Cycling to work? Here are 4 of the best urban commuter bike styles
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; some employers are even incentivizing it.
However, if you’re planning to start cycling to work, be careful! If you ride the wrong type of bike, your adventures in two-wheeled transportation will be short lived.
And trust me, your rusty old beach cruiser or department store mountain bike just won’t cut it. Especially if you’re riding it five times per week! Don’t believe me? Try it.
If you want to stick with it, it is essential to pick the best possible urban commuter bike for your daily trip to work. Just as you’d invest in your car, you should do the same with your bike. It will pay dividends!
So what’s the best bike for cycle commuting anyway? That’s the question I’ll be tackling in this article. Rather than look at specific models, I think it’s best to look at specific bicycle categories.
So we’ll check out four great bicycle styles that are very nicely suited to your daily commute. And within each style I’ll offer a review of a great commuter bike example to investigate.
What about styles to avoid, common mistakes and red flags? You bet! I’ll cover that too.
1) The Road Bike: best commuter style around, not just for “sporty” people
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 about as long as bicycles have existed. 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 a road bike’s light weight, high speed and quick steering will serve you well in city traffic, this style certainly isn’t for everyone.
An aggressive stance means you’re often leaning over the handlebars. That can be a little freaky until you get accustomed to it. Those dropped 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 choice for urban commuting? Not necessarily!
Finding Your Subcategory
Back in the days of Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, if you wanted a specific road bike style, there weren’t many options. Today, however, you will find that the road bicycle segment is subdivided into many categories.
While they all feature aggressive frame geometry and they all lack suspension components (ie. shocks), there are a lot of unique styles to choose from.
Here are my suggestions for finding a good commuter road bike suited to your needs:
- Choose your handlebars: It may be the “classic look”, but a road bike doesn’t need 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 a bit, 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 matched components. The term typically includes the shifters, derailleurs and brakes, and sometimes also the crankset and chain. There are different price tiers; in general, the pricier the groupset, the better and more smoothly it will shift. The Shimano 105 system is an example of a good groupset that’s pretty popular. Shimano Sora, meanwhile, is a more budget-oriented groupset.
- Carbon fibre is optional: OK, you might be tempted to get the lightest, sleekest, sexiest 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. I suggest you 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 time.
Diamondback Haanjo: A top commuter road bike that’s built for fun and gravel
In the road category, I’d suggest something like the Diamondback Haanjo. This bike has been built to mix the fun of road riding with the ability to hit a bit of trail on occasion.
In the road bike subcategory realm, this is probably considered a cyclocross.
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.
Have I mentioned that it’s gorgeous? It is gorgeous.
This is (in my opinion) one of the best commuter road bikes for urban riders because they built it to withstand the rigours of a hard daily ride. It is built more for durability and handling than all-out, top-end speed. The slacker frame geometry gives you precise control when maneuvering through traffic, and the Haanjo is fitted with Sora derailleurs and shifters. 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.
The Diamondback Haanjo reviews well as a commuter bike, as well as for fun and recreation. Your commute would be pretty enriching on this or something similar.
2) 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 with good components are popping up all over the place. While I wouldn’t say they’ve gelled into an identifiable style like mountain or road yet, urban frames are some of the best bikes for commuting due to their pragmatism and utility.
So what classifies an urban bicycle anyway? As I mentioned there isn’t one specific identifying feature that I can put my finger on. Rather, a city bike is best defined 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 matches stark skyscrapers and asphalt streets pretty well too.
I find that many of the best, most popular urban-specific commuter bicycles take a page from the fixed gear handbook: a classic diamond frame, no suspension parts, and a straight chain line. Here are some other features you’ll often find in this category:
- An internally-geared hub is a popular feature on many of the most popular urban style commuter bikes. Why? Not only does an internal hub lend 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; that’s handy if you need to accelerate quickly to get around a bus.
- Many city bicycles feature integrated racks and baskets. If you’re commuting, you’ll appreciate having 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 solid and secure than third party racks. And then there’s panniers. 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 means there’s no mushiness when accelerating or decelerating, and that ensures you can react swiftly to changing conditions. Long distance, high speed, and rough terrain commutes will be less comfortable on this style, but a shorter, city traffic speed trip to work is what this category was made for.
- 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.
Raleigh Redux 1: 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 Raleigh which is well suited to riding life in downtown terrain.
