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In the (distant) past I commuted 6 km (more than half an hour) each way, on a cheap bike with big knobbly tyres.

Soon I'll have a new commute: 18 km each way, daily. That's much further than I've done in the past, and I don't want it to take 2 hours each way; but this reading suggests that it's feasible:

Most people who reside 10 to 20 kilometres away will also find it quite easy to cycle to work, although the distance in the high end of this range will become a little more demanding.

If I can do it in 80 minutes or even less each way, that would be ideal. I'm 49 years old, 6 foot tall, and weigh 170lb, and I want to commute by bike because otherwise I'd be getting no exercise in my week at all.

I've never bought or ridden anything but a cheap bike.

What equipment should I buy then, to commute 11 miles each way through a city (Toronto) on flat, paved roads, shared with cars:

  • Wheels?
  • Tyres?
  • Clipless pedals and shoes?
  • Gears?
  • Handlebars (e.g. flat or dropped)?
  • Frame (size, shape, material)?
  • Mud-guard/fender?
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It looks like you are planning to build a bike as opposed to buying a complete bike. Is that correct? –  user313 Feb 9 '11 at 19:14
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This question may provide some of the answers you're looking for. bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/1091/… –  user313 Feb 9 '11 at 19:39
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This one is good as well: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/1298/… –  user313 Feb 9 '11 at 19:43
    
@wdypdx22 I wouldn't know how to build a bike myself; but at least one LBS in this city will assemble from components, as well as selling standard/complete bikes. There appears to be a huge/wide variation/choice even among pre-made/complete bikes, so I'd like to know what to look for ... in a bit more detail than for example just "well, buy a hybrid". –  ChrisW Feb 9 '11 at 19:51
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@ChrisW - That's helpful. You might consider editing this into your answer, since cargo capacity is an important part of outfitting a bike. For example, you can look at bikes without rack fittings, opening up your options. Using only a seatpost rack or even a large saddle bag is a real possibility for you. –  Neil Fein Feb 10 '11 at 1:41
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6 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Here I'll summarize everyone else's answers (because of all the Q+A scattered through in the comments), with some additional information that I got elsewhere from reading inspired by people's answers.

  • Wheels+tires: 700 x (28 - 38, maybe ~30), tires; slicks or light treads, not knobbly. The larger wheel makes it faster (because of 'gearing') and the ride a little smoother (because of the 'angle of incidence' when rolling over an obstacle). Possibly puncture-resistant tires, especially if you experience many puntures. Reinflate them weekly. With the narrower tires, beware storm drains, streetcar tracks, dirt roads, and cornering especially fast and on wet roads.

  • Clipless pedals and shoes: up to 35%-50% more efficient than without, but practice with them for 1/2 day to 2 weeks away from traffic first, because you must expect to fall off (everyone does). The normal type of clipless, for commuting, would be SPD: SPD are not impossible to walk in (unlike some other types). The stiffer the sole of the shoe, the better it distributes force over the whole sole of your foot. {Prefer a system which lets you clip onto either side of each pedal?}

  • Gears: multi-speed (e.g. 7, 8, or even 14-speed) internal-hub gears cost $300+ (which is more than derailleurs), and tend to exist only on more expensive (above $1000) bikes; internal-hub gears means lower maintenance, chain is less likely to fall off, easier to have a chain guard even, and you can change gears while stopped, maybe 2% less efficient that derailleurs, and takes a different kind of chain. Derailleurs are more common. A 2-position rather than 3-position derailleur on the front would be adequate if there are no hills.

  • Handlebars: as you wish (however, many/most people recommend flat instead of dropped); at commuting speeds it's more a matter of comfort than aerodynamics (and a more upright position is deemed more comfortable). Dropped affords more wrist positions; you can ask for interrupter levers on dropped handlebars, to access the brakes from more than one hand position/location.

  • Brakes: disc brakes work better or more reliably than rim brakes, especially when the road is wet (or the wheel isn't true); and if you go downhill at 70 kph you might want hydraulic disc and not just mechanical disk brakes (hydraulics are more expensive, are difficult or impossible to self-maintain, require less or no maintenance or routine cable adjustments, and require less finger-force to actuate).

