Building a Commuter Bike
Hey folks. So, if you’ve seen my bike, it’s a cobbled-together road bike that I can’t help but love. It’s not fancy, but it’s swift and looks pretty good too.
However, as my office prepares to move Downtown, I’m going to be needing something that’s a little better at riding in all weather types. I want to build a commuter bike.
My first thought was to pay Thick Bikes a visit and sort through their selection of used bikes. Then my second thought was to check out Iron City Bicycles for something that fits my purpose.
I’m really not sure what to do or where to start, here. I need a bike that is reasonably fast, but can have fun things like fenders, a crate (or saddlebags, room for blinky lights, etc.
Is a cheap used bike that can be fixed up the way to go? Or should I try to find something pre-built?
Thanks guys! Any advice would be appreciated as I ease into daily bike travel.
Reliability is probably important. That would push towards a new bike – for me, at least.
I like having a really low lowest gear. And a 2nd gear that’s close to the first. There might be days when you might not feel athletic on yoru way home.
I have a Surly Crosscheck with a triple front chain ring and it’s been very good as a commuter, but a bit spendy. Other people like theirs too.
I ride a 10 year old Trek Navigator 300 with a milk crate on the back. This is considered a “comfort bike” — probably some category of “hybrid.” Dorksville, but very reliable. Make sure that whatever you get will actually take full fenders and a rack. And, maybe slightly wider tires than you’re used to. I don’t mind some extra weight in order to have puncture-resistant tires. Sometimes I wish the wheels were bigger though. There are some good threads on this board about dressing for year-round riding. I spent some $$ on good rain gear and wool layers & haven’t regretted it.
What is your cobbled road bike? Given that you like it could you not simply continue to cobble?
Sadly, this road bike’s frame is super thin and doesn’t do well on ice and snow. I say that, ‘cus I tried to take it and fell right on my side.
It’s also not very reliable (I have to tweak it constantly – which is okay, for what it is), and I’d love something that I could leave in the woods for a few weeks, pick up, and keep riding. Well, that’s kind of an exaggeration, but, you know.
Sounds like you’re looking for something with an internal hub, for one thing, like shimano nexus 7 or 8, like that.
I’ve been thinking I should do this too. For one, my poor 18 year old MB-4 frame deserves better than only getting to go out in the muck and snow. For two, I’d really like disc brakes, an IGH, and a generator hub.
But, then I sit down and try to put together something like that and it comes out ridiculously expensive. Especially depending on whether I convince myself 306% gear range is enough or if I really want 526% at 4x the price.
For me, in Pittsburgh a 306% gear ratio is not what I would ever do. I know there are people out there on fixies and single speeds and props to them.
For me, the choice is either go with the 526% Rholoff or with the triple chainring.
As Howling Wolf (one of my favorite singer -songwriters) says “I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.”
Mitch, check out the redline conquest classic. Cromoly cross frame with decent parts spec (shimano tiagra/sora groupo and alex double wall rims with sealed bearing hubs) it comes with disc brakes (SRAM bb5 road) and its 100% ready for fenders and racks. It’s about 1100 new but totally worth it. I’m probably going to get one this spring.
^that’s what I have- it’s been great, though I want to put different tires on it at some point.
I’ll take the flack for this recommendation, but check out bikesdirect.com. Kayla and I bought Dawes Lightning Cross bikes last summer and have been very happy with them. At a sub-$500 price tag, it’s a great value.
If can afford paying 50-100% more for a brand-name bike that has similar specs, I would recommend it. With my experience with BD bikes, there are often details that are overlooked.
For instance, on the Lightning Cross: most racks will have to be modified to fit because of the position of the threaded holes on the drop out, it could use a bit more offset for the fork, and every size bike comes with 44cm bars–chances are, someone ordering a 48cm frame, doesn’t need 44cm bars.
Though if you are on a budget, BD bikes are an unbeatable value.
Kona makes/used to make some really nice commuter bikes. I have a Smoke 2-9 that I ride most of the time, purchased for under $350, and it can stock with very nice fenders. Yeah, the parts aren’t high end, but they are easy enough to replace as you have time and money.
They make several other models to hit various price points, but really, you can’t go wrong with the Smoke as a commuter.
Thanks for the great advice so far, guys.
When I look around for a high yield chain ring, what do I look or ask for? I want one that can help me easily get up hills. Should I just measure the lowest ring I have on my road bike and work off of that?
Get something with a triple front chainring, specifics aren’t critical, most will be 34 or 36 tooth low. And with a triple front the cog on the rear isn’t that critical either, you’ll want a 28 tooth low minimum, up to 36 teeth.
