Do I Need a New Bike to Start Commuting By Bike?
March 11, 2021 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I am contemplating taking up riding to and from work by bike, and I don't know whether or not a new bike would make the undertaking more likely to succeed.

My job is a little more than 2 miles from home. The route that I would take is mostly dedicated bike trail, but the points where I would get onto and off of that trail are both unpaved "desire lines" (over public land) of probably less than 20 yards. I haven't ridden a bike for literally decades, so before jumping in I've been getting reacquainted with the process by riding around on my kid's very old bike, bought used. The bike was tuned up by a shop last fall, but it feels very awkward to me. I'm wondering whether that's a function of being out-of-practice, or if I'm likely to have a better time with a different kind of bike. If so, what would be a good fit for my situation that could be had for less than, say, $500?
posted by Ipsifendus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If the bike feels awkward then it may not fit you correctly. You should take it to a shop and ask about whether it fits you or whether it can be adjusted to fit you. If you need to buy a new bike, and if your commute does not involve hills, then consider a bike with few or no gears. I bought a single speed bike (i.e., no gears) when I started work commuting and I really enjoyed it for a long time. It is very simple and and makes the experience more fun/less complicated at least in my view. If you are not young, you may want to check out bikes that have a more upright riding posture, which include "cruisers" and "dutch" bikes. I woundn't buy a mountain/offroad bike for 20 yards of grass.
posted by Mid at 12:41 PM on March 11, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: agree, fit is really important for a bike--like I can't ride the super cool bike I want because the angles are an on-switch for my carpal tunnel, so I had a commuter style bike (relaxed posture, rack, fenders, kickstand--15 year old, less fancy version of this) that worked perfect when I lived in town and had a mixed trail/gravel/road commute. You can probably find something used...bonus points for a seat that fits you (narrow, wide, soft, springs....), but that is an easy upgrade.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:51 PM on March 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Mid's advice on fit. I just bought a new used bike this week, and in the searching process, I focused on fit. The main thing I looked at was the frame height (I'm quite tall, so 60-63cm was the proper size according to some quick references off google), and the used bike I wound up buying rides much more comfortably than my prior one, which was certainly not the right size. It sounds like you'll only be going relatively short distances, so I would encourage you to look at used bicycles - both from a financial point of view and environmental point of view (where I'm living now there is apparently a lot of old bike waste). Sellers should be fine with you coming and trying it out, so don't be afraid to check out a few and see if they feel right. Of course, try and still look for bikes from reputable brands, as build quality varies.

For perspective, my bike cost me about 150 euros and had been refurbished prior to sale with a new chain, new brakes, new light, etc. I'm not sure where you're located, but in general I would expect you can get a used bike that will last you a while for far less than your $500 price point.
posted by unid41 at 12:56 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: Holy shit, I think I have the same model as your kid's bike. From sometime in the 90's? I got mine from my Dad!

So, as someone who has either that exact Trek bike or a similar one, I'd also look at the fit. Find a good bike shop in your area -- look for one that doesn't just cater to road-racers, but someone who's going to be used to looking at a range of people. They'll be able to tell you if the bike is too small, too big, the geometry is wrong for you, etc. If it ought to be a good ride for you, I'd look into getting it fixed up again. Every mechanic I've brought my bike to has been audibly impressed with how it's holding up (when they weren't laughing over the antiquated seat mechanism, say). It's a really good, sturdy bike that can put up with a lot of abuse and parts seem to be easily upgrade-able -- all of which is making me think it might just be the wrong size for you.
posted by kalimac at 1:01 PM on March 11, 2021

(Oh for goodness' sake, I only just NOW noticed the year, heh. Eh, still, same advice applies, I'm just charmed I have the exact same colors on my bike, even!)
posted by kalimac at 1:02 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: Agree with everybody saying that fit and comfort are important. If that Trek doesn't feel right to you and can't be made to feel right with a few adjustments, you can find a commuter in your budget.

Even with the run on bikes in the past 12 months I'm still seeing bikes on my local FB marketplace and craigslist in the sub-$500 range which have potential to be great, long-lasting commuters.

