Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ever-Rising Interest - A Commuter Bike Buying Guide

The longer I live in Austin, the more cyclists I see on the road every year as the weather gets warm.  Year on year, more people.  It's awesome, even if it's more difficult to find good bike parking.  So once again, as with every year I become the walking, talking "Guide on how to pick out an affordable commuter bike."  It's a bit of a re-hash, but if you're new to this blog and don't feel like digging through the Posts of Summers Past, here's Annie's Guide to Basic Commuter Bikery.

First figure out your needs.

I mean in every dimension.  How big is the city where you live?  Does it have bike lanes, and how prevalent are they?  What are the terrain and conditions (examples: hilly, flat, rains a lot, windy, freezes in winter, insanely hot in summer)?  How far away is the average commute, and how far are the majority of your errands?  Are you going to be taking recreational rides with this bike as well as utility cycling?  How far/often?

This stuff matters.  The REASON it matters is the type of bike that will work best for your needs changes based on all these factors and if you walk into a bike shop without a decent idea what you'll actually use the bike for, you're less likely to walk out with the right bike for you.

So here are the basic things to know about bikes before you buy them, and how those things relate to commuting!


There's three basic things to know about bike frames.  What it's made out of, what the frame style is, and is it the right size for you.  For utility cycling, there are really only two frame materials you should be looking at, steel or aluminum.  They have some different properties that could throw your preference one way or another.

For my money, I'm buying steel every single time.  It's sturdier, and comfier.  It has a lot of ability to absorb vibration, reducing fatigue.  It has a bit of flex to it, which is easier to handle over things like potholes.  And if you load your bike up with groceries, steel has better strength to ensure the ride is comfortably stable on your way home.

That being said, aluminum has a lot going for it.  For one thing, it's way lighter.  However, it has none of the vibration absorbing properties of steel and many manufacturers compensate for this on commuter bikes by a adding steel, suspension, or carbon fiber fork.  Additionally, aluminum is less durable and the frame will wear out more quickly than a steel frame (for an example, look at how many old-ass steel clunker bikes are still in service, and compare it to the relative age of the aluminum frames you see chained up).

Once you've figured out "Steel vs Aluminum," it's time to pick a frame style!  In the US you pretty much get three choices, and from there it's all permutations.  Diamond frame, Mixte, or Stepthrough.

A diamond frame is the classic bike that the majority of people ride.  My Surly is a diamond frame bike, as are all bikes marketed directly at men.  Many women's frames are also a diamond frame, with more slopey top tube (this slope, however, has basically nothing about it that makes it better for women).  Here are some diamond frame bikes I've personally owned, all of which were used to commute at one time or another.

A mixte (French for "mixed," unsurprisingly) has a top tube....sort of.  It joins near the headtube and runs in a straight line to the rear dropouts, creating a lower stepover frame while retaining many of the ride properties of a diamond frame bike.  These can be quite sporty, while still extremely practical bikes.  Some companies, including Linus, Public, and even Trek are once again offering this versatile frame style, making it way easier to get your hands on than even a few years ago.

A step-through frame encompasses quite a few separate frame styles, but we won't get into that here.  All it means is that the frame's top tube has been shaped to provide the shortest height to step over to mount the bike.  These are incredibly useful if you often have a lot of stuff on the rear rack (example: a kid).  If you have hip or back problems, these easy-mount bikes may be for you as well.  They have a very elegant look to them, and are also more compatible with somewhat more formal clothing since you don't have to hike a leg up to get on.  The Electra Townie and Kona AfricaBike I've reviewed are both examples of step-through frames.

Once you've figured out what you want in a material and frame style, figure out what size you need.  A local bike shop should be able to help with this, and of course take lots of test rides to figure out what feels good for you.

Okay, so we've gotten this far.  Awesome!  Next up, the mechanicals.

Gearing and Brakes


The stuff that makes you stop and go.  We'll start with gearing.  You can have one gear, or many.  If you're going with a singlespeed setup, you can stop here!  I myself am a "more than 1 gear" kind of gal, as I encounter varied terrain everywhere I go and have a few knee issues, I'm not comfortable with a single speed bike.  If it's flat everywhere you go, single speeds are great!  But most of us are going to need some choices.

If you need more than one gear, you can choose between "Internally Geared Hubs" or "Derailleur Gearing."  Internally geared hubs, in my opinion, are AWESOME.  You will not find this attitude shared at any bike shop that primarily sells bikes for sporting purposes.  Internally geared hubs tend to come in increments of 3-speed, 7-speed, and 8-speed. Internal hub gearing is basically what it sounds like - all the stuff that lets you shift is packed into the hub of the rear wheel.    This keeps it all out of the weather so that rain, snow, road grime, and so on do not interfere with your shifting.  Additionally, you can shift the bike while it's sitting still, a huge bonus in stop-and-go situations.  However, if you want to take speedier long-distance recreational rides this setup can be heavier.  Additionally, hub gearing is not DIY-friendly for the average at-home mechanic and does need to be professionally serviced if something goes awry.  The Electra Townie pictured above has 8-speed internally geared hubs.

The other choice is derailleur gearing, far and away the most common type of gearing system in the USA.  ALL of my bikes have derailleur gearing - that's just how they came.  This is the choice of all sport cyclists, and offers gearing ranges far above what is possible with internally hubbed gears, excellent if you have extremely varied terrain, or just like having a lot of choices.  My Surly has 27 gears - 3 chainrings in the front and 9 cogs in the back.  

