The key to choosing the right commuter bike is ensuring that it is comfortable and practical for the type of riding you intend to do.
You’re unlikely to commit to regularly commuting to work by bike in all weather conditions if it’s a chore in the first place, so we’ve put together this handy guide to help you make the right choice.
What’s the best bike for commuting?
What type of bike you choose to ride to work will depend on a number of factors including journey distance, terrain, where you live and your taste in bikes.
To help make your decision easier, we’ve done our best to explain how eight common types of bike fare when turned to commuting duties.
It’s also worth mentioning that, with a little modification, most bikes can be made into great commuters – with the addition of full-length mudguards to ward off foul weather, some kind of luggage carrying capability and lights for year-round visibility.
With these affordable modifications, your languishing, older bike may be a prime candidate for resurrection as a commuter.
Hybrid / flat-bar bikes: the best all-round commuting bike
Hybrids are best thought of as a hardy road bike that takes some influence from mountain bikes, borrowing its off-road cousin’s flat handlebars and a more upright, traffic and comfort-friendly position.
Like a road bike, most modern hybrids are usually built around 700c wheels. However, the tyres are often wider than a road bike’s – but usually not as wide as a mountain bike – allowing you to traverse rough roads and gravel paths comfortably.
Most hybrids are built with a rigid fork, but some are also sold with cheaper suspension forks. While the idea of suspension may seem appealing, be wary because most models are equipped with low-end forks that are heavy and tend to add little to the comfort of the bike.
Cheaper hybrids will usually come with rim brakes, while more expensive models will be equipped with disc brakes. Disc brakes offer more powerful, predictable and reliable braking, regardless of the weather, than rim brakes and are definitely something you should look out for.
Hybrid bikes also offer almost unrivalled versatility, with many bikes bristling with bosses and mounts for every accessory imaginable. This makes them an ideal candidate for conversion to other duties, such as touring.
It’s also worth looking out for hybrids, such as the Cannondale Treadwell EQ, that include accessories as part of the bike package. Adding on mudguards, a rack and lights can add considerable cost, and these packages often present far better value for money than upgrading a ‘naked’ bike.
If you are a beginner looking for a bike for general use or are a dedicated commuter that favours an upright position in traffic, a flat-bar hybrid is likely to be the perfect choice for you.
Pros: Fairly quick, hugely versatile, confidence-inspiring upright position
Cons: Not the lightest or most comfortable bike for longer distances
Electric bikes: best if you need a hand up the hills
As technology has matured and their adoption has become widespread, particularly in continental Europe, there’s absolutely no denying that electric bikes have become an increasingly dominant force in the cycling market.
While the proponents and haters of ebikes will forevermore debate whether or not they have a place in the cycling world, we at BikeRadar are big fans of them.
Not only do they open cycling up to a more broad audience, but they also allow more experienced cyclists to cover far greater distances than would otherwise be possible.
This ability to cover ground easily really comes into its own when turned to your commute; with the helping hand that an electric-assist ebike affords – assist is the key phrase here – it allows those that live out of town to consider riding long distances to work, even with a heavy load.
We highlight the word assist because one of the great misconceptions surrounding electric bikes is that they do all the work for you, which is not the case.
You still have to pedal on an ebike and will invariably tire yourself out riding one, you’ll just do it over a far greater distance than on a regular bike.
Of course, there’s a weight and price penalty to pay with an ebike, but the technology that powers them is becoming ever more accessible.
While we don’t want to speculate too much, we can totally foresee modern, ultra-reliable ebikes becoming a truly viable car alternative in years to come.
With that in mind, for those that live far away from work, it’s definitely worth considering whether ditching the car, and the associated cost of running one, and investing in an electric bike is a viable option.
Pros: Possible to cover great distances, even when loaded; very efficient; a true car alternative
Cons: Heavy, must be recharged, expensive (for now)
Folding bikes: best if your commute involves public transport
Most often built around diminutive 16in or 20in wheels, folding bikes, as the name suggests, fold down into often impressively small packages that can be stored just about anywhere at either end of your journey.
Folding bikes are also ideal for those that don’t intend to ride the entire way to work and plan on completing part of the journey by public transport – or, if you prefer the trendy word of the moment, those that prefer to go ‘multimodal’.
A folding bike won’t handle like a regular bike due to its use of small wheels and the inevitable compromise that creating a packable bike demands. They also tend to feel pretty sluggish on the road, but how likely is it that you’ll be regularly razzing around the streets at full gas during rush hour on a folding bike anyway?
While some folding bikes are built around larger wheels, they don’t fold down nearly as compact as their small-wheeled brethren, so some trains and buses won’t accept them, making these only really useful when space is a premium at home or work.
The undoubted market leader here is Brompton, with an incredibly clever design that has become something of a modern classic. That said, there are lots of interesting options from other manufacturers too, such as Tern.
If convenience, easy storage and the ability to travel on public transport trumps all, a folder is likely the right choice for you.
Pros: Incredibly convenient to store and travel with
Cons: Not as spritely, confidence inspiring or comfortable as a ‘full-sized’ bike
Town bikes: best for hassle-free, day-to-day riding
Often referred to as Dutch or sit-up-and-beg bikes, town bikes come in all shapes and sizes, but are generally characterised by an upright riding position and oodles of practical accessories.
Town bikes are also generally very heavy. Practicality is the key focus here, with stout, abuse-proof frames and components that are designed to last almost indefinitely over featherweight, speed-focused performance.
