Help me become an informed commuter bike consumer?
November 15, 2014 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I have started biking to work with the goal of getting into better shape, and I think I want to upgrade my (old, crappy, but still functional) bike. Let's talk options!

At my old job/city I did a ~4 mile round trip flat bike commute daily. Here in LA, it's more like ~10 miles, basically flat (200ft elevation change). My current bike, a beater Schwinn Frontier that I got for $50 at a yardsale 7 years ago, is definitely less than ideal for this commute even with the commuter tires I put on it a couple of years ago. I'd like to get a more suitable commuter bike, given that I ride 99% on road and want to optimize for that. I'm willing to spend up to a grand, though I'd like to keep the cost below that if possible.

One of my coworkers has a Fuji commuter bike (equivalent to the current Absolute line, I think -- narrow 700mm tires, aluminum frame, straight bars, 27 speed. I test-rode the equivalent current model today and it was a huge improvement over my experience on the Frontier, but I decided to get a 2nd opinion before dropping $600 on a bike. Some bike-knowledgeable folks suggested that the Fuji is "just barely acceptable -- likely to not fall apart, but also not very upgradable." They suggested I look at Raleigh, and I'm interested in Jamis too, on the strength of my college roommate's near-religious love for Jamis mountain bikes. What other manufacturers should I be looking at? I'm pretty sure I want a good fit with straight bars and narrow road tires, and at least 21 gears, but beyond that I'm unsure.

I've had "Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance" suggested to me as a good basic text on fitting and basic maintenance. Anything else I should be reading/looking at to be an informed consumer?

Bonus: Any recommendations for bike shops in west LA? Folks have said good things about Helen's and there's one nearby -- I'd probably do well to talk to a good LBS guy, but I'm not sure how to be a better judge of salesmanship vs. good information, considering that at my current level of knowledge, I'm probably an easy mark.
posted by Alterscape to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So I'm a daily bike commuter in Portland, and, in addition to my commuter bike (an old 1970s Raleigh 10-speed), I have a road bike and a cyclocross/gravel bike. I'm you, in a few years, at least in terms of commuting.

Are you planning to ride your bike primarily for your commute (and perhaps errands) or do you also expect to do long road rides? If this bike is mostly a dedicated commuter and town bike, I'm not sure you need that many gears. That range of gears is helpful when you ride longer distances and have more elevation. I'm not suggesting a one-speed bike, but there's a lot of room in between.

Also, don't worry too much about very narrow road tires. That's a vestige of road racing. Slightly wider tires aren't slower (even the Tour de France cyclists are going for slighter wider tires these days) but they can be more stable and do better on city streets with debris, railroad tracks, etc. You don't want super wide mountain bike tires (or a heavy mountain bike in general), but, again, there's a lot to be said for not being super focused on a specific tire width.

I think the best thing to do is to go a local bike shop and talk to someone there about what you have in mind, and then ride a whole bunch of different bikes. Go in the clothes you'd wear on your commute and bring your helmet. It's okay if you go a few times and talk to a few sales folks, and you don't have to buy a bike that same day. But don't do local test rides and then buy online, because that's some bad karma there. Also, buy from a shop close to you so you can easily take advantage of the free and discounted maintenance you'll a get from them after you buy a bike there.

Anyway, if folks are recommending a good bike shop, I wouldn't worry too much about being an easy mark. My experience is that bike shop folks are pretty nice, and you're looking at a lower cost point. Be straight-forward about what you want (a bike for a 10-mile roundtrip commute) and how much you want to spend, and that'll help them show you their best options. Again, you'll learn a lot by riding several different bikes.

Don't worry too much about brands at this point. Sometimes lower cost city bikes are pretty heavy, which you'll feel during a test ride. You don't want a super light race bike (those are very expensive anyway), but you want to be able to add a bike rack and lights and carry some gear without the biking being too heavy to move around when you're not on it.

For books: Everyday Cycling by Elly Blue is a great overview a lot of what you're asking right now. She's pretty down to earth, too, and won't lead you into spending a ton of money.

In general, don't fear the LBS. I'm a woman and not particularly athletic, and yet I've always found guy mechanics to be friendly and helpful and sincere. Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 4:43 PM on November 15, 2014

I commute from Santa Monica to downtown by bike. My $.02:

Bike doesn't matter all that much. Comfort does. I have a stable of generally cheap alley rat bikes that I use, various weights, speeds. The lightest is an aluminum framed narrow-tired single speed coaster brake bike, the heaviest a Worksman three speed that weighs 65 lbs.

The only thing these bikes really have in common is that I have no discomfort riding the hour to hour and half my commute takes.

I generally find skinnier wheels lighter, fatter wheels heavier, but offer some practical stability and durability on real roads. Number of gears mostly meaningless. I recently downgraded my derailer bike to an old 5 speed freewheel just for kicks. Though it has three chainrings, it's effectively a five speed now.

If I had to make an ideal bike for my commute, it would probably have wider 700c tires, an upright riding position, Northroad handlebars, a three speed hub, and a moderate sized basket mounted on the handlebars/fork. One of my bikes comes close enough (I'm thinking of getting a common Wald basket for the front). But the others all suffice, really.

One thing I find indispensable is a toolkit. Mine consists of an adjustable wrench, a folding set of hex wrenches, a chain tool, a pump, plastic tire irons, a spare inner tube and a patch kit. Saves my butt once in a while.

FWIW, Helen's is about as good as any, I suppose. I kind of have an aversion to bike shops in general. Good thing about West L.A. is that there are tons of bike shops. I'm always surprised to realize how many there are.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:17 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a bike commuter in one of the few bike-friendly cities in the mid-south. We've been commuting for close to a decade, and haven't had a car since 2009, so we've made all the mistakes.

