The Perfect Commuter Bike?

Pashley Princess Sovereign requires very little maintenance
Pashley Princess Sovereign requires very little maintenance and is set up for urban commuting.

By Lou Melini

If you have read the bike commuter profile column over the past 9 years, you will know that the cyclists profiled have had a variety of tastes in bikes. In Europe you will find bikes built for transport as common as road and mountain bikes in America. So is it time for the manufacturers to make a bike specific for commuting and if so what are some of the features it should have. Bike commuter gurus Mark Kennedy owner of Saturday Cycles and shop employee Steve Wasmund, discuss what to look for in a commuter bike (or cyclomuter bike).

Cycling Utah: Mark, what are some of the questions you would ask if someone wanted a commuter bike?

Mark Kennedy: First, is this going to be your only bike so that it is commuter specific or will it need to do other duties? Do you own another bike that will do many of your non-commuting bike needs? Will this bike be replacing a car so that you are car-less or car-lite? This might establish what ‘bike priorities’ the person has. In addition I also may weigh a price point. What the budget is for the bike is always an important question. What else is the bike going to be used for such as shopping or some recreational riding? Will this bike be used for some off road trails or will you perhaps do an overnight tour?

Other questions would depend on the commute. What is the commute distance, the terrain (steep hills) and will part of the commute involve getting on a bus or train? What are you commuting expectations; for example do you expect to do a 20-mile commute in under an hour, etc.

In addition I would want to know what one would be carrying on the bike; nothing, a change of clothing, a laptop, dropping a child off at school? Do you have a physical limitation such as a bad back, or other conditions that I may need to tweak the choice of bike?

And finally I would want to know where the bike will be “parked” such as will the bike be going up elevators or be carried up stairs.

C.U.: Great questions. So let us suppose that a young couple live in downtown Salt Lake City. The husband rides to Research Park to work (hilly) while his wife rides south to say South Salt Lake (flat) for her work. They ride year-round for perhaps upwards of 3,000 miles/year of commuting, plus some shopping and other errands on their bikes. The husband and wife come to you for advice to purchase commuter bikes. He wants an “all-around” bike that is responsive and fun to ride and of course can get him up the hills without feeling sluggish. She wants a “maintenance-free” bike, no flats, perfect shifting, requires little cleaning won’t get her clothes greasy.

M.K.: Without knowing answers to the above questions, I would venture the following as my recommendations for your couple:

Him: The All City SpaceHorse: Cool bike funny name. The Space Horse fits in what I would call a modern ‘sport tourer’. It has a versatile steel frame with accommodations for racks, fenders and substantial tires up to 32mm with fenders all in a package that would be great for hills, longer day rides (century) or even weekend tours, while still being fun to ride unloaded.

Her: Pashley Princess Sovereign: The Pashley is a handmade in England throwback Euro City bike. It is as maintenance free as you can get these days. While being a bit on the pricey side at $1400, it is ready to roll out the door with built in hub driven dynamo lights front and rear (no batteries), fenders, rack, kickstand, chain guard and basket. It has an internally geared 5 speed hub, weather protected hub brakes, skirt guard, fully enclosed chaincase and virtually flat proof Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. This bike fits the European model, with a bit of panache thrown in. A bike intended to be ridden everyday, year around, with virtually no maintenance.

These 2 bikes fit what I might describe as the 2 Salt Lake City centric ideals for a suburban, or distance, commuter and an urban downtown city commuter. If transit gets thrown in to the fray, I might lean a different way.

C.U.: Steve, do you have anything to add?

Steve Wasmund: I would concur with Mark and make the same bike recommendations. If one is going to incorporate mixed-mode transportation (TRAX or a bus) to their daily commute, a folding bike could prove beneficial. However, you are giving up a lot of the potential of a versatile all-around cyclomuter, akin to trading in your sedan for a scooter because the scooter wins in the gas mileage and parking departments.

C.U.: How close can a bike be “maintenance free”? Are the European commuter bikes the answer here in the U.S.?

M.K.: There is truly no such beast but with that being said the closest thing to “maintenance free” might be a singlespeed-fixed gear track or MTB bike, while being, in my opinion, the least desirable commuter (besides a BMX bike or Razor scooter). They are usually pretty maintenance free other then the flat tires which come with the skinny tired track bikes.

The Pashley British Roadsters described above are probably the closest to being a ‘no maintenance’ bike on market.

