Do I need a gravel, mountain, or road bike for commuting?
Bike commuting is a solution to new norms for existing in a new world. Here we’ll go over three types of bikes and what kind of commuting they are best for.
Words by Wendy Booher
If commuting by bike once seemed like a radical change to your daily routine, ever since the world radically changed without our permission, bike commuting got a whole lot easier. Now a metaphor for safety, a means of transportation, and a strategy for clinging to fitness, commuting by bike is synonymous with solutions to address new norms for existing in this new world.
A few things worth considering if you are new to bike commuting are these: it’s not all or nothing from Day 1 – it’s OK to ease into it with a goal to commute two or three trips out of five; you can become a super commuter with practice; and huge resources are out there for you, like bike lanes, route planning apps, and gear designed specifically to support your efforts. A bike is really the only essential thing you need for the job (though many cities and towns require helmets), and a bike suited to your commute will keep you motivated to ride. Here we’ll go over a gravel bike, a mountain bike, and a road bike and what kind of commuting they are each uniquely suited to. We’ve also added some hacks and useful tips that we’ve learned as veteran bike commuters. We hope this post helps inform your decision if you’re trying bike commuting for the first time, or if you’re getting back into it, or if you need a reason to get a new bike.
You Need a Gravel Bike if…
Your commute takes you over mixed terrain and you have a need for speed to get to your destination. Sturdier than featherweight road bikes but slimmer than beefy mountain bikes, gravel bikes are designed to accommodate wider tires, disc brakes, and drop handlebars. Let’s say your commute is a mix of paved lanes, bridleways, cobbles, and boulevards. A bike with a tire clearance up to 48 mm will help you roll over the rugged stuff, while drop handlebars will help minimize drag on exposed windswept expanses. No matter how skilled a rider you are, disc brakes are invaluable when it rains or when you’re confronted with a heedless road user. Unless your commute contains some steep sections, 48/32 chainrings with an 11-34 cassette should be all the gearing you need to get where you’re going.
Tip: If it’s in your budget, an extra wheelset can quickly transform your gravel bike (or mountain bike) into a skinny-tired road-ready rig, or a more rugged, more durable bike suited to wet weather and muddy conditions.
Ritchey’s gravel frames can be easily adapted to your specific conditions, like versatile, reliable, and affordable.
You Need a Mountain Bike When…
You deliberately route your commute through the local trail system or take the shortcut through the city park. Without rear suspension to weigh you down, a lean hardtail cross-country mountain bike will take on urban obstacles like stairs, curbs, and potholes while at the same time matching pace with more city-fied bikes. Essential to your commuter setup are disc brakes, a fork, and big wheels with tubeless tires, lots of options are available from there to customize your ride to your unique circumstances. For example, swap in skinnier tires for less rolling resistance, or substitute a suspension fork if your commute demands it, or if your commuter becomes your trail bike on your days off.
Hack: You can fake suspension with wide tubeless tires set at a low tire pressure. The lower pressure will provide some cushion and give a little grip to the trail without risking puncture.
You Need a Road Bike if…
Your commute consists of paved roads that are free of most threats to a smooth, trouble-free ride. Or maybe your commute spans a distance that’s too much to do every day but is perfect as a training ride a couple times each week. Your performance road bike can easily double as a commuter rig without much alteration. In either case, comfort should be a priority. Beyond getting a professional bike fit to determine your ideal setup, you can make your own adjustments to be more comfortable on your commute. For example, bar tape with a little extra cushion will soften the impact on your hands. Swapping out your handlebar stem for a shorter one may also help you be more comfortable – you can always replace it for training and racing. You’ll also want to outfit your road bike with a red rear light and reflective accents because – while you may be the most law-abiding cyclist around – the same can’t be said for other road users.
Tip: A road bike with a shorter reach will allow you to haul your gear, laptop, and clothing in a backpack in a more upright position to reduce strain on your back.
Theft-proofing Your Commuter Bike
While more people on bikes is generally a good thing, thieves think it’s absolutely great because their “business opportunities” increase as well. To avoid theft, your best bet is to keep your bike with you (or securely stored) at your destination. But sometimes you’ll need to make a quick stop during your commute, which leaves your bike vulnerable to snatching. There’s a market for hot parts so to hold on to your wheels and saddle, swap out all your quick releases for bolts. To secure your bike, beefy U-locks and chain locks are the most reliable for foiling thieves, and they are worth their weight for the peace of mind they provide. Bike messengers are experts at theft-proofing their livelihood and, if you’re willing to forfeit aesthetics, you’ll have your bike for a very long time.
Hack 1: Drip candlewax into your headset bolt to make it difficult to quickly loosen and remove the bars and stem.
Hack 2: Secure you saddle to your frame by looping a length of old chain through your saddle rails and seat stays. Fasten the ends with a chain tool and take comfort in the fact that your bike is too much trouble for most thieves.
Essential Ride-along Tools for Bike Commuting
- Chain tool
- Tire levers
- Extra tube
The argument for commuting by bike just added a few planks to its platform advocating its benefits. Sure, it’s still healthy, economical, and boasts a low environmental impact, but now it’s safe and preventive medicine as well.