  • Frame: not too important i.e. no-one offered advice on that; as long as (for speed) it's not a mountain bike, especially not a bike with suspension (suspension is inefficient). Aluminium isn't lighter than steel, because it's not as strong (and therefore there needs to be more of it). Aluminium is stiffer than equivalent steel, so (for comfort) higher-end bikes add (more expensive) carbon forks and/or seat posts to aluminium. Aluminium won't rust.

  • Other equipment: lights; fenders/mudguards; rack and/or saddlebag and/or panniers; bike lock[s] (maybe one chain and one U-lock: not a cable, which is easy to snip); maybe mirrors (you can/should shoulder-check as well, but many/most urban bike accidents happen while the rider isn't looking ahead); maybe a trip computer; a tire pump, able to inflate to about 110 psi (so not just a little hand-pump); bus fare (in case of a flat or irreparable tire, or horrific weather).

  • Store: find a "good" Local Bike Store (LBS), where you can meet the mechanics (a "good LBS for commuting" isn't necessarily the same as "good for road-racing" or "good for MTB"). Pretty much any decent LBS will allow ~30 minute ride: take a few for a test-ride, before you buy, to see which one feels right. Furthermore, expect to pay at least $600/year in maintenance costs (as much or more than the cost of buying the bike), visiting the shop at least 3 times/year: which is another reason why it's important to find a "good" LBS.

  • Speed: expect to average 20 kph at most, in the city, when there are stops and lights etc.

  • Cost: a decent $700 (including brakes and gears but perhaps excluding 'extras' like lights) bike from a good store should be "great" (but it won't have internal-hub gears, nor hydraulic disk brakes, nor any carbon components)

Additional comments or advice will be welcome.

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Very nice summary! I would suggest taking your summary and use it to narrow down possible bikes using bike manufacturer web sites; some of which have comparison tools. That way when you head off to the LBS, you'll have a better idea of what you're shopping for. –  user313 Feb 10 '11 at 20:48
    
Excellent - one point, are internal hub gears 'hubless' ? –  mgb Feb 10 '11 at 22:12
    
@mgb - thank you, I've changed that. –  ChrisW Feb 10 '11 at 22:23
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@ChrisW: hub gears use single-speed chain and any bike shop worth the name will stock several brands. "special chain" in bike shops is Campy 11 speed or Shimano 10mm pitch, not 1/8". The summary post is a good idea, and I think it's a good summary. –  Мסž Feb 10 '11 at 23:50
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I think it was mgb explained it. Basically there are two sorts of bike chain - derailler chain that bends side to side (so you can derail it easily for changing gear) and is often called 3/32" wide even though it's not; and single speed chain that doesn't bend sideways very much and is (accurately) called 1/8" chain. Singlespeed chain is found on BMX's, fixies, hub gear bikes and so on. Derailleur chain comes in a variety of widths usually described by the number of cogs on the sprocket, so you get 5/6/7 speed, 8sp, 9sp, 10sp and 11sp chains, all of which are different and incompatible. –  Мסž Feb 11 '11 at 0:14
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Go to your local bike shop or MEC and talk to them.

You want a commuter - also called urban bikes.
Thin(ish) tires so you aren't doing too much work, straight bars, hydraulic disk brakes would be good. Hub gears mean everything is internal so out of the weather - but if anything goes wrong you're stuck, dérailleur gears are fine if you clean the chain regularly.

Get fenders, some good lights and some sort of bright waterproof.
Cycle shorts look silly but are comfortable - this time of year in Toronto you will want something long and warm on top of them !

I would leave clipless pedals until you have a bit more confidence, riding in traffic is bad enough without also worrying about unclipping at each traffic light. When you do get clipless look for SPD (ie. mountain bike pedals) you can walk in the shoes more easily than the ones used for road bikes.

You should be able to do 25km/h on a commuter sort of bike without too much effort so that's a 45min trip. Check out the route on Google maps or a local bike group site - finding side streets with no traffic and avoiding unnecessary hills makes a lot of difference.

ps. One other tip - carry a bus ticket. Don't know about Toronto but most Canadian buses have bike racks. If you have a mechanical problem or the weather is just too bad you can always get a ride home. It makes commuting much more doable if you have a backup!

