commuter, weekend tourer, and all-around-the-city bike. It's steel, but I find that helps dampen the road vibrations some. The carbon fork and 32mm tires help that even more, and make the potholes not quite so awful. It's got a triple, which provides a great range of gearing for hills, especially when the bike's loaded with gear. And there are braze-ons for front and rear racks as well as fenders, so you can carry quite a lot of gear. For daily commutes I just hang a single Ortlieb Downtown pannier off the rear rack; for short weekend tours I use two Ortlieb Backrollers on the rear and a handlebar or top tube bag.

Given all that it's relatively lightweight at just under 26 lbs., and while the geometry allows for a more relaxed riding position, it's not so relaxed that you're completely upright. It's considered a "flat-bar road bike" rather than a hybrid, and a few times a year I take off the rack, put on slightly skinnier tires, and take it on event and charity rides like the Tour de Cure and Levi's GranFondo. It's certainly not as sporty as some of the other bikes there, but it doesn't bring me shame, either.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:36 AM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yes you do want hub geared (with or without belt) and also fitted with puncture resistant tyres. Simplifies maintenance and reduces down time.

My Scott sub 10 has a hub gear (belt driven) as does my Dahon folding bike (chain driven, I think the guy I bought it from may have had the hub gears fitted post purchase).
posted by epo at 4:05 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: I would go for the magic commuting trio of belt drive, internal gear, and disc brake, but that might be tough under 1000. (Spot Ajax and Trek Soho are the two prototypes I always think of in that class.) You can forego the disc brakes without consequence if you get good weather most of the time, and you might be surprised what you can do on a well-tuned, light single-speed. Check out Specialized's Globe line too.

I would go for aluminum if your commute takes you less than a half hour and steel if it takes more. Vibration over time can be really fatiguing. This can be mitigated with things like especially smooth roads, a sprung saddle like a Brooks, cycling shorts and gloves, or a carbon fork.

I would definitely recommend fenders (especially with rim brakes), a rear rack and panniers, and clipless pedals and shoes if you can easily change after your ride. (I've been on the same pair of Shimano sneaker-style SPD shoes for 4.5 years of daily riding.)
posted by supercres at 5:30 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In terms of hybrid/ commuter bikes I've owned a Trek 7.5 FX (steel); it was £650, so about $1000. That was replaced this month by a Ridgeback Flight 03 (Alu) which cost about £1000. Both are really nice bikes and I'd recommend either,

I have to say, for all the fuss made about steel vs aluminium I'm not actually sure I can really tell the difference and I ride every day.

For bags, I'd get a backrack (Blackburn make good ones) and panniers (Ortlieb are good). In fact, this has probably changed my cycling life more than anything else.

I don't bother with clipless pedals and shoes, largely because I can't be bothered to change shoes and ride in whatever I'm wearing. If that's what you want to do, mountain bike pedals are good, although the studs can cut the back of your leg if you're not careful.

I have disc brakes. I really like them, but, honestly, that may just be because they look cool.

Everytime I buy a new bike, I spend forever researching this stuff. But really... as long as the bike fits your body shape and isn't super-cheap, you'll be fine. I've had five bikes over the last 15 years ranging from £250 to £2500 and all have been good. So really the best advice I can give is to ask people in bike shops for recommendations and go for a test ride before you buy,
posted by rhymer at 6:04 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From your list of requirements, Public Bikes sounds right up your alley. They're a little more upright than a road bike, but generally similar in shape. Relatively narrow tires so you don't get too much rolling resistance, but wider than a roadbike so you can handle potholes. They all come with fenders, and you can add on a rack. They've got models with a classic deraileur (cheaper, and usually more gears) or an internal hub (heavier, more expensive, and fewer gears, but less maintenance and easier shifting). They're steel frames, so not the lightest thing possible, but they're not dutch-bike heavy by any means. I've got their M8 (Mixte frame, 8 speed internal hub) and really like it.
posted by duien at 7:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might look at touring bikes. They are designed to be comfortable for long distances at moderate speeds with some cargo. The Surly long haul trucker with a back rack and saddlebags should be under $1000 and it is a very fine bike indeed.
posted by steinwald at 8:00 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's the thing, your needs are easy to meet and the trick is going to be how much you like riding a particular bike, so the best advice is to go test ride some things telling the shop these very same requirements.