The minimum I would suggest for an everyday commuter would be an annual tune up. Of course this might infer that the operator of vehicle takes care of the bike between services (i.e. keeping bike clean, especially after exposure to poor road conditions like winter grime and grit and salt covered roads) and can attend to minor issues like gear and brake pad adjustments, lubing of chains and gears and keeping the tires properly inflated.

With regard to cables and housings, a well-kept bike should be good for 5+ years. This might be ideal for a commuter and can be influenced by miles ridden, the weather conditions the bike is used in, and the amount of exposed vs. completely enclosed inner brake or gear cables. If chain is kept clean it might go 5000 miles for a lighter rider. On other hand a single season of ‘extreme’ commuting (lots of riding in the wet with dirt and lack of cleaning thrown in) can wear out a chain.

The US market is slowly coming around to embrace the euro-style urban commuter. This type of bike is intended for a city type environment and is probably not the best choice for anybody that is out of the city proper. The infrastructure in Europe makes these bikes ideal there. The cities are more condensed, and people tend to live closer in and commutes are less than 5 miles. The longer commutes that Americans are accustomed to, make the ‘fully integrated’ bikes not always the optimal solution.

S.W.: This is a pretty difficult question to answer without significant speculation, especially in a city like Salt Lake, where weather, street conditions (if you ride anywhere near one of the gravel companies), the amount of climbing and descending, how often you carry heavy loads, among a plethora of other variables, can greatly affect how often one needs to replace (or even adjust) their brake pads, chain, chainring or cogs. The service interval for brakes and chains on heavily used cyclomuters is so much shorter than anything else; I think most customers basically forget about their cables, et al. During one of their shop visits they will need new cables and maybe some bearings. I really think that “miles” are not the most useful gauge. I have been cyclomuting every day for the last 8 years. Even though I am a data addict, I have no idea how many miles the chain on my Big Dummy cargo bike lasts. I just know that a heavy cargo bike really goes through brake pads and chains. Bike shops should have a sticker they put on the stem that says, “See us in 4 months or 1500 miles!”

Dedicated cyclomuter bikes, with internal hubs, integrated lighting etc., are already in the U.S. They are becoming more popular. We just need to convince more people that they will be happier on these bikes than on ‘corrected’ racing bikes.

C.U.: There is a lot of new technology that could possibly trickle down to commuter bikes such as sealed cables, hydraulic and disc brakes, electronic shifters and the Gates belt drive. Do you see commuter bikes with some of these features?

M.K.: Sealed cable systems: While adding a bit of weight, enclosing brake and shifter cables makes a lot of sense for the truly all weather, all season bike.

Hydraulic Brakes: I view these as a bit of overkill for most commuters, as most systems are targeted at the off road, downhill mountain bike crowd. As road bike specific applications develop, this may change, but tuning and maintenance of hydraulics systems is beyond reach of most home mechanics. I see hydraulics making sense for a small very directed percent of the commuter market. They really aren’t necessary for most folks.

Disc Brakes: I like discs. Steve has written about disc brakes so you should look at his remarks below.

Electronic Shifters: This is only available now on high end racing bikes. Trickle down to the lowly commuter? I don’t see this happening for many years, or at least not in the foreseeable future.

A belt drive combined with an internally geared hubs make a lot of sense. The belt drive combined with an internal geared hub is my pick for future state commuter bikes. The main drawback in today’s market is the cost and efficiency. A belt drive requires a bike frame that is purpose built, and the spec for the remainder of the bike generally sets these bikes outside the budget that most bike commuters establish for themselves. Most of these bikes are well over $1000.

S.W.: I like the idea of full-length cable housing if it works with a given bike. I am a fan of disc brakes for cyclomuters and mountain bikes. Since the rim is not the braking surface, they can be lighter, different shapes or even colored with reflective paints. They usually offer more stopping power, especially in inclement conditions by moving the braking surface away from the road surface. I also like the idea of hydraulic disc brakes. I personally like drop bars on a cyclomuter, but hydraulic brakes are not yet common on road levers. They are more expensive and more difficult to service, but the potential is there.

I think electronic shifters should go away in their current incarnation. Regular charging of a battery is not low maintenance. If they come back, they should be redesigned from the ground up; possibly a self-powered system that shifts an internally geared hub.

There are definitely advantages to an internally geared rear hub. The chain lasts longer (no side to side movement); there is the option of having an oil free belt, a chain case or at least just a chainguard to protect your hems. However, internally geared hubs are heavier, a bit less efficient than a derailleur system and do make the already unenviable task of changing a flat tire all the more tedious since removing the rear tire now requires disconnecting the shifting cable and removing bolts instead of a quick release.

