Help me find a good commuter bike.
July 20, 2007 4:06 PM   Subscribe

I need a new bike for commuting to work, what should I get?

It's 8 miles each way. I do it usually 3 times a week. Durability is more important than comfort and speed. Had my last bike for over 8 years, and it was about 10 years old when I got it. (A Ross, if you give a care. Frame cracked on the way home today.) The terrain is rather hilly, mostly bike paths but a few sections forcing me into the street. Prefer a mountain bike, don't like those big-butt coaster bikes with all the springs and shocks. Also not a huge fan of road bikes, I'm a big guy and they're so small and fragile. Would prefer simplicity so I can do minor fixes and maintenance myself. Suggestions?
posted by Toekneesan to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Road bikes are not generally fragile, unless they are super light racing models. I find it much more enjoyable to ride a road bike when I'm riding on pavement: it is so much more efficient and speedy. Get yourself a used, steel-framed road bike and you'll fly to work. If you absolutely don't want a road bike, get yourself a hybrid bike and put relatively smooth tires on it.
posted by ssg at 4:14 PM on July 20, 2007

As ssg said, road bikes aren't always small and fragile. Personally if I had to replace my current bike for commuting I would by a single speed road bike as they are light, simple and easy to maintain.

I've read really good things about the Specizlized Langster
posted by Hates_ at 4:39 PM on July 20, 2007

I just picked up a Fuji Track (2007) road bike for this very purpose. Had the shop put on a front brake and freewheel. It's a light bike @ ~18lbs, but i don't get the feeling that i'm going to break it.

The nice thing about the single speeds is there is so little to break, you wont be confused looking at the bike trying to figure out whats wrong with it.

It wasn't cheap, but I don't regret it :)
posted by ronmexico at 4:56 PM on July 20, 2007

Unless you've got great knees, I wouldn't recommend a single speed for a commute that's hilly. I'd recommend a good steel touring or cyclocross bike, like a Surly Long Haul Trucker or Cross-Check. It's not that much more difficult to fix a bike with multiple gears, really. Also not cheap, I'm afraid, unless you get a good deal on a used one.
posted by hades at 5:28 PM on July 20, 2007

Other possibilities (that I've considered for myself, a big guy commuting mainly on an early 90s Marin mountain bike, but sometimes an earlier-90s Specialized road bike) include: Marin Novato, Breezer Uptown, Novara Transfer

Those last two have internal gear hubs, which means you probably wouldn't be able to service them yourself, but you wouldn't have to, since less goes wrong with them.
posted by hades at 5:42 PM on July 20, 2007

What's your spendiness? Rivendell Makes top-notch frames that are comfortable(but not "comfort" as in hybrid) and sturdy. The owner has firm opinions about sizing a bike for comfort since many/most of us don't need racing geometry. Here's a Flickr search just cuz I had to peek. They'll run you upwards of $1200-2000.

For Half of that, you can't go wrong with either a Surly or a Soma. Good steel, sensible design and solid reputations.

IMO a road bike is the way to go for commuting. Lighter, less rolling resistance and utter unavailabilty of shocks means more forward energy to go faster, farther, or carry more. Take a look at Surly's Long Haul Trucker or perhaps the Cross Check if your desire for a mountain bike stems from wanting to occasionally use it for trail rides.(You could remove your pannier racks and swap tires in 20 minutes).

By-the-by , while I'm a fan of SS's and Fixies, many have track geometry and can be a bit intimidating or limiting to many "regular" folk. For nearly the amount of a Riv Quickbeam, you can get the Soma Delancey. Both have a more relaxed road geometry. I ride a 70's conversion fixie and I find it nicer for medium commutes than my friends' Soma Rush. I ride it more for pub crawling and fun, while my new geared bike (an Xtracycle) is my commuter if only because I don't need to carry anything on my back.

[on preview] Hades is quick. They are twice what you'd pay for a far-lesser quality bike, but there's a reason you don't see many of them used. and he's misunderstanding the differences between fixed and SS. SS's are no harder on your knees than a geared bike due to the freewheel. Fixed gears(no ability to coast) otoh, are potentially harder on the knees, but improper pedals can be a major factor.
posted by a_green_man at 5:46 PM on July 20, 2007

Steel is not fragile, so a steel road bike (many are Chromoly these days) would be fine. The cross bikes generally have slightly tread-ful tires so they are ok for a little off-road use.
posted by R343L at 5:46 PM on July 20, 2007

Hades' second post has good suggestions. If you do want an internally-geared hub(almost zero maintenance) and have $$, look into a Rohloff. Although the NuVinci looks interesting as well, but for 1/3 of the price. In re: to the Shimano 'X'-spd hubs: I've heard that the new 8-spd(esp the "Red Line") is a big improvement over the previous 7-spd.

And I'll amend my statement about SS's being easier on your knees. It also depends on your gearing. Too high will definately cause more stress on your pistons. Gearing lower is always better than gearing too high, especially with your hills. "Hilly" is a rather broad description of difficulty in any case. From "No Way on a commuter SS" to "No problem".
posted by a_green_man at 6:01 PM on July 20, 2007

A recent AskMe, with possibly different criteria but some good recommendations and links to specific bikes.

