Cycling to Work? 3 of the Best Urban Bikes for Commuting

Finding a Good Urban Commuter Bike
Photo Credit: 
lejaclyn

3 of the Best Urban Commuter Bike Styles to Consider

Planning to start cycle commuting to work? Good choice! You’ll save money, and you might even arrive faster than by car. Not to mention you’ll skip the need for a cardio workout each day. Commuting to work by bicycle has so many upsides, and many employers are even incentivizing it.

But be careful! If you ride the wrong type of bike, your adventures in two-wheeled transportation will be short lived. Your rusty old beach cruiser or department store mountain bike will get pretty frustrating if you’re riding it five times per week!

Picking the best possible urban commuter bike is essential to sticking with it. Just as you’d invest in your car, you should invest in your bike. It will pay dividends!

So what’s the best bike for commuting anyway? That’s the question I’ll be tackling in this article. We’ll check out three great bicycle styles that are, in general, well suited to your daily commute.

Within each style, I’ll offer a review of a great commuter bike and brand to investigate.

What about bicycle styles to avoid? You bet! I’ll cover that too.

The Road Bike: The best commuter around or a finicky nightmare?

The road bicycle has enduring popularity in the cycling world. They’re fast, light, nimble and efficient. They are the ‘sports car’ of the cycling world, and they’ve been around for a long time. It’s no wonder, then, that many riders find them appealing. Anecdotally, I see more road bikes commuters than any other style in my city.

But how do they stand up to the task of commuting? While it’s true that their qualities of speed and agility will serve you well in city traffic, they can also be pretty uncomfortable.

An aggressive stance means you’re often leaning over the handlebars. Drop bars are intended for aerodynamics, not comfort, and efficient riding is often only achieved when properly attired with cycling shorts, jersey and clipless shoes.

So does all this mean the road bike isn’t the best commuter option? Not necessarily!

Finding Your Subcategory

Back in the days of Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, you might not have had many options for road bike styles. Today, however, you will find that the road bicycle segment is subdivided into many categories.

While they’ll all feature a somewhat aggressive frame geometry and lack suspension components, there are a lot of different styles to choose from.

Here are my suggestions for finding a good commuter road bike suited to your needs:

  • Choose Your Bars: A road bike doesn’t necessarily have to have curled drop bars. In my opinion, the best commuter road bike handlebar style is often a straight bar, similar to  a mountain bike. It gives you a more upright stance while riding, improving your vision and visibility. Your aerodynamics will suffer, but that’s OK.
  • Choose Your Groupset: The difference between the best and the worst urban commuter road bike is often the groupset. A groupset is a collection of components from a manufacturer, typically including the shifters, derailleurs and brakes, as well as often the crankset and chain. There are different price tiers; the pricier the groupset, the better and more smoothly it will shift. The Shimano 105 system is a good groupset that’s pretty popular.
  • Avoid Uber Carbon Fibre: OK, you might be tempted to get the lightest, sleekest carbon fibre road bike for your commute. My advice? Resist that urge! Your commuter road bike is going to be in rain and traffic. It’s going to get dirty. You might have to lock it up outside. Get a good chromoly or aluminum framed bike that you don’t mind wearing out. Go for strong components and beefier tires. Save the high-priced race stuff for your weekend fun.

Diamondback Haanjo: A top commuter road bike that’s built for fun and gravel

In the road category, I’d suggest something similar to the Diamondback Haanjo. This bike has been built to mix the fun of road riding with the ability to hit a bit of gravel on occasion.

It has a less aggressive stance, and it is outfitted with a straight bar for a more upright seating position. It features a 70-degree head tube, so you’re quite a bit more upright.

The frame is 6061 aluminum alloy. That makes the bike reasonably light, though aluminum does transmit vibration. The front fork is actually carbon fibre, which I think they included to reduce weight (since the larger tires and components would make it heavier otherwise). It’s about 23.5 pounds when fully assembled, which is fairly light for the price point and the size of the tires.