Here are some things that may help you guide this discussion.

1. The road bike isn't necessarily going to be uncomfortable. The one you have might not be well suited for you, but given a properly sized one for the riding you intend to do, it can work. There's a reason why most long distance touring bikes look like road bikes.

2. Wide tires are great for soaking up the bumps in the road. For an around town bike, I like at least a 28mm tire, but bigger can be fun too. You can run them at somewhat lower pressures and give up a little speed for some comfort. For urban riding, suspensions aren't worth the weight they add to the bike.

3. If you want a rack to hold stuff, shop with that in mind. There are racks you can put on a road bike, but if you are planning on buying a bike for this purpose, choose one with the correct bosses to mount a rack.

4. If you intend on riding in the rain, consider bikes with good clearance for fenders.

5. It's OK to buy a bike because you're excited about some feature you don't need. Sure, you don't need disc brakes or a belt drive internal hub, but these can be fun and I want you to have fun.

6. It's OK to not buy a bike because you hate the colors if comes in. (See rationale in item 5.)

7. If I could only have one bike, it would be a cyclocross bike. They can be setup to do so many different things and often make great commuters.

8. The test ride is the ultimate decider.
posted by advicepig at 9:25 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The road bike isn't necessarily going to be uncomfortable. The one you have might not be well suited for you, but given a properly sized one for the riding you intend to do, it can work. There's a reason why most long distance touring bikes look like road bikes.

This is why I hate hybrid/commuter bikes. As my favorite bike blogger says, it's a bike, not an easy chair. A properly fitted road bike is the most efficient way to ride on a road, and there is a range of postures offered by road bikes. A touring bike should be pretty comfortable. A cyclocross bicycle is also a good choice.

A hybrid is less than the sum of its parts. If you're already used to riding a road bike, I think you should get a more comfortable, touring-style bike, get some panniers for it, and get the thickest tires that the frame will clear. I think you'll be really frustrated by the clunky, slowness of hybrid bikes.

Under $1K sounds totally doable, by the way.

PS: I am so jealous! I want a new bicycle! Waah!
posted by ablazingsaddle at 10:51 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: A lot of this depends on how long your commute is, but definitely look at touring or cyclocross bikes. I have several bikes, but if I have to commute more than a couple of miles, carry anything, or it's wet I ride the touring one. The position is more comfortable than a typical road bike but it's not some kind of weird chair with wheels. I run huge tires and fenders, have panniers that clip on and off the racks easily, and the triple chainring means I can climb mountains carrying stuff if I need to.

You definitely want something with racks + panniers, I hate carrying a backpack too.

I can imagine something like a Public bike being great for short rides or errands in the city (I see tons of them here in SF) but for every day commuting more than a mile or two I'd rather be on something like a Surly Long Haul Trucker.
posted by bradbane at 12:20 PM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: I have a 3-mile commute (each way) and do it on a Breezer Uptown8, with an 8-speed internally geared hub, a fully enclosed chaincase (just as good as a belt drive from a practical point of view), dynamo-hub-powered lighting, fenders, and a rear rack. It has 26" wheels with wide, puncture resistant tires on it. The riding position is more upright than my touring and randonneur bikes but it's great for riding a short distance in street clothes. If you have a short commute like that, I'd suggest you consider it seriously. (Though I see that the current model year version has omitted the full chaincase--a serious drawback. Their new high-end model, the Uptown ∞, has the full chaincase, but replaces the 8-speed hub with a NuVinci continuously variable hub.)

You could also take a look at the Raleigh Clubman, to which you could add a rack in back. That would be sportier than a road bike, but if you left the steerer uncut until you had positioned the handlebars, it could have a more comfortable position than a road bike with a slammed stem.

Either way, you can put a collapsible Wald basket on one side of the rack to carry your bag, or get one of the many bags out there that has mounting hardware on it (I use the Arkel briefcase).

