Are you planning to set up a commuter bike? If so, this post has everything you need to know, including how to choose a suitable bike, and how to equip it with essential accessories for safe and comfortable bike commuting.
Start with a Good Bike!
I strongly recommend that you do not buy a cheap department store bike and hope to be able to use it as a form of transport.
Reasons NOT to Buy a Department Store Bike:
- Department store bikes have cheap components that will not work well and will not last long.
- These cheap components are assembled by people who are not bike mechanics, so the bikes may be incorrectly assembled. I know someone whose department store bike literally fell apart under her the first day she rode it. And she only weighed about a hundred pounds!
- Department store bikes will likely not have the braze-ons you will need to mount essential gear on your bike, such as fenders. You could tie these on with zip ties, but that would be unstable and unsafe.
What is a braze-on?
A braze-on is a small fitting permanently attached to a frame. They are used to attach accessories such as fenders or water bottle holders. They may be brazed onto the frame in the case of a steel bike, or welded, glued, riveted or molded to the frame. Whatever technique is used, they provide solid supports for the accessories that are essential for a great commuter bike.
What Kind of Bike Should You Get?
This depends on your needs and abilities, and on your route. If for example your entire route to work was over a mountain, you would need a mountain bike. You can also use a mountain bike to navigate city roads with potholes. However, as mountain bikes are on the heavy side, you would have a slower ride. Uphills would be that much harder.
If you are young and strong and your body is able to withstand a lot of rough bumps while cycling, you might opt for the opposite kind of bike: a road bike (also called a race bike). This is the lightest and fastest option, but is not necessarily the best choice for most commuters. Road bikes encourage an aggressive riding style, which is great for winning the Tour de France, but not necessarily great for a middle-aged commuter transporting their lunch and a heavy laptop through traffic. The aggressive style, plus the limited cushioning provided by skinny tires and a minimalist frame, could soon cause lower back pain, tennis elbow, and other ailments that cause you to ditch the bike.
An ideal commuting bike for most average people will be a strong, good quality bike, possibly with front shocks to be gentler to your hands and elbows. It would likely have a relatively upright position to make it easy for you to see traffic. It definitely should have bombproof mid-range components (i.e. brakes, gears, etc.), such as Shimano Tiagra or Deore. There should be enough clearance between the tires and the frame so that you can mount fenders (always check this when buying a bike). And of course, it should have the braze-ons previously mentioned, and possibly even have the front forks drilled with mounts for extra panniers. It should have at least one place to mount a bottle holder. If you are a thirsty kind of person or plan to commute 30 miles, it should have two places to mount a bottle holder.
Also, make sure your bike has all the gears you need. If you have hills to climb and lots of luggage to carry, you will benefit from a triple front gear ring. This will give you more gears, and easier gears. If you are a beginner, we have a post right here that explains how to use your gears to make cycling easier. My own commuter bike has three rings on the front derailleur, which is always my preference. Sometimes I just need that grandpa gear!
A hybrid bike usually offers all or most of the above options. Hybrid bikes aim to combine rugged strength with some suspension, a range of gears, and a comfortable riding position that can be sustained for a long time by most people. However, they are lighter and faster than mountain bikes, with slimmer tires (but not skinny tires).
A good hybrid bike from a reputable bike manufacturer will cost you anything from $500 upwards. Note that most bike manufacturers will offer a range of road bikes, a range of hybrid bikes, etc. Within each range, the cheapest bike will have the cheapest components. However, it will still be a decent bike with a strong frame to get started on. The cheapest bike from a quality bike maker is better than the most expensive, shiniest bike you could ever find in a department store.
Of course, there are as many great options for commuter bikes as there are individual cyclists. I have ended up with a Specialized Tricross (which I reviewed here). This bike looks like a road bike, but has a more relaxed riding position, much more shock absorption, and is very strong. I made it even more comfortable by changing the handlebar stem to bring the handlebars higher, as well as closer, to me.
If you can afford it, a great option is to have a built-in dynamo hub that generates power for integrated front and rear lights, so that you always have bright lights without even having to think about it. If you already have a bike, you can buy a dynamo hub and retrofit it to your bike. This is one of the best things you can do to make commuter cycling easier and safer, because it will ensure you always have lights on, while you never have to remember to charge batteries.
It is always best to buy a bike from a bike store, where you can usually get good advice, and can always test ride the bike. If budget is a major concern, you can get very good deals online, but you do have to be careful. I have tons of tips for buying used bikes online here. If for some reason you cannot get to a bike store, I have a list of decent bikes that can be bought online here.