I am no bike expert, but I can tell you I am thrilled with my new Gary Fisher Wingra. I ride about 5 miles each way, and I ride every day. Not lots of hills, but one pretty steep block. I also ride another few miles most days after work for errands and fun.

The trigger-style shifters are awesome, and I never have trouble finding the right gear. It's light and fast but most important it handles very easily.

Comfort-wise, the saddle is small but amazingly comfortable, for me anyway. You can't really tell from the picture I linked to, but the handlebars do curve in a little. I find the riding position very comfortable.

I'm not small but not huge; a bit chunky at 5' 10" and about 210 lbs. It retails for $459 but I paid $399.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 6:02 PM on July 20, 2007

(Good point about the difference between single speed and fixed gear. I personally avoid the single speeds because I'm in lousy shape, and I haven't found a single gear ratio that lets me ride the Seattle streets--either I'm hurting my knees by standing up and cranking up the hills, which may be a peculiarity of my own biomechanics, or I'm on level ground having to choose between going slowly or spinning so quickly my heart feels like it's gonna explode. Everyone I know who rides SS or fixed is in a lot better shape than I am, and/or 10 years younger.)
posted by hades at 6:04 PM on July 20, 2007

It sounds like you did very well with your last bike (used). So why don't you go check out Craigslist and do some test rides? There are lots of new bikes out there but the mark up is crazy.
posted by snsranch at 6:26 PM on July 20, 2007

i have a cannondale road bike, which is by no means delicate (i'm 6'2", 210 lbs). however, for city riding, i like this type of thing:

Brodie Tesla

they're made by pretty much every manufacturer and have the benefits of a mountain bike (tough frame, low standover height, flat bar, lots of gears), and those of a road bike (skinny tires, light weight).

the disk brakes on this model are great for power and modulation and are virtually immune to weather, especially the road grit that destroys conventional pads in snowy areas. the extra gears help you with hills, but if you're fit, i'd get rid of the granny gear.

also, they tend to have rack mounts, which most serious road and mountain bikes don't. nothing is better for the commuter than a set of good paniers.

if you're a fast rider, you'll want to hop railroad tracks, bridge joints and potholes. if you have to carry stuff for work the wheels on a road bike will take a beating, especially from side-to-side loads. not to mention that the tires absolutely have to be at their top pressure (~120 psi) or they'll get pinch flats. a mountain bike's fat tires and heavy rims (angular momentum is the bane of every cyclist) will slow you way down. a city bike like this has slightly higher-volume tires and stronger rims so you get a good compromise between strength and rolling resistance.
posted by klanawa at 7:17 PM on July 20, 2007

Response by poster: I've got two kids and my wife is currently unemployed so I'd prefer to do this for around $500 or less. And I love used things so I don't care if it's brand new, would prefer used frankly. I've looked at those Breezers and they're pretty neat but pricey for what they are. Like that Wingra Deej, what'd you pay? And while style isn't a huge consideration, my style might lean more toward the Bianci Milano. My now defunct Ross was pretty unique.

As for road vs. mountain, there are a bunch of curbs, occasional gravel , and at least before the kids I did actually use it as a mountain bike on trails. So I suppose that's why I'm leaning more mountain than road but as it's unlikely I'll be doing much trail tripping in the near future, you could sell me on a the right road bike.

As for single speed, I seldom use anything but the big chain gear, but I do use the full spectrum of the free(rear) gears. Yes, lots of hills and some challenging grades.

Final challenge, small town. Not so much with the Craig's list. Two hours to a major city.

Thanks everyone for all the great suggestions.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:30 PM on July 20, 2007

Response by poster: The Deej, I meant where did you find it for that price?
posted by Toekneesan at 7:41 PM on July 20, 2007

The Deej, I meant where did you find it for that price?
posted by Toekneesan

I got it at the Scheels location here in Montana. They have the service of a local bike shop, but offer a wider range of prices. They happened to mark it on clearance a couple weeks after I first saw it. But I do think you can at least ask for a discount or maybe get some goodies thrown in from your local shop.

The Wingra also has lugs for panniers on the back as well as the front fork. I have a rack and panniers on the back, which I use for my work stuff every day, and also groceries quite often, and it handles it all with ease. I run my tires at a little lower pressure than the max (85psi) and that smooths out the ride quite a bit. I've been riding it a little over a month, every day at least 10 miles and it's been great. My only minor complaint is the front brake makes more of a rubbing sound than normal, but otherwise it's so quiet it doesn't even feel like I'm on a bike.
posted by The Deej at 8:19 PM on July 20, 2007

That Bianchi is pretty nice looking, by the way. I really liked the Wingra style, too. It's a matte black finish, and very understated. The top tube is round at the front but morphs into a horizontally flat oval by the time it hits the upright under the seat. The bottom tube starts as a vertical oval at the front, and by the time it hits the rear upright, it's a horitontal oval as well. It gives the frame a subtly unique look. The funny thing is, I get comments all the time about style of the Wingra. Like you said, you can't make a decision by style alone, but, just like your car, it is important.
posted by The Deej at 8:34 PM on July 20, 2007

Toekneesan, was there anything in particular about your old bike that you didn't like or found confining? Anything particular that you really liked? (I saw the flikr pic, I think you should lean more towards a cross bike than a mountain bike if you were comfortable on the Ross. The Bianchi you linked to looks nice, the fenders will make you very happy.)

