How to Shop for a Commuter Bike

A commuter bike in a bike rack in a parking lot.
Ian Slack

Riding your bike to work or school is a great way to get exercise, save money on vehicle wear-and-tear, and help the environment. Picking a good commuter bike can be a challenge, though. Here are some things to consider when you shop.

First, Consider This

You have an infinitely wide range of options when it comes to the kind of bike to get for commuting because you can really do it on just about anything. You can go out and buy something purpose-built, like an urban bike, or keep it budget-friendly and convert an old steel road bike.

The best place to start is by considering your daily ride. How far do you go? Is it all street, or a mix of greenways and cycle paths? An urban or road bike is usually better for long commutes on mostly (or all) street. The maneuverability and wider tires of a hybrid or mountain bike are more useful on rougher urban terrain, like greenways, poor-quality pavement, and curbs.

Another factor to consider is where you’re going to keep your bike while you’re at work or school. You don’t want to drop thousands on something that’s going to be chained outside and potentially stolen. In that scenario, cheap and ugly is the way to go. If you can bring your bike indoors or park it in a protected area, something more upscale, or even a folding bike, might be best.

Which Bikes Are Best for Commuters?

You have a wide range of bikes you can choose from, and, again, you can commute on any of them! Depending on your situation, however, one type might be more advantageous than another. Here’s a quick look at the different types of bikes you might consider for a commuter.

Road Bikes

The Trek Checkpoint AL4 road bicycle.
Trek Bicycles

A road bike is what used to be called a “10-speed” before component manufacturers added more gears. What differentiates road bikes from other types are the curved “drop” handlebar and narrow tires. The shape of road handlebars gives you multiple places to put your hands. This minimizes fatigue on long rides and gives you a more aerodynamic position when you’re down on the drops.

Within the road bike range, some are built for training/racing, while others are intended for endurance or touring. The latter generally make better commuters because they have lots of mounts for racks and fenders.

It’s possible to put a flat bar on a road bike, but you have to trade out not only the handlebar, but the brake levers and gear shifters, too.

Hybrids

The Cannondale Treadwell EQ Remixte bicycle.
Cannondale Bicycles

Originally, hybrid bikes were meant to incorporate the comfortable upright position and stability of a mountain bike with a road bike’s efficiency on pavement.

Hybrids are popular with casual riders who prefer greenways, dirt roads, and less-technical trails. These bikes have flat bars and a slightly fatter tire width than a traditional road bike.

Urban Bikes

The Marin Presidio bicycle.
Marin Bicycles

Urban bikes are hybrids built specifically for commuting. They’re designed to be simple and robust and often feature internal gear hubs over external derailleur-style gear shifting drivetrains. The gear range is usually narrow, as most urban environments are flat enough that a massive number of gears are unnecessary.

Urban bikes are arguably the best for running errands around town. They combine the comfort and handling of a flat-handlebar mountain bike with the speed of road bikes on pavement. Like touring road bikes, they also usually have plenty of mounts for racks and fenders.

Folding Bikes

The Brompton Folding Bicycle open and folded up.
Brompton Bicycles

If you want a bike you can park under your desk at work, then a folding bike is for you! Most have small wheels and pack down to the size of a suitcase.

These bikes are often pricey compared to the other types, and the fragile design of the smaller wheels can lead to performance issues.

Mountain Bikes

The Specialized Epic Hardtail Expert mountain bike.
Specialized Bicycles

Mountain bikes feature a flat handlebar and are primarily designed for off-road trail riding. They have wide, knobby tires, and (usually) a suspension system that evens out the shocks of rocks and roots. Sometimes, this includes a front suspension fork, or a full front and back suspension. While this softens your ride, it adds weight and absorbs some of the energy you put into forward motion as you peddle, which is most noticeable on smooth pavement.

Mountain bikes still make good commuters, though, because they’re comfortable and hold up well against urban hazards, like curbs and potholes.

If you plan to commute on a mountain bike, you’ll probably want to replace the tires with a slightly narrower set with a less aggressive tread pattern. And look for a bike that allows you to lock out the suspension when you’re on pavement so you can increase your peddling efficiency.

Gravel Bikes

The Scott Contessa Speedster Gravel 15 Bike.
Scott Bicycles

As cyclists increasingly favor dirt over dealing with distracted drivers, gravel bikes are gaining in popularity. Essentially, this is a road bike with a frame that accommodates the wider tires you need to ride on unpaved roads.