A lot depends on how long your commute is, though - 3 miles, 10 miles, 25 miles? I've ridden my Uptown8 up to 25 miles in a day, when I had several different places to go, but it's definitely slower and less comfortable for long trips than a touring bike would be.

I can't imagine buying a carbon fiber bike for commuting. A good steel or aluminum bike is only a few pounds heavier, other things being equal, and most carbon forks can't run the wide tires that make commuting more comfortable and reduce the risk of flats vis-a-vis 23 or 25 mm tires. Plus, you'd have to be able to store it inside or worry that some cretin will knock it over while attaching their Schwinn to the rack.

I don't necessarily find hybrid bikes to be clunky or slow - not if they're properly fitted and have bar ends to allow multiple hand positions. My old Trek Multitrack 730 has a somewhat more upright posture than my touring bike, but not by much, and it's much more aggressive than my Breezer. It came with very nice 38mm tires and can fit fenders over them. The geometry is similar to good touring bikes, in a more compact frame. It's my winter bike now, but if I had a 10-mile commute each way, I might take the studded tires off it and use it for commuting, possibly with a Sturmey-Archer 5-speed hub in place of the current derailleur drivetrain.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:12 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: P.S. I'm not sure where you are, but if you're in the Boston area (as one of your earlier questions implies), you might check out what's available at the Harris Cyclery in West Newton, or closer to home, Belmont Wheelworks.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: For comfort, once you've ridden a recumbent, there is absolutely no going back to upright bicycles. You can get a decent recumbent for under a thousand dollars. I've thrown countless backpacks on the racks of my recumbents. It works just fine. They work just fine on hills. As for speed, the only reason you don't see more recumbents is because they were banned way back in 1934 by the UCI from bike races for being consistently faster than uprights.

Looks like you're in Boston. Here is one of the better-known recumbent brands for sale on Craigslist in Boston right now. When people build their own short wheel base recumbents, Bacchetta is one of the ones they copy. It's a good basic commuter recumbent. And again, recumbents are COMFORTABLE.
posted by aniola at 4:32 PM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: I think the key qualifier here is "crappy" for road bike. Don't let this prevent you from trying out other road bikes. They're not all super-aero nimble lightweight racers. I ride an old racing frame, lugged steel, which I had been using for touring. It is made very comfortable by a slightly longer wheel base and an almost level seat/handlebars setup. Steel means the frame absorbs a lot of road vibrations. 28mm tires mean a much cushier ride. Also, I stopped riding with a backpack or messenger bag, and now use an ancient set of Nashbar panniers. I can fit all my CSA veggies in the bags, and not have to kill my back. It's awesome!

You don't say how long your commute is, or what kind of terrain you encounter. If there are any sort of hills, or if it's longer than 3 or 4 miles, I would very much recommend that you not get a hybrid or urban bike. So many of these new urban style bikes weigh a shit-tonne--as a means of comparison my rig is still substantially lighter than my co-worker's very groovy Surly Urban Steamroller. As I have to cross an East River bridge twice a day, I need hill-friendly gearing and a frame that I can pick up without giving myself a hernia.

If you ride in traffic, please don't get a recumbent! Your ability to see and to be seen are greatly compromised in this position. Bent riders, fire away!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:37 PM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: Awesome, thanks for your input everyone. It sounds like a properly equipped light touring bike with a steel frame might be my best bet. I'll probably try to test-ride some commuter-style design as well, just to make sure.
posted by Behemoth at 7:21 PM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: My girlfriend has a Gravity Liberty CX, a mail-order bike. It is a cyclocross bike, and has a reasonably upright position, wide road tires, is easy to put a rack on, weighs 24lb. stock in her size, and is $400. It has basic but competent components, and can handle just about any kind of riding. Build it up yourself if you're mechanically inclined, or pay a bike shop $50-100 to put it together. It's pretty similar to a Surly Cross-Check, but with cheaper parts and an aluminum (as opposed to steel) frame.

I've tried my father's recumbent bicycles, and have no interest in owning one myself. They are long and unwieldy (in your home, in traffic, on public transportation, in your office, etc.), and can require specialist service and uncommon parts. They are not particularly good utility bicycles, for that reason.
posted by akgerber at 8:40 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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