What should I be looking for in a comfortable, relaxed city bike?
October 21, 2013 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I've been thinking for a while about getting another bike. I have one bike that I like very much, but it's not as comfortable as I'd like for longer rides and so I tend not to ride as often as I otherwise might. I'm looking for a more relaxed and comfortable bike that will get me out on the road more often without too much sacrifice in speed. Requirements inside, recommendations appreciated.

I feel like this is something I ought to be able to answer on my own, but here goes anyway. For the longest time I've been riding my mother's old 1982 Fuji Del Rey. (Not my personal bike, but close enough. My bike has stem shifters.) I have a great sentimental attachment to this bike, but it's never been as comfortable as it might be. Partly I think this is because my mom is a bit smaller than me and so the bike isn't quite big enough, and partly I think it is just that I don't find the forward-facing, drop-bar geometry all that comfortable in general. I enjoy it for quick jaunts, but for longer rides I find it tiresome. So I 'm looking for a second bike.

This new bike will mostly be used for 6-7 mile (each way) commutes to and from school. It should be reasonably fast, but I'm not expecting it to be as quick as my old 12-speed. The roads I will be riding on are mostly flat, but often potholed. I'd like it to have an upright geometry that doesn't require me to crane my head back in order to see where I'm going. (I know that tons of people ride long distances every day on forward-leaning bikes, but that's not what I'm looking for here.) It should be tough and well-made and not too heavy by the standards of steel bikes. It should also be able to take a rack and panniers.

My absolute maximum budget is $300, so I'm probably looking at used bikes which is fine by me. (I'm not averse to a quality new bike, but it must be $300 or under all told.) I like older steel bikes and have done a few full restorations of old ten-speeds and three-speeds from the 1970s and '80s, so I'm comfortable getting a bike that will need a little TLC. I live in New Orleans, where used bikes are fairly cheap. Here's a search of my local Craigslist for bikes in the $100-$300 range, to give you an idea of my market. (If you see any bikes in that search that seem like they'd suit me, I'd be much obliged if you'd point them out.)

I am 5'6", 180lbs (but working my way down toward a goal of 155) and have fairly short legs and arms. My inseam is 28". I will be riding in my normal clothes, with a messenger bag on my back, and then probably changing my shirt when I get to school. I've been riding my poorly-fitting road bike for so long that I am not even sure what a properly-fitting bike would feel like at this point, so I would love advice on how to tell if a bike fits me properly.

I am interested in recommendations on specific models and years, but even more interested in general advice about what to look for in a relaxed, comfortable commuting bike. What kind of transmission should I be looking for? (I've ridden three-speeds before, but I find them unacceptably slow.) Is there a particular handlebar or fork geometry that would likely suit my needs? What should I look for in a saddle? These are the kind of things I am wondering about.

I appreciate all your advice and knowledge. Thanks very much in advance for what I'm sure will be excellent guidance.
posted by Scientist to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My exact commuter bike was listed for $150 in the NOLA craigslist at the beginning of the month here. The Globe bikes in general are good solid commuter bikes - I really like the Vienna, but there's several different options of gear setup/frame that all tend to be pretty reasonably priced. Also, obviously, you find them used fairly often.

Less specifically, have you ever had a bike fitting? The SW had continual problems in the butt region until he finally took the thing to a shop and had them talk him though custom fitting his bike. Might even be worth it with you current ride, but definitely if you know you're going used anyway, might as well bargain hunt and use the last $100 on a fitting.
posted by theweasel at 8:01 PM on October 21, 2013

For $300 I'd look for an old Specialized Rockhopper or Trek 4500. You're going to get a quality frame with dated components. This is a bike that's been in the garage for years. It's going to have those little hairy fungi growing on the spokes. The tires are going to be brittle and the cables will be rusty. Ditto for the chain. Clean it up, run new cables and housing, a new chain, maybe new grips because the foam on those old grips has turned to a crumbly mess. Put some good commuting tires on there. Michelin City 26x1.85, Serfas Drifter 26x2.0, Continental Town and Country 26x2.1.

