What's the best bike for cycle commuting?

Updated: let us guide you through the options

Your choice of bike for the ride to work will depend on your own tastes and on the distance, terrain and varying surfaces you’ll encounter on the journey. It's also worth bearing in mind that the best bike for cycle commuting is often the one you enjoy riding the most.

For longer tarmac commutes, experienced riders tend to prefer drop-bar bikes of one sort or another for their extra turn of speed. However, many people find that the best bike for cycle commuting has a more upright position, which you get with a flat-bar road bike or mountain bike, fitted with slick tyres for smooth surfaces.

(This article was updated in November 2016)

If your ride takes in some trails or unsurfaced paths, then the fatter, grippier tyres of a mountain bike will help with traction. They can be overkill for many situations though, so don’t overlook the option of fitting a flat-bar road bike with fatter rubber (there’s often room for deeply-treaded 32mm or 37mm tyres).

Typical road bike gearing will work fine unless you live somewhere extraordinarily hilly, while flatlanders can get away with fixed-gear bikes and other variants on simple transmission systems. Consider a touring bike or mountain bike if you have some monster hills to tackle though.

Whatever you choose, you’ll need a way of carrying your stuff — in a rucksack, courier bag or panniers. Panniers are the most comfortable option, especially for longer rides, so if you want to use them you’ll need to choose a bike with rack mounts.

Whatever you choose, you’ll need a way of carrying your stuff – in a rucksack, courier bag or panniers

It’s worth bearing in mind too that the roads are often wet even when it’s not raining, so mudguards are a handy addition for bike commuters. If your bike doesn’t have mounts for them then clip-on guards are available, but full-length mudguards / fenders securely bolted to the bike are still the best way to avoid a muddy backside.

Let’s take a closer look at your commuting bike options...

Hybrid / flat-bar bikes: best all-rounder

The ‘hybrid’ tag covers a variety of flat-bar bikes that are versatile and reasonably fast
The ‘hybrid’ tag covers a variety of flat-bar bikes that are versatile and reasonably fast

Hybrid bikes combine the speed of narrower 700C wheels with the upright riding position of a mountain bike. The details vary a lot. You’ll find road bike-style calliper brakes and mountain bike-style disc brakes in this category, plus bikes with racks and guards and stripped-down machines that are essentially racers but for the bar.

If you want to go quickly on good roads but you prefer a more upright position or don’t get on with drop handlebars, this is the way to go. The only major downside with a flat-bar bike is that you’re not as aerodynamic as you are on a race bike and therefore not quite as quick.

Bikes derived from ‘29er’ mountain bikes have recently entered the fray. With very fat 700C tyres they’ll roll over most obstacles and provide decent grip on river paths and well-surfaced trails. Fit mudguards if you plan to ride year round.

If you're lucky you might find one with a belt drive fitted: these last absolutely ages — a Gates version is good for 15,000km or more — and are entirely maintenance and muck free. They're more expensive than a standard chain-driven system, but very reliable.

Pros: Fairly quick, versatile, upright

Cons: Can be almost as fragile as road bikes

Folding bikes: best if your commute involves a train

Folding bikes are ideal for short commutes and can be carried and stored anywhere
Folding bikes are ideal for short commutes and can be carried and stored anywhere

Best suited to short rides — especially where storage space at either end is scarce — and mixed-mode travel, folding bikes are phenomenally popular among big-city commuters. The most compact ones will fit under your desk, so you don’t have to worry about theft, and they can be carried onto a train or bus even in rush hour.

A folder won’t ride quite like a conventional bike because of the small wheels and the compromises that are necessary to cram the wheels and frame into a small space when folded, but the best modern folders are surprisingly nippy as long as you remember to keep the tyres pumped up. Nothing feels worse than an under-inflated tiny tyre.

The small wheels of most folders are a bit prone to dropping into potholes but, if your budget allows, the best high-end folders take the sting out of poor road surfaces with suspension systems that aid road holding as well as comfort.

