So you’ve made the decision to start riding your bike to work. First of all: good for you! While bicycle commuting is incredibly beneficial to your own personal health, you’re also reducing your impact on the environment and on the infrastructure of your town or city. You’ll be spending less money on gas, car repairs and parking, while also increasing your general health and happiness. If you live in close proximity to all of the places that you would normally drive to, like work or school, transitioning to riding your bike is easy and has very few drawbacks. However, commuting by bike usually means an increase in the amount of time you spend riding in traffic, the amount of wear you’re putting on your bicycle, and the planning involved in buying groceries, going to work, or traveling during inclement weather. Here are some tips on the essential gear that you should have to make your commute easy and fun!
The most important part of bicycle commuting is, of course, your bike! There are so many different types of bikes on the market, and trying to navigate the myriad options available can seem like a daunting task. For your commuting bicycle, look for versatility and functionality above all else.
Many bikes are great for commuting, but to find the one that will work best for you, consider your route. Are you riding on a smoothly paved bike path or shoulder? Do you have to navigate potholes, dirt roads, or loose gravel paths? Knowing the terrain that you’ll be riding on can help you narrow your selection between three basic categories for commuter bikes: hybrids, cyclocross bikes, and touring bikes. These three types of bikes neatly cover the spectrum of terrain that you can encounter.
Touring bikes, such as the Surly Long Haul Trucker, are amazing on hard pavement and relatively smooth road surfaces, while still having essential features for commuting like braze-on fender and rack mounts, and the clearance to use wide tires (the Long Haul Trucker can accept 42mm tires with fenders). Touring bikes have long wheelbases and chainstays for a comfortable ride. This bike can also be used to tour long distances or go bicycle camping when you’re not commuting with it. If you have an extra long commute and want a comfortable ride on flat roads, a touring bike is the perfect choice for you.
Cyclocross bikes, or “cross” bikes like the Surly Cross-Check are the burly, crazy cousins of traditionally styled road bikes. Cross bikes have a tighter geometry than touring bikes, but still have a slightly longer wheelbase and chainstays than a road racer. This geometry makes a cross bike fast, maneuverable and very efficient, but still forgiving on rougher roads. The tight geometry of a cross bike adds versatility and will even perform well when you want to swap in some thin road tires and crush your friends at the Wednesday night club ride, or ride a century. Many cross bikes, like the Cross-Check, have great tire clearance in order to accept knobby cyclocross tires. A cross bike is great if you want to go fast and have great maneuverability on your commute and want a bike that can tackle all types of terrain efficiently.
The third style of bike that works well for commuting is a hybrid, like the Marin Muirwoods. Hybrid bikes have a shape that combines a hardtail mountain bike with a road frame. This style of bike utilizes mountain bike style handlebars and shifters, with road bike style wheelsets. Some hybrids use road drivetrains, others use mountain drivetrains, while some use of a combination of the two types. Hybrids are extremely versatile. They can accept a wide range of tire diameters, as well as feature braze-on mounts. Some hybrids that have suspension forks and geometry similar to a mountain frame can be used with knobby tires for trail riding as well. The upright geometry and longer wheelbase featured on hybrid bicycles make this style of bike extremely comfortable to ride.
Frame Features to Consider for Commuting
A majority of the best bicycles for commuting use chromoly steel frames. Steel is better than any other frame construction material for vibration dampening, and is extremely durable. Steel frames can continue to perform effectively after years of commuting and taking beatings that would cause all other materials to fail. In the event that a steel frame were to become damaged, it can be repaired relatively easy, while carbon and others may not be salvageable or may be very expensive to fix. If you want a comfortable, smooth ride that will last a lifetime, steel is a fantastic choice.
Aluminum is also a great option, as it is strong, stiff, responsive and lightweight. In comparison, Aluminum does not dampen road vibrations as well as steel and is not as durable over time, however if your commute is full of hills and you are worried about saving weight, or if you want a responsive and stiff frame, aluminum is a good choice.
Large Tire Clearance
The maximum tire width that a frame will accept. In order to accept wider tires, a good commuting frame will have clearance for tires larger than 30mm and some may even accept tires up to 45mm. A frame with good tire clearance allows you to choose between narrower and wider tires depending on the terrain that you are going to encounter.