Finally, before you start using your bike for regular transport, make sure it is in perfect running order. If it is an old bike, get a tune-up at your local bike store, and spare no expense making sure your brakes are working perfectly. If it is a new bike, take it back to the store for a tune-up after the first month of riding it.
Essential Accessories for Your Commuter Bike
Once you have a decent commuter bike, you are half way there! Next, there are several accessories that are essential for safe, comfortable commuter cycling.
Lights for Your Commuter Bike
Probably the most important thing is to get decent lights for your bike – at least one at the back and one in the front. If it gets dark, you need to be able to see! At all times, you need to be seen, in order to be safe. I never commute without lights, and I run my lights in the daytime too. I like to be as visible as possible. We have an entire post here about choosing a great bike light, and comparing 7 of the best bike lights. If you want a quick fix, this is my suggested ideal bike light setup.
Suggested Ideal Bike Light Setup
Front light: the Lumintrail 1000 lumens headlight, which can be easily moved from your handlebars to your helmet. I find that a helmet light is the safest, because when I realize that a motorist has not seen me, I can usually get his attention by looking at him, thereby shining a light directly into his eyes. I have a review of this light here. Most of the time, this light will be brighter than you need – but you can just use it on a lower setting. The point is, you will have plenty of lighting power when you need it. It is really easy to adjust the setting on this bike light as you ride.
Rear light: I love the Serfas Thunderbolt tail light, which is easy to mount, easy to charge, and super bright, with 30 lumens of pure red light. I have been using the same one for many years, and it is still in perfect condition. I have a full review of this light here.
This bike light is available in a variety of colors. It attaches to your bike in seconds with silicone bands, so that you can quickly take it off your bike and charge it at your desk.
Side lights: These are optional, but I believe they hugely increase safety. My favorite are the Monkeylectric lights – 32 programmable LED lights that attach in one unit to your spokes. You can read all about these useful, fun lights here. I have used them for years, and they seem to be impervious to rain and snow.
Reflectors: these are essential, and usually come free with all bikes. If you don’t have any, get some! I have a post about free and cheap ways to get bike reflectors here.
Below are links to all of our best posts on bike lights
How to use this slideshow: Clicking on a picture will take you to that post. Hovering your mouse over a pic will pause the slideshow. On the right and left, there are arrows to move ahead or back.
Bike Racks for Commuter Bikes
It is important to have a good quality bike rack so that you can carry your clothes, lunch, laptop, shoes, etc. on your commuter bike. Yes, you could carry all this in a backpack. And some people do this. However, panniers are a much more practical solution:
- Panniers put the weight on your bike, not on you, so you can ride in comfort. This makes it much less likely that you will develop problems such as back pain while cycling.
- Panniers put the extra weight you are carrying close to the ground, which makes the bike more balanced and stable. This makes it easier and safer for you to ride and maneuver your bike.
A really good quality bike rack, such as the Topeak Explorer bike rack, does not cost much money, and lasts forever. I have literally never heard anyone say, “Rats – my bike rack wore out!” So, a decent bike rack is totally worth the investment.
Install your bike rack securely so you don’t lose your panniers mid route. If you are not good at this kind of work, buy the rack at a bike shop and ask them to install it for you. If you are buying a new bike, any accessories you buy at the time of purchase are almost always installed for free. If you are buying later, the charge to install purchased accessories is usually very reasonable, and some shops will even do it for free.
If you are even remotely handy, you will be able to install a bike rack yourself, as they are pretty simple structures (as long as you have braze-ons!)
Panniers for Commuter Bikes
There are an enormous number of great panniers to choose from, with an enormous range in cost as well. We have an entire post about 7 of the best bike panniers, here. A great pannier will make your bike commuting life simple and organized – as opposed to spending hours searching for your keys, your shoes, your lunch, and so on. Been there, done that, and it was not pretty for the people in the office next door!
I recently found the Topeak MTX Trunk Bag pannier, which is an excellent, organized, spacious pannier for bike commuters. It integrates perfectly with the Topeak rack, so that you can just slide the pannier onto the rack, and use the quick release to take it off. As you can see in this video at minute 4:00, the Topeak Trunk Bag pannier can be used as just a rack mounted box-type storage device – extremely handy and accessible – and then, if you need more space, the sides fold down to give you lots more space.
