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Commuting is hard on bikes, especially when doing it all-year long. Maintenance is essential to assure one can get to work every morning without issues but it takes time and care.

Fixed-gear and single-speed bikes can be easier to maintain since they don't need the front and rear derailleurs but lack an important feature (changing gears) loved by many commuters riding hilly roads.

What actual technologies/techniques/components, when put all together, can lead to having a maintenance-free (or almost) commuter bike that has multiple speeds? It can be the type of drive-train, the material of the frame, the lack of high-maintenance parts or even the gas used to inflate tires.

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    My local bike shop offers a subscription service. Essentially, you take your bike in periodically and they (for a fee) guarantee it to run perfectly.
    – Richard
    Mar 26, 2023 at 21:36
  • 3
    Can you store your bike inside in the dry and warm? That can help a lot, requiring no other work.
    – Criggie
    Mar 27, 2023 at 6:24
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    @Richard but unless a bike shop can do this weekends walking distance from home, or during the working day near work, you need alternative transport. I've had the latter in a previous job, but my LBSs are so busy at weekends that you can't get reactive maintenance done because you have to book so far ahead. That's one reason I do pretty much everything myself
    – Chris H
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:02
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    @ChrisH in large enough cities, subscription services start to appear from pure subscription service operators (Swapfiets), or even from manufacturers (Cowboy, Vanmoof) — but it obviously only works with their bikes, and the bikes are designed to lower maintenance needs. If you have an issue, you call them/use the app and they come to repair the bike on the spot.
    – Rеnаud
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:16
  • @Renaud Swapfiets (they cover London so I'll use them as an example) at £20 a month for a low-spec one-size-fits-none bike - no thanks. I'll rent by the hour if I need a bike like that, and for 3-4 months subscription I can own an old 2nd hand bike. Plus only 0900-1730 service means if you break down on a typical commute you're not even going to get the service you're paying for
    – Chris H
    Mar 27, 2023 at 9:18

7 Answers 7

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The best is probably to look at the so called Dutch bikes - or the bikes offered by subscription services, that are usually designed to lower maintenance requirements and maximise utility - often at the expense of performance.

Wear occurs mostly on the drivetrain, brakes and tires.

For the drivetrain, one possibility is to choose an internally geared hub (IGH) - or a gear box like Pinion (but it’s still a very high end proposal). It has two advantages: first it encloses the gearing so it’s not exposed to water and dust, and second the transmission can be done with a single gear transmission: it’s then easy to fully enclose the chain (if any) or to fit a belt instead of a chain, which removes the need for lubrication. It won’t remove the need to service the drivetrain, but service intervals are much longer (every 5000km or 2 years).

On the brake front, drum, coaster or roll brakes can be chosen, instead of disk or rim brakes. Braking performance is not as good, but because they don’t require maintenance, they are reliable. For bikes that are not meant to be ridden fast, it’s an acceptable compromise. Hydraulic disc brakes represent the next best compromise: due to the self-adjusting possibilities, they don't require regular adjustment, and pad replacement is a very simple operation.

For the tires, again there’s a compromise to make between performance and puncture resistance. Major tire manufacturers all offer tires that are suited for this use, such as Schwalbe Marathon or Continental Contact.

For long distance commuting, it may however be better to shift the compromise to more performance and use more traditional components (IGH can offer enough range though, but they are generally heavier than derailleurs), and choose entry level/mid range components: they often offer a good compromise between cost and performance. High performance components should be avoided, as the cursor is moved towards weight rather than durability.

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    Good point about high performance components. Even for chains, paying more does not mean getting more mileage out of it.
    – olliebulle
    Mar 26, 2023 at 20:15
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    The Swapfiets Deluxe 7 might be a good example of such a Dutch bike: Roller breaks in the front and the back, a Shimano Nexus 7 IGH, and Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.
    – sjakobi
    Mar 27, 2023 at 1:06
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    @sjakobi: I would stay clear of the nexus 7 IGH and opt for a nexus 8, I've had both installed on the same bike and the 8 is noticeably 'lighter' on all gears, especially the 5th gear, which locks the entire IGH.
    – Pelle
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:55
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    15000km for chain and cassette is a bit higher than the usual numbers I hear
    – ojs
    Mar 27, 2023 at 8:34
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    About chains, note that with a single gear and IGH, it's possible to use sturdier/thicker chains, and design the cogs to be more resilient to wear.
    – Rеnаud
    Mar 27, 2023 at 9:30
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The two ‘key’ things for a commuter bike to reduce maintenance are to use an internal gear hub, and to use a belt drive.

