How To Choose The Perfect Bike For Commuting

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Cycling to work is an excellent way to reduce your environmental impact, keep fit, and avoid the horrific rush hour roads or busy commuter trains, all at the same time.

If, for example, you walk to work or need to make multiple connections on public transport, cycling to work can even reduce your commute time!

So, you’ve decided to get a bike and start riding to work. That’s great! However, when you go to get online and order a brand new bike, you’re confronted with a cornucopia of different options, and you’re not quite sure what type of bike for commuting would be best for you.

Despite the numerous advantages of cycling to work, this very first barrier of choosing the right bike for your commute often puts people off the idea, particularly if they’re buying a bike for the first time.

So, what should you look for when buying a commuter bike? What’s the best type of bike for your specific commute? And should you go for brand new or second-hand?

Don’t worry! We’ll answer all these questions in this complete guide to choosing the perfect bike for your commute. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • What Type Of Commuter Bike Is Best For You? 4 Key Considerations
  • Do You Need Any Other Gear?
  • Choosing And Buying Your New Bike For Commuting

Let’s get started!

How To Choose The Perfect Bike For Commuting: Title Image

What Type Of Commuter Bike Is Best For You? 4 Key Considerations

Once you’ve decided to buy a bike, this is the very first decision you need to make. However, you shouldn’t go straight for the cheapest or best-looking option; each type of bike excels at very different things, and there’s a significant amount of nuance in the world of bike gear.

First, you need to ask yourself a few questions: How far is your commute? What’s the terrain like? Is the route flat or hilly? Do you need to carry stuff? What’s your fitness level like?

#1. What Terrain Will You Be Riding?

The terrain of your commute is ultimately the most important consideration when deciding which type of bike is best suited to your route.

On-Road Commuter Bikes

If the terrain is entirely on roads, then you want something that’s going to be very efficient on smooth roads, fast, and something you like the look of.

The most obvious options here are either a road bike, city bike, or hybrid bike.

As the name suggests, a road bike is built for cycling on the roads. In general, they have thin wheels that maximize efficiency on smooth asphalt, drop handlebars, and quite an “aggressive” riding position.

The “aggressive” riding position refers to the fact that the handlebars are often lower than the saddle, resulting in a relatively low position on the bike, which maximizes aerodynamic efficiency.

If you’ve never used drop handlebars, then it can take some getting used to, but a road bike will, without a doubt, be the fastest option on roads.

A hybrid is somewhat similar to a road bike but generally has flat handlebars, a much more upright position, slightly thicker tires, and a slacker geometry.

For many who have never tried drop handlebars, this will be significantly more comfortable at first but will add a few minutes to your commute. This is mostly due to the upright position resulting in more drag: aerodynamics really does make a huge difference to your speed.

A city bike is somewhat similar to a hybrid, but usually, with an even more relaxed geometry, curved handlebars for ease of handling while upright, and fewer gears and fewer standout features.

Man in a suit cycling to work on a hardtail mountain bike.

Off-road Commuter Bikes

If your commute involves singletrack, unpaved paths, trails, woodland paths, or cutting through fields, you’re most likely going to want an off-road capable bike.

The most common options for an off-road bike are gravel bikes and mountain bikes.

A mountain bike is the most capable off-road machine and can handle the roughest terrain of any type of bike. They will also be the most comfortable to ride off-road.

They are upright, flat handlebar machines with angular geometry, wide, knobbly tires, and suspension forks to absorb as much of the uneven terrain as possible.

Sometimes, in addition to the front suspension, there is suspension at the rear. This is called a full-suspension mountain bike.

Gravel bikes are similar in some ways and different in others. They have wide, knobbly tires, but they also have drop handlebars, (usually) no suspension, and a much more aggressive riding position.

If you’re on less extreme off-road trails, a gravel bike will be significantly faster than a mountain bike, particularly on flat paths, due to aerodynamics. If you have to do some fairly extreme off-roading to get to your workplace, then a mountain bike is more suitable.

#2. How Long and How Hilly Is Your Commute?

The next consideration should be the distance and elevation of your route.

If it’s very close, completely flat, and entirely on roads, then a single-speed bike would probably have sufficient capabilities for you.

A single-speed bike is exactly what it says on the tin – it has only one gear. This isn’t great for hills but works perfectly on the flat.

However, if it’s a long way or very hilly, then you’re going to want a good range of gears. This will allow you to traverse different gradients with maximum efficiency and without grinding away at the pedals super slowly up a steep hill.

Cyclists commuting to work with panniers.

#3. How Much Do You Need To Carry?

