What’s the Ideal Bicycle For Commuting?


My old cyclocross easily handles my round-trip commute of approximately 14km, through a park and over a bridge (great workout!), mostly on designated bicycle routes. Short and sweet, but enough of an effort that I feel a sense of accomplishment each day, yet I have plenty of energy to complete my work.

There is no such thing as the perfect commuter bicycle, of course. It really depends on your commute and you and your biases! So this post is about helping you find your ideal commuter bicycle, which is quite often a bike that would be best for general riding on paved and some gravel surfaces.

For the general commuter cycling less than 20km roundtrip on relatively flat or marginally hilly terrain, a gravel or cyclocross bike handles well, rolls quick enough, can be equipped with all the requisite commuter gear, and the front fork has clearance for slick road tyres or fat tyres for safer winter cycling.

All-Around Bike For Commuting and Riding

If you are new to bike riding and would like to take advantage of all the health and economic benefits cycling offers by utilizing your muscle-powered bicycle as a means of transportation, you may have wondered if you are best to buy a road bike or a hybrid city commuter bike.

Well, there are a few more cycling options available for those that like to get off the well-worn path, but offering complex solutions to simple questions never did anyone any good. But if you were already considering commuting by fixie, single speed, ccx or other, we shall give respect to a few of those options on the way as well.

For example, if you ever have to take your bicycle great lengths on transit, or you like to store your bike under your bed or in your closet, the idea of a folding bike might appeal.

Disclosure: For commuting on flat terrain (or relatively flat terrain, 7km one-way), I often use my simple single speed bike I bought for under $300. It does not, however, have any fenders, so I ride it only on those energetic summer mornings when the forecast is looking mistakenly optimistic in Vancouver.

While not as fast a ride as my cyclocross, I definitely feel the exertion and count the single speed ride as a bonus training day.

Perfect City Commuting Bicycle Suggestions

CITY COMMUTERS NEED:

  • something reliable and capable,
  • minimal accessories and gear that protects you from the elements,
  • possible storage (panniers or bike rack or basket),
  • to be visible and see the road,
  • and a lock or place to secure the bike.

CITY COMMUTERS DON’T CARE ABOUT:

  • passing people (but if you bike enough, you will by passing people),
  • having the fanciest bike gear or the best components or lightest frame,
  • fiddling all day with their bicycle — minimal maintenance is key (single speed gearing means fewer things can go wrong, right? Except for that time I stretched my chain out and then had to walk the rest of both ways)

Traits to Look For in Your Perfect Commuting Bicycle:

  1. Front and rear lights.
  2. Built-in fenders. Or just the type you secure after-market.
  3. Bell: These are cheap and are the law in many areas. I have startled many a person coming up behind them (sorry).
  4. Good brakes.
  5. A good bike lock.
  6. Nice-to-have: Chain guard or fully enclosed chain or belt drive — so you don’t spend your commute worrying about getting your trousers caught or covered in grease. Sometimes I use an elastic band or a Velcro strip to keep my pants out of my drive train.
  7. Nice-to-have: an internally geared hub.
  8. Panniers, a rack, or a big sturdy basket that doesn’t mess up steering.
  9. Good tires for your conditions. I used the stock tires on my bike for years with minimal problems. I’ve also used the Marathon tires and they are still going strong after years of everyday commuting.
  10. Not too heavy but not too light.

Weight, Gearing, and Your Commuter

Do not be too concerned about your bicycle’s weight. It is more important to have the right gears.

On my seven-speed, I had the 20-tooth sprocket replaced with a 22-tooth sprocket. It’s an easy change your bike shop can do for about 10-20 dollars. Switching out the sprocket with this larger one makes the bottom gear 10% easier which is good for getting up hills with groceries. It also makes the top gear 10% slower, but I seldom go faster than 30 km/h anyway. You can have even bigger sprockets for super-amazing hill-climbing. Ask your friendly bike shop!