An IGH has the distinct advantage of everything being encapsulated in a way that protects it from the environment. This eliminates a major source of drivetrain wear (grit, dirt, salt, and similar debris from the riding surface), and reduces the frequency with which they need maintenance. An IGH also reduces the rest of the drive-train to being equivalent to a single-speed or fixie, significantly reducing wear on the chain, sprocket, and chainring. The trade-off is that they are heavier than a derailleur setup, and that cost has a significantly bigger impact on gearing range and ease of maintenance (cheap ones are 3-5 speed and use a packed grease lubrication design that’s a pain to maintain, expensive ones can hit the 11-14 speed range and use an oil bath for lubrication, and are thus easier to maintain).

Once you’re using an IGH, you can also use a belt drive instead of a traditional chain drive. Belt drives do not need to be lubricated, are (mostly) unaffected by weather conditions, and can last much longer than typical chain drives (especially the sprocket and chainring, which often see almost no perceptible wear at all as long as they are kept clean). The tradeoff in this case is that belt drives tend to be somewhat pricey, though this usually amortizes pretty well over the life of the parts.

As far as other aspects:

  • Fenders can actually help a lot. Good ones will help keep the rest of the bike clean, which translates to less post-ride work needed to keep the bike in good condition when you have to ride in poor weather. They also have the added benefit of keeping you cleaner while riding, which is generally a good thing when commuting.
  • There exist puncture-resistant tires, designed for aggressive MTB or gravel usage where the tires are expected to come into contact with lots of sharp objects. These tend to have a higher rolling resistance and be heavier, but they also do well against things like shards of glass, so they can reduce the risk of flats even for commuters.
  • Alternatively to puncture-resistant tires, tire inserts, or even airless tires, can reduce the risk of flats even more. They have a much bigger impact on how the bike rides though, and airless tires can be pretty expensive long-term (they tend to have a shorter useful life than more traditional tire setups).
  • If you’re using disc brakes, hydraulics provide a useful tradeoff in some cases. They tend to need less routine maintenance than cabled disc brakes, but when they do need maintenance it’s somewhat more involved (but still not difficult if you have the right tools and know what you’re doing).
  • Also if using disc brakes, resin pads tend to be lower maintenance than metal pads, provide you’re careful about not letting them get contaminated. They’re also cheaper, but the tradeoff is that they often do not provide quite as good braking performance.
  • Drum brakes or roller brakes are much lower maintenance than disc or rim brakes, but generally provide inferior braking performance and when they do need maintenance are much more involved to maintain (even just diagnosing issues is more involved in some cases). Drum brakes are, notably, also more prone to overheating than disc or rim brakes, and as a result can be potentially dangerous if your commute involves lots of hills.
  • If you can afford it, carbon fiber is objectively less susceptible to issues that would require routine maintenance for other frame types (it simply will not corrode, unlike metal frames). It’s probably not worth it though unless you’re regularly riding in areas that are particularly harsh on aluminum.
  • Flat pedals are objectively less maintenance than clipless or quill pedals, as they do not require recurring investments in cleats.
  • QR mounts for wheels technically reduce the maintenance burden (because they make working on the wheels easier than through-axle or fixed-axle designs), but they make theft easier unless you invest in locking skewers.
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  • Belt drives are not compatible with standard frames though.
    – g.kertesz
    Mar 27, 2023 at 7:43
  • @g.kertesz Veer (and possibly others) are proposing belts to be installed on standard frames, but it's a good point: belt require otherwise a specific frame.
    – Rеnаud
    Mar 27, 2023 at 13:25
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    A fully enclosed chain does not need much maintenance, once every few years, so likely not far off the belt drives.
    – Willeke
    Mar 27, 2023 at 19:26
  • @Willeke True, though it also imposes a (marginally) higher maintenance burden when it does need maintenance (or when you need to do maintenance on the hub or rear wheel off the bike) because you have to deal with the housing. That said though, in my own experience, there are fewer things that can go wrong with a (good) belt drive than a chain. Mar 27, 2023 at 21:10
  • What is the maintenance metal pads need and resin pads do not require? Sintered pads are generally described as lasting much longer.
    – nightrider
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:13
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At least for E bikes, one likely possible change would be to increase the diameter of chainwheel and sprockets, as the smallest 10 and 12 tooth sprockets wear unproportionally fast. Or make these two sprockets from some really super alloy if not already done.

