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Choosing a commuter bike

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Article posted: 27/08/2013

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Everyone’s commute is different. Some ride just a few miles, others have epic commutes. Some like to take it easy – others like to have a proper workout on the way to work. A select few like to take the train and need a pocket sized bike.

Thanks to the popularity of bike commuting, at every price point, there are now commuter bikes to fit every style, from upright Dutch to flat backed fast commuter. Let’s take a look at the different bike choices out there and outline their strengths and weaknesses.

Town bikes

Features: Upright riding position, mudguards, racks, simple gear systems

Upright ‘Dutch’ bikes are the choice of bike for those with short, sedate commutes. If you don’t want to go down the Lycra route, they’re ideal, fitted with full mudguards and in many cases, fully enclosed chains, keeping most of the daily grime at bay. Town bikes are often fitted with racks, dynamo lights and sometimes locks, making them complete, ready to roll packages for relaxed, short hop town riding. Brakes and gears tend to be simple and enclosed, making for a low maintenance, reliable ride.

Good for: Short, flattish urban commutes.

Bad for: Long distances, hills, going fast.

Hybrids

Features: Robust frame, road bike sized wheels, flat handlebars, mountain bike style controls

"Most hybrids have wide range derailleur gears, perfect for hillier routes or hauling heavy loads."  
   

The original hybrid bike was a cross-breed between the road bike and the mountain bike – 700c (road) sized wheels with flat bars, wide gear range and strong brakes (MTB). Since then the hybrid market has massively diversified – imagine a continuum with the MTB at one end and the road bike at the other – these days there are ‘hybrids’ at practically every point along that continuum, from models with suspension forks and wide tyres capable of semi-serious off-roading, through ‘standard’ do it all hybrids, to flat barred road bikes made exclusively for tarmac duties.

All of these bikes are eminently suitable for commuting duties. If your commute involves towpaths and trails, veer towards the rugged, ‘chunky’ end of the range. If your commuting preference is for the blacktop, take the skinny-tyred, flat barred approach. If you can’t make your mind up, hedge your bets and choose the middle ground.

Whichever sub-species you choose – most hybrids will have fittings for mudguards, racks and clearance for wider tyres (ideal for potholed streets and towpaths). Most hybrids have wide range derailleur gears, perfect for hillier routes or hauling heavy loads. Some come with disc brakes – great for heavy use on gritty roads (which can wear out rim brakes fast) and giving all weather stopping power. Others have internal hub gears for the ultimate all weather ride.

Good for: Short to Medium length commutes – more spirited riding (and a lot more besides)

Bad for: Ultra long commutes.

Road Bikes

Features: Drop handlebars, narrow 700c wheels, lightweight frame, fork and components

For the medium to long, fitness oriented, tarmac commute a road bike is a great choice. Narrow 700c tyres roll well and drop bars give multiple hand positions – allowing you to keep comfortable as the miles rack up. Some models (often referred to as 'winter' or 'training' bikes) have the ability to fit slightly wider tyres (up to 25mm) and full length mudguards, which will keep you clean and dry on your way into work. Others also allow the fitting of a rack, allowing you to fit a pannier or rack top bag, allowing you to carry your workday essentials, tools and other gubbins.

Good for: Medium to long distance, exclusively tarmac based commutes

Bad for: poor road surfaces – commuting in your sharp suit.

Cyclo-Cross Bikes

Features: Drop bars, narrow (32-35mm knobbly tyres), strong brakes, tough frames, lightweight

Cyclo cross bikes used to be race-focussed, drop-barred, knobbly tyred machines. However, in recent years, bike companies have latched onto the ‘do it all’ appeal of the cross bike and produced machines that are just as at home on the daily commute as the local ‘cross circuit’. Cross bikes combine the advantages of a road bike handlebar, giving multiple hand positions, with hybrid-like ability to handle rougher terrain – sturdy frames, strong brakes and clearance for wider tyres being key features. Cross bike tend to be much lighter and livelier than their hybrid cousins however, making them possibly the most versatile choice of bike for the commuter who also rides big distances at the weekend, and who wants to dabble in cycle sport. Pure cross bikes tend to have pretty narrow gear ratios, while the more ‘multipurpose’ cross bikes will have wider gearing, often with triple front chainrings and wide ratio rear cassettes. Some have disc brakes too for all weather braking. Some have internal hub gearing – others have singlespeed!

Good for: Commutes of all distances, on or off road. Also doubles as your perfect weekend partner.

Bad for: erm, that’s a tough one...

Touring Bikes

Features: Drop bars, tough 700c wheels, 28mm + wide tyres, strong, stable frame, mudguard and rack fittings on frame and fork.

Like cyclo cross bikes, tourers are extremely versatile bikes for commuting, especially if your commute is of the medium to long variety. Like cross bikes tourers generally have dropped handlebars, tough frames and clearance for wider tyres. The main difference is that tourers generally have more relaxed frame geometry, making for a more stable, comfortable ride. Most tourers are made from high quality steel too, adding to their comfort and ride quality. Although heavier than cross bikes, tourers can handle loaded panniers much better, making them ideal for the commuter who likes to bring everything but the kitchen sink to work.

Good for: all kinds of commuting, load carrying and longer leisure rides

Bad for: not much.

Singlespeed/Fixed

Features: Minimalist look, no gear systems, drop or bullhorn bars, track bike styling

For fit riders on fairly flat commutes, singlespeeds are a low maintenance, simple option. No gears mean less to go wrong or get damaged in the bike rack. Most singlespeed bikes come with double sided rear hubs to facilitate running the bike in fixed wheel mode – making the drivetrain even more simple – fixed gear riders frequently report a Zen-like oneness with the bike. However, it takes a skill and practice to ride a fixed gear bike on real roads and in traffic, so if you’re going to take the plunge and go fixed, practice somewhere flat and traffic-free.

Good for: maintenance-phobic fit riders with flat commutes

Bad for: hilly commutes, less fit riders

Folding Bikes

For bike/train commuters or those strapped for parking space (either at work or at home) the folding bike is the smart solution. The smallest models will fit in the luggage rack of the train (or bus) and will slide, unnoticed by your friendly office manager, under your desk at work. Although capable of long distance riding, the small-wheeled folding bike is best suited to short hop commutes – a few miles from station to workplace is the folder’s sweetspot. Most folders come equipped with mudguards to keep the road dirt at bay, making them ideal, out of the box commuters.

Good for: space-starved commuters, capsule hotel dwellers and train users

Bad for: long distance commutes.

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