Single Speed Bikes for Commuting? Not Quite

“Commuter Style” Single Speed Bicycles are practical for commuters, standard ones are not. For commuters I don’t understand the appeal of bare single speed bicycles — the bikes without chain guards or enclosed drive trains or built-in lights or built in fenders or a built-in lock. That said, I ride a bare SS bike when I’m not riding my cyclocross, because it is fun and sometimes I like to attack a hill without any help from my gears (until I’m actually on the hill, at which point I question every decision I’ve made).

Cons of Single Speed Bicycle as Commuter:

  • Sure, you can go really fast, but you have to wear really tight trousers or tights or an elastic band over your trousers.
  • If it rains, you get water over all over your clothes since of course there are no fenders.
  • And if it is dark, there are no built in lights so you have to carry lights and worry about batteries running out and losing them or getting them stolen.
  • And if you have to stop somewhere, there’s no built in lock so you have to carry a lock.

For the typical person (but no one is typical), if your commute is less than a block away and the weather is perfect each time you commute, then a single speed without the commuting setup is suitable.

Great Pick: Cyclocross or Gravel Bike

The cyclocross bike is great to have if you can only have one bike. Cyclocross bikes, and now gravel bikes, are starting to emerge as a tour-de-force in the commuting, coffee, and road set crowd.

My friend has been riding a Norco CCX for the better half of a year now and is hooked – it’s one of his all time favourite bikes. The moniker CCX is Norco speak for cyclocross (usually CX), a heritage of bikes that can be dated back almost 100 years.

To understand a bike it helps to understand the environment in which it was developed. The conception of cyclocross dates back to the early 1900s when, for off-season training, European road racers would race each other to the next town. These races were a no holds barred affair that saw riders taking short cuts through fields, over fences and across streams. They were in many ways akin to the modern day courier races, which take a similar approach to city riding.

Out of these early days, the modern sport of cyclocross racing was born and with it the cyclocross bike archetype. A hybrid between classical road bike sensibilities and dirt loving punk ethos, cyclocross bikes have their own unique charm. The road heritage shines through with fast rolling 700c wheels, elegantly narrow tires, drop handlebars and a road-style frame.

The closer you look, the more you will realize these bikes are built for off-road abuse:

  • The frames are beefed-up and have a more relaxed, dirt-friendly geometry;
  • strong cantilever or disc brakes;
  • plenty of tire clearance to accommodate knobby tires and of course, lots of mud.

Cyclocross Commuting Bliss?

In my opinion, cyclocross (or the similar gravel) bikes make one of the best performance commuters available. Swap the knobbies for regular road bike or touring tires, throw on some fenders and you have a great year-round commuter. You can switch out the handlebars if you prefer flat bars over dropbars. The extra tire clearance built into the frames makes it a nearly trivial task to mount full-wrap fenders (unlike most new road bikes, on which this is practically impossible). Manufacturers have also recognized this crossover potential, as almost all cyclocross frames have mounts for fenders and rear pannier racks.

Cyclocross geometry and handling is also ideal for city riding. The riding position is more upright and the handling is quite forgiving, compared to a dedicated road bike.

The bikes, however, do not lack in liveliness. The road heritage peeks through with a ride that is much more responsive than a touring or mountain bike, no matter the handlebar style. This can be important for dodging those manic rush hour car-o-saurs. Finally, many cyclocross bikes have an additional set of brake levers on the top of the drop handlebars. This allows braking from top position as well as from the brake hoods, or the drops.

The Mountain Bike Myth

Far too many urban commuters were sold mountain bikes. My first bike I bought with my own money was a Canadian Tire CCM mountain bike. These bikes were designed to ride at slower speeds on trails, not for faster pavement riding. Why did I buy a mountain bike? I suspect I, like many people, was convinced by the promise of a lifestyle rather than on the merits of the bicycle.

“Mountain bike! I can go anywhere and do anything!” Except none of those things very well.

It is this same promise of off-road adventures that has resulted in our cities becoming clogged with a deluge of SUV behemoths that will never see a splash of real mud.

Do anything and go almost anywhere? This is where the cyclocross bikes excel. While very road capable, the lower gearing and knobby tires mean theses bikes are capable of tackling a variety of off-road conditions: dykes, fire roads, and modest single-track trails. So if you are in the market for a new commuting bike, give a cyclocross or gravel bike a spin.

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