For those of you considering bike commuting, the obvious, most important first step is actually getting a bike. But where to begin? How much to spend? What kind of bike is best?
Before we can answer these questions you must first consider how far is your commute, what sort of weather conditions are you likely to face, how much comfort do you need and how much can you spend?
When I first started commuting, back in my college days, I did something totally irresponsible (imagine that) and maxed-out a girlfriend’s credit card to purchase a top-of-the-line rode bike. God she was beautiful. The bike, I mean. Aluminum, lightweight, 105 Shimano components, handmade wheels, blah-blah-blah. I fell in love with that bike and still own it today. But if I had had any amount of commonsense, I would have realized that it really wasn’t a great bike for commuting. The stiff aluminum frame meant a punishing ride (although fast). As a pure racer it couldn’t handle panniers or a basket or a rack. Fenders, you ask? Forgetta ’bout it!
So start with distance. How far are you going to be riding? If it’s just a couple of miles, then a three speed cruiser might just do the trick. Put a basket on the front of one of these and you’re set. This is the type of bike I use to ride with the kids everyday to school or to make a quick run to the store for an item or two.
But odds are, if you are going to be commuting more than a couple of miles you are going to need something a bit more “road friendly”. There are a plethora of bike styles available these day; the days of heading off to the bike shop to buy a “ten-speed” are over. If you are a neophyte commuter, and especially if you are new to cycling altogether, then I strongly urge you to look into a hybrid bike.
A well built hybrid blends the efficiency of a road bike and the comfort of a mountain bike. Wide, flat handlebars, upright position and a comfortable ride are the hallmarks of a well constructed hybrid. Wider tire than a road bike with frames not nearly as heavy as a mountain bike. For anything less than 2 hour commutes, this could be the ride for you. These bikes can usually be outfitted with a rack and panniers quite easily and come with some sort of smooth tire for riding on pavement. The design geometry is geared for a causal rider which means a comfortable and smooth ride.
Hybrids have become very popular and you won’t have a problem finding them at any bike shop. In fact, you’re more likely to have trouble winnowing your choices down. Giant, Trek and Specialized are just three brands that carry quality hybrids in a range of prices. And since we’re on the subject, how much should you spend?
When it comes to buying bikes, as in car buying, there is a huge range from the thrifty minded to those with deep pockets. If you are completely new to cycling, my recommendation is to buy something on the low end, even if you can afford more. Two reasons. One, if you are just staring out, who knows what your preferred biking style is going to be a year from now. You might discover your inner racer or you might find that only the largest mountains quench your thirst for challenge. Or a year from now, God forbid, that bike might be collecting dust in the corner of your garage.
Second reason. Quite often the difference between a $400 bike and a $600 bike is negligible in performance, especially if you are new to the whole thing. That being said, the difference between a $300 bike and a $1200 is huge, but if you are only going to ride that bike once or twice a week, can you justify spending that money? If you can afford, spend it. But that $300 bike is going to get you there at just about the same time as the $1200 bike. If in doubt, buy the cheaper bike. After a year, take all you savings you would have spent on gas, car repair, insurance and car payment and treat yourself to the bike you always wanted.
Here are some bikes to consider, bearing in mind that this is a huge market. The Giant Cypress has a retail price of around $310. This is an entry level, steel framed (steel = strong, but sometimes heavy), no-frills bike that at this price is a good buy. The Trek 7100 at around $450 is an aluminum framed ride that is good value. For $200 more you can get the 7300 model with the same frame but significant improvement in components. Another good buy is Specialized’s Sirrus, an aluminum framed beauty at $500.
Now normally I’m a big proponent of supporting your local bike shop. But the last bike I’m going to mention is a Novara Express Bike – 2011. This is REI’s home brand and I must admit to being a huge fan of REI. I tested the Fusion (no longer available) a while back, which was is a fully loaded commuter/hybrid complete with racks, fenders and lights and a great component setup. The Express Bike is extremely similar. It has a $800 price tag, but what you get, it is a great value and a true commuter bike.
I have a couple more bike articles on the way on such topics as bike travel/camping, biking with kids and quite a few tips on making your bike commute more pleasant, so keep checking back.