On yer bike
January 7, 2014 5:40 AM   Subscribe

I have decided I want a bike for my 14-mile round trip commute between North and West London. I don't currently cycle at all. What kind of bike do I need?

(For the sake of argument, assume I am fit enough to do this, and won't get lost. But also assume I haven't ridden anything, except boris bikes, for about twenty years so know absolutely nothing at all about buying bikes).

So I'm thinking second hand, unless there's a really good reason for me to use the Cycle To Work scheme?

I'd like to spend less than £150 on this thing. On one hand, this will largely replace my travelcard; on the other, I know it's stupid to spend lots of money on something so nickable.

Things I don't know:
- will I regret buying a cute mixte-style bike for that length of commute?
- do I need a mountain bike?
- do I need to do, like, some sort of cycling proficiency test?
- is Gumtree my best bet?

Things I do know:
- high viz
- no headphones
- get a helmet
- don't leave your bike outside overnight, buy at least two locks for it, and don't get emotionally attached to it despite all of the above
- I will never ever want to ride this thing off road
- I am vain enough to want to look cute tooling around Stoke Newington at the weekend

What do you recommend, commuter-cyclists of London?
posted by citands to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW--having commuted in an urban area I would get a "mountain" type bike if for no other reason than reliability. When I was commuting I used knobby tires, rather than smooth/road, as they seemed to be more puncture/blowout resistant. What you will increase your rolling resistance is, I think, made up for in reliability. My number one consideration
posted by rmhsinc at 6:07 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

For 14 miles, you do NOT need anything spiffy. I have ridden my piece-of-shit bike 40km or more. So I would go second hand bike, look for 2-3 speeds and a chain/gear shift that isn't worn to bits. Also look at the tires... for flat road cycling a pair of "slicks" i.e. smooth tires but as a commuter you may want more durability and could get a heavier tread like a mountain bike. You just don't want the tire to pop due to dirty road conditions etc.

Looking cute - is more the clothes you wear (I have a cycling skirt that I wear over my cycling tights for eg) than the bike, especially at the price you've mentioned. Don't hunch over and look pissed off or huff & puff.

Read up on hand signals; know how to signal your intentions (left/right turn) to cars.

The London-specific people should chime in here though.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:08 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

A couple of things:

- I started commuting to work (20 miles roundtrip) when I weighed 400+lbs on an old mountain bike and didn't have a single issue.
- For 14 miles round trip you could probably get away with any bike that fits you well and is well maintained, even a single speed or a beach cruiser. If you have any kind of hills you'd want something with at least three speeds but you could probably get away with a single speed if you're in decent shape.
- Mountain bikes are a great bang for the buck but if you're a normal sized person (read: not over 300lbs) you should be able to find a decent '80s steel road bike at your price point. A lot of these here in the US have been rebuilt as single speeds (great for short commutes and city riding) or fixed gears (hipsters, purists, velodrome) and are a great, cheap way to do short distance rides.
- If this is something that you plan on riding year round make sure you invest in a good tune-up at least once a year so you don't get caught broken down due to wear. This will be pricey (~$120 here in the US) but it will help your drivetrain (chain, sprockets, and derailleurs) last longer.
- You definitely want to make sure that the bike you buy fits you well and that it's comfortable to ride. You could have the most expensive bike you can afford and never ride it if it's the wrong size or the right size and a terrible fit. If you can try to buy from a Local Bike Shop, it might cost you a few pounds more but they usually (at least here in the US) will give you a year of free tune-ups and adjustments and will do quick repairs for you often while you wait.

I'm not sure what bike commuting is like in London but in DC (where I used to live) it was pretty good and here in the Twin Cities (where I currently live) it is just amazing. Just be safe and make sure you wear a helmet, glasses, and gloves at all times.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 6:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know it's stupid to spend lots of money on something so nick able.

