Bike Commuting & How to Choose the Best Bike
When you first start bike commuting, a big question you are going to have is what kind of bike do you need? There are a ton of different bikes out there, and I am not even talking about brands. It can be very confusing. When it comes to buying your bike, the most important thing you can do is ask yourself these questions.
- What’s the route like?: Is your commute flat or is it a hilly ride? Are you going to be mostly on pavement or will there be other road types? You may want to take the time to drive your planned bike route, to see exactly what terrain you will be riding on. If necessary, take time to find other possible routes that can keep you out of heavy traffic or poor riding conditions. You will quickly find out that roads look really different once you are traveling them by bike.
- How long is the commute?: You don’t have to get it down to the exact second. A rough estimate works for the most part, and the estimates on google maps are a lot closer than you might think.
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- What shape are you in?: And not just fitness. Do you have any back, hip, or knee problems you need to account for?
- How will you transport your stuff?: Most commuters have to bring stuff with them. It is important to think about what you will be bringing with you on a regular basis and how much storage you are going to need.
- How will you store your bike during work?: Do you need a bike that can fit in your office or will you have a place to park it outside? Is there a secure area where you can keep it?
- What are you looking to spend?: Are you on a tight budget or do you have the funds to buy exactly what you need? Does it make sense to finance the bike to spread your payments out over time?
- What are your reasons for commuting by bike?: Are you trying to get in shape? Are you more interested in the environmental impact? Are you just trying to make your commute more fun or interesting?
Once you’ve looked at and answered these questions it’s time to shop and find the best bike for your commute…
- Multiple gears vs. one gear: This can dramatically affect your budget, and is very reliant on how flat/hilly your commute is. In most cases, a single speed/fixed gear bike will save you money. This is great for your wallet and acts as a built-in deterrent for bike thieves, as fixed gear bikes don’t look as attractive to thieves. The main negative of picking a fixed gear bike is the fitness level you need. If your ride to work is mostly flat, it will probably be no problem. However, hilly terrain is drastically more difficult to ride on a single speed than it is on a bike with multiple gears.
- Used vs. New: Again, this option mainly addresses your price range. If you are low on funds, finding a used bike will be your best option. The only downside to buying a used bike is that it may need more maintenance than a new bike. However, if you have a baseline of bike maintenance knowledge, or buy from a shop that also fixes bikes (like Old Spokes Home in Burlington, VT) chances are, you can get most of the maintenance handled pretty easily.
- Buying Used: There are plenty of places where you can find a used bike. The first place most people look is on classifieds or Craigslist. And while there are a ton of listings on sites like those, they aren’t always the most trustworthy. Instead, I recommend finding bike shops that sell trade-ins. Like I mentioned above, Old Spokes Home can be a great resource, as well as Betty’s Bikes. They are both great shops, where you can not only buy a used bike, but get some bike repairs done as well. Besides buying trade-ins/refurbished bikes, you can also look for bike swaps in your area. At bike swaps, you can usually find lightly used rental bikes, refurbished bikes, and older unused models that stores are looking to off-load at lower prices. Both the Ski Rack annual bike swap and Earl’s bike swap are huge events that stock several hundred bikes for resale.
- Buying New: When buying a new bike, you can go online, find a department store, or go to your local bike shop. However, while their prices are very low, I can’t recommend going to a department store to purchase a new bike. These bikes are often cheaply made and assembled incorrectly. Buying online can be great, as you have full access to all of the reviews and information you need about the product. However, buying online means you won’t get to try the bike before you buy it. So, unless you have some knowledge and experience of bikes beforehand, I might recommend skipping this method. That leaves buying from a bike shop. Going directly to a bike shop means you will probably be paying a little bit more than you would online or otherwise. But being able to test the bike, dry fit accessories, and know it has been assembled correctly might be worth the extra money.
- Road vs. touring vs. hybrid vs. mountain vs. cruisers: There are pros and cons to each of these and I’ll take them one at a time…
- Road Bike: In nearly all cases, this will be the best choice if you want a fast bike. Road bikes are designed to be lightweight and position the rider in the most aerodynamic way. The downsides are they have very little room for storage, there is little room for fenders, and adding any accessories for comfort can be tricky. The tires on most road bikes are often very skinny and can be susceptible to flats on uneven pavement or terrain. However, a road bike is a great choice if you are looking for the fastest trip to work, and have a smooth ride with little tricky terrain.
- Touring Bikes: As their name implies, these bikes are made for long trips. They usually come ready to handle both fenders and panniers and can be adjusted for more comfortable rider positions. The downside is that they are often expensive bikes. I would say that a touring bike is, in most cases, the best choice, but the price tag can be a major turnoff if you have a smaller budget.
- Hybrid Bikes: As the term ‘hybrid’ implies, this is a hybrid of a road and mountain bike. Designed for everything from racing to riding on gravel, these bikes are fast and lightweight like road bikes, but are built strong to endure most terrain types. A hybrid bike can be a great choice for commuting—it’s fast on pavement but can take the abuse of the off-road terrain you may end up using on your commute. It is important to note that these bikes don’t take well to standard bike racks, so you may have difficulty finding some accessories for it down the line.
- Mountain Bikes: These bikes can often be made into a great commuter. Due to their design, they have plenty of clearance for fenders, bike racks, and nearly any accessory you would need. If you are buying the bike specifically for commuting, try finding one that doesn’t have built-in suspension. The suspension will add a great deal of weight and would be rarely used if you are primarily on pavement. You will also want to find a slicker pair of tires for the bike. The heavy knobbed tires you find on most mountain bikes will add more weight and cause you to ride slower with the extra traction. The mountain bike is probably the heaviest of choices and can be pretty taxing to ride, depending on your commute distance. A mountain bike is good for someone who is on a tight budget, as a cheap one can be easily found. If you are looking for a fast trip to work and/or have hilly terrain, this may not be the best choice.
- Cruiser Bikes: These bikes look similar to mountain bikes and can be equally difficult to ride for long distances. However, it includes many features to offer an extremely comfortable ride. Cruiser bikes position the rider in a more upright position, include a kickstand, have a wider and more cushioned seat, and feature more hybrid-style tires. These are great bikes if you have a relatively flat ride to work, aren’t looking for something on the faster end, and have a smaller budget
When you are buying a bike for commuting, there is an overwhelming number of styles to choose from. They all fit a certain need, with their own pros and cons for every type of rider and commute. But the best thing to do if you are just starting out is to grab whatever bike you can get and give it a try. As you learn your riding style and terrain better, you’ll be able to make a good choice in the future.
Biking to work is one way to save money. Here's another: use your credit card.
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About David Tepfer
David Tepfer is the creative marketing specialist at VSECU. He spends his time focusing on the design and presentation of VSECU’s messaging and communications. He has a passion for all mediums of visual art, is an avid cyclist, and is an influential member of Burlington’s gaming community.