When you go to pick it up, make sure the cranks don't wobble at all (bottom bracket), the shifters move the chain through ALL the gears, and the headset doesn't feel indexed when you turn the handlebars gently while holding the front wheel off the ground. Spin the wheels fast and pinch the lock nut of the skewer and try to imagine what's inside the hub. If it's any louder than a whisper, or if you feel anything in there (imagine a tin can with marbles), or if it feels gritty, then factor in the cost of a hub overhaul (~$30 per hub). A bottom bracket is about $50 after parts and labor (you're probably looking at an old JIS square taper). An indexed headset you can live with, but you won't be able to take your hands off the bars. A chain is $20 parts and labor. Cables and housing can get a little expensive but nothing else will work right if those are sticky/rusty.

Look at the rear derailleur very closely. Look to see if it hangs perfectly perpendicular to the ground, and that it is parallel to the direction the bike is pointing. You don't want to see any scratches on the rear derailleur (crash damage). The derailleur is connected to the derailleur hanger. That needs to be straight (if not, $15-$30 for a new hanger installed and aligned). If your derailleur is trashed then factor in $60 for a functional Alivio derailleur installed and adjusted.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:34 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Quick clarification: While I generally defer to your expertise in all matters cycling spikelee, I don't think I'm interested in a bike with shocks. Are the bikes you mention commonly available with fixed forks, or if not can you recommend a quality inexpensive fork that would make for a relatively simple replacement job? I'm definitely not averse to riding a frankenbike if it rides well.
posted by Scientist at 8:44 PM on October 21, 2013

If you can score a bike in your price range with a hub gear, HIGHLY recommend it for city riding.

Because of its design, rather than pedaling through a gear shift as with a deralieur bike, an internal hub gear need to have the pedals in neutral while shifting. This means that if you're cruising along in high gear and need to slam on the brakes for any reason in city traffic, you can crank down to low gear to start from a full stop, rather than have to stand up in the pedals and grind your way from zero in 6th gear. If you ride in hilly roads, being able to crank down to low gear is awesome.

Additionally, they're pretty weather resistant and low maintenance. You'll need to take it to the bike mechanic when it needs to be serviced, but you can go ages with only minor at-home tweaks to one cable.

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:50 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe this GT (what GT? Avalanche? Avalanche 3.0 or 1.0? Karakoram? What? Jesus you suck at Craigslist.
Something like this Giant. This one comes with a few accessories you may or may not want.
Raleigh M80, no idea what year, so not sure what the component spec is. The 2004 came with Deore shifters and Deore/LX derailleurs, which aren't crap.
Booyah. This GT looks like it would fit the bill if it's in good condition. Linear pull brakes. Rack. Looks like it's already got Michelin City tires on it.
This Fisher could be nice. "Shimano components." Shimano what? So. Fucking. Frustrating. At least take pictures of the parts to save everyone some time.
Trek 3500. "Recently had a tuneup" sounds promising. Hopefully they didn't leave it outside to rot after that.

I wouldn't say any of these bikes have shocks. I mean, they'll have a fork that looks like a shock, but it's not really a shock. If you want to swap out a fork then there's the AWESOME Surly Troll 26" fork that has two Anything Cage mounts. The clearance on a Troll fork will accommodate a 700c wheel as long as the tire isn't too big. If you want more clearance, then go with the Surly Ogre fork. Those will run you about $100, and you'll need to make sure your frame can accept a 1.125" threadless fork. If you end up getting a 1" threaded 26" bike and want to go to a rigid fork, you can get a Sunlite HiTen (shitty) for about $37 or a Sunlite CroMo (better than HiTen) for about $57. Honestly, for Nola potholes I'd get a decent fork.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:52 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