I mean bicycles that have only one ring in the front.

Sintered (metallic) brake pads are generally described as serving much longer than organic, but some brake disks are marked as not compatible with them.

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    Changing sprocket and chainring size while keeping the same ratio is actually a good idea. Even for a regular bike with triple chainrings, since there are overlaps in ratios, one could try prioritizing gears that use the biggest chainring when possible.
    – olliebulle
    Mar 26, 2023 at 20:27
  • @olliebulle ...as long as you're not unduly cross-chaining, in that case it's a false economy. Mar 27, 2023 at 20:34
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    "Cross-chaining" cannot be done wrong with only one ring in the front.
    – nightrider
    Mar 28, 2023 at 7:43
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    I also changed my habits towards using 12T rather than the smallest 10T anywhere outside 25 km/h on tarmac, but 12T wears quite quickly also. 16T on 25 km/h is not so attractive ...
    – nightrider
    Mar 28, 2023 at 8:23
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    @nightrider I'd argue you can cross-chain on a 1x, in that the chain angles will be suboptimal at both ends of the cassette compared to a 2x. That said, experienced riders in most terrain probably will spend less time at those extremes.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Mar 31, 2023 at 13:21
4

Fellow 12/12 cycling commuter here. Based on my experience I'd say, in order of priority:

  1. Internal hub gear.
    Rear derailleurs are a pain in the backside IMO. Need regular adjusting and cleaning. I really miss the IHG on my previous bike.

As well as being low maintenance and reliable, they also have the advantage of being able to change gear without having to engage the crank (useful for example to change to a low gear to move off after a sudden stop).

The only disadvantage is slightly more weight, which on a commuter bike is irrelevant.

The Shimano Nexus hubs (7 or 8 speed) are good value for money - require a compatible shifter, usually a twist-type.

  1. Chain guard.
    The more coverage the merrier. When you have an IHG you can have a full chain guard.

  2. Mud Flaps/"Fenders". Reduces the amount of muddy water getting on the bike, you, and the poor sod riding behind you. Actually a requirement to be road legal in my part of the world. Add little rubber faps at the end.

  3. Good Tyres and reasonable quality innertubes.
    Puncture resistant tires (e.g. Marathon Plus from Schwalbe) are a worthwhile investment. I still have a quick-repair canister in the bag just in case.

Going tubeless might be an option but you'll need appropriate rims and I thinks its a bit faff setting it up. YMMV.

  1. Brakes.
    I've found roller brakes (e.g. Shimano Nexus series) to be fairly low maintenance compared to other types - occasionally (couple times a year, depending on your riding style and terrain) need to add lubricant/fat. They don't provide the best braking performance - if you have a lot of extreme downhill you need to pump them. Not usually relevant for commuting.

Hydraulic disc brakes, despite my initial scepticism, are also surprisingly low maintenance as well as providing very good braking. Self-adjusting. New pads once a year (again depending on riding style, etc.) which is easy to do. They will need bleeding at some point which is a bit fiddly but that's less than once a year in my experience. Just make sure you don't engage the brake lever when the wheel is removed.

6 Belt drive instead of Chain. Less maintenance than a chain, though you need the IGH in point 1. Does have the disadvantage that if it does break it's not as trivial to replace.

Additional thoughts

Have a look at mid-