For what it's worth, my commuting bike is a LeMond road racer (steel frame, carbon fork). It's light and fast, and sturdy enough for my 200 lbs. I'm nervous about the fork and the ultralight wheels, I'd like something beefier but it's been bullet-proof for the last four years. Also, I'm tired of carrying everything on my back, panniers are a must for my next bike; is this something that you've considered? And remember, shiny new bikes attract thieves, so be careful if you buy new. Budget in the cost of a fancy new lock.

Last summer I rode a friend's Surly Cross Check (as mentioned by hades) across town and loved it. It has a comfortable geometry, rugged as a tank, and as nimble as a road bike. Next summer I am thinking of putting together a Surly Long-Haul Trucker for a touring/long distance commuting bike and giving away the LeMond.

You say you're in a small town, is there a good bike shop? Tell them what your requirements are and see what they pitch you. If you have hills awaiting, you probably want something with a triple chain ring, like a mountain or touring bike.
posted by peeedro at 9:52 PM on July 20, 2007

That's my AskMe question The Deej points to back there, and I did learn a lot from the responses. I've been out riding and shopping since then. I suggest that you look at Marin brand hybrids. I haven't settled on one yet, but they do sell hybrids without front suspension, which seems to match up with your desires pretty well. I put a few miles on one during a test ride, and liked it. One of theirs may still be my choice, and I suspect they would be solid commuter bikes, unless you need a full chain guard to match your ideal of a commuter bike. I don't remember seeing chain guards on any of theirs.
posted by NortonDC at 11:01 PM on July 20, 2007

if it's not a performance bike, why buy expensive? R343L is totally right. find someone's beat up mountain bike on craigslist, slap some slicks (smooth tires) and new hardware on it, and bang! el cheapo commuting machine. If you live in a college town, this is starting to look like $150-200. In college, I had an old trek chromoly frame with some cheap 1.25 rims and slicks, and it was just as fast as any old road bike. Best of all, if it gets stolen, you won't care too much.

As a former bike thief (still repenting) I don't care how "awesome" or "kryptonite" your lock is, it is defeatable. During daylight hours, someone probably won't try, but when it gets dark, 20 minutes is all anyone really needs for most locks. (google "bic pen" and "kryptonite" if you want to see just one of many exploits) A commuting bike is just a tool, not a bike to admire on a stand in your living room. Save that kind of cash for a racing bike.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 12:36 AM on July 21, 2007

You know, you could probably get a competent frame-builder to repair your Ross for a lot less than $500. People tend to forget that bike frames can be repaired, but they can.
posted by boots at 6:43 AM on July 21, 2007

I didn't know Ross made all chrome frames! Seconding boots's suggestion about finding a frame-builder. From the location of the break, I'm guessing that the dropout cracked or broke off the chainstay? Drop in at and see if they can point you to someone in your area. Try the Classic and Vintage forum in addition to the Framebuilders forum.
posted by clockwork at 8:16 AM on July 21, 2007

Response by poster: Ross didn't make chrome frames. This bike belonged to a friend before he gave it to me when he moved from the area. He had it chromed. He claimed it was a proto-type mountain bike they offered back in the eighties. As you can see the frame looks very much like that of a road bike.

I just went and hit a few stores and one had the Wingra. I liked it's simplicity. And it's on sale until the end of the week for $350. Problem is they had a 19" and a 22.5" and I'm probably closer to a 20" or 21". Anyone ever ride with a smaller bike with a high seat? Would that be a big mistake?
posted by Toekneesan at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2007

Modern bike sizing tends to be nearly meaningless, what with all the variation in geometry and components. Test ride the sucker.
posted by boots at 11:06 AM on July 21, 2007

$350 is a great price! I agree with boots: Take it for a spin and see how it feels.

By the time you adjust the seat height, tilt, and fore/aft position, and get the handlebars where you like, the frame size is probably not going to be that big of a deal.

As I said above, keep in mind that the ride smoothness is hugely impacted by the tire pressure, more so than my past bikes. I had to go down about 5-10 psi from the max of 85. It made a huge difference, especially on gravel, curb-jumping, and the part of my ride that is on cobblestone-like brick.
posted by The Deej at 11:57 AM on July 21, 2007

Anyone ever ride with a smaller bike with a high seat? Would that be a big mistake?

The problem with too-short frames, for guys at least, is that the headtube distance, between the seat and the stem, is too short. The result is that the bike is uncomfortable to ride because your back or shoulders get sore. On the other hand, if you've got long arms and legs and a shorter torso, a size smaller fame than you "need" might be just the trick. Try it and see.
posted by bonehead at 9:49 PM on July 21, 2007

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