Not only stupid, but it changes your pattern of use. I have always taken the approach that there is no point in owning a bicycle I intend to use for transportation if I can't leave locked to a post anywhere without any concern if it gets stolen or not. If I am worried about a bike being stolen I am less apt to ride it everywhere which is quite opposite the point of owning a bicycle you use for transportation.

Forget about vain. Unless you're riding up hills, a three-speed, gear in the hub, bicycle is good enough and suitable for the weather and being left outdoors. You also want fenders over the wheels and chain so you can ride it without getting too dirty.

FWIW I lived two years in London in 2005 and 2006 and did not enjoy riding my bicycle in the city. The roads are too narrow, the bike lanes where they exist are little better than lined metaphors, and there are more than enough aggressive drivers - typical of any big city - to ruin almost every single day. Too many cars, too many people, too many close calls.
posted by three blind mice at 6:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you havent been riding, expect to develop a sore/raw ass the first few times you ride.
posted by axismundi at 6:34 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would definitely not get a mountain bike if you are riding entirely on roads. For the distance you're talking about, you could use a mountain bike, and it would be fine, but you'd enjoy it more on a more suitable bike. Mountain bikes are heavier and slower than road or (most) city bikes, knobby tires run slower on pavement, and the handling often takes more effort. You do not need knobby tread on paved roads, even bad roads--you need width. Get wide city tires (35mm+) and run them at a low-ish pressure (toward the lower end of the specified range for the tire) if you have a lot of potholes or just bad roads to deal with. There are plenty of tires available with anti-puncture kevlar belts if you are really worried about flats.

I think a mixte would be great for this. I don't know the London market; here I'd not expect to find anything new for that price (except maybe on Bikesdirect) but I wouldn't have any problem finding something decent secondhand. Go to a shop with a good reputation for secondhand bikes, or Craigslist if you can find a bike-y friend to go look at bikes with you and evaluate their condition and quality.

One last suggestion: I'd budget for some kind of rack and/or bag. It doesn't have to have a huge capacity, but being able to stop and grab a couple small items at the store or take a spare jacket with you makes your bike more versatile for more types of trips. It sucks carrying everything on your back, especially in the summer when you're sweating. I like the smaller Carradice-type saddle bags but racks and panniers are great too.
posted by enn at 6:37 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing I forgot to mention that three blind mice brought up was locks. My bike was custom built and was a pretty sizable investment so I rarely leave it unattended, locked or not. If I do have to leave it unattended for any appreciable amount of time I use the following two locks to at least deter thieves from stealing it. The first is Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit that I lock through the rear wheel and frame to the bike stand detailed by Sheldon Brown. The second is Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit Chain that I loop through the front wheel and frame.

Bike thieves, at least here in the US, can and do use battery powered angle grinders to cut through locks so making it a pain to take your bike is the best defense against that. Whatever you do under no circumstance should you use a cable lock. You can cut through those in less than a minute with bolt cutters or a decent multi-use tool.

Being in London you should definitely check out the leather saddles makde by Brooks Saddles once you find your bike. They're a little pricey (~$120 here in the US) and very stiff for the first 300 miles or so, but once you get them broken in they are the best saddle for commuting.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 6:45 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are bikes designed for commuting. They are called city bikes or commuter bikes. These tend to have the following features.
1. Generally comfortable more upright seating position.
2. Chain guards to protect your trousers from getting caught, smeared by grease.
3. Fenders to protect your clothing from being splashed by water from your own wheels.
4. Baggage rack or even basket onto which you can attach your bag / briefcase.
5. Generator with lights and reflectors.
6. Thinner tires, but not racing tires.

These features are all great for commuting. You want to be visible, you want your clothing to be protected from splashing and bike grease. You want to be comfortable.

This is the style of bike you should buy. It is often great to start with a used but good quality model and then buy a new one later if you want to upgrade. I can't tell you which brand you should buy - I don't now what is available in London, but go to a couple of new and used bike stores and see what kinds of city bikes they offer.
posted by jazh at 6:58 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

My tips:

(1) If you can find a bike shop that is trustworthy and near your house, it might be a good idea to buy a bike from them even if you have to pay a little bit more. It's very helpful to have a good relationship with a trustworthy, convenient bike shop.