Pros: Massively convenient to store, can be snuck onto trains

Cons: Slower than a big-wheeled bike and not as stable or pothole-proof

For reviews of the latest folding bikes, check out the 'folding' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Town bikes: best for hassle-free riding

Town bikes like this Pashley are an excellent (if heavy) option for urbanites
Town bikes like this Pashley are an excellent (if heavy) option for urbanites

Sometimes known as 'sit-up-and-beg' bikes for the riding position they provide, or Dutch bikes because (surprise) they're popular in the Netherlands, these are a classic option for town riding. They combine classic looks with a leisurely, unhurried riding style and almost zero maintenance.
On the downside, they're heavy, not necessarily cheap, and probably not a good idea if you live somewhere hilly. They'll often include full-length mudguards, chainguards for protecting your trousers or skirt from a mucky chain, a hub gear, panniers or a front basket, and a nice loud bell. And a kickstand.
When you add all those things together, it's easy to see why they're so heavy. Don't try to carry one up stairs. But they'll easily survive being locked up outside, they're less appealing to thieves than a road bike, and you're likely to arrive at your destination less sweaty.

Pros: Great looks, relaxed riding position, practical

Cons: Heavy

For reviews of the latest town bikes, check out the 'urban' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Road bikes: best if you're in a hurry on good roads

Speedy, light and seriously fun, race bikes will get you to work before the boss
Speedy, light and seriously fun, race bikes will get you to work before the boss

Light, fast and fashionable, road racing bikes have become the street transport of choice for a generation of riders returning to road cycling or crossing over from mountain biking. A road bike will cover a long commute at a cracking pace. The skinny tyres and light wheels that help make them fast can also make road bikes vulnerable to damage from kerbs and potholes though, so they demand a degree of vigilance.

Thieves love them too, so budget for a big chunky lock. You’ll also need a light, stable backpack as few road bikes provide any carrying capacity, and you’re probably going to get wet when it rains — Crud Roadracer mudguards solve that problem for most road bikes. When the weather’s fine, treat yourself to an early start: there are few things better than zooming to work the long way on a summer morning.

Pros: Quick, efficient and fun

Cons: Can be fragile, light tyres puncture easily and the weather and thieves are against you

For more reviews of the latest race bikes, check out the 'road' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Gravel / adventure bikes: best if you're in a hurry on bad roads

Top 5 gravel bikes of 2016

This type of bike is quickly becoming very popular and fashionable, and it's easy to see why — they combine road bike looks and speed with loads of frame clearance for fitting fat, knobbly tyres of 35mm or more that can get you across almost any terrain, including terrible tarmac, gloopy mud, bridleways, gravel paths and more.

You can find adventure bikes made from steel, alloy, carbon and titanium, and at a range of prices from the affordable to the aspirational. Most will include eyelets for fitting mudguards and pannier racks, disc brakes (hydraulic if you're lucky) for better braking, and more relaxed geometry than a road bike, to deliver better handling on a range of surfaces. They're also a great bet for road riding in winter, just fit some puncture-resistant tyres and you're good to go.

We'd probably include cyclocross bikes within this category too — they look very similar (disc brakes, fatter tyres), but may not have fittings for mudguards or panniers, and will almost certainly have a racier position.

Pros: Fast, comfortable, practical

Cons: Not much really. Attractive to thieves

For more reviews of the latest gravel / adventure / cyclocross bikes, check out the cyclocross reviews section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Touring bikes: best if you need to carry lots of gear

Tourers are an excellent multifunctional choice that will work for commuting and leisure riding
Tourers are an excellent multifunctional choice that will work for commuting and leisure riding

A very practical bike for simply getting from A to B, tourers come with racks for carrying luggage, mudguards to stop you getting drenched when it rains, and slightly tougher, fatter tyres than pure road bikes. You can arguably include audax bikes in this category too.

The riding position is usually less bum-up than on a road bike so vision in traffic is better, and tourers are great for weekends away or longer trips if you get a taste for adventure. Allow for a good set of panniers — fully waterproof, roll-top designs are best — and you can easily carry a few days’ groceries too. But you will need a good lock; a tourer looks enough like a race bike that thieves won’t differentiate.

Pros: Tough, lots of load-carrying capacity, still fairly quick

Cons: Not quite race-bike quick

For reviews of the latest touring bikes, check out the 'touring' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Fixed gear bikes: best if you hate maintenance

Achingly hip, fixies are fast and simple to maintain but you’ll need some riding skill
Achingly hip, fixies are fast and simple to maintain but you’ll need some riding skill

Ultra-minimal and — despite frequent declarations that the fixie craze is over — still ultra-hip, fixed gear bikes are derived from track racers. A true fixie has no freewheel, so you have to pedal if you’re moving. That brings an unprecedented degree of connection and control once you get used to it. Until then, you have to remind yourself not to try to coast or the bike will spit you down the road.

Fixies are definitely not for beginners, then, but are lightning-fast in the hands of an accomplished rider. This is what makes them popular with cycle couriers, who were using fixies long before they became trendy and who also like their reliability.

A legal minimum fixie with just a front brake has almost nothing on it to go wrong. A true hipster fixie is assembled from parts found on eBay and in the parts bins of old bike shops, but now plenty of manufacturers will save you the hassle and sell you a complete bike.

Pros: Light, simple, quick

Cons: Some skill required

For reviews of the latest fixed gear and singlespeed bikes, check out the 'urban' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Mountain bikes: best if you commute on rough terrain

Mountain bikes are built to roll over truly bumpy terrain but can be heavy and slow on the road
Mountain bikes are built to roll over truly bumpy terrain but can be heavy and slow on the road

Their upright riding positions and bombproof frames have long made mountain bikes a popular commuter choice. Knobby tyres give you the option of an off-road route, along bridleways or river paths, and many riders find the power of typical mountain bike disc brakes very reassuring. But those tyres makes them slow on tarmac, often completely negating the advantage of the light frame materials and wheels many mountain bikes boast.

The simple solution is to fit slick tyres and unleash the speed lurking in your off-road beast. Steer clear of full-suspension mountain bikes if the main aim is commuting — you’ll just be paying for a load of technology you'll never use. Look for a cross-country bike with a suspension fork, or even one that’s fully rigid. One substantial downside is that mountain bikes are still very desirable in the eyes of bike thieves. Budget for a big lock, too.

Pros: Great brakes, upright position, bombproof, versatile

Cons: Heavy, slow on tarmac, eye-catching to thieves

For more reviews of the latest machines, check out the 'mountain' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Electric bikes: best if you need a hand up the hills

Vroom! Hilly or long commutes are a doddle when you have a motor backing you up
Vroom! Hilly or long commutes are a doddle when you have a motor backing you up

With the boost of a 250W motor to get you up to speed from the lights and up hills, e-bikes are great for commuters who need to arrive at work less sweaty. They’re also perfect if you’re not confident about your fitness. Electric bikes limited to 15mph can be used on the road without a helmet or licence. And most of them are designed to be comfortable and easy to live with thanks to flat bars, mudguards and luggage capacity.

There’s a price and weight premium over an equivalent regular bike for the battery, motor and control electronics, but as the technology develops these are coming down, and batteries and motors on better-quality models are getting lighter. You’ll need to remember to charge the battery overnight, or even at the office if your commute is longer — pedalling an e-bike with a flat battery is hard work.

Pros: Easy to ride, comfortable

Cons: Recharging, heavier and pricier than a regular bike

For reviews of the latest electric bikes, check out the 'electric' section of our Bikes & Gear browser

Jamie Beach

Deputy Editor, UK
Jamie's been addicted to bikes from the moment his stabilisers came off. Earliest cycling memory is the chipboard-ramp-on-bricks, but happiest one is bombing down a Mallorcan mountain pass that seemed it might never end. Always on the hunt for the perfect rain jacket, a keen collector of hats.
  • Discipline: Road, gravel
  • Preferred Terrain: Big mountains with long climbs, equally long and fast descents, the chance to get above the treeline.
  • Current Bikes: Genesis Croix de Fer, Kona Cindercone
  • Dream Bike: BMC TeamMachine SLR01
  • Beer of Choice: Augustiner
  • Location: Bath, Somerset, UK

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