Please suggest a good bike for commuting: Iowa edition.
July 29, 2014 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I am shopping for a new bike which I will use for a daily commute in Iowa City, and I am looking for suggestions.

I'm basically starting from scratch, and don't know a ton about bikes. Previously living in Portland I'd gotten away with whatever decent road bikes I found on Craigslist and just sort of got by. I'd like to step it up a bit.

My biggest concern is that I need a bike that will be able to handle commuting in the winter, which could mean icy or snowy roads. So I'm thinking your standard road bike may not be ideal for this, and am wondering if a mountain or hybrid might be a better option. I'd like to limit myself to just one bike, so I'm hoping to not purchase a summer bike and a snow bike.

Speed is not a huge deal - I'm more looking for comfort and reliability. My daily commute will only be a couple miles each way, but I will need to do longer trips as well. The bike must be able to support a rack that I can attach some panniers to and be available in an 18-19" frame (mountain) or 22" (road).

Obviously I'd like to keep the price reasonable but am willing to pay for something that is worth the price. I'd like to not spend more than $1,000 though if possible.

I've been kind of looking at a Jamis Commuter, but like I said, I don't know a ton and the information out there is overwhelming.

I'm looking for specific bike suggestions or general advice about what I should look for when choosing a bike that will fit my specific needs.

Thanks everyone!
posted by Lutoslawski to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
That Jamis looks great. I would also look at Surly's offerings, especially the Cross Check. They have frames that can accept big, knobby tires, and a mountain bike would be overkill, IMO. I commuted across wintertime Milwaukee for years, and you don't need shocks for that.

As always, test-ride as many bikes as you can. How you fit/feel on the bike should be the biggest deal.
posted by everichon at 10:42 AM on July 29, 2014

The frame on the Jamis Commuter 1 you linked to is made from Hi-Tensile steel, which is one of the cheaper frame materials; it's going to be pretty heavy.

I would consider the Jamis Commuter 3; aluminum frame and an 7 speed IGH (internal geared hub). This would be a lot easier to maintain on a daily commuter (as opposed to an external derailleur).
posted by steinwald at 10:57 AM on July 29, 2014

You might consider a cyclocross bike; they look much like road bikes (usually they have drop handlebars) but they're more rugged. The Surly Cross Check is a little outside of your price range (REI's got it for $1250), but it's got basically everything you're looking for. Given that you're in Iowa, if the price is too high the Cross Check also comes in a single-speed version for just about $1000.
posted by asterix at 11:06 AM on July 29, 2014

I don't have specific bike suggestions, but Iowa City is much hillier than you might expect a small midwestern town to be (it definitely was for me!) so I'd recommend anything but a single-speed bike, especially for daily use.
posted by augustimagination at 11:13 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

A cyclocross bike might be a great idea.

I love disc brakes in Minnesota winters, confident stopping power all year round (the Cross Check doesn't have disc brakes and the Straggler is out of your price range.) You'd also have plenty of room for studded tires and fenders, two great winter add ons. If you buy something other than Surly, you could keep your price down. Maybe Specialized Sirrus Sport Disc. (Not actually a cyclocross bike.)
posted by advicepig at 11:20 AM on July 29, 2014

I'd just like to second steinwald's suggestion that you look at getting a bike with an IGH. This will make maintenance much easier in the winter.
posted by HoraceH at 12:32 PM on July 29, 2014

I don't have a specific bike suggestion, but the Iowa City Bike Library has put on events regarding cycling in the ice and snow. You may want to contact them to see if they have any recommendations. They also have a bike rental program if you'd like to try out a bike once you get here.
posted by statsgirl at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm crazy about my Trek 7.6 FX WSD, which is a hybrid of a mountain bike and road bike. I got it a couple of years back for a hair under $1000, and it is likely findable at a lower price now. Add the bumper things that prevent bad weather backsplash.

I strongly agree with everyone who says to go ride your possible bikes. I didn't think I was buying my bike until I took it for a spin and fell in love.
posted by bearwife at 1:26 PM on July 29, 2014

I was a car-free local bike commuter for years in places climatically ranging from Green Bay to Bloomington (IN). In all locations I rode the same road bike. You may be a more of a climber than I, but this clyde appreciated the heck out of pushing the thinner tires up the surprisingly hilly Midwest. Most rims will support a range of tire widths so you can ride narrow and slick in the spring/summer and relatively wide and knobby in the fall/winter with a little effort.

One thing to consider is buying the bike you need for 95% of your commuting life and not worry so much about the snow and ice. Even with a heavy snow, streets will be clear enough to ride in a matter of a day or two. Also, unlike recreational riding, commuting on fresh snow or ice isn't fun even with proper gear. If your commute is only a few miles, that's not a bad walk and your sufficiently gloved and pocketed hands will thank you. Public transportation is also a nice alternative on those days.