They often have a more relaxed geometry than the fast-handling frames of racing road bikes. Additionally, gravel bike gear ratios are usually lower for climbing hills and the slower pace required on uneven terrain.

What Size Bike Do I Need?

If you’re new to cycling, you might be surprised to learn that in addition to different wheel sizes, bikes come in a range of frame sizes, too. Once upon a time, a bike was measured from the center of the crank axis to the center of the horizontal top tube.

Later, some manufacturers started measuring to the top of the top tube. But if the top tube isn’t horizontal, which point along the tube do you measure? It makes everything highly confusing. This is one reason why visiting your local bike shop for guidance might really be helpful.

A graphic showing the measurement area of a bicycle frame.
Ian Slack

In higher-quality road bikes, frame size is measured in centimeters. However, many manufacturers have moved to a more general “small, medium, large, extra-large” system for both road and mountain bikes. With just four sizes, they don’t have to make as many models, so it cuts production costs.

Frame size is important on a commuter bike because you have to stop a lot. You want to make sure you can put both feet flat on the ground comfortably when you straddle the bike, without hitting your crotch or losing your balance.

At a bike shop with a decent amount of inventory, you can test ride a variety of styles to see which is the most comfortable. Some people prefer the more upright position of a hybrid to leaning over the front wheel on a road bike.

In addition to frame size, they can swap out stem lengths at a shop and help you find the right handlebar reach so you can sit at a comfortable angle. Lastly, they’ll make sure your seat is set to the right height to prevent knee damage and provide maximum comfort.

How Many Gears Do I Need?

A Shimano Dura Ace Cassette.
Ian Slack

Another thing some people might find bewildering is the huge range of gears and transmission types available on bikes. They range from single-speed “fixies” (popular with big-city bike messengers) to internal gear hubs, or the 30-speed derailleur systems on some mountain bikes. Again, what’s right for you depends on how far you ride and the terrain.

Generally, simpler is better for commuting—especially if you’re new to cycling. A big advantage of bikes with internal hubs is they sometimes feature a belt drive, or the chain can be enclosed in a guard to keep oil off your clothes. A good pair of cycling clips for your pants will take care of that, too.

Bike Clips

High Reflective Trouser Pant Safety Metal Clips,Pant Leg Cuff Clips Bike Bicycle 1 pair

Clip these around the bottom of your pants to keep them out of your bike chain.

What About Electric-Assist Bikes?

The Giant FASTROAD E+ EX PRO E-bike.
Giant Bicycles

Cycling purists hate them, but E-bikes are here to stay. They have a little extra juice to push you along a hilly commute. If you often carry a lot of stuff with you, an E-bike can be a huge help.

This adds significantly to the cost, however. Like most technology, there’s a correlation between how much you spend and performance. The Giant FastRoad E+ EX Pro (shown above) has an MSRP of $3,500, but its long-lasting battery and powerful motor will whisk you up climbs. You’ll also be able to comfortably commute longer distances than you would even consider on a conventional, pedal-power bike.

Do I Need Disc Brakes?

A disc brake on a bicycle.
Ian Slack

Many bikes now come standard with disc brakes, but you’ll see plenty of old-school rim brake models, too. While they do add a bit of weight, the primary advantage of disc brakes is they stop better in wet conditions. As weight is typically less of a consideration in a commuter bike, I recommend the superior stopping power of discs.

There are two types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical (or cable-actuated) disc brakes use a wire to close the caliper that contains the brake pads around the disk.

Hydraulic systems have fluid and hoses, just like those in a car. They’re more expensive, but they’re also lighter and provide a firmer stop.

What About Clipless Pedals?

The Shimano clipless pedals.
Shimano

The term “clipless” is an oxymoron because you actually clip into clipless pedals. The label is a holdover from the days when road cyclists used a metal “toe clip” with a strap to hold their feet firmly on the pedals. You had to reach down and undo them at stoplights, or you’d fall over.

Modern clipless pedals require special shoes with a cleat on the bottom that clips to the pedal. You don’t have to reach down to get out of them; you twist your foot to disengage the cleat—hence, the term “clipless.” They exponentially increase your pedaling power because when you’re clipped in, you have the advantage of pulling up and pushing down on the pedal.

When it comes to walking, traditional cycling shoes are about as comfortable as Dutch clogs. There are plenty of great “urban” shoes with cleats for clipless pedals that also allow you to walk around. Still, unless you carry another set of shoes with you, you’ll have to wear the same pair of shoes to work every time you commute on your bike.