Also, the top folds out enough to fit a gallon of milk, or a bike helmet. And there is a bottle holder at the back! This gives you so much storage, plus so many different compartments to keep things sensibly organized. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a great method of organizing all your stuff as you commute to and from work. Which is why I am excited about this very well-thought-out pannier trunk bag. I love it!
Pro tip: Figure out the best compartments to put your various belongings, and then stick to that system consistently. Soon, you will be able to find your keys in the dark (which is very handy on the occasions when that is exactly what you need to do).
Pro tip: Get a cheap buckle to attach your keys securely just inside one of the exterior compartments. That way, you can always find them easily (they won’t sink to the bottom and hide away under your peanut butter sandwich). This is the cheapest hack I know for staying organized, calm, and sane while being a bike commuter.
Fenders for a Commuter Bike
When I first decided to bike commute, I imagined blissful scenes of sunny skies and birdsong, with me pedaling along merrily, singing raucously. Then I actually did it for a while, and discovered that scenario is definitely not always the case. However, I had become so hooked on the fun and stress relief of bike commuting that I kept on cycling, regardless of whether the sun was shining, or it was pouring rain or sleet. It can be done, and is actually fun in its own way, but you do have to be correctly set up.
If you live in a place that has more than seven days of rain per year, you absolutely are going to need fenders.
Sure, you could stay at work till the storm passes – but there will still be plenty of water on the ground. And on a bike, most of the water will come from the road, not the sky. You will discover that bike tires are quite expert at whipping puddles off the ground and into your face – or up your back, so you look like you had a bathroom-related accident on your way to work. Your tires can also whip water into the face of the cyclist behind you, which is really not cool!
Good wrap-around fenders will protect against all of this, keeping you dryer, and in the long run, keeping your bike in better condition because it will be hit with less grimy mud. When I say good fenders, I mean fenders such as the Planet Bike commuter fenders, which stay on the bike permanently, and that wrap around the wheel as much as possible.
If you really like to be minimalist, you can get little plastic removable fenders that you put on only when you need them. But personally, I don’t want to delay the prospect of my dinner while I stop on the side of the road in a sudden downpour, trying to find a tool to mount my little plastic fenders. For me, good quality, permanent, wrap-around fenders are absolutely essential for a good commuter bike setup.
Cycling Gloves and Ergonomic Hand Grips
If you plan to spend a lot of time cycling to work, you need to take steps to ensure that you don’t develop numb hands while riding, and sore wrists and elbows after riding. The first step is to wear cycling gloves with some padding, to absorb the shocks.
The next step is to have comfy ergonomic handgrips that allow your hands to be in a relaxed position. These make a massive difference to my riding comfort, and definitely enable me to avoid a recurrence of the tennis elbow that used to plague me before I discovered the existence of ergonomic grips.
Comfortable Saddle for Your Commuter Bike
The saddle that comes with your bike might be great, and it might not be great. If it turns out not to be comfortable, it is essential you find a saddle that works well for you. If not, riding is just not going to be fun. You may develop soreness, chafing, or even more serious complications.
I have included mention of two of my favorite saddles here, because they are both saddles I have used for years to avoid saddle soreness. The Brooks saddles are hand made in England, and aim to provide a lifetime of cycling comfort by molding to your body.
For a made-in-the-USA option, the famous Selle Anatomica saddles combine quality leather materials with anatomical science, to bring you a saddle with a slot that is designed to eliminate perineal pressure, sit bone pain, and saddle sores. The slot design also gives the saddle great flexibility, with the result that the “break-in” period, during which the saddle adapts to your body, is much faster than with traditional leather saddles.
Apart from these two favorites, there are many cheaper saddles on the market that use gel padding to keep you comfortable.
Many of the comfort saddles include springs in the seat post, to increase comfort – one of Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist’s personal favorites.
We have an entire post about choosing a comfortable saddle here. The post includes information on how to position your saddle correctly to ensure comfortable cycling.
Gel Seat Cover
Here’s a great idea I got from reader Omer Rosenbaum – you can buy saddle covers that have enough padding that you don’t have to wear padded shorts! This is ideal for those who prefer not to dress up in special gear just to ride a bike. Omer recommends this cheap, simple Velo Gel seat cover.
Find a Great Lock for Your Commuter Bike
Of course, it goes without saying that you need a great bike lock to protect your great commuter bike. And in fact, I did not say it in the first version of this post, because I forgot. Oops! Luckily, reader Omer Rosenbaum kindly pointed that out to me.