The Redux features a clean, diamond shaped frame that’s made from aluminum alloy. The whole aesthetic of the bike is modern, independent, versatile and strong, and in my opinion it is a great looking ride.
Obviously, it doesn’t have any suspension components, and the riding position is upright and comfortable, yet slightly aggressive. This is preferable in a good city commuting bike. It has mountain-style handlebars with a slight rise to them. The seating position is nice and neutral, right over the pedals. If you need to gun it, you can.
The Redux 1 features an 8-speed Shimano rear derailleur. That’s perfect; eight speeds is about all you honestly need for an intra-city commute. I’d have loved to see an internally geared Nexus hub which you can shift at a standstill, but sticking with an external derailleur keeps the price accessible.
Raleigh has thoughtfully added Tektro Novela mechanical disc brakes to the mix. Mechanical discs don’t really have much advantage over linear pull, but they look cool and can handle muck and weather a bit better. The wheels are 700c in size, and the tires are 35c Schwalbe Big Ben tires, which are awesome for pavement riding.
The Redux isn’t terribly heavy, but it’s not a feather either. If you’re hoping for something lighter, you’ll want to look at a road style commuter instead. On the whole this is a good, simple commuter bike for a very reasonable price point.
There are many other alternatives in this category that run the gamut 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. It’s up to you how important that is.
As for the Redux, it’s a good urban / city bicycle to commute or play, and it’s available at a great price point.
3) Folding Bike: The best city commuter bicycle for minimal storage
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 my full-sized frame in and out of the tiny bike room is no fun.
A folding bike takes care of that problem. There are many excellent commuter-friendly folder bikes 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.
Second, there are actually 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 any trip to and from work. Once you arrive, you can break it down in seconds and carry it inside. Some even come with their own 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 a 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.
This is a huge advantage. Suddenly, an apartment dweller can store a full-sized ride without issue. And 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: A great, full-sized, folding commuter bike for city life
With the Montague Crosstown, most of your friends will notice that the frame is a little irregular, but they’ll have little idea why. You’ll enjoy the looks on their faces when you demonstrate 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 wider than the 700c wheels.
It’s a brilliant system that allows the frame to fold without interfering with either the drivetrain or the chain line.
Functionally, the bike rides much like a sport hybrid (or a city 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 to play with, which are controlled with a grip shifter paired to a Shimano Altus rear derailleur. It rolls on Alex wheels with 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. The weight is a respectable 27 pounds.
I would suggest that any Crosstown owner replace the seat, as it’s not the most comfortable. I’d also caution that adding a rear fender will be tricky to impossible. You’re best off 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 swearing.
It’s a quick and fun full-sized ride, and for the price it’s probably my favourite folding commuter bicycle for urban riding.
4) 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.
Nashbar Dual Sport: Affordable urban commuter bike, good for trails
If you’re thinking about both work and play, Nashbar’s dual sport offerings are pretty awesome. They are nice and stealthy without too many stickers or flashy paint, but trust me that they still turn heads.
This inexpensive little hybrid is perfect for cycling to work, but you could easily enjoy some time on the trails, zip around town, or just cruise the boardwalk. It’s the versatility that drew me to this category in the first place.
Unlike most of the bikes listed here, this one comes with a bit of suspension. 63mm Suntour shocks smooth out the ride. I’m not really into suspension parts for urban riding, but I must admit that this shock is nice for when you need to tackle a high curb or pothole.
The bike features 24 speeds in total courtesy of the Shimano EZ-Fire shifters. It’s a pretty common setup but it shifts crisply, which is all I ask. To stop, the bike has twin Tektro discs. They look great and do the job.
Weinmann rims and Formula hubs keep you spinning, while hefty 35C Kenda tires provide steady footing in slippery conditions or dry tarmac alike.
This bike isn’t feather-light either, but an aluminum frame keeps it from getting unwieldy. The frame itself has an attractive oversized tubing and a pleasing silhouette. The riding position is fairly neutral with your weight over the pedals and not too much strain on your forearms.
The only downside is the lack of storage. You’ll need to add a luggage rack if you want one. Fortunately, the low price point ensures you’ll have a few spare dollars to do that. Overall, this is a great choice for any city-dwelling commuter looking for a cheap bicycle to ride to work.
That’s the list. If you have any questions or need clarification on anything in this article, please feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try to respond.
Thanks for reading, good luck!