First: tires. If you're going to be relying on a bike for transportation, bad tires will make you crazy. For the first few years of commuting, I rode on fairly standard tires, and those suckers were always getting flats. Like, multiple times per month. Eventually, I bit the bullet and bought some Schwalbe Marathons. They made all the difference. I haven't had a flat for 4 years. I actually ran over a 3-inch construction nail, which got stuck in my tire, and still didn't get a flat. Lesson: splurge on good tires

Second: think simplicity. When you pick out a bike, I highly recommend getting one with as few moving parts as possible. Most bikes come with two sets of gears -- one in the front, one in the back. See if you can find a bike with only one set of gears. That's fewer things you'll have to worry about breaking, and it should be cheaper than something more complex. If you can find something with an internal hub, even better.

As far as style of bike, that's up to you. I rode an upright "hybrid" for 12 years before getting a Raleigh Clubman (road bike). The Raleigh been a joy to ride, and I feel like I expend half the energy getting around. Take a number of bikes for a test ride, but don't rule out a road bike.

Finally, try to get in touch with a bicycle advocacy club in your area. This would be different than a riding club -- these people will be the activists types, and will probably be highly concerned with social justice (advocating for the rights of people who are at an economic disadvantage and therefor have to use a bike to get around). This might not match your politics, but these folks are invaluable in helping you learn how to get around by bike, and also in helping to make your city safer for cyclists.

Best of luck!
posted by joebakes at 6:17 PM on November 15, 2014

Think about a commuter bike for a second and where the $1000 budget will go.

Excluding clothing, typical commuter accessories are back rack, panniers, USB rechargeable front and rear lights, lock, pinheads, fenders, bell. Lock and pinheads are >$200 right there. Depending on the type of panniers, you might get away with $200 but if your panniers are fancy budget higher.

"Not likely to fall apart" is all you need for a commuter. Upgrades are really not a consideration, because if you lock your bike outside you do not want a bike thief to make off with the upgrades. Also you blew your budget on making your bike safe, comfy, and secure.

The min spec I have for commuter bikes is disc brakes, but this is because I bike in the rain on somewhat hilly terrain. Might not be an issue in LA. Something to think about.

I would suggest you just get a bike you're happy riding off the lot, perhaps with a change in saddle. Any reasonable brand in your price range should be OK. I ride Trek hybrid, I like it. Cannondale makes an entry level commuter in your price range as well. Shop around, all the bike shops deal different brands of bikes so ride some bikes until you find one that you like.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:02 PM on November 15, 2014

If you plan on maintaining the bike yourself, regardless of make and style you end up going with, I really reccomend building the bike yourself (at least most of it). Start by getting fitted by a shop and purchasing a blank frame from them; ask them to help outfit you with some components, and hunt craigslist and used shops for the rest. I would have them install the headset and the crank, but everything else to build a bike is real easy to do in a kitchen or in a bedroom. You'll learn enough by building the bike to keep you from getting stranded.

You can also find amazing crazy good deals on blank frames on Craigslist. People purchase them all the time and then ditch them when the sizing doesn't pan out for them. It's a really nice way to save anywhere from 10-25% of the retail price if a frame.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:54 PM on November 15, 2014

If you want to buy an off-the-peg bike for your 10-mile, flat round-trip commute, I would look at bikes from Breezer. The Downtown 3 would give adequate gearing, has wide tires for pneumatic suspension and relatively flat-free riding (run them at a low pressure, for a cushier ride; the maximum pressure on the sidewall is just that, a maximum, not a recommendation), and comes with a rack, a kickstand, decent fenders, and a chainguard to keep your trouser legs clean.

You would want to add lights and maybe a front basket, and locks and luggage, but otherwise you'd be ready to roll.

If I were building a bike for that commute, I would probably use a 26" rigid mountain bike frame from the 90s, or a 650B frame, and use wide, smooth tires on wheels with an inexpensive Shimano generator hub in front and a 3-speed or 5-speed internally geared rear hub. V brakes for easily adjustable stopping power, a fully enclosed chaincase to reduce maintenance to a minimum, a porteur rack in front for my briefcase, and generator-powered lights (a B&M Eyc or Lyt in front, and one of their taillights in back). I'd use drop handlebars, but otherwise it would be pretty close to the Breezer Uptown 8 that I use for my current commute (6 miles round trip with a couple of moderately steep hills).

Or, if I wanted to bring my bike into my office and store it, I'd build something up with a mini velo frame, and use 50 or 60 mm Big Apple tires on the 20" wheels.

But my bike preferences come from years of experience with a range of bikes and terrain.

In any case, don't listen to the people who pooh-pooh the $600 Fuji for being "barely acceptable." If you're an enthusiast, that might be the case, but for what you want, it's fine. A commuter should not be such an investment that you would be devastated if it were stolen while you were at work or running an errand.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:17 PM on November 15, 2014

Since you are in West L.A., you have the luck of being near the wonderful community bicycle repair shop, Bikerowave. Think of it more as a DIY Maker workshop than a regular bike store. The main purpose is to give people shop space and advice to work on their own bikes, but they do have a range of used bikes for sale which they have repaired and upgraded. It is not difficult to learn the basic repairs and tuneups for a bike, such as adjusting brakes and changing a tire.

Also, fatter tires are more comfortable than hard narrow tires. If you are not a serious road bike cyclist, consider tires that are 32- 35 width.
posted by conrad53 at 2:10 PM on November 16, 2014

Some questions:

1. What is wrong with your current bike?
2. What are your priorities? Speed? Being able to wear street clothes? How much do you want to carry?
3. Why do you want 21 gears if your commute is fairly flat?
4. How much maintenance are you willing to do yourself?
posted by kjs4 at 7:46 PM on November 16, 2014

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