What you want sounds similar to what i wanted when I got fitted at a bike shop... I ended up with a new (but discontinued and on clearance) Schwinn women's cruiser. I'm much more comfortable sitting upright on a bike. I fitted mine out with a giant basket so no problem on adding a rack. Mine is similar to this current version.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:04 PM on October 21, 2013

I just picked up an early 90s steel mountain bike that had been converted for "city bike" use via changing the knobby tires for slicks and the straight bars for more traditional upright bars. It's not quite as cool as the vintage ten-speeds I prefer to ride around, but the upright and somewhat relaxed geometry means it's very comfy to ride. It's also really fun and doesn't feel quite as intense as a road bike or quite as dorky as an actual mountain bike or purpose-built hybrid.

I splurged on a somewhat high-end secondhand bike and got what was once a top of the line Bianchi for about $350 in Los Angeles. You could probably achieve the same basic idea for a lot less.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 PM on October 21, 2013

I used to cycle everywhere on a mountain bike, but then I bought a very cheap Dutch shopping bike on a site like Craigslist. It's much higher and when I ride it I'm not crouched over with my neck at an angle, I'm sitting straight up. I can't cycle as fast on it as my old bike but I don't care. I think you call them "cruisers" in the US. The ones there seem to have pretty thick tyres and look more like something to ride on a beach.

Dutch bikes are probably too expensive there, being imported and everything, but good brands are Gazelle, Sparta and Batavus. My bike is an unknown brand with 28 inch wheels and just a back-pedal brake. Apart from being comfortable to ride, it doesn't seem to be attractive to thieves.

You might have luck looking for a cheap Chinese shopping bike. I've ridden ones that I bought for around $150 that lasted for years.
posted by nevan at 4:17 AM on October 22, 2013

To add on to nevan's comment - they are also known as Beach Cruisers and can come geared.
posted by tilde at 5:07 AM on October 22, 2013

I think you could really benefit from meeting with the bike fit person at your LBS. Not so much to see if you could make alterations to your current bike (i.e. stem, handlebars, crank arms...etc.) but to see what size from you would need for a more relaxed position. I rode a bike that was too small for well over a year and, while I loved that bike, never felt comfortable on it. When I did a bike fitting I found out I needed the next size up and needed a longer stem and shorter crank arms.

If you could find an '80s steel racing frame (think Raleigh, Trek, or Bianchi) on CL in your size you could probably build up a really sweet commuter for $500 that would last you forever. If you decide to go that route go with a flat bar with thumb shifters and strap pedals.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 5:52 AM on October 22, 2013

It may become obvious from my descriptions that I'm not a bike person, but I did consult a lot of them before making my most recent bike purchase.

After riding a heavy Schwinn Varsity for the last ten years, I wanted a newer bike that I could commute with, but still take on weekend trips if needed. Around here, I see a lot of tourists on cruisers and the bikes always seem clunky, slow and impractical, but I knew I didn't want to hunch over a zoomy little road bike. A lot of the newer eurobikes seemed just as big and clunky, in many ways, but were closer to my style and function needs.

The key word for me was "mixte." There's been a rash of newer bikes marketed as mixte, and they usually had a frame style that reminded me of my old Schwinn in the best ways, but were much lighter. I don't sit straight upright, like on a cruiser, but I don't feel pressed up to the handlebars like on a lot of road bikes I see.

Unfortunately, I bought my bike new, so I can't exactly speak to the price range you're looking for. However, the new price range for my bike started at $549, so it's not hard for me to imagine finding slightly older models that end up in your $300 spot, if you make the rounds of your local bike shops and hit up any sales. The cheap sale bikes at my LBS don't seem to be listed online, so in person would be the way to go.

The official marketing copy for my bike calls it "a comfortable, reliable commuter with classic city bike styling," so maybe keep an eye out for those keywords if you're searching newer models.
posted by redsparkler at 1:46 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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