Hybrid-style pedals are another option. With these, you can wear both cleats and normal shoes. Or, you can go old-school and use toe clips that strap around regular shoes to slightly improve pedaling efficiency.

Best Clipless Commuter Pedals

SHIMANO Clipless Pedals SPD Pedal E-PDM324

The Shimano PD-M324 SPD Dual-Platform Pedal is clipless on one side and a regular platform pedal on the other, so you can wear your street shoes.

The Best Accessories

Once you pick out your bike, you’re going to need some goodies to go with it! Check out these accessories, so you can ride safe and keep your bike from getting nicked.

Lights

Lights are critical for urban riding as distracted driving is so prevalent. If you have a bright flashing front and rear light, drivers are more likely to spot you the first time they look in your direction.

I recommend you invest in both a tail- and headlight. At a minimum, get a rear flashing light. I like the budget-friendly Cygolite Hotshot 100 USB bike taillight. It’s rechargeable, and you get 2.5 hours of runtime from the built-in Li-ion battery at its highest, 100-lumen setting.

Best Budget Bike Taillight

Cygolite Hotshot– 100 Lumen Bike Tail Light– 6 Night & Daytime Modes– User Tuneable Flash Speed– Compact Design– IP64 Water Resistant– Secured Hard Mount– USB Rechargeable– Great for Busy Roads

The Cygolite Hotshot 100 USB features 2.5 hours of life at 100 lumens. It also has a super-bright Daylighting flash mode so drivers can see you in all daylight conditions.

A Mirror

A bicycle mirror attached to a bike.
Ian Slack

I also strongly recommend either a helmet-mounted rearview mirror, or one that connects to the end of your handlebars. They can greatly improve your situational awareness. Yes, you can look over your shoulder, but cyclists tend to wander farther into the road when they do that. Obviously, that’s incredibly dangerous in an urban environment with a lot of cars.

I use a bar-end mirror by Sprintech, but there are many inexpensive options available.

Best Bike Mirror

Sprintech Road Drop Bar Rearview Bike Mirror - Safety Bicycle Mirror - Pair Dropbar (Black)

The Sprintech Road Drop Bar Rearview Mirror is small, aerodynamic, installs in seconds, and stays in place over bumpy roads.

A Lock

If you have to store your bike outdoors while you work, a high-quality bike lock is a must. U-locks by brands like Kryptonite are the best for foiling thieves. They’re heavy, but effective. Some models also feature an additional cable you run through the wheels to keep them from getting stolen.

Best Bike Lock

Kryptonite Evolution Mini-7 13mm U-Lock Bicycle Lock with FlexFrame-U Bracket & KryptoFlex 410 10mm Looped Bike Security Cable

The Kryptonite Evolution has a 13mm hardened steel shackle that resists hand tools, bolt cutters, and leverage attacks. It includes a 10mm steel looped cable for additional security.

A Rack

Some riders prefer to wear a backpack when they commute, but a good rack and bag system gives you more options and allows you to carry more. If you plan to use a rack, it could influence which bike you buy.

You can retrofit racks on bikes that don’t have mounts, but it doesn’t look as clean. The metal straps that go around the frame tubes can also damage the finish.

If you don’t have frame mounts for a rack, I like the West Biking Cargo Rack because it fits just about anything.

Universal Bike Rack

West Biking 110Lb Capacity Almost Universal Adjustable Bike Cargo Rack Cycling Equipment Stand Footstock Bicycle Luggage Carrier Racks with Reflective Logo

This rack from West Biking can handle up to 110 lbs. Its super-adjustable design means you can bolt it on just about any bike.

Fenders

Even if you don’t plan to commute in the rain, you’re still likely to get caught in the occasional shower. A good fender system keeps that nasty road water from your bike’s tires off of you.

Best Bike Fenders

Planet Bike Full bike fenders - 700c x 45mm

Planet Bike Full bike fenders are made of durable all-weather polycarbonate to hold up to the rough and tumble of urban commuter life.

The shadow of a cyclist on the pavement.
Ian Slack

If you’re going to start commuting by bike, make sure you find one that’s comfortable. After all, if you enjoy riding it, you’re far more likely to stick with it.

Ian Slack Ian Slack
Ian worked as the head mechanic at one of the Southeast's largest bike shops and keeps up with all the latest technical innovations. An avid outdoors person, he likes to backpack and camp and is a total gear junkie. Ian's day job is with an international IT services firm writing about technology topics ranging from artificial intelligence to edge computing. Read Full Bio »

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