If you are going to leave your bike alone in public for even five minutes, you absolutely must protect it with a great bike lock. To find a great bike lock, you could refer to our post on 5 of the best bike locks, here. Or, you could take a short cut and just take a look at the short chart below, which shows our picks for the 5 best bike locks.
Chart Showing Our Picks for the Best Bike Locks
|No. 1: Kryptonite New York Standard Lock|
Best Price on Amazon right now: $97.95
|18 mm thick; weighs 6.1 lb (2.76 kg)||3.9" x 10.3" (10.3 cm x 26.1 cm)||Large enough for most situations; 1 key has a built in light; double deadbolt; center keyway with cover; comes with a Transit FlexFrame Bracket for mounting on bike|
|No. 2: Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit U-Lock|
Best Price on Amazon right now: $95.99
|18 mm thick; weighs 4.55 lb (2.06 kg)||3.25" x 6" (8.3 cm x 15.3 cm)||Lighter because it is smaller; 1 key has a built in light; double deadbolt; center keyway; no mount|
|No. 3: Kryptonite New York Legend Chain|
Best Price on Amazon right now: $168.85
|15 mm thick chain links; 3 foot long chain weighs 10 lb (4.5 kg); 5 foot weighs 16 lb (7.3 kg)||Choice of 3 foot long or 5 foot long; Height and width will depend how you use it||Will keep your bike safe but is too heavy to carry on bike – needs to be kept in one place|
|No. 4: Onguard Brute STD|
Best Price on Amazon right now: $44.46
|16 mm thick; weighs 4.17 lb (1.86 kg)||4.53" x 7.96" (11.5 cm x 20.2 cm)||Comes with mount; great security on a budget; after-sales not as good as Kryptonite|
|No. 5: Abus Bordo Granit X Plus Foldable|
Best Price on Amazon right now: $117.06
|5.5 mm thick; weighs 3.48 lb (1.58 kg)||4.72 x 2.36 x 11.02 inches when unfolded (12 cm x 6 cm x 28 cm); folds up much smaller||Folding lock; relatively light; flexible, so it can be tied to a variety of objects; 2 keys, 1 with LED light; very secure but not quite as secure as other 4 locks|
Pedals for Your Commuter Bike
We use platform pedals, that is, flat pedals with no clips to secure your feet. We like being able to get our feet onto the ground quickly if we have to stop suddenly due to traffic. Some people will tell you that platform pedals are right out because they are less efficient than pedals with toe clips, or pedals that you can clip into with cleats. Well, we think that it’s a personal choice. There is not much point in being more efficient with your pedaling if you are worried about falling all the time. Or if you are being slowed down by actually falling!
It comes down to personal preference. If you feel you can pedal just fine and feel more confident with flat pedals, then use flat pedals. If you are athletic enough that you can handle being clipped in just fine, then get pedals that you can clip into.
If you decide you prefer platform pedals, don’t assume that the ones you got with your bike are just fine. Often, this is one of the areas where manufacturers save money. The pedals may even be plastic, and if they break while you are standing in the pedals – ouch! Been there, done that, never going to do that again!
Apart from making sure your pedals are strong, it is also best to get non-slip pedals for rainy conditions. Typically, these have bumpy surfaces to prevent your feet slipping. Having your foot slip off the pedals can cause painful accidents, so definitely make sure this cannot happen to you.
Tires for Your Commuter Bike
Bike tires can range from very fat to very skinny. The fatter they are, the softer and slower the ride. On the other hand, with very fat tires you can even ride on beach sand. Very skinny tires will give you a much faster ride, but you are going to feel every pothole, and you may find yourself sliding around if you have to go onto gravel. So basically, there is a compromise between comfort and speed (as with so many other things in life). Tires also differ in the amount of tread they have – mountain bikes have quite fat, very knobby tires, while high-end road bikes may have tires so slick that they have no tread at all.
If you have a typical commute that is mainly off-road, but may include occasional potholes or gravel, you are probably going to feel most comfortable with bike tires somewhere in the middle of the range. Wide enough to give you a firm grip on the road, but slick enough that you roll quite efficiently. For a general rule of thumb, it is usually best not to go thinner than a 700×28 tire. However, see how it feels and just make sure you have tires that feel safe and comfortable for you, and still help you to get to work in the time you have available.
I very strongly recommend that you get puncture-resistant tires, such as the excellent Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.