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A LBS person, too, told me to leave clipless til later. But how much "confidence" is needed? Would practicing on a paved bike trail and/or suburban residential street be enough? How long does it take / how difficult is it to unclip? They'd be SPD-compatible clips, wouldn't they? msanford's comment to this answer says, "Increase in efficiency claims from 30% to 55%"; isn't that (30% to 55%) even more of a difference than the difference between slick and knobbly tires? Much too important to pass up? –  ChrisW Feb 9 '11 at 20:04
    
@ChrisW Clipless pedals have a bit of a learning curve, so you will definitely want to practice for a week or two. You will almost definitely fall over at least once (everyone does), which you don't want to do when you're on your way to work. I would wait on it if at all possible (practice your route with regular pedals first to test the water). –  Jason Plank Feb 9 '11 at 20:09
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A good time to practice on clipless might be when it's cold but not icy; in such weather, you're wearing enough "padding" that a fall while waiting for a light isn't going to scrape you up as much. But I would definitely learn your route first and get comfortable with the bike before putting on clipless pedals. –  Neil Fein Feb 9 '11 at 20:45
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I don't think you have to do a custom assembly for this sort of bike, any of the decent flat bar road bikes will do nicely. Or a lightweight touring bike if you prefer that style. In all honesty 18km each way is not too bad, once you start doing it your fitness will increase and you'll start aiming to cruise at 30kph on the flat bits. But route planning becomes important too - avoiding slow sections especially stop-start riding because those tire you out more. I'm currently slower on a 10km commute with 20 lights than my previous 13km with ~8. –  Мסž Feb 9 '11 at 22:35
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@ChrisW: decent is a pretty local thing. You really want to find a good local bike shop (LBS) and buy what they support. It just reduces the hassles, because they know the bike and they sold it to you. What you're looking for is a fairly light frame, good wheels (probably 700c with ~30mm tyres), hub gears and a shop that goes "of course" when you ask for mudguards, rack and lights. They should have something like that on the shop floor. Note that a good LBS for commuter cyclists is not necessarily a good LBS for road bikes or mountain bikes. –  Мסž Feb 10 '11 at 0:14
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I have wrestled with this issue for a long time. After commuting on a Trek FX Hybrid and moving to a Masi Speciale CX Cyclocross bike I am convinced now that Cyclocross bikes make the best commuters.

  1. They are built for speed - Let's face it bikes are slower than cars. So when you are out there you want to save as much time as you can. Speed helps.

  2. They have the right tires - After commuting through the winter on my Trek I am glad now to be on my Masi. Cyclocross tires are built for rough terrain without sacrificing that much when it comes to speed. I can still keep up with my rodie friends and i can ride across gravel without too much effort. Riding in the rain suddenly becomes a lot easier.

  3. It's all about posture - Hybrids generally are more upright and therefore lack the longevity of the bent position. I could only go about 20 mi on my hybrid before my hands and site bones began to ache, but on my cyclocross bike I can go 60 mi without adverse effects because of the multiple hand positions and the fact that my weight is shifted off my sit bones and on my feet where it needs to be.

  4. Size matters - My cyclocross bike is also a lot smaller then my hybrid. The crank arms are also closer to the frame giving me a smaller profile to fit through tighter spaces and take up less road space. This has the added bonus of the cars not being as close to me if I was on my Trek.

Remember not all bikes are built the same. The Surly Cross Check and the Masi Speciale CX have the added advantage of the rack and fender mounts. That is why I would call them the ultimate commuter bikes.

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Thanks for your answer. For tires, I'm using 700x32 Marathon Plus: which seem to me to roll well. Their sturdiness gives me confidence to push even on less-than-good road surfaces. –  ChrisW Feb 1 '12 at 0:05
    
I love 700c tires. Big and fast. –  Chris Belsole Feb 1 '12 at 0:24
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Ten years ago, you could either get a mountain bike or a road bike and then modify. Nowadays, there are some really nice hybrids on the market designed for the commuter. Trek, Specialized, and others...

  • Tires - You'll want slicks or light treads. Knobby tires will just slow you down on roads.
  • Clipless - Yes. If you're not familiar with clipless you'll have to learn to use them before getting on the road. It doesn't take long.
  • Handlebars - Flat or dropped will depend on what you prefer and find comfortable.
  • Mud guards/Fenders - Definitely! These are a "must" if you ride in wet weather.
  • Frame - Probably don't need a carbon frame. Aluminum or steel should work just fine.
  • Wheels - I'd go with a wheel that takes 700 x (28 - 38) tires. I would not go with mtn bike sizing in the situation you describe.