However, because all the working parts are exposed, derailleur gearing gets dirty QUICKLY.  Every puddle splash, pollution-filled wind gust, and dusty bike trail are going to leave sediment on your drivetrain. Additionally, derailleur gearing does not appreciate being kept out in the weather.  As such the drivetrain does need to be cleaned regularly to be kept in proper working order.  And believe me, the cleaning is a messy job if not regularly kept up with.  


For brakes, you pretty much have the choice between hand brakes and coaster brakes (the kind you pedal backwards to stop).

Coaster brakes are convenient for hands-free stopping, however there is no freewheel action.  So basically, if you stop and the pedals are in the wrong position it is going to be awkward to get going again.  The learning curve, however, is fairly short and most coaster brake users don't have any issues once they adjust.  These brakes are most ideal for flat terrain and I certainly recommend having a single hand brake on the front wheel as a backup.  The OV Fiets I rode in the Netherlands and the Africa Bike reviewed above both featured coaster brakes.

Hand brakes cover a huge range of mechanical choices - V-brakes, Sidepull, Centerpull, Cantilever, Disc, Roller, and Drum.  The first four are all rim brakes that actuate by brake pads clamping down on the rim of the wheel.  Mechanically, they vary, but they'll all stop you when they need to.  Rim brakes, however, lose a significant amount of stopping power when they get wet, and the mechanics of then can stop working in freezing weather.  That being said, I've been riding rim brakes my entire commuting career and with a little extra caution you should be fine.
Rim Brakes.  These are Center-Pulls.
The Surly has Cantilever, another style of rim brake.
The last three in my list up there are pretty much all centered around the hub.  Roller and hub brakes are found on many European city bikes and are extremely uncommon in brands commonly found in the USA.  Disc brakes are the typical style on mountain bikes, many cyclocross bikes, and high-end commuters.  They have a rotor, which is squeezed by brake pads exactly the same as disc brakes on a car.  They can be more high maintenance and are less DIY-friendly, but they will stop ANYTHING in ANY weather.  Just be careful not to send yourself over the handlebars.

Alright cool.  So you want a steel, diamond frame bike with derailleur gearing and rim brakes?  You have just narrowed your choices down to a whole style of bike, congratulations!

Ride Position

This one is EXTREME personal preference, but here's the basics.  There's a lot of complicated math in the frame geometry design of a bike that determines rider position.  But what it all comes out to is where your feet are in relation to the saddle, and the handlebars in relation to the saddle, both horizontally for reach, and vertically for height. 

Road and performance bikes typically place your feet pretty vertically under the saddle (the fancy phrase for this is a "Steep seat tube angle"), and the handlebars level or below the saddle by a couple inches.  This creates a very powerful, aerodynamic position that can be used to create great speed for both distance and bursts of power.  However, bikes with this positioning are usually not very good with any sort of formal clothing - particularly skirts.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are "Upright" or "Dutch" style bikes. On these bikes your feet are well in front of you, and the handlebars are fairly high, which results in a position that's been nicknamed "Sit Up and Beg."  You sit bolt upright.  These bikes do not usually require specialized cycling clothing for weather beyond what you normally own because the position of the bike doesn't necessitate features like longer sleeves.

In between these two extremes, there is a bike for literally every angle a rider and their back could want.  The most important thing is to determine what's most appropriate and comfortable for you as a rider and the best way to do THAT is to test ride a bunch of bikes that are properly measured to your dimensions.  Once you've ridden several bikes, you'll have an idea of what you like and can make a decision from there.


Also called Accessories.  The stuff that makes a house a home.  For commuters, the biggies are lights, a rack, and fenders, in that order. 


Let me be straightforward - 95% of the bikes available to you do not come with lights.  That doesn't mean you should walk out of the store without them.  These are an absolutely ESSENTIAL piece of your kit.  The 5% of bikes that do come with lights will typically be Dynamo lights, which are powered by the rotation of the wheels rather than batteries.  They're totally sweet, but the wheels have to be built around the fact they're there and can be expensive to add if the bike didn't come with them in the first place.  Battery powered lights are pretty much the standard in the USA, but there are some really cool ones available (check THIS out).


This is where you put your stuff.  It can be a front rack or a rear rack - either's cool for different reasons!  They can have baskets strapped to them, panniers draped over them.  In one case, I tied together two re-useable grocery bags and made some homemade panniers on an impromptu shopping trip.  You can put a kid seat on a rear rack.  Or a friend.  You need one.


I've carried on about these before.  If you ever plan to run through a puddle or get caught in a rainstorm, these are a good idea.  Clothing protection is a highly underrated thing and fenders will keep you (and your bike!) clean from road spray.  I've even seen rocks come flying out of my fenders that would otherwise have rocketed up into my face - not comfy!  Many commuters come with the rack/fender combo and all the buyer needs to add are lights.  Lots don't though, and these essentials are aftermarket additions.  When looking at the price of a bike, do consider what the price is versus what it might cost to add these things one bit at a time.

More than anything else though - when you ride your bike you should love it.  It should be comfortable, and give you a song in your heart.  If you get on a bike at the shop and feel a like a big 5 year old on a sunny day, that's the bike.


  1. Great article, thanks for putting this together.

    1. Any time! Since it's bike month I'm putting on the dog with a huge series of posts I hope will be comprehensive for biking newbies.

  2. "If you get on a bike at the shop and feel a like a big 5 year old on a sunny day, that's the bike."

    Yup. Spot on advice because you might find a cyclocross bike, which isn't exactly a commuter label, has that "AHA!!!" feeling. Slap some lights, a rack, and fenders on that puppy and go!

  3. It's great to see more cyclists on the road every year as the weather gets warm!