C.U.: Would you comment on “more puncture resistant tires”?

The All City SpaceHorse is a sport-touring bike that has mounts
The All City SpaceHorse is a sport-touring bike that has mounts for racks, fenders, and waterbottles and room for large tires and makes a great longer distance commuter.

M.K.: ”. The best puncture performance comes at a price: first off the tires are more expensive, the flat protection means the tires have to be belted and have heavier sidewalls to resist road obstacles. Some of these tires might weigh as much as 2 lbs each. (Contrast that to the lightest road tires at under half pound). All that material comes at expense of added rotational weight (weight that is more critical to bike performance than just dead weight that is along for the ride). In general: the heavier the tire construction the worse the ride. On a typical rigid road bike the only real suspension are the tires. A heavy brick of a tire doesn’t feel or perform as well as a lighter tire. The lighter tire is more supple. I think the phrase with regard to bike parts: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two.” This applies to bike tires as much as any other parts of the bike.

The Schwalbe Marathon tires are my favorite and have the best reputation in the industry for puncture resistance, and that’s why you see them spec’ed heavily on European bikes that are used for loaded touring or commuting.

C.U.: Utah is a fairly dry state, but we do salt the roads during snowstorms. Do moisture and/or salt make internal hubs, sealed shifting systems, belt-drives, or traditional chain/cassette systems more or less desirable?

M.K.: Salt, and associated road grime, makes life really tough on a commuter bike. Internal gears and belt drive is the best way to avoid some of the issues that the gunk brings with it. In time we will see more and more bikes migrate this direction.

S.W.: While any “sealed” system helps keep the elements away from the important parts, it always does so at a cost. More weight, more seals to rub against one another, more complexity, more up front expense are all things that need to be considered when one is figuring out what their ideal commuter bike looks like. Sealed cable systems are a nice option. Belt drives require an internally geared hub, and the drawbacks mentioned. A one-speed bicycle is an option, but probably not best for a cyclometer in Salt Lake City. I think a traditional chain/cassette still works pretty well in most situations.

C.U.: The couple in the above scenario has one car. They figure they save at least $2500/year by not having a second vehicle. If the couple above were to ride their commuter bikes for 5 years at about 3000 miles/year (or more) how soon would they have their investment in the bikes paid back?

M.K.: The total cost of the 2 bikes I described above would be around $3000 for the pair. I see the couple described able to pay back their investment in just over a year, and they will be happier, more fit, and the envy of their sedentary neighbors to boot.

S.W.: The second these two ride their bicycles home they will realize their set-ups are oh so very cost effective. Their happiness, fitness levels and circle of friends will all improve. They will be making themselves and those around them better. The bicycle: Good for the mind, body, soul and planet. Priceless.

They will spend under $4000 dollars for the two bicycles recommended above and all of the needed accessories. They will be ready to ride to their respective jobs. Bare minimum maintenance costs probably won’t be much over $500 over the next 5 years so, technically, the bikes will have “paid for themselves” in 2 years.

However, there will be many fun and practical cyclomuter outfits to buy; a cyclist he meets on an extended detour home during an enjoyable fall evening will convince them to try out a cyclocross race, and a co-worker will suggest that she try Little Red Riding Hood; the thought of riding their bikes out to Saltair or up Mill Creek Canyon or to Jackson, WY will come up over the dinner table. The math gets complicated.

C.U.: Any last words from the two of you?

S.W.: The lowly bicycle is already the most efficient vehicle in existence and even a decent, inexpensive bicycle is probably 88% as efficient at the most expensive one out there. Imagine if we put the effort and money that we put in to motorized vehicles in to the perfect cyclomuter. We could probably have a very light, maintenance-free bicycle, but at the risk of saying, “you’ll eat your brussel sprouts and you’ll like it!” We don’t need to put that much effort in to the lowly bicycle. It works pretty well the way it is. But on the other hand, I’m very glad people are developing products that make a cyclomuter even more easy to use. Let’s just make sure everything stays relatively simple so that we don’t need a computer to fix it.

In summary (the perfect commuter is) a burly steel frame with a wide range of gearing and multiple hand positions, metal fenders, dynamo lighting and the ability to carry lots of stuff. Anything less is a toy. You will soon forget that the bicycle in your garage isn’t a car. You’ll be able to hop on it without a second thought and be prepared for anything out there. You might also get a bit of a reputation, but that shouldn’t slow you down. Now go ride someplace!

C.U.: Thanks Steve and Mark. If any bike shop has a “perfect commuting bike” that it wants to talk about please contact [email protected]


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