If you need to carry a lot – for example, a laptop, change of clothes, bike gear, packed lunch, and so on – then it’s probably worthwhile getting a rack and panniers. Riding with a heavy backpack isn’t very comfortable!

These can only be fitted to bikes with certain mounting points. Some bikes usually don’t come equipped with such mounting points, like road bikes and most hybrids.

If you need to carry lots of stuff, it’s worth looking into getting a touring bike, gravel bike, or a hardtail mountain bike. These types of bikes (usually) have the right mounting points to fit a rack and panniers.

#4. What’s your current fitness level?

Whether you’re running ultra-marathons on the regular or you don’t tend to get much exercise as of yet, there’s a bike out there for everyone!

Think about how far you have to ride on your commute and exactly how fit you are right now. If you don’t think you can make it yet, that’s okay! You can always buy the bike and build up to it slowly.

If you really don’t think you’ll be able to cycle quite so far, or you don’t want to turn up for work all sweaty and tired, then it could be worth considering an electric bike.

It’s important to remember that e-bikes don’t cycle for you; you still have to exercise to move the bike along. However, when you pedal, it provides a significant amount of additional power to help you along.

The only drawbacks of going for an e-bike are that you need to charge it every night, they tend to be targeted by bike thieves, and they’re much more expensive than non-power-assisted bikes.

Woman cycling to work on a touring bike with panniers.

Do you need any other gear?

So, even once you’ve got yourself a new bike, do you need to buy anything else, or can you just get pedaling your way to work straight away?

You’re going to need some more gear!

Firstly, regardless of your ride, you need a helmet. Yes, they’re unflattering, and yes, they’re another thing to buy, and they’re not too cheap, but they save your life!

According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, 97% of all cycle-related deaths were not wearing a helmet. We know that this is a little morbid, but it’s incredibly important to keep you safe. Regardless of how safely you cycle, you cannot account for the cars on the road.

If you live somewhere that has significant seasonal variation in day length, i.e, anywhere that isn’t in the tropics, then you need a set of lights, too.

If you work a bit late one day and end up cycling back in the dark, then you’re going to need lights to keep yourself safe.

If you live somewhere that has very cold or wet winters, you’re going to want to make sure you’ve got a good waterproof, warm mid-layer, thermals, and gloves.

There’s nothing worse than cycling to work, freezing cold, and wishing you had an extra layer to put on.

If you can’t store your bike inside your office, then you’re going to need to buy a bike lock to keep your bike safe while you’re working.

Another option is to get yourself a folding bike that can be easily stored in an office without causing too much disruption. If you’re only going to be commuting by bike for a part of your journey and getting public transport for the rest, then this is also a good option for you.

Regardless of your cycle route, you’ll need to buy a puncture repair kit. All you really need is a few spare inner tubes, a pump, and some tire levers.

All of this stuff shouldn’t cost anywhere near the price of a new bike, but it’s important to factor the extras you need into your budget.

Man in a suit cycling to work on a hybrid.

Choosing and buying your new bike for commuting

So, you’ve decided what type of bike you want. Now it’s time to buy one!

Deciding your budget at this stage will help you to rule out certain options and will have a large bearing on what bike you end up choosing.

The first thing to think about is whether to buy a new bike or a second-hand one.

The main advantage of buying a new bike is that you know it’s going to be ready right out of the box.

You can test-ride it at a showroom, and you can be certain that everything is going to work as it should. Even when it does go wrong, you may have a warranty that covers it.

The clear advantage of second-hand bikes is, of course, the price you can expect to pay for them. Often, your bike will be 50-75% cheaper second-hand than brand new.

However, it can be nerve-racking not knowing whether the bike is in perfect condition, and you will often have to spend at least a bit of money fixing a few things up. But all-in-all, it’s still almost definitely going to be cheaper to buy second-hand.

Make sure, if you’re going for a second-hand bike, that you have the opportunity to see it in person and give it a test ride.

Man cycling to work on a touring bike along a river.

Before you make your purchase, it’s worth checking if there’s a government or workplace-provided scheme to subsidize the cost of a bike to cycle to work.

In the UK, for example, you can split the cost of a commuter bike over the course of 1 or 2 years, and the payment comes directly out of your paycheck, before tax. This means that you won’t be taxed on the income you spend on a bike, saving you 20-40% of the cost.

This is called the Cycle to Work Scheme.

In the US, some workplaces will even provide a bike for you to use for commuting by bike for the duration of your employment for free.

Found This Guide Helpful? Check Out More From The BikeTips Experts Below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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