I'd talk to a bike shop or bike co-op in your area, but if you don't have one convenient to you, you can probably find something on craigslist. This is not an exhaustive list of decent brands by any means, but: Trek, Jamis, Bianchi, Bridgestone, Lemond, Nishiki, Fuji, GT, Giant, Mongoose, Specialized. A bike in good condition from any of these companies is pretty likely to serve you well for decades with even minimal upkeep.
posted by gauche at 1:26 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: I bought a $120 bike because I wasn't sure I was going to like bike commuting, and didn't want to make a big investment. 4 years later and about $100 in maintenace, I'm still commuting on that same bike. Try it out, even if the one you've got is a piece.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:27 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've got a relatively short commute so you could probably make do with what you've got but if you aren't enjoying the ride then you'll be less likely to stick with it. I'd say ride around with your son's bike a bit more to see if it isn't just you being out of practice but if after 3-4 rides it still doesn't feel good then get a new bike. I ended buying a new bike for my daughter last week, she had outgrown her old one, and there seemed to be a decent selection in the sub-$500 range.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:34 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: If you haven't ridden for a long time, it's going to feel awkward. The thing about never forgetting is true but not absolute. Ride for an hour on a weekend and see how it feels. Fit is important, but the sort of bike you have is much more forgiving than a road bike where you're already leaning forward at a fairly steep angle. The exception would be if you're too short to straddle the top bar. I have a Trek Rockhopper of a similar vintage that was about $600 new. It's not a good bike for hopping rocks but I've put something like 10K miles / 15K km on it as a commute bike. I would maybe replace the tires with slightly larger (2-2.5") Kevlar puncture resistant tires, and make sure the seat has the right width for your bones, but I bet it will be just fine for 2 miles.
posted by wnissen at 1:36 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your kid's bike looks pretty good to me, and has so many points of possible adjustment I'd be surprised if you couldn't make it comfortable.

But there is one thing: I don't see how you would get a conventional fender on that front fork. And I think you'll need both front and rear fenders if the trail's ever wet, especially since you have unpaved sections to cross.
posted by jamjam at 1:41 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Might I recommend starting with the seat, hopefully you can adjust the height and the tilt angle. I have to pivot my seat forward or eventually things fall asleep. If that doesn't help you might shop around for a bike that truly feels right for you, it doesn't have to be expensive.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:50 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I started bike commuting (with a step by train but that's not really important) and I think my route was a little longer than yours but your sounds a lot bumpier. I found that at first I couldn't do it every day because my butt got bruised. If this happens to you, keep at it as often as you can, and how often you can will go up until you can do it every day. (Basically the more you ride and better bike shape you're in, the better you'll be at putting a little weight on the pedals over the bumps, so it doesn't all hit you from the saddle. I think also maybe your butt gets a little tougher, but absorbing the vibrations with your legs is the big difference)
posted by aubilenon at 2:08 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: Definitely adjust the fit or find different bike if the awkwardness is a matter of having to contort your body to fit on the bike. (If it's more that "riding a bike feels weird" then you might just need some more time in the saddle.) You're right that commuting by bike takes a lot less effort if you're comfortable and enjoying the ride.

Basic fitting for conventional bikes: The seat should be adjusted so that when the ball of your foot is on the pedal, your knee has a slight bend in it like this. You should also be able to stand over the frame with at least an inch of clearance like this. Those photos come from this article which, on a quick skim, looks like a decent overview.

Handlebar adjustment is more about personal preference and riding style; there isn't a standard Right Way To Do It. You've got an adjustable stem, so you should be able to play around with that, and with handlebar angle (by loosening the bolts at the front of the stem that clamp your handlebar in place) to see what feels right for you.

RobotVoodooPower makes a good point about seat angle, too - that's another one where personal preference can vary a lot. Unlike RVP, I usually prefer to angle my seat up slightly at the front because I slide off otherwise.

jamjam is right about the importance of fenders (not only do they keep you clean, they also keep some critical parts of your bike clean, like the chain and braking surfaces, which means those parts won't wear out as fast) but I'm confident you can fit a front fender. A shop should be able to order and install something appropriate if you're not into DIYing it. You might also consider getting a rear rack or basket system of some kind if you need to carry stuff to/from work. It's way more comfortable than a backpack!

In case you don't already know: Be sure to pump up your tires every couple weeks - you'll feel the difference between 30psi and 50psi. Clean and oil your chain regularly as well, with a lubricant that is specifically designed for bike chains. Those are the two basic maintenance tasks that can make the difference between slogging and flying through each ride.