This is (in my opinion) one of the best commuter road bikes because they built it to withstand the rigours of a hard daily ride. It is built more for durability and handling than out-and-out top end speed. The slacker frame geometry gives you precise control when maneuvering through traffic, and the Haanjo is fitted with Sora shifters and derailleurs. The crankset is a 46t / 36t FSA Gossamer, and it has a sealed cartridge bottom bracket. The tires are an impressive 32c with beefy tread. You can always switch to something a bit slicker if you want to get a bit faster.

I think the Diamondback Haanjo reviews well as a commuter bike, and your commute would be a lot of fun on this or something similar.

The Urban Bike: City Specific Commuter with Good Overall Utility

With how quickly our world is becoming urbanized, I’m surprised that it has taken the bike industry so long to jump on the trend. City specific urban commuter bicycles are popping up all over the place. While I wouldn’t say they’ve gelled into an identifiable style like mountain or road, urban frames are some of the best bikes for commuting due to their simplicity and utility.

So what classifies an urban bicycle anyway? As mentioned there isn’t one specific identifying feature that I can put my finger on. Rather, a city bike is best identified by the purpose for which it was built. They often have clean, spare looking frames without a ton of doodads. They’re built to be adorned with accessories, bags and lights, so the manufacturer wants the frame to be as clean as possible. That aesthetic also happens to match well with an urban environment.

I find that many of the most popular urban specific commuter bicycles take style cues from the fixed gear look and feel: a classic diamond frame, no suspension parts, and straight chain line. Here are some other features you’ll often find in this style:

  • An internally geared hub is a popular feature on many of the top urban style commuter bikes. Why? Not only does an internal hub give a nice, clean chain line, it also does away with the derailleur. Internal hubs often require less maintenance, and they don’t ‘stick out’ from the side of the bike like a derailleur does. Furthermore, you can shift gears at a standstill: handy if you need to accelerate quickly and get around that bus.
  • Many city bicycles feature integrated racks and baskets. If you’re commuting, you’ll need somewhere to stash your briefcase, computer, phone, wallet, extra clothes, lunch, etc. Integrated racks save you a bit of money and tend to be more secure than third party racks. A quick-release pannier bag is a godsend when you have a meeting to run to.
  • An upright riding position and excellent handling ensure that you’ll see the road and maneuver quickly. The lack of suspension components avoids mushiness when accelerating or decelerating, and ensures you can react swiftly to changing conditions. Long distance / high speed commutes will be less comfortable, but shorter, city traffic speed riding is ideal for this style.
  • Urban tires are usually a bit wider than those on a road bike, and they’ll feature a bit more tread, though not so much as a mountain bike. They are primarily designed to give you traction on wet or dry pavement.

Breezer Downtown: A good urban commuter bike for city life

I wanted to offer an example of a good quality city commuting bicycle with many of the features I’ve outlined above. This is a simple yet beautiful bike from Breezer which is well suited to riding life in a municipal terrain.

The Downtown features a classic, diamond shaped frame that’s high tension steel. The whole aesthetic of the bike is a bit of a vintage throwback, and it is a great looking ride with its gorgeous paint and integrated chain guard.

Obviously, it doesn’t have any suspension components, and the riding position is upright and comfortable. This is preferable in a good city commuting bike. It has riser handlebars which are slightly swept back. The seating position is nice and neutral.

The Downtown features a 5-speed internally geared Nexus hub which you can shift at a standstill. Five speeds is typically more than enough for riding in the city, though if you live in an exceptionally hilly spot you might want a few more gears.

Breezer has thoughtfully added fenders and a rear luggage rack to the mix. The wheels are 700c in size, and the tires are 35c, which is quite wide.

The Downtown is quite heavy at 32 pounds. If you’re hoping for something lighter, you’ll need to increase the budget and find an aluminum framed alternative. On the whole this is a good, simple commuter bike for a very reasonable price point.

There are many, many other alternatives in this category that run the gambit in terms of price. Less money gets you no-name components and a heavier frame. More money gets you things like hydraulic brakes and better shifters.

Folding Bicycles: Among the best bike options for commuting in the city

One of the least appealing things about city bike riding is storage. In my apartment building, I have to cram my precious ride in with hundreds of others. Scratches are inevitable, and hauling it in and out of the tiny bike room is no fun.

A folding bike takes care of that problem! There are many excellent folders that can be stashed in a closet or the trunk of a car when completely folded up.