I'll add a rear rack and panniers. And a lighting system.

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They say (and I don't know if it's true) that dropped handlebars are faster; and that flat/hybrid give you (your back) a more upright position, and are therefore more comfortable (perhaps especially in urban traffic). Is that true? And, is there a speed above which aerodynamics is important (and below which it's less important): is a dropped position important for speed/efficiency only when you're touring long distances at maximum speed, and less important or unimportant during a long-ish commute in urban traffic? –  ChrisW Feb 9 '11 at 20:21
    
There are 25 models just of Trek Urban bikes, that you linked to (let alone other brands like Specialized). Isn't that far too much choice? Can I narrow that down somehow, make any pre-decisions, before I walk into a LBS and buy whatever they feel like selling me? –  ChrisW Feb 9 '11 at 20:25
    
There's a little more about handle-bars here; it says that "drop bars are generally narrower than flat bars, and don't offer quite as much detailed control over the bike on uneven surfaces", which seems like quite the disadvantage. –  ChrisW Feb 9 '11 at 20:36
    
@Chris - Drop handlebars - In commuting situations the aerodynamics may or may not be an issue. And entirely depends on personal preference. –  user313 Feb 9 '11 at 20:37
    
@Chris - "There are 25 models just of Trek Urban bikes...." Yes, and usually why it's a good idea to check out local bike shops. That way you can try out various options. –  user313 Feb 9 '11 at 20:40
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Wheels?

700c double wall, cassette for rear hub

Tyres?

Kevlar puncture guard tyres like the Marathon Plus are a bit slower and heavier than non-protected tyres. However, since you will get a flat tyre every year instead of every 2 weeks, you will no longer need to time your trip to arrive 10 minutes early just in case you get a flat. So in the end, it makes the trip faster if you need to arrive at a specific time. And the Marathons plusses last forever.

Clipless pedals and shoes?

Road-bike clips/shoes are not designed for traffic light stops or walking. MTB clips/shoes are much better.

SPD are the standard but I don't like them.

Time Atac (like the Aliums which retail here in europe for about 35€ a pair) are a lot better, clip-unclip is instinctive and extremely fast. Also last forever.

Avoid Crank Bros at all costs. They will break and you will die.

Gears?

If you will climb, get a good assortment of granny gears. If you won't this is less important.

Note most bikes are geared way too long. Having enough gears to run up to 50 kph isn't very useful unless you race. Having a good assortment of gears suited to your speed, your hills, and your power/weight is much better.

Gear hubs resist much better against dirt, corrosion, salt, etc, but are expensive.

Handlebars (e.g. flat or dropped)?

In traffic you need to look far ahead, and also look back over your shoulder pretty often. Drop bars make this harder. Also your hand should always be ready on the brake just in case. So, I prefer straight bars.

Frame (size, shape, material)?

Mud-guard/fender?

If it rains, yeah. From the last time I visited Toronto, definitely.

Rack and pannier at the rear ; no backpack (makes you sweat).

Lights (very important).

For commuting what determines the average speed is :

1- choice of route (safe and slow or fast and dangerous, your choice, you must explore around to find a fast and safe route) 2- traffic lights

In a typical city 20kph average is already very fast, you can't go much faster unless you burn all red lights and generally behave like a suicidal maniac. That's much faster than a car at rush hour, or a bus, though...

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I'm driving a 1980ies racing bike in the allmost flat city Berlin, and I'm rarely (once per month) overtaken by other cyclists. I'm cycling distances of 5 to 10 km per direction, 2 or 3 times the week, and my experience is, that I don't get above 20 km/h (average for the whole way), because of traffic lights, give way signs and so on.

On the way to work, I wouldn't like to get to much exhausted, or may you take a shower at work? While on the way back you may, of course, give all you have. :)

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Yes, my googling for commuter bike speeds suggests that commuters average a maximum of only 12 mph; and ridethecity.com/toronto estimates 60-90 minutes for my 18 km trip. –  ChrisW Feb 11 '11 at 5:05
    
Yesterday I had a route of 7.5 km (city, with traffic lights etc.) and I was even slower than expected - 35 mins. The roads are dirty from the winter, and the way was partly new for me - maybe it is doable in 30 mins. under better conditions, which would be about 15 km/h as average speed, not 20km/h. –  user unknown Feb 11 '11 at 9:28
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