(2) Put a couple of pairs of disposable plastic gloves in your bag so that you can repair a puncture or put your chain back on without getting muck all over your hands.

(3) Check out the "silly cyclists" videos on YouTube.
posted by HoraceH at 7:43 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've bought (and later sold) a couple of great bikes off eBay in the UK for around 100-150 pounds - it did mean having to take a train to go pick them up, but nothing too far. There are a lot of sellers in the south, and you can get a good deal on an older, lightweight aluminium mountain bike, which is what I'd recommend for commuting in London as I did (without suspension or anything flashy, but with road tyres instead of crazy knobbly ones; a hybrid/city bike, as mentioned above would also be good for you).
posted by Flashman at 8:11 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

About the "more upright" recommendations: you certainly don't want to be in a racing crouch when riding in the city, but keep in kind that a more upright posture can deprive you of the power you need in some situations (riding into a stiff wind, riding uphill, carrying a heavy load). If a sales person tells you that as a new rider you should get a comfort bike that lets you sit back as if you are in a chair, that is a bad choice for you. You will ride more slowly and, possibly, less comfortably than you would on a hybrid or light mountain bike.

So the most important thing is to go to a local bike shop for your first real bike and test ride, test ride, test ride. The bike has to feel comfortable for YOU.

Bike naming conventions don't always exactly match from store to store and brand to brand, so ask to try some performance hybrids and some comfort/commuter hybrids (scroll down). They might also call the bike you're looking for a city bike or commuter bike.

AVOID "comfort bikes" which are pretty but not suited for longer rides unless you are willing to mosey your way to and from work. AVOID aggressive performance hybrids with skinny tires that are pretty much cheap road bikes with flat handlebars.

If you get a hybrid, things to look for:

1) You might want to get a bike that has an adjustable stem for the handle bars. This will let you choose how far forward you will lean. You don't have to get this: if you find an bike without it that feels great, get that bike!

2) If the tires are skinny but the bike feels like a perfect fit, ask the store to fit moderately wide, moderately slick tires, not super fat knobby mountain bike tires. Look for a tire width of 30-35mm and a tread something like this. You can protect against flats with tire liners like these.

3) Fuck front suspension. It slows you down and is one more thing to maintain. If your saddle has suspension, on the other hand, your newbie bum may appreciate it.
posted by maudlin at 8:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

14 miles is a great commute. Depending on traffic and how fast you go this will be between 30 and 40 minutes. Three things worth thinking about are:

- Do you want to go fast
- Do you have somewhere secure to lock your bike/will you leave it out in the open for a while
- Do you want to use your bike for something other than commuting once in a while

The fast bit doesn't have to affect your bike much, but is just worth thinking about. If you do like going at pace for your commute and treating it like part of your exercise, having decent cycling gear, packing light (keeping washbag/towel at work), and ideally keeping a heavier lock permanently at work are all good ideas.

There is no one single strategy for buying a good/bad bike in the expectation it might get nicked. My last bike was a £250 mountain bike I fitted with skinny, puncture resistant tyres (a must!) and covered in disgusting reflective tape as well as changing out the quick release skewers on the wheels. This greatly lowered its value and made me feel better about leaving it chained up in the open. It will not stop some twat kicking in the wheels or stealing parts off your bike. This bike lasted me 8 years and was still usable at the end.

My current hybrid bike cost £600 and does the same duties. I still leave it chained up outside when I go into shops etc. I never left either bike outside at night. After two years of owning it, if it gets nicked it gets nicked. I ALWAYS locked both bikes up front and back wheels (cable through the front and into the main lock) and ALWAYS to something and ALWAYS with a decent main lock. My current lock is basically a motorbike lock, i.e. a thick chain, with a lighter lock for daytime shopping/errand trips where carrying a big heavy lock would be a pain. INSURE YOUR BIKE.

