Choosing the Right Bicycle
There are many types of bicycles available. Depending on your skill level, your route to work, the condition of the roads, the distance to work, and what you need to bring with you, the bike you choose will be very different. The most common types of bikes used to commute to work are road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, and utility bikes. Within each of these bicycle categories, some bikes will be more expensive than others. While it may seem advisable to invest in a less expensive bike, these bikes will often have a shorter life span and will cost more to repair and maintain over time in comparison with a more expensive bike.
Don't let a new bike's high cost discourage you. Many high quality bicycles are available used and with a small amount of care and maintenance, can become excellent commuter bikes. One helpful way to find a nice bike is to spend time at your local bike shop; many shops will sell used bikes and bike shop employees will often provide helpful advice based on what you are looking for.
Road bikes, as the name suggests, are used primarily on paved roads. These bikes are typically lightweight, have many gears, and are built for speed over longer distances. They often feature curved dropped handlebars, which provide the most efficiency in the pedal rotation, but can be uncomfortable on the rider's wrists and neck. The frame of a road bike, usually aluminum on newer models and steel on older models, is not ideal for rough surfaces or for heavy loads. Road bikes are not designed for use on trails. Featuring thin tires for speed, the tires and wheels can be damaged by bumps or rough terrain, while the stiff aluminum frames are not particularly good at absorbing the stresses of uneven pavement. As these bikes are built for speed, however, they can be the ideal choice for long distance commuting on smooth roads.
Mountain bikes and road bikes are the most common bicycles in use today. Mountain bikes are built to withstand trails and uneven pavement, necessitating a stronger frame and components. These bikes feature wider wheels with knobby treaded tires and straight handlebars, allowing for a more comfortable riding position. Many of these bikes will have shocks built in to facilitate a more comfortable ride over rough terrain. Due to the wider wheels, treaded tires, and frame geometry, mountain bikes are less efficient than road bikes for commuting and require more effort on smooth roads, but are helpful if the commute involves gravel roads, off-road trails, or poorly paved streets. For commuting, unless your commute involves an off-road section, riding a mountain bike is often not necessary and may require more effort.
Hybrid bikes are a compromise between a mountain and road bike. Featuring thicker tires than a road bike, but with smooth tread, and an upright seating position, this bike is ideal for short distance commutes. The wider tires ensure that this bike can endure rougher terrain, while the smooth tread allows for greater speeds on the road. In addition, the hybrid frame can accommodate the addition of some weight in the form of a basket on the front of the bicycle or a rack behind the seat. Hybrids are relatively inexpensive and provide the convenience of faster road biking with the durability of stronger mountain bikes.
Utility bikes are made for transporting heavy loads and commuting. Usually composed of a middle-weight to heavy-weight frame, these bikes are often outfitted with a rack or basket to facilitate the transportation of items. This feature is particularly useful for bicycle commuters, as a basket or rack will distribute the weight of the items to the whole bicycle as opposed to the rider's back. While most bikes have an exposed gear system, many utility bikes use an internal hub gearing. This type of gearing system will limit the number of gears to fewer than ten, but requires no maintenance and is easy to operate. Utility bikes are also usually outfitted with fenders for easy riding in the rain. Most utility bike users prefer the comfort and durability of the bike, which offers an upright handlebar position and is weather proof, though the bike is not built for speed and is certainly not lightweight. Utility bikes will be more expensive than hybrid bikes, but are built especially with the commuter in mind and are particularly durable, making this bike an excellent investment.
Depending on where you are bike commuting, you may consider a bike with more or less gears. Bicycle gears make it easier to go up and down hills by adjusting how hard it is to pedal and would be essential for anyone bicycling in more mountainous regions. If you are biking in a relatively flat area, the number of bicycle gears is not as important. When purchasing a new bike, get information about how many gears would be appropriate for the region where you will be commuting.
Checklist of Common (and Useful) Commuter Gear
- Lights — both front and back
- Panniers (bags attached to the bicycle rack)
- Bicycle Fenders
- Rain Jackets/Pants
- Reflective Pant Straps
- Bicycle Route Maps
While choosing the right type of bike is the first step towards finding the right bike, it is also important to consider how the bike fits the rider. Your local cycle shop is probably the best resource for help with this, though some simple considerations can help determine how comfortable your bicycle will be.
The bottom line is that if you are not comfortable, it is more likely that you will not enjoy riding a bike and you may be putting yourself at risk on the road. The most important consideration is finding a bike that is the correct size for you. When test riding a bicycle, stand over the bike and note the distance between your body and the top tube, or the upper most bar of the bicycle running parallel to the ground. The rule of thumb for a straight top tube is that a correctly-fitted bike will have around 1” of clearance between you and the bike. However, some women's bikes have a low or “slanted” top tube, which means this rule of thumb is not as easy to apply. Use a yardstick or other straight material to indicate where a straight top tube would have been located and apply the 1” rule. This should approximate the size of the bicycle. If the geometry of the bike is such that the top tube is not straight, common on hybrid, mountain, and commuter bikes, the clearance between the body of the rider and the top tube may be larger.
Once you have a bike of the correct size, it is important to consider the saddle (or seat) height. The usual saddle adjustment will allow for a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Finding the correct saddle position can be difficult alone, so having a friend hold the bike while you test the position can be very helpful. In addition to modifying the saddle position, finding the correct stem (the component that holds the handlebars) is very important. Your arms should be slightly bent to allow for some shock absorption at the elbows. If the handlebars require your arms to be straight, shocks from the road will be transmitted through your arms to your neck and shoulders, often leading to uncomfortable aches and muscle stresses.
Electric and Folding Bikes
Both electric and folding bikes are becoming more prevalent, with a number of new designs entering the market in recent years. Electric bikes include a motor in some capacity, with designs differing in how the motor powers the bicycle. You might consider an electric bicycle if your commute is particularly tiring or involves very steep hills, though electric bikes are substantially more expensive than regular bicycles.
Folding bikes have also become more popular due to the ease of portability and the space-saving design. A folding bike can be particularly helpful if you commute to a transit stop. The compact and lightweight design of folding bikes facilitates using this bike when bulkier bikes would cause problems in terms of storage and transportation using other modes.
The Bottom Line
Purchasing the right bike will increase your comfort and enjoyment of commuting to work by bike, so make this decision carefully. Consider your route, skill level, transportation needs, and the distance to work in reaching a decision. Above all, your bike is an investment, so make sure it is a purchase that will last a long time!
Read about how communities across the United States are building support for bike commuting.