Choosing the right bike for commuting

Whilst bicycles are generally defined by their purpose –mountain bikes for hurtling down mountains; road bikes for the road, picking the right bike for your daily commute is a little less cut & dried.

Your route

The first thing you need to consider is how far you are going to be riding in each direction and on what sort of terrain that will be. If you are mainly on trails like the Taff Trail, a hard-tail mountain bike or a hybrid bike would serve you well. If you are planning to take on Manor Way in the morning, perhaps a road bike would suit you best.

Your luggage

When you start out riding to work, it is easy to fall into the trap of either carrying too much or not enough. Experience will show you what you can leave at home and what you should always have on you. You should always have a lock, inner tubes, tire levers and a pump but only you can be the judge of how much clothing you need to have. There may be some things that you can leave at work –for example, suit jackets, shoes, toiletries if you plan to shower etc

The next thing to consider is how you will carry it. If you are carrying a lot over a reasonable distance –say Tongwynlais to the city centre, consider getting a rack and a set of panniers to avoid a sweaty back and adding an extra stone in weight to your sit bones. If you are only travelling a couple of miles, a ruck sack will be fine.

If you do go down the ruck sack route, you can get some very nice cycle-specific bags that not only give you a dedicated pouch for your D-lock, they also allow air to pass between your bag and your back, cutting down on the sweat and discomfort. I use an Altura Sector 30 – Evans Cycles and I’m very happy with it.

Deciding whether or not you wish to use a rack & panniers will quite helpfully narrow down your options significantly, as quite a few bikes of all types come without rack mounts.

Bike choices – Mountain Bikes

The first type of bike you will probably consider is a mountain bike. You can get quite a lot of mountain bike for your money these days, particularly if you go for a hard-tail (no rear suspension), but they do tend to be weighty and the knobbly tires can make for a noisy & slow ride.

Just as you do with all bikes, you get what you pay for. Frames tend to cover a wide price bracket, so a £400 bike may have the same frame as an £800 bike, but the brakes and gears will make up the difference. You’ll see Shimano Tourney at the lower end of the scale and Deore and SLX further up the price range. Deore is an excellent compromise between performance and price.

You’ll likely end up with a lot more gears –road bikes will top out at 22, but you’ll probably have at least 24 on a mountain bike. However, at the top end of the market, the reverse is true, with 1x systems becoming popular. These offer a single chain ring at the front and often an 11-42 cassette at the back.

To keep costs down, mountain bikes at the cheaper end will likely have a rather heavy suspension fork on the front. They’re not terribly effective at absorbing shock either, but you still have to push that weight around.

Wheel choices

Mountain bike wheels come in a variety of sizes. 26″ used to be the most common, but these are now making way for 27.5″ and 29″. There are also 27.5+ wheels, which are wider versions of the 27.5″. The 29″ wheel is actually a standard size (700c) that has been common on road bikes for many years. So, if you buy a “29er” mountain bike, you not only have access to a good range of mountain bike tires, you can use a wide variety of road and cyclocross tires too.

It is probably worth pointing out that a mountain bike with a suspension fork and 700x28mm tires looks a little ridiculous. If it is a flat handlebar and skinny tires you are looking for, consider a hybrid instead.

Bike choices – Road Bike

If you are going to spend much of your time on tarmac, a road bike is a good option.

A road bike will be lighter, will feel more direct and will put you in a more aerodynamic position. Now, it’s a little challenging trying to sum up the road bike market without getting into an almighty essay, so we’ll try to break it down a little.

Frames

Road bike frames, as we’ve talked about before can come in four different materials –aluminium, steel, carbon and titanium. However, they also come in a variety of geometries ranging from the “sportive” type to a full-on race bike. A sportive frame will be more comfortable, especially if you are still a little inflexible around the middle.

Groupsets

Just as with the mountain bikes, road bike frames cover a range of price points with the gears and brakes making up the price difference. You’ll find Shimano Claris at the bottom end and Shimano Dura Ace at the top end, although if you are running Dura Ace on your commuter bike, you should perhaps consider giving some of that excess cash to a good cause. Shimano 105 is the current sweet spot between price and performance. Shimano 105 and up to Dura Ace are 22 speed systems, with two chain rings at the front and eleven at the back. Shimano doesn’t have the market to itself though and there is a range of equivalent SRAM and Campagnolo groupsets that you’ll find on some bikes.

Those ratios at the front are probably also worth mentioning. Most road bikes will come with a 50 and a 34-tooth chain ring on the front, paired with an 11-28 cassette at the back. This gives a nice broad range for tackling a variety of inclines. However, some of the more “elite” bikes will come with a 52 & 36 tooth chain ring at the front, meaning that if you have the legs for it, you can go that little bit quicker on the flat, but hills will be a little more challenging. If you do end up with a 52/36 chainset, you could consider swapping the rear cassette for an 11-32 for easier climbs.

To add to the confusion, we also have Cyclocross bikes thrown into the mix. Cyclocross is a winter sport that involves riding around a short muddy course and scaling obstacles that may require speedy dismounting & carrying.

Expect a cross bike to have drop handlebars and geometry like a road bike but have bigger tyres (and usually more knobbly). Cross bikes tend to have cantilever or disc brakes and essentially, they’re for going fast off-road.
Source: What is a Cyclocross Bike? (and why I ride one)

This carrying (or shouldering) malarkey is why Cyclocross bikes tend to have their cables routed over the top of the top tube to keep the underside smooth & relatively comfortable.

The other difference with a cross bike is that it’ll usually come with 46 & 36-tooth chain rings at the front, meaning that it’ll be a little slower on flat ground and a little tougher on the steep hills.

To add to the confusion further, cross bikes, “gravel bikes” and “adventure road” bikes often share the same space at a bike shop. Some cross bikes will include mounts for a luggage rack, others will not. However, the main difference between them is the gear ratios, with the “adventure road” bike typically featuring 50/34 chain rings. Confusingly, some adventure road bikes also lack rack mounts, so presumably you’ll need to travel light on your adventure…

The other key differentiator used to be brakes, but since the UCI briefly lifted its ban on disc brakes more and more road bikes are starting to appear with disc brakes. They’ve since been banned again, but you’ll still find road bikes with disc brakes.

Hybrid Bikes

As mentioned above, if you want a road bike but you don’t want drop handlebars, there is another option –hybrid bikes! A hybrid bike will have flat handlebars like a mountain bike, but road tires and usually, a road groupset. If you really don’t fancy drop handlebars it’s a good option to consider.

Other options

There are of course other options not included above, including a single-speed road bike; a fixie (a single-speed bike with no freewheel, allowing you to pedal backwards but also preventing you from coasting down hills!)

There’s also a wide range of retro and Dutch-style bikes to choose from. However, try to choose a bike you like the look of; that you’ll feel happy riding and will suit your needs.

It is going to be an extension of YOU at the end of the day.

Gavin

Bike commuter, randonneur and cat wrangler

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: