Bike Commuting: Picking Out a Bike

In my first article a few weeks ago I made it a point that you can commute on any bicycle in safe working condition, and I wasn’t lying! Over the last few years of commuting I’ve used a road bike with skinny tires, a 20+ year old mountain bike with shifters that barely worked, and my current “gravel bike” that’s featured in many of my pictures.  But it’s possible you may not have a bicycle right now at all, or you may have committed to commuting for a while and want to upgrade to something more suited to your specific needs.  Or maybe, just maybe, you need to satisfy your N+1 bike cravings, where N+1 equals the number of bikes you need and N equals the number of bikes you have!  Well here are some features to consider when bike shopping, whether it’s for a $50 Craigslist special or a $5000 dream machine from your local bike shop:

Style of Bike

The first thing you need to consider when shopping for a bike is what style of bike you actually want to ride. Do you want a road bike that allows you to go fast, do you want a mountain bike to explore off-road, or do you want a bit of a do-it-all type bike such as a gravel or touring bike that handles asphalt and dirt paths equally well?  Consider how this bike will be used, what your commute is like, and if you will also be using your bike for recreational riding other than commuting.

Bike HandlebarsHandlebars and hand positions should particularly be considered when choosing a bike.  “Drop” bars are typically only found on road, gravel, and cyclocross bikes, and while they typically favor an aggressive riding position they also offer multiple hand positions that can allow you to sit more upright depending on where you place your hands.  “Flat” bars are typically found on mountain bikes and hybrid mountain bikes, and while they can be set up in an aggressive manner they typically favor a more upright position; hand positions are limited, though, so if you move your hands around a lot you may prefer drop bars.  If you have a history of back problems, definitely look towards bikes that are more upright or “relaxed” in position.

Tires

Bike TiresYou should determine what style of tire will suit your riding and then make sure your bike can accommodate them.  Slick tires are preferred if your commute is relatively smooth and should be available for nearly any bike and rim aside from unusual wheel sizes or rim widths. (We love the Continental Gatorskins which you can pickup here at Amazon). Rough roads full of potholes and frost heaves, however, will leave you wanting wider tires that allow you to run a lower air pressure to absorb some of the impact, both making your ride smoother and more comfortable. Commutes that consist of a lot of dirt, gravel, or off-road trails may want to consider knobby or semi-slick tires to better grip loose terrain. (Something like these ones would be work well)

Brakes

Bike BrakesThe style of brakes available depend on the style of bike you choose.  Rim brakes are the most common type of brakes, and are called such because they have pads that grab the rim of the wheel to slow you down.  These come can come in many styles, including caliper brakes, cantilever brakes, and v-brakes, and work very well as long as the conditions are dry.  If you plan on riding in the rain or other wet conditions quite a bit, I would strongly suggest you consider a bike with disc brakes instead.  Rim brakes often perform poorly in wet conditions, whereas discs continue to work in the wet nearly as well as they do when it’s dry (your tire grip in wet conditions, however, is another matter…)

Fender and Rack Mounts

Bike Fenders and RacksI’ll lump these together since when a bike has mounts for one it typically has mounts for both.  Fenders are a consideration if you intend to ride in wet conditions (it doesn’t have to be raining to be wet!). They keep direct spray from the road off of you, and while they aren’t guaranteed to keep you 100% dry since they may splash a little bit, they will certainly keep you clean and prevent that dreaded brown stripe up your backside.

And as I’ve mentioned before, racks certainly aren’t necessary for commuting and if you are happy commuting with a backpack or messenger bag then this may not even be a consideration for you.  I will say, though, that since switching to a bike that has a rack which allows me to use pannier bags instead of a backpack, I don’t think I’d ever want to go back. (These Translt Panniers are what you can see in the picture above and are highly recommended)

Comfort

Finally, the most important aspect of picking out a bike is making sure it fits you and is comfortable to ride.  Contact points like handlebar grips (or bar tape) and the seat can be easily and cheaply changed out based on your preferences, but changing out an entire bike is not!  If you’re unsure how to figure out if a bike is sized correctly for you, then you’ll be happy to know that most local bike shops will include a basic “bike fit” with new bike purchases to ensure that the bike is set up correctly before you walk out the door.

Coming up next week: What I’ve Learned Commuting.  I’ve been using a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation for more than five years now, and I’ll be sharing some of the things I’ve learned over that time.

Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.