If you feel like a little project, you could always do a Craigslist/Kraynicks/Freeride special – what you see here, 100 bucks+-, all in:
34 is not very low even for a road triple.
sheldon has a gear calculator at his site:
my road crank is 30/39/50 with a 12-25 cassette, so with 700c32 tires my lowest gear is 32.1″
on my MTB i have 24/36/46, 13-30, 26×2.1 tires = 20.8″
so, even my road bike’s low gear (which is fairly low by road standards, 40″+ is more typical for a standard double crank) is 55% higher than my MTB… it definitely makes a difference for really steep hills or hauling a lot of stuff. and, it’s much easier on the knees – i try to maintain 80-100rpm at all times instead of having to crank hard which is way more possible on the MTB than the road bike.
PS: gear-inches is just a way to compare gears on different bikes. basically, it’s the equivalent wheel diameter if you were on a penny-farthing. some people prefer development which is how far you travel in one rotation of the pedals (pi * gear-inches).
good info, salty, but i gotta admit. it’s so much greek to me.
The smallest chain ring on each of the bikes I use is either 21 or 22 teeth.
Gives me a F:B ratio of less than 0.7.
When I had 28 front and 32 back, which seems standard on cheap triples, I spent too much time wishing I had a lower gear.
The bike Nick recommended (if I have this right)…
… has a lowest gear with 36 in the front and 25 in the rear. That would leave me walking up hills several times a day.
If I had a standard 3 speed, I’d want the low to be about that. Maybe lower.
Salty’s mountain bike strikes me as about right.
Also, some bikes have a superlow granny gear that is way, way lower than second gear. Been there, done that. Spent a year shifting between too high and too low every time I climbed a hill.
Mick, it’s actually this one:
Lowest is 30 up front and 25 in the rear.
Salty: your explanation of the gear ratios really interests me. I ride a cyclocross bike, and my friends on road bikes are forever telling me i’d have an easier time with a new cassette. Can you direct me to that calculator?
And, if you know where I might read more on it, i’d appreciate that too.
@kayla, That looks better to me, but I’d still want to have 2 or 3 lower gears. Just one gear lower than that would not be enough for me.
I think I have 5 (of 24) speeds that are lower than than that. My two lowest gears get a lot of use – probably each more than my highest gear.
YMMV – a lot of folks would be happy with those gear ratios.
It’s good for msprout to hear different opinions.
@msprout it’s so much greek to me
For clarity on terminology.
Chainrings = front gears.
For Salty’s mountain bike, “24/36/36” are the number of teeth on his 3 front gears.
Cassette = back gears. “13-30” are the smallest and largest number of teeth on his back gears.
His lowest gear is 24F, 30B, his highest gear is 46F, 13 B. This gives him a gear range of (highest gear)/(lowest gear) or (46/13) /(24/30) X 100% or 442%.
Hmm, I should figure out all my gears sometime, but I’m a mathophobe. And after I figured it out I wouldn’t remember any of it anyway.
Mick- So how do I analyze my ratio – is 442% about average, is it more difficult? I know everybody’s strength is different, etc., but can you provide any context to help give me a sense of my bike’s ratios vs. road bikes, mountain bikes, etc.
Wow. Lots of awesome info.
So, honestly, I should look for as low of a low gear as I can muster? I really value having a powerful go-to low gear in case I feel awful on a bike going up hills – which, sadly, is more often than I’d like.
@ ALMKLM: What you asked for (and more, more, MORE! than you wanted!)
I looked up a couple of bikes. For me, comfort on hills is it. If I dont’ have the high gear I want, it isn’t a big problem. I need my low gear.
I’ll use 18th Street as an example.
48/38/28 front and 12-32 7-speed rear.
457% gear range
This would be typical of most 21 or 24 speed bikes. For me, the low (28/32) isn’t quite low enough – and it is a really common low gear. I could get up 18th, but I wouldn’t like it much.
A bike shop dweeb famously told me a week after I did the DC trail round-trip “It will be low enough once you get into shape.” Which I think is kinda true for most people.
I would prefer what Salty has on his mountain bike
24/36/46, 13-30 rear,
Low of 24/30 – it’s like half a gear lower than the Trek. But that half-gear is such a difference on all these cliffs they pour asphalt down and call streets around here.
I like to pedal lazily down hills sometimes at a low cadence. With Salty’s mountain bike’s highest gear, I’d either have to coast or work (higher cadence) going down 18th.
The smaller wheels make it slightly easier on the up hill, and slightly less power going down. But the wheels don’t make too much difference.
Salty’s road bike:
The high is good. Low of 30F/25R? I’d usually be walking up 18th. If I didn’t my legs would burn and going slowly wouldn’t help. I want not just one but two lower gears.
I would recommend against this as a commuter bike, and hope I don’t p*ss Salty off, because I like him.
Kayla’s and Nick’s bikes.
The high gear? 52/12? That would be NICE cruising down 18th. The range is decently wide, but too high for me. Not unusual Same low as Salty’s road.
Gary Fisher Mendota (I dont’ know this bike at all, just picked it from the ‘net. Looks nice.)