Many people thing that folding bicycles don’t make good urban commuter bikes due to their wheel size. To that, I have two responses. First, you’d be surprised how fun, fast and capable a small-wheeled folding bike can be! They often can compete with full sized rides in the city. Their only disadvantage is top end speed, which isn’t always a big concern in an urban commute.

Secondly, there are many full-size folding bikes out today, so that’s no longer an excuse!

They vary in form and function, but most folders are fantastic for the trip to and from work. Once you arrive, you can break it down in seconds and carry it inside. Some even come with storage cases!

But Are They Capable?

Absolutely! A 700c folding bicycle will compare admirably to a non-folder in most aspects. The one key shortfall is the lack of gears, but even that is changing. SwissBike, for example (a brand that became famous for their ‘backpack bike’, has a line of folding mountain bicycles that have up to 30 speeds at your disposal. The Montague FIT has 30 gears as well.

All of this is a huge advantage. Suddenly, an apartment dweller can store a full-sized ride without issue. Your car doesn’t need a bicycle rack anymore.

And your commute is much more convenient. Whereas before you’d need to haul your cumbersome cycle through the lobby and into that crowded elevator, now you can carry it in one hand and stash it behind your desk.

Montague Crosstown: One of the best, full-sized, folding commuter bicycles for riding in the city.

With the Crosstown, by Montague, most of your friends will notice that the frame is a little irregular, but they’ll have no idea that this bike folds up! Montague has many models utilizing essentially the same frame.

There is a quick release lever on the top tube, which, when released, essentially allows the whole frame to pivot around the seat tube. So when it is folded up, the whole thing is only slightly larger than the 700c wheels.

It’s a brilliant system that allows the frame to fold without interfering with the drivetrain or the chain line.

Functionally, the bike rides much like a sport hybrid bike. It has no suspension parts and a neutral, upright riding position. It is fast, zippy, maneuverable and it accelerates quickly from a standstill.

Componentry is fairly basic. There are 7 speeds in total, controlled with a grip shifter paired to a Shimano Altus rear derailleur. It rolls on Alex wheels paired to Formula hubs, and it stops with basic Tektro dual pivot brakes. It’s about on par with a conventional sport hybrid in this price range, except that you get the amazing folding frame. It weighs in at a respectable 27 pounds.

I would suggest that a prospective Crosstown owner replace the seat with a Brooks or something, as it’s not the best. I’d also caution that adding a rear fender will be tricky. You’re best to add one of the seatpost mounted varieties. Most rear luggage / pannier racks are unlikely to work with this frame, at least not without some futzing.

It’s a quick and fun ride, and for the price (and the fact that it’s full sized) it’s probably the best folding commuter bicycle for urban riding that I’m familiar with.

Bonus Review: Dual Sport Bicycles: A great commuter bicycle compromise between road and trail

I recently purchased a dual sport bicycle and I have been absolutely loving it.

Years back, when the hybrid bike came out, it offered something that was greatly needed: a compromise between the off-road riding of mountain bikes and the pavement prowess of the road bicycle. Unfortunately, you ended up with a ride that did neither job all that well.

Today, I’d classify many hybrids as ‘casual’ bikes: great for a tootle around the cul-de-sac, but average on pavement and close to miserable on trails.

There was a need for a bike that could handle both jobs well enough. Because trails riding is demanding, that meant creating a bike that had beefier tires and suspension than your average hybrid, but not so beefy as to be unwieldy on pavement. Enter the dual sport bicycle.

A dual sport has much of the geometry of a mountain bike. They have 700c wheels, wide handlebars, and front forks with a generous amount of travel. They have a lot more clearance than your typical hybrid, and they’re often equipped with disc brakes.

If you have the option to take your daily journey across some trails, a dual sport is one of the best commuter bicycle styles around. I can attest to how much fun they are!

Thanks for reading, good luck!

Will Henry

Will Henry

Having built and repaired bikes for the last 4 years — in both a professional and a hobby capacity — Will is enthusiastic about cycling in all its forms, but particularly fixies and urban bikes. Living in beautiful Vancouver BC, Will gets out and cycles whenever he can. Current ride: a Norco XFR. You can check out Will Henry's Google+ profile here.

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