If you want to use your bike for something else other than commuting, then good options are: mountain bike (for off road or canal towpaths) or hybrid (for longer road trips - mine has done 100 miles in a day before).


Buy new on the cycle to work scheme. You get tons of money off, it's shiny and new, and it comes with a warranty. You'll get advice in a shop and a chance to try a range of bikes and range of sizes. UNLESS you have a mate who knows his/her stuff about bikes and can guide you, in which case you can pick up a bargain. At new prices you do kinda pay for what you get. Go to a proper bike shop that only sells bikes and will let you ride a bike before buying.

A hybrid or mountain bike will be fine. It won't make a big difference on a 7 mile commute. It's a question of preference. If you go for a mountain bike I would recommend switching to skinny tyres. For either hybrid or mountain bike puncture resistant tyres like Armadillo are a godsend, especially if you don't fancy changing a tyre by the roadside on a dark February evening. Don't get a single speed. Don't get a Pashley-style ladies bike unless you like cycling something heavy with limited gears, which you will not like.

You will need to spend on gear initially and it won't be cheap. You need decent front and back lights, a decent lock (preferably two or one long one so you can lock up your front wheel), a pump, puncture repair kit, a couple of basic tools, helmet, gloves, rainproof jacket (preferably high viz) and ideally some rainproof legs, and possibly a bag or pannier to hold stuff. Also, an annual service is about £50 and recommended if you don't know how to do it yourself. If you switch to Amradillos or equivalent they are also not cheap at £30 a pop.

I recommend (from experience): Fibre flare to put on you/your bag, Park tool hex set. For gear, Gore and Altura are common brands - have a look on Wiggle or in one of the chains like Evans or Cycle Surgery. A track pump is very handy to have.

Do get gloves - a winter set with fingers and ideally a fingerless set. They'll keep your hands warm. The fingerless set is for summer because if you have the misfortune to come off your bike you will thank yourself for spending a few quid to protect your hands from scraping tarmac.

You don't have to take a proficiency test, but if you are a nervous rider, a non-driver, or haven't ridden in a while I'd recommend doing a course. Cycling safety is all about riding defensively, which means being sensitive to whether drivers really know where you are and what you are doing, and being sensitive to where threats to you are, be they obstacles on the road, pedestrians, other cyclists or drivers. Use cues - if a car is drifting left he might be thinking of moving or turning left. If a driver is about to pull out in front of you and you can't make eye contact with him he probably hasn't seen you. You get the drift. AS A GENERAL RULE I WOULD HIGHLY RECOMMEND RIDING QUICKLY. IT IS SO MUCH SAFER RIDING ALONG, CHANGING LANES ETC IF YOU DO IT NEARER A CAR'S SPEED RATHER THAN POOTLING ALONG ON THE FAR LEFT OF A ROAD AT 8MPH. There is a reason proportionally so many women to men die cycling in London. This is why.

I would also recommend familiarising yourself with some very basic bike maintenance. At a bare minimum how to pump up tyres and change/fix a puncture. Pro tip: carry a spare inner tube so you don't have to fix a hole roadside.

Super pro tip: Evans Cycles always have a spare pump for you to use for free. They also tend to open at 8am. It's worth doing some research as to where bike shops are along your commute in case you need one.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Edit: 30 to 30 minutes each way (i.e. 7 miles).
posted by MuffinMan at 8:40 AM on January 7, 2014

MuffinMan has good advice.

For the distance you'll be riding, just about any bike will do—you're not going so far that inefficiencies in your bike will measurably slow you down or cause you pain. But the bikes that you think of as cute or comfortable for a ride around the block won't be the most efficient over 7 miles each way (or, in the long run, the most comfortable), so you need to ask yourself whether it's worth it to you to invest the mental energy in acclimating to a more efficient bike (ie, a road bike). There's no wrong answer, just different tradeoffs.

