Commuter bikes

Popular attributes

Around eighteen months ago I replaced my commuter bike and have been bringing it onboard Caltrain and to my office in San Francisco. Since then I’ve kept my eyes out for decent commuter bikes. Popular commuter bike attributes:

  • Inexpensive. Could get stolen or banged around. City streets tend to have poor quality pavement, potholes, etc., and it’s harder to avoid rough road when riding in traffic, so you want sturdy wheels rather than light and delicate wheels.
  • Single speed. Lower maintenance. No need to spend any brain power thinking about gears while focusing on avoiding cars. Note: If you get a single speed and ride it with a freewheel rather than a fixed gear, I recommend two brakes (front and rear) for redundancy in case one fails. Watch out here—some bikes sold as fixies only have a front brake.
  • Internal gearing. Cleaner, lower maintenance, and more reliable than traditional derailleur due to being enclosed and protected from dirt and impacts. If you want to read more the Wikipedia article has a great list of advantages and disadvantages.
  • Belt drive instead of chain. Cleaner and lower maintenance.
  • Chain guard. Keeps your pants from getting dirty.
  • Fenders. Keep your clothes clean when biking through puddles.
  • Weight. Depending on your usage this may or may not matter to you. Lighter bikes are always nice but they generally cost more. I carry my bike up and down a few steps at home, at my office, and getting on and off of the train. That’s a lot of lifting, so for me 20 lbs vs 25 lbs is a huge difference. But if you’re a heavy guy biking from your home garage to a local shopping center with not many hills in between then a few extra pounds on the bike won’t matter much. Also, lighter weight generally means better quality steel and better quality steel generally means a more pleasant ride.

Brands

You could of course use any bike. There’s no shortage of great entry level city bikes from the major brands (Trek, Fuji, Specialized, Cannondale, Novara, Scattante, Marin, etc.). But if you’re looking for something with more personality you might want to consider a smaller brand. Here are a few options sorted from least to most expensive. Asterisks next to the brands that are a little more appealing to me.

  • Brilliant Bicycle Co. They’re pretty. One, three, or seven speeds. Frames are made of cheap steel (SAE 1020 aka “hi-ten”) and too heavy for my taste (25.5 lbs and up). $300 and up.
  • State* – Single speed. Choose your preferred handlebar style, seat, and pedals. Frame steel is SAE 4130 (aka chromoly) and a decent weight (22 lbs). A coworker bought one and it seemed to be poorly assembled (guy at the local bike shop said there was no grease in the bottom bracket and maybe a screw somewhere had been cross threaded, but take this with a grain of salt—this is second hand info and it sounded like the guy was very anti mail-order bicycle to begin with). $390 and up. They also have an aluminum single speed and some mountain bikes.
  • Bigshot* – Custom fixies and single speeds. Frame steel is SAE 4130 (aka chromoly) and their bikes nudge into the heavy end of the spectrum (23 to 25 lbs). $400 for a custom build. As low as $300 for one of the pre-chosen builds.
  • Priority Bicycles – Belt drives. Three or eight speeds. Aluminum frame. Casual geometry and handlebars (which isn’t my style, but this is a matter of taste). $400 and up.
  • Wabi Cycles* – Quality steel (Reynolds 725 and Columbus Spirit). A few single speed options. Lighter than many other bikes on this list (the Wabi Lightning single speed is only 17.5 lbs!). Can choose your gear ratio, which is nice if you plan to bike up hills. Classically pretty. $750 and up. My personal favorite on this list. If I had to get another commuter I’d absolutely go with a Wabi Classic, and I’d be heartbroken if it got stolen. I love the understated and elegant style. I get the impression the builder is experienced and cares about the bikes he makes. (Edit: Wabi Cycles changed ownership in May 2015. It gives me a little pause, but as far as I can tell the new owners have kept the same bike lineup and price. As of January 2016 they’d still be my top pick.)
  • Spot Brand Bicycles – Belt drives. A lot of options. Hubs with various numbers of internal gears. Step through and non step through frames. Steel and aluminum. Too expensive for me to choose as a commuter bike but a decent option if gears are important to you. $1,200 and up.
  • Vanhawks – Belt drives. Single or variable speed. Carbon fiber. Lots of technology. Too expensive for me to choose as a commuter bike and the tech doesn’t particularly interest me. $1,550 and up.

The above are just brands I’ve seen with my own eyes. There are many more. Some brands that I’ve stumbled across and know nothing about:

And you can find many more digging through the archives of Momentum Mag.

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