The heft and upright position of a town bike can make for a pretty slow ride. These bikes are also usually outfitted with an internal gear hub drivetrain with a limited range, making them a challenge to get up hills. For what they lack in speed, however, they more than make up for in fit-and-forget practicality.
Usually outfitted with full-length mudguards, chainguards, racks or baskets and often even integrated dynamo lighting, town bikes are as practical as it gets, offering true hop-on-and-go convenience that could even go some ways to replacing a car in an urban environment.
If you live in a flat-ish area and fancy schlepping baguettes, kids and groceries in the utmost of leisurely style, a town bike may be the ideal option for you.
Pros: Relaxed riding position, eminently practical, perfect for the maintenance-phobic
Cons: Weight, not the easiest on the hills, often not that cheap
Fixed gear/singlespeed bikes: best if you hate maintenance
Popularised by bicycle messengers, and long-adored by hip urbanites, the classic fixie/singlespeed bike continues to attract devotees in every corner of the world.
The appeal of a singlespeed bike is totally understandable. With no multi-gear drivetrain to worry about, fixies and singlespeed bikes offer a largely fuss- and maintenance-free ride that’s ideal for commuting.
It’s worth clarifying that a fixie has no freewheel – that’s the component that allows the drivetrain to coast, so if you’re moving on a fixie, you’re pedalling. Riding a fixie for the first time is an incredibly odd sensation that will no doubt result in a spill at some point, so probably isn’t the most suitable for beginners.
Luckily, most singlespeed bikes come in a ‘flip-flop’ arrangement, with one side of the rear wheel being set up with a screw-on freewheel and the other a fixed cog. Our advice is to try out the free-coasting side first.
Some riders choose to ride fixies without brakes (as is done in track racing), but be aware that – at least in the UK – it is illegal to do so. A bike must have at least two braking systems (the fixed rear wheel counts as one brake), so make sure you stay on the right side of the law.
With only one gear, riding a singlespeed bike in a hilly location can be challenging, so think carefully before buying.
If you’re after an easy to maintain ride and you don’t mind mashing a hard gear, a singlespeed or fixie may be the perfect commuting choice for you.
Pros: Incredibly simple, often good value for money
Cons: Potentially unpleasant in hilly areas, not very adaptable
Road bikes: best if you’re riding a long distance on roads
For those that plan on travelling long distances, road bikes can make a great commuter.
Best suited for use on tarmac, road bikes are the best way to ride long distances fast.
However, a road bike subjected to constant abuse from potholes, poor weather and rough terrain will inevitably deteriorate quicker than a hardier bike. But given appropriate care and regular maintenance, it will, of course, last for years.
You’re unlikely to want to spend a fortune on a road bike dedicated to commuting, even bikes as cheap as the £600 mark can make great and dependable rides. Just make sure that whatever you choose has mudguard eyelets, a dependable groupset and a strong, high spoke-count wheelset.
While carbon will offer the lightest and stiffest ride possible, value for money (which a cheaper alloy or steel bike may offer) and longevity should be your primary concerns. If you do decide to go for a carbon bike, greater care should also be taken when locking it up.
On the subject of locks, it’s worth noting that thieves really do love a road bike, so invest in a chunky and dependable lock that will save on stress and potential heartbreak in the long run. Remember that if you opt for a particularly bulky lock you can always leave it attached to your bike rack at work.
Finally, most road bikes will come with lightweight and fast-rolling tyres. While these will feel great on a fast Sunday ride, they’re likely to be far more puncture-prone than a sturdier tyre, and you’ll probably want to swap them out for commuting.
Pros: Quick, efficient, great fun
Cons: Not the sturdiest
Gravel/adventure/cyclocross bikes: best if you want to ride far on bad roads
Primarily, clearances are improved so that chunkier tyres can be fitted, smoothing out the ride on broken surfaces. The wheelbase of a gravel bike is also often considerably longer than a road bike, with the head angle also often slackened in a bid to ease handling in rougher terrain.
Most gravel bikes are fitted with disc brakes, with only a few now available with cantilever or v-brakes.
Gravel bikes are designed with versatility in mind, with most having provisions to mount mudguards, racks and multiple bottle cages. Combined with a road-like fit, these bikes make excellent commuters for those who have to contend with poor roads or even light off-road detours.
Dedicated cyclocross bikes tend to lack these commuter-friendly provisions and also usually feature a more aggressive fit than their all-road minded cousins, but still make great commuters with some modifications.
Pros: Incredibly adaptable with a fast and comfortable ride
Cons: Not as quick on tarmac as a road bike, but more suitable for commuting overall
Mountain bikes: best if you commute on truly rough terrain
The upright riding position and sturdy nature of a mountain bike has long made it a popular choice for commuters.
While a mountain bike’s stock knobbly tyres are great if your commute follows an off-road route, they will add a considerable amount of drag when riding in town. If you plan on using a mountain bike solely for commuting, we’d recommend that you fit slick tyres to unleash its full potential.
We would also recommend that you steer clear of full-suspension mountain bikes if your main aim is commuting because you’ll just be paying for a load of technology that you’ll never really use.
Instead, look for a cross-country bike, even one that’s fully rigid, and as with everything else, ensure it has all the mounts you need to make the bike more commuting friendly.
Pros: Upright riding position, super durable
Cons: Heavier than other options, slow on tarmac, not the most versatile