Buyers guide to commuter bikes

Flat bars or drop bars? Tarmac only or mixed terrain? Fair weather or all weather? Here are the five classic choices.


How is a ‘commuter bike’ different to ‘a bike’? Well, we probably shouldn’t be telling you this but any bike can be used for commuting. The important thing is that you’re commuting in the first place.

In fact, we’d recommend trying out commuting on your existing bike at least once as it’ll give you a better impression of the sort of task you’re facing and what sort of bike that would be suitable. You can even just keep on using this bike for a while if it does the job.

But as and when you start to commute more regularly you’ll probably start to hanker after a specific bike for commuting. Partly to stop you putting excessive wear and tear on your existing ‘recreational’ bike (commuting grime is particularly foul thing) and partly to get a more task-specific machine that makes the task easier and enjoyable.


The flat handlebar commuter

The classic commuter bike setup has 700c wheels, slick but tough tyres, flat handlebars, mudguards and sports a rack and panniers at the back. These days you can probably add disc brakes to the list as well.

And that is indeed an excellent option that suits a lot of people. The 700c wheels roll speedily. The tyres don’t drag and don’t puncture easily. The flat bars give a heads-up position for visibility. The mudguards keep you dry and also help protect the bike from being damaged by commuting grime. Nothing beats a rack and panniers for carrying stuff in a way that keeps loads off your back. And disc brakes are excellent all-weather, low maintenance performers.

You can turn a mountain bike into a flat barred commuter by putting slick tyres on it BUT it will (probably) only have 26″ wheels, which aren’t as rolling-rolling-rolling as 700c. And the MTB probably won’t have rack mounts on the rear of the frame so you can’t use panniers.


The practical road bike

Road bikes have evolved into the shape they are for a reason. And that reason is speed. They’re light, they have efficient geometry for pedalling and it’s possible to get in very aerodynamic positions on them. Road bikes can appear to be bit to ‘full on’ to a lot of people. “I don’t need a race bike”.

A lot of this prejudice is down to the handlebars. Drop bars can be intimidating but once you’ve used them you realise that they’re very comfortable and adaptable. You don’t have to use the drop part of the bars very much, if at all.

The lighter weight and effective pedalling performance of a road bike will be appreciated by any cyclist. Road bikes make things easier. And faster.

You’ll need to find a road bike that has frame mounts for mudguards and a rack and panniers. It’ll need to have enough frame clearance for running the mudguards with 25mm wide tyres (maybe even 28mm tyres). And finally, consider a road bike with disc brakes. You’ll not regret it.


The retro fixie/singlespeed

It used to be the case that anyone riding a fixie was a ‘proper’ serious cyclist who did several million miles every dayon the way to work and then raced at the weekends. Their no-frills fixed gear bike was about reliability and – let’s be honest here – self-flagellation.

Anyone seen riding around on a old-style single-gear bike nowadays is almost certainly doing so for predominantly fashion and style reasons. And that’s fair enough. If how a bike looks makes you feel good when riding it, what’s the problem?

A pared down singlespeed does make for a great commuter bike for certain people too. If you live somewhere flat and/or your commute isn’t particularly long then all the weight and drag and maintenance of having gears is something of a disadvantage.

Less weight, less to take care of, less to clean, neater looks. You can see why some folk go for single speeders.


The cyclocross bike

In some ways this option isn’t all that far removed from the practical road bike option above. Same 700c wheel size, same drop bars, same potential for disc brakes.

Of course, a ‘proper’ cyclocross bike won’t have mounts for mudguards let alone a rack and panniers. If you’re after a ‘cross bike for rapidly ragging along a commute that takes in a bit of decent off-road then you don’t need to be overly concerned about mudguards and panniers. You’ll be better off with a rucksack and just putting up with a bit of splat.


But if you want a ‘cross bike for nipping along canal paths, back alleys and all sorts of not-very-tarmac tracks then a ‘cross bike that can accept mudguards is a good idea. The great thing about cyclocross bikes is that they can turn their hand to lots of different tasks and terrain. So you can mix-up your commute routes a bit should the desire arise, which is nice.

Dahon Vigor P9

The folding bike

For commutes that involve relatively short distances in large towns and cities, a folding bike is worth considering. Folding bikes have to have small wheels (or they can’t be folded up very small).

The small wheel size of folding bikes is both their strength and their weakness. Small wheels are quick to accelerate and folding bikes are amazingly nimble bikes to handle. But small wheels are not as stable and don’t roll as well as larger wheels. This makes them ideal for the stop-starty nature of city riding.

Which commuter bike should you buy?

Short commutes – if you’re a city dweller then a nice singlespeed or a nippy folding bike are the two favourites. A folding bike is useful if part of your journey is on public transport or your work has limited space for bikes.

Long commutes – the practical road bike is by far your best option. Other options will be too draggy, too heavy or too slow.

Adventurous commutes – you don’t have to be heading over mountains or anything, it’s just that you may wish to venture off tarmac every now and then to make your commute quicker, safer or just a bit more fun. You should definitely be looking at getting a cyclocross bike.

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