The bike you have is perfectly adequate for the type of riding you describe, so long as it fits you. If you do need a different bike, you can almost certainly find a good used or maybe even decent new bike within your price range. Bike Collectives can be a great resource for affordable bikes, if there's one in your area. Your Bike Collective May Vary.
posted by sibilatorix at 2:23 PM on March 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I normally wouldn't recommend buying a new bike before you start commuting regularly because I think after a few months or more, you'll have a much better idea of what you want and need in a bike. In this case, a new bike might work a lot better now. I can't say if you are feeling awkward because of fit of the bike or because it's just been a while. You can find out by riding your kid's bike around a bit more... you could also go back to the same shop because they can probably tell you with a quick look if that's the right size bike for you.

For what it's worth, I bike commute regularly on one bike and have another I ride too. These bikes feel different but not awkward, but I have ridden other bikes that are roughly my size that feel pretty awful. Some bikes do work better than others.

Bikes have been in short supply during the pandemic, so rather than recommending specific bikes, I'd go to your local bike shop and see what they have in stock and ride a few bikes (ride before you buy!). And please do buy from your local bike shop, not online, and not from a big box store (those bikes are often really poor quality). Actually, you might call ahead in case you need an appointment to test ride these days. But test riding is what folks do before buying a bike so this isn't a weird or strange request (like test driving a car).

You can get used bikes from individuals but since you're not sure what you're looking for, a less expensive, new city/town bike might be a good fit. That short section of unpaved area shouldn't make a big difference in the kind of bike you buy.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:39 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: In case you've forgotten, bikes are stolen rapidly, get a good lock, use it religiously.
posted by theora55 at 3:53 PM on March 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In case you've forgotten, bikes are stolen rapidly, get a good lock, use it religiously.

yeah in my hometown I had an unlocked bike stolen from my second floor balcony. U-Locks are your friend, and quick-release everything on fancier bikes just makes stealing seats and wheels that much easier. All stuff to consider once you are riding every day.
posted by th3ph17 at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your local community bike shop is the community bike project if your profile location is accurate. Normally I would suggest getting a bike from them. Looks like they might be closed right now? Even so, you can go there when they're open again to maintain your bicycle yourself.
posted by aniola at 6:36 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Good for you for getting into commuting on your bike! High five!

A few years ago I bought an older Trek women's mountain bike from Craigslist for fifty bucks. It was love at first sight. I took it to the bike shop and paid them about $100 to tune it up and put different tires on it. I commuted 2.5 miles each way to work for a couple of years (when the weather permitted it). I still ride it to the library, grocery store, etc. She is a total nerd bike, I named her Dorkwad, and I love her dearly.

So, the moral of the story is take your son's bike to the bike shop and get their advice on fit. It is possible that all you need to do is raise or lower the seat to a height that makes the bike feel more stable for you. You might also ask them if switching out the tires for wider ones might make it feel more stable. Another thing to keep in mind is the gear you are in. For example, when I am in a high gear but going rather slowly, I don't feel as stable as when I am in a lower gear (ie, more pedaling revolutions per minute) and going rather slowly.

Also, don't be afraid to go to a bike shop that caters to hard-core cyclists. In my opinion, they are usually the most knowledgeable, and I have always been treated with the utmost respect there.
posted by SageTrail at 9:01 PM on March 11, 2021

Best answer: Data point: Mr. Meat rode a $50 yard sale special to work for a year when our slightly-nicer-mountain-bike-bought-to-replace-the-nicest-mountain-bike-that-was-stolen was stolen. After the year, and deciding he really did like commuting by bike, we bought him a commuter bike. He went to the bike stores, tried out a bunch, and picked the best option for him. Cheaper than a second car by far.

So you don't need a new bike to *start* commuting, but if you decide you like it and want to continue, it's ok to buy a better one for you.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:51 AM on March 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing fit being the most important thing here. Unless you and your kid are the same size/build, that's where I'd start; it's not just about seat height but the actual geometry of the frame.

Bikesdirect has a decent guide to sizing yourself, and will happily sell you a cheap aluminum single-speed for $250, if you can't find a used one in your dimensions. If you aren't used to riding a bike your size will feel a little weird at first! After a couple short test rides it will start to feel right.

Either way, it's worth getting a comfortable seat and the biggest tires that will fit your frame.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:46 AM on March 12, 2021

Response by poster: I wanted to pop in here and thank all of you for your kind advice. I've ridden my new bike to work more days than not over the past month or so. I'm in much better shape even after that small amount of regular exercise, and it turns out I really love riding a bike.
posted by Ipsifendus at 4:28 PM on May 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

So, what made it work better for you? Fit adjustment? New bike?
posted by Mid at 7:53 PM on May 27, 2021

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