Saturday, May 10, 2008

So, What is a Commuter Bike? (part 1?)

This may be the first of several posts, depending on whether or not it spurs a discussion.

I've been pondering this question a lot lately, in part because we've had discussions at work about it. It seems like the U.S. is reaching a point where there might actually start to be demand for a commuter bike... but the question is, what makes a good commuter? It seems to be a tough answer to pin down, honestly.

The short answer is that ANY bike can be used for commuting, and that's proven every day. On my ride to work and in the shop, I regularly see a wide array of bikes being used to transport folks to their jobs. Pretty much everything from a coaster brake balloon-tire bomber to a high end carbon wonderbike gets used for commuting. And the owners seem at least content, if not down right happy with their choices. And there's nothing wrong with that... ride what you like, especially if it makes you more inclined to ride.

On the other hand, there are some features that I believe can enhance the utility of a bike for commuting purposes, and can make for a truly practical transportation vehicle. And in my opinion, it's all about utility and practicality and comfort in some combination.

To start with, I'm a big fan of larger cross-section tires. That is, larger than the typical go-fast road bike has (23 - 25 mm)... something along the lines of 28mm to 38mm seems ideal for pavement only commuting, and 38mm to 48mm for mixed surfaces. Why so fat you say? Don't those big ol' tires slow you down? Truth be told, they don't slow you down the way you think. Some tests even indicate larger volume tires can be as fast or faster than skinny tires. I won't wade into that argument, but I will tell you that in my experience, for commuting purposes, the wider tires are a net plus. The larger volume absorbs the shocks of cracks, rocks, potholes, etc, protecting both you and the bike from the impact. In particular, you're a lot less likely to damage the wheels with larger volume tires. This saves you money in the long run and makes it more likely that you'll get to work on time every day.

Second, a comfortable riding position. This means many things to many people. What is comfortable to the experienced roadie may be torture to the more casual rider. Generally speaking though, you want a position that is more upright than a typical road bike. This allows for greater comfort, and decreases the need for specialized cycling clothing, as well as generally making it easier to look around while riding, keeping alert to traffic conditions. A more upright posture generally requires a wider saddle than the stretched out racing position, but that does not necessarily mean the fattest saddle you can find.

Third, the ability to carry things ON the bike, instead of on your body. Now plenty of folks carry their commuting load in a back pack or a messenger bag, and some even prefer one or the other. Most riders, however, will find the ride more pleasant if the bike can carry the load. The most basic option would be a saddle bag or handlebar bag, for smaller loads, but those options are pretty limiting, and I'm of the opinion that the key to a good transportation bike is versatility.

Another good option is a basic rear rack, much like that used for bicycle touring. This can be used to support a wide variety of bags, from the basic "rack trunk" to "panniers", a style of bag that hangs on either side of the rack, lowering the center of gravity and providing a LOT of capacity.

Or perhaps even baskets, not widely favored in the US these days, but amazingly versatile. You can haul a lot of stuff in a basket, and they have the virtue of handling oddly shaped items better than most bags. There are even some that detach quickly and easily, allowing you to carry them in to a store for a quick shopping trip, for example.

Finally, and to many this is a shocking idea, fenders. You may have noticed that all of the bikes pictured here have fenders. Very few cyclists in the US even think of putting fenders on their bikes, and most modern road bikes don't make it easy or even possible to mount fenders. But take my word for it, they vastly improve the versatility of your bike, and make it possible to ride in virtually all conditions. You'd be amazed how much they help to keep you dry and comfortable in rain, as well as protecting your bike's vital parts from the ravages of weather. So forget the fact they don't look "cool" or fast... they are practical, sensible accessories that allow you to ride your bike more often, more comfortably.

Well, that's it for this installment. Feel free to comment, and perhaps this can become a conversation. If not, I'll just spout more of my opinions on the matter soon. :-)


LVSunrise said...

I'm a big fan of the fender concept (though the bike I use most doesn't have them) but I have a question about how to keep toes dry. I find the spray from the road can soak through my shoes in no time flat and I'm left with soggy feet the rest of the day. What is your best recommendation for avoiding this, aside from shoe covers? Or is that really the only option? Also, I'm am currently in the market for additional cargo space on my Bridgestone. I need to be able to carry large, heavy grocery bags (two or three at a time, preferably) as I shop several times a week. I haven't found a set of panniers that offer the capacity I'm looking for and had thought about a large basket but I'm concerned about putting too much weight on my handle bars and how that will impact my ability to steer. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

computercyclist said...

Great Post... I agree with the tire size comments. I like 38 - 43 mm tires. Once you get to the big balloon tires things become noticeably slower.

lvsunrise, check out Cynthia's Baskets. google search Cynthia and Bike basket or something. I got the larger size and it fits 2 full grocery bags on a rear rack just fine. You can make a quick mount system out of wingnuts or whatever if you don't want to always have the coolest wicker basket mounted to your bike.

alex wetmore said...

LVSunrise -- Mudflaps help a lot with keeping your feet dry. Long fenders help too.

I make mudflaps out of rubber stair treads. They are an inexpensive source and the rubber holds up well for me. I wrote a webpage about this a long time ago:

Anonymous said...

Great article!

Foot coverage can be solved in different ways:

1. Use a really big, long mudflap at the end of the front fender to deflect spray.

2. Make a pair of shoe-covers:

...or buy a set (Showers Pass now makes botties similar to the ones formerly made by Burley).

3. Make a pair of toe-clip covers. Velo-orange used to sell these and may still have some in stock.

I find it interesting that so many people outside the Pacific NW states simply don't use fenders, then complain when the rain comes and their feet and backside get soaked.

Tim said...

Mudflaps are a GREAT thing, and Alex's approach to them is basically what I use. Check out his link to see how it's done.

As for hauling groceries, you might look at the various "grocery panniers" that several companies offer. I know Arkel makes some, as does Breezer, as well as others.

The advantage of a pannier over a basket is that you can remove the pannier when you don't need it. The disadvantage is you have to remember to bring them.

If you look at the last picture of the light blue bike, you'll see it has folding "grocery baskets" on it. They fold up when you don't need them but hold a standard sized grocery bag each when you do need them. They add some weight, but heck, it's about utility, right?

The Driver said...

Great article. No argument here.

Tim said...

Oh, I should also mention, if you look closely at the front fender of the light blue Miyata near the bottom of the post, you'll see a mudflap made from stair tread material, as Alex's article describes.

E.Wurzel said...

Re grocery shopping, I went with exactly the same option as on the first post of this Bike Forums thread, Novara Shopping Panniers and Earth Tote Bags. Has served me very well.

Xavier said...

Excellent article. The right bike for the job makes things so much easier.

MikeM said...


Great article. Are there any fenders that you recommend for a 2005 Marin Fairfax?

miss guided said...

i agree that this is a great article. i recently invested in a bike to commute to work. i am a teacher who works less than a mile from home, and i just thought biking was the right thing to do. i bought a fuji monterey and am really pleased with it. i wound up getting a rear rack and a bag with pannieres that unfold as needed. i can see myself investing in the grocery bag pannieres that hook onto the rack as well for small shopping trips. i also decided to have fenders installed so that i can ride in bad weather.
thanks for the info - looking forward to reading more of your blogs.

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