There's no reason to get a mountain bike unless you really want one. There's no reason to get knobby tires unless you're going to be riding in the dirt—on pavement, knobby tires ride rougher and louder, and wear out faster. Good flat-resistant tires are a good idea but kind of spendy.

Used bikes can be a great deal, but don't get something that's falling apart. For that matter, don't get a new bike that's a piece of crap, either. Get something you can enjoy riding. That's the most important thing.
posted by adamrice at 10:29 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't get a mountain bike because they can be so heavy. I would avoid suspension (just adds weight).

Other than that, at 14 miles a day I think improving your legs will do you much more good than spending more on the bike. If you adore it then you can always splash out more on a bike later. Locks should cost as much as bike though!

I have mostly bought new bikes, but I would certainly buy a second-hand bike from a bike shop who seemed to know what they were doing. Bonus points if they were near my house since I'd probably end up taking it back for services.

When I was cycling to work, the things that kept me cycling were:
* A really good, expensive, lightweight, small, properly waterproof jacket. Cost more than my bike and I love it.
* Knowing that my bike was cheap enough that when it got stolen I could replace it tomorrow.

Now I love my panniers, especially since starting some more rural cycling that has taught me more than I ever wanted to know about replacing tyres and I therefore care a lot more stuff with me when I go on long rides. If you have to carry a lot to work, after a while you should consider investing in a rack and panniers - it's a revelation not having a horrible sweaty rucksack.
posted by kadia_a at 10:30 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest to get a bike you fall in love with to ride on the weekends in Stokie for a bit first. London cycle commuting of that length is damn hard work at the best of times. If you find yourself putting the miles in and jousting with the ferocious traffic, and... enjoying it(!) then think about commuting and add what you have learned from the weekend riding into the mix when you're perusing clunkers on Ebay.
posted by 0 answers at 1:10 PM on January 7, 2014

Having not ridden in 10 years, I've come to love my hybrid bike- it's a ridgeback comet and despite 3 years of hard commuting has never let me down. Find out if your employer is signed up by cyclescheme- I ended up paying about half the purchase price.

Things I learnt the hard way:
- replace your tyres with Kevlar lined ones (preferably with reflective strips) at the earliest opportunity. So much broken glass in cycle lanes.
-This company do excellent training- had 1:1 session with a very knowledgeable chap and they actually go through your regular commute with you. Some local councils will fund you to do it for free.
- get a decent upright track pump, don't bother with a handheld.
- I learnt it's never worth fixing a puncture at the side of the road. I can't do it properly, so about 3 times a year I had to stick my bike in a taxi and take it home to fix. That taxi fare probably represents what I saved in 2 days cycling, so be kind to yourself!
- fix your shoelaces. The only time I ever came off was when they wrapped round my pedals resulting in a "controlled roll into a gutter". Very amusing for passersby though.
- eat more. I lost 2 stone in the first few months. This was not a good thing. Keep some food in your desk!
- rechargeable led lights. Bulbs get shaken to bits in no time.

Good luck!
posted by welovelife at 3:26 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

do I need to do, like, some sort of cycling proficiency test?

Can you keep riding straight while turning your head to look around?

This was the one thing I practiced on quiet streets that made me confident to ride with cars.
posted by domnit at 5:49 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Metafilter, you are so wise. Thank you very much for all of this - there's tons of stuff here I hadn't even thought about (kevlar tyres, panniers, nutrition, gloves, pump, ass-chafe). I've best-answered the people who gave me the most food for thought but I am indebted to you all.

I am getting 'make sure your bike fits' loud and clear from everyone, so I'm going to ditch the Gumtree plan and go to a nice local second hand bike shop this weekend. I want this to be fun, not a dangerous painful mission (well, at least no more than the usual baseline for London commuting).
posted by citands at 12:00 PM on January 8, 2014

Useful links:

How to Not Get Hit by Cars (switch left ⇆ right)
Sheldon Brown's articles for beginning cyclists
posted by domnit at 2:57 PM on January 8, 2014

« Older Fast fundraising ideas?   |   Cherry blossoms in Japan Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.