Proper Wheelbase Length
The wheelbase length of a bicycle is the distance between the center of the front wheel to center of the back wheel. A longer wheelbase will be more stable at lower speeds or when loaded with cargo, while a shorter wheelbase will be quicker and more maneuverable. For longer commutes or if you value a comfortable ride, a longer wheelbase is a great choice. For a commute involving more turns, or if you want a fast bike, a short wheelbase is a great choice.
Nearly all touring and commuting frames have permanently affixed rack and fender mounts. These mounts are brazed on or welded to the frame, which provides a secure and easy-to-attach fixture for racks and fenders.
Components Ideal for Bike Commuting
Finding a bike that you feel comfortable commuting on is the first step, but there are some accessories and components that are specialized for commuting as well. Commuting by bike wears on components differently than riding casually or while training for a race. Additionally, with certain essential accessories, your bike is the best way to carry groceries, shopping bags, or anything that you may need on your commute.
High Spoke Count Wheels
The rigors of long-term bicycle commuting will take a toll on your wheelset, so it is a great idea to choose a set of wheels with a high spoke count. A standard road wheel will have between 18 and 24 spokes, while a commuting wheelset should have at least 32 spokes, but can have as many as 36 or 40 spokes.This will greatly extend the life and durability of the wheelset.
Puncture Resistant Tires
When you’re commuting, you need to have reliable tires. Showing up late because you got a flat is never fun, so choosing a durable, practical tire is crucial. Many tires for commuting and city riding, like the Michelin City Reflective tire, feature a puncture proof reinforcement underneath the rubber tread. This protective layer blocks sharp objects like thorns, sharp rocks, and other roadside debris from ruining your morning ride to work or school. It’s a great idea to buy a set of tires with a protective layer regardless of what kind of terrain you are going to be riding on.
Proper Tire Width
If your commute is primarily on paved roads, you should choose a tire in the 25 to 28mm range. Narrower tires can be inflated to air pressure levels as high as 90-130 pounds per square inch (PSI), which lowers rolling resistance and increases the power transfer and efficiency of your ride. Narrow tires are perfect if you want to go fast and have a smooth ride on pavement.
Larger tires, 28+mm, are excellent for commuting on rough or varied terrain, as well as when carrying anything in panniers or on a rack, because they increase stability. Wide tires can often be run at a much lower pressure –even as low as 40 or 50 psi– which is noticeably more forgiving and absorbs shock on gravel, pitted roads, or in slush. If your commute takes you on rough terrain opt for a wider tire. As mentioned previously, many frames that are ideal for commuting will allow you to use either narrow or wide tires depending on the season or expected road conditions.
Fixed Gear/Single Speed Drivetrain
The simplest style of bicycle is one with a fixed gear drivetrain. With this style of bicycle, there is no freewheel, meaning no coasting, and a single chainring on the back wheel. A fixed gear bicycle is excellent for commuting because there are fewer moving parts and repairs are simple. However fixed gear bicycles do have a learning curve, so many commuters will compromise and opt for a single speed. A single speed drivetrain is similar to a fixed gear in that it has a single chainring on on the rear wheel, but with a freewheel hub. The freewheel allows you to coast.
Adding a durable steel or aluminum rack on the back and/or the front of your bike can give your bike serious carrying capacity. You can attach panniers or specially made saddle bags to a rack. Additionally, you can lash bigger items and boxes to the rack itself with bungees or rope. Racks attach to the braze-on mounts standard on many commuting frames.
Panniers are classic touring accessories that are an essential accessory for a commuting bicycle. Panniers are made of nylon, canvas, or leather, and are draped over or attached to the sides of a rack. They have large capacity bags the hang on either side of the rack, next to the rear wheel. Panniers are fantastic for commuters because they have the storage that you need for to hold groceries, books, a bike repair kit or a change of clothes for work.
Saddlebags and handlebar bags are good options to use either alone or in addition to panniers. Saddlebags attach to the back of the bike seat and, depending on how large they are, often also attach to the rack for additionally storage.. Handlebar bags attach to the handlebars and are great for storing keys, a phone, maps, or snacks; anything that you want to have easily accessible during your ride.
Since your bicycle is going to be your primary mode of transportation, you will have to be prepared to ride in inclimate weather at times. Fenders attach to your bicycle and block slop and water from spraying off the tires onto you and your bike.
A Good Lock
Once you’ve spent the time and money to build or curate a commuting bike setup, the last thing that you want is for someone to steal it. A standard steel U-lock is great for locking your bike up. These locks are tough and difficult to tamper with. If you want an added level of security, you can also add a looped cable or chain to your lock system to protect your wheels.