48/36/26 11-26 9-speed
I would NOT consider this bike for me, because it has 27 speeds, but not the one gear I use the most. (nor the next one up)
Plenty of people here would have no problem with this gear range though and might think me crazed for wanting one lower.
Surly Long Haul Trucker.
48-36-26t 11-34 9-speed
571% (! ! !)
That bike has some GEARS on it. All of it is good.
Internal hubs The Shimano 8 speeds have about 310% range, which is OK at best.
They irritate me because they have small shifts between the highest gears and big shifts between the low ones. I want the opposite.
I just saw a 9 speed SRAM with 340% gear range.
Looks like an OK set of gears. I like the little 14% jump between the first and second gear. Don’t care for 14% between gear 8 and 9, but no biggie. I could have 28% between the upper gears, no problem.
The Rohloff 14 gear has a range of 524%
CAUTION. Some bikes have one super big cog on the back. This looks good at first. “I’ll have my LOW gear!” But the shift between first gear and second gear is so intense that you find yourself always wanting to be in the middle. That shift between first and second is important and you dont’ want it much more than 20%
Thanks Mick. You seem to both be good with the math, AND enjoy explaining it – a rare combination.
So riddle me this: my bike is 48-39 front, 12-26 rear.
Where would that rate on the Mick Scale?
@almklm – here’s the calculator: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/gears/
A lot of cassettes are listed in the pull-down and then you don’t have to fill out all the boxes below that. Usually I pay attention to the high and low gears and ignore the intermediate ones.
I tend to use gear-inches as a point of comparison, but to get a “feel” for things, the MPH@xx numbers are interesting. 80-100 is normal cadence, 60 is about as low as you can get while seated, and 40 is about as low as you can get standing. On the other end, you’re pretty much spun out at 120.
So, for instance, on my MTB, in low gear (24-30) I can go 4.9mph @80 and 3.7 @60. It’s hard to go too much slower than that without falling over, so you won’t see bikes geared too much lower aside from maybe on a touring or cargo bike.
On my road bike, in the same situation I’m doing 5.8mph. That’s a pretty huge difference – I can’t maintain that on steep hills like Negley – I have to stand up to go any slower which is more tiring and uses different muscles that probably aren’t as strong. I agree with Mick that I’d like to have a lower gear – although it’s ok on all but the really steep hills.
On the top end, I can’t really do any useful pedaling on my MTB above 30mph, and on the road bike it’s about 40. But, overall I think the low gear is way more important.
mick is not going to like 39/26
it’s about 40 gear inches, so roughly twice as high as my MTB’s lowest gear, 7.2mph @60rpm. that’s a pretty standard road gearing and plenty of people ride something like that, but i’m with mick – i like the low gears. although, of course fitness/age/weight all play into that as well. none of those 3 are especially on my side.
Salty/Mick – thanks for the perspective. I guess my bike is a Rumsfeld: you ride the bike you have, not the bike you want… or something like that.
A granny gear would obviously be nice given the terrain around here. But, in the meantime, I guess it’s just Rule #5 for me.
I think i’m going to look for ranges you guys mentioned. I mean, i guess it’s not so important to micromanage here, but it’s good to have some idea of what I’m doing.
+1 Bike Knowledge
I think the best idea is to go to some shops, test ride a few bikes with different gearing up hills you’re familiar with, and see how it feels.
I’ll add a +1 for surly crosscheck (or long haul trucker) since I haven’t before, it’s a great bike, but like Mick I swapped out the crank for a triple.
Here’s a good calculator that allows sid by side comparisons, plus a graphic (which makes it easier for me)
Holy cow that’s an incredible gear calculator! It even includes 2 speed kickback hubs, and my dear old Sturmey Archer 3 spds that I love so much. Now I can know!
Here’s a cool bike that would meet your criteria for “leaving in the woods for a few weeks…”
I didn’t find how much it costs, but that would be about as dead reliable as you could get. I think Thick sells Torkers. The thing about internal hubs is that they can be geared as low as you want with a simple cheap cog swap, you just loose the high end, but on commuter bikes, top speed isn’t usually an issue.
How long will your proposed commute be?
Review by some guy named E-rok?.
my commute wouldn’t be more than 6 miles a day. I don’t plan on moving out of the ‘between-the-two-rivers’ area.
In theory gearing on internal hubs can be adjusted to be as low as you want, but in practice too low a gear can create more torque than the hub internals are designed to handle, resulting in little gears going blammo inside the hub.
That said, I really like having gears in my hub on a commuter.
Along the lines of geared hubs, has anyone yet had any direct experience with the Alfine 11?
If you go with something like the Torker (which looks like a nice bike, btw), be sure you buy it from a shop that can show you how the brakes and hubs work. Doing something simple like changing a tube can be immensely frustrating if you don’t understand how the cables connect to the hub/brakes.
That Torker looks rad. I’ll check down at Thick to see if they have one!
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