For a few extra dollars, you will prevent hours of inconvenience and stress. A flat tire can really ruin your bike commute, and make you late for work (or worse, late for dinner). I have used Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires for years, and in thousands of miles of cycling have had just one puncture (and that was picked up in a construction site).
Once you have decent tires, keep them inflated to the maximum recommended rating.
Pro tip: The recommended pressure for your tires can be found in tiny print on the tire. Over time, that print will fade and become ever harder to read. So, the first time you read it, write it down somewhere accessible, such as on a Notes app on your phone.
You are absolutely going to need two good pumps: a floor pump that stays at home, and a mini pump that you always carry with you. Some of these can be carried right on the bike. I actually have three pumps – a floor pump at home and another floor pump at work, plus my mini pump. Floor pumps are easy to use and will show you your tire pressure on a gauge.
Pro tip: In my experience, it is pretty much useless to test tire pressure by squeezing the tire. This will only tell you if your tire is flat or not-flat – it will not tell you if it is at optimal pressure for a good ride. It is best to check your tires once a week with a floor pump, and re-inflate to the recommended pressure.
The mini pump is harder to use – it takes a lot more effort to inflate a tire with it. Also, it typically has no gauge, so it is really just for on-the-road emergencies. Or perhaps for after work, to pump in just enough air to get home or get to a bike shop, if you find your tire has mysteriously deflated during the day.
Try to get pumps that auto-adjust to Presta or Schrader valves – they will make your life so much easier.
Saddle Bag with Emergency Kit
If you are going to bike commute regularly, you really need to travel with some kind of emergency kit, ideally carried in a saddle bag that you never even have to think about.
What you are going to carry in your emergency kit will vary, based on your personal preferences. Apart from your emergency kit, if possible you should have a phone and a credit card, as well. You always want to be able to call for help, or get a cab if you or the bike just cannot go another mile.
Useful items to include in your bike commuting emergency kit:
Good multi-tool – essential. Every cyclist needs this, even if you don’t know how to do repairs. They can be used by anyone to tighten a loose mirror or bike stand, for example.
Local bike routes map – essential. You may rely primarily on a bike computer or Google Maps, but what if your device runs out of power?
Rain jacket – can be essential, depending on your local climate. A super lightweight, packable jacket such as the new Gore-Tex Shakedry jacket will fit into larger saddle bags, and in any pannier. I have an entire post here about how to choose a great cycling jacket, and comparing 7 of the best waterproof cycling jackets. And here is a post about the new Gore-Tex Shakedry cycling jackets.
Spare tube – highly recommended. Even if you are going to pay someone else to fix your flat, there is no guarantee they will have the correct tube in stock or on their truck.
Kind Bar, or whatever energy bar you prefer – highly recommended. It can happen that your bike ride gets a lot longer than planned – such as if you get lost – and completely running out of energy can be pretty catastrophic.
Puncture kit – optional. This is only useful if you know how to use it. Otherwise, make sure you have a credit card to pay someone else to fix it!
If I have left out anything that you have found to be essential or useful in your saddle bag, please let me know in the comments!
Bicycle Bell for Your Commuter Bike
In my opinion, these are essential. There are many conditions in which alerting someone you are coming will make you both safer. There are also conditions in which I just feel it is polite not to scare people by suddenly riding past them without warning. A bicycle bell is such a unique and well-recognized signal that a bike is coming, that I just think they are very useful to the point of being essential.
Pro tip: If you have a lot of things on your handlebars, space may be at a premium. The Mirrycle Incredibell is a tiny bell that will take up almost no space at all.
Rear-View Mirror for Your Commuter Bike
Very few people have rear-view mirrors on their bikes – a fact which I find surprising. Being able to see what is behind you makes you so much safer. On at least one occasion, I have been able to save my own life because I could see something coming behind me (the “something” was an out-of-control Jeep in the bike lane). Your ears alone cannot tell you if one of the hundreds of cars around you is actually heading straight for your rear wheel. When I test ride bikes, I feel as if I am half blind, because I am so used to the extra perception I get from my bike mirror. I personally use Mirrycle mirrors, and have found them to be very hardy. I adjust them a lot, and they stay in good shape. They really are remarkably robust, yet very cheap.
I hope that this post has given you the information you need to set up the best commuter bike to meet your needs. If you have any great ideas to add, please share them in the Comments below!
Below are links to all of our best posts on bike commuting
How to use this slideshow: Clicking on a picture will take you to that post. Hovering your mouse over a pic will pause the slideshow. On the right and left, there are arrows to move ahead or back.
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