No matter how you choose, I also recommend going with disc brakes--either stock on the bike or adding them if the otherwise perfect bike lacks them. Useful in snow and ice but nearly an imperative in rain and slush. Rear fenders are nice. While front fenders seem like a great idea, I could never find one that was both effective and did not get in the way while pedaling through a turn. Eventually you'll buy rain pants or carry your post-commute clothes with you anyway.
posted by Fezboy! at 2:09 PM on July 29, 2014

Californian, been in IC for two years. I love bike commuting, but I just gave up on it when I got here.

Here are some local bike considerations you might want to think about:

- summer is actually a pretty bad bike commuting time too, at least if you wear work clothes to commute. Iowa City summer is very hot, and worse, incredibly humid. Comparable to DC. Your clothes will be soaked with sweat.

- spring and early summer weather is incredibly changeable: you could leave the house on a sunny day and end up in a massive thunderstorm with 50mph+ winds and/or hail before you get to work. Needless to say, this makes choosing clothing for a commute pretty horrible. I've been known to leave the house carrying a little bag with heavy-duty rain gear just to cope.

- you can't leave your bike locked to an outdoor rack in the winter, or (when they get around to actually plowing) the city will dump a massive pile of snow on it, which will promptly congeal into an unbreakable pile of ice, in which your bike will sit and rust for months.

- just try and handle biking on a polar vortex day when the windchill is -20 or worse. May I suggest googles, and so much heavy gear that you sweat like a pig going up hills and get hypothermia from that anyway?

On the other hand, the weather is usually decent in October. (That's the month between summer and winter.) You can bike commute then. Otherwise, walking is lovely except when the gnats are out (all summer).

Sorry to be such a downer, but the weather here is flat-out homicidal most of the year. There are air raid sirens that they blow when a tornado is nearby, so everyone knows to hide in a basement to not die. Just like London in the blitz, but except that the Germans keep coming back every year.
posted by paultopia at 2:42 PM on July 29, 2014

Oh, man. I drooled over those same Jamis Commuters, too! I ended up with a Felt Cafe 8 Deluxe. I love it! I wanted fenders and a rack, and the style I really like, too. Points for those Jamis bikes over the Felt, though: my handle bars are angled which aren't as comfortable for me as straight handle bars would be. It isn't SUPER FAST - it is a heavier frame - but I think that's partly by design to handle the potholes and rough riding conditions you might meet while commuting.

I'm in MN, but our summers and winters are quite comparable to Iowa. Year-round commuting is definitely do-able! Patrick Stephenson is one of the founders of 30 Days of Biking and is based in Minneapolis. He ran a blog for the main local paper and one of his posts includes a local bike guy's rec for newbies:
He helps newbies understand what their needs as cyclists are—mountain biking, long road rides, commuting—and then figure out which bike will fit ‘em best. His go-to starter is the Surly Cross-Check, a versatile cyclocross velocipede—made by Minnesota’s own Surly Bikes—that does just about everything well.
I think the trick for winter biking is to be able to fit fatter tires on the bike. You could get a bike that will fit both fat tires and skinny ones, but you might just end up buying a second bike that is for your winter commute. There are so many nice bikes out there!
posted by jillithd at 8:49 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here's an update. I really appreciate everyone's input.

I had a really hard time deciding. I went and rode a Specialized Sirrus and Sirrus Elite, Jamis commuters 2 and 3, Felt Cafe, and a Cannondale Quick. In the end I, decided to go with the Sirrus. It's really a great ride for the money. Not perfect, but I went with what seemed like the best value and fit for me. It was a tough call between the Sirrus and the Quick.

The Jamis was a beautiful bike, truly. But I decided to go the hybrid route instead of the commuter route, to give myself a few more options. Plus I didn't love sitting so upright. The Jamis commuter also has only one brake which brakes both rear and front tires, which was interesting and not as annoying as I thought, but I still didn't love that.

I picked the Sirrus over the Elite simply because, while the Elite did ride a little smoother, I just didn't think right now it was worth the $250 upgrade. When I get more into biking in the future, I may trade up. I also decided to go with the external gears just for ease of maintenance, and after considering, I do think that if the winter gets really, really awful, I am probably more likely to just take the bus.

I looked at Surlies, and they are the shit. So awesome. But alas, I decided $1250, for right now, was a bit out of my grad student budget. In the future I may end up with one of these though.

Thanks again everyone! Happy biking.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:40 AM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

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