What's the best bike for cycle commuting?

By John Stevenson, Cycling Plus | Tuesday, April 26, 2011 7.00am

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. For longer tarmac commutes, experienced riders tend to favour drop-bar bikes of one sort or another for their extra turn of speed. Many people are happy with the more upright position that you get with a flat-bar road bike or mountain bike with slick tyres, though.

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 singlespeeds, 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.

It’s an oft-repeated statistic that it only rains at commuting times 12 times per year in the UK, so you’re not as likely to get drenched as you think. However, 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 securely bolted to the bike are still the best way to avoid a muddy backside.

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

Race

Race:

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 through, 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

Want to buy a race bike? See our rundown of the Best Road Bikes Under £1,000. For more reviews of the latest race bikes, check out the 'road' section of our Bikes & Gear browser.

Tourer

Tourer:

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

Possibly the most 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 tougher, fatter tyres than pure road bikes. The category covers a range of bikes including ‘fast road’ or audax bikes – essentially road bikes with room for fatter tyres and mudguards – and cyclo-cross bikes, which usually have mudguard eyes unless they’re high-end pure competition editions.

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.

  • Budget: Specialized Tricross, £749.99
  • Sensible: Dawes Galaxy, £1,199.99
  • Luxury: Van Nicholas Amazon, from £1,999.99

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

Fixed:

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.

Flat-bar

Flat-bar:

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

Also known as hybrids, flat-bar road 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 obstacles up to the size of a small car, and provide decent grip on towpaths and well-surfaced trails. Fit mudguards if you plan to ride year round.

Pros: Fairly quick, versatile, upright

Cons: Can be almost as fragile as race bikes

For reviews of the latest flat-bar road bikes, check out the 'hybrid' section of our Bikes & Gear browser.

Mountain bike

Mountain bike: mountain bike

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 canal tow 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 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

Want to buy a mountain bike? See our rundowns of the Best Mountain Bikes Under £500 and Best Mountain Bikes Under £1,000. For more reviews of the latest machines, check out the 'mountain' section of our Bikes & Gear browser.

Roadster

Roadster: roadster

The roadster is a classic, simple bike that will get you from A to B – but it may take a little time

The classic English roadster bike still does sterling duty as short-range transportation in flat towns. What’s appealing about this style of bike is its simplicity. There’s very little to go wrong if you’ve just got one gear, and hub gear versions with up to 11 gears are still largely bombproof.

Typical roadsters have chainguards and flat pedals, so you can hop aboard in your regular clothes and not worry about getting oil on the trousers of your suit. Dynamo lighting and a lock are often built in so a roadster is a one-stop purchase. They shrug off potholed streets too.

While you don’t get tyres quite as tough as those on a mountain bike, roadsters usually have 35mm wide tyres that can take a beating. Combine that with an upright ‘sit up and beg’ riding position for a commanding view of traffic, and you’ve got the perfect elegant town vehicle. The downside is that these bikes aren’t light or fast. Technophiles and those in a hurry should look elsewhere.

  • Budget: B’Twin Elops City, £119.99
  • Sensible: Pashley Roadster Classic, £525
  • Luxury: Koga Citylite Delgado, £1,099

Pros: Practical, elegant, indestructible

Cons: Heavy, slow

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

Electric

Electric: electric

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, electric 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.

  • Budget: Urban Mover Sprite, £699.99
  • Sensible: Giant Escape Hybrid, £1,600
  • Luxury: Storck Raddar Multiroad Carbon, £3675

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.

Folders

Folders: folders

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.

  • Budget: Dawes Diamond, £299
  • Sensible: Brompton M6L AVC, £880
  • Luxury: Birdy Rohloff, £2,515

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.

The new look Cycling Plus is available now, and this month’s issue features a free 36 page commuting guide full of features like this. To subscribe to the magazine, visit www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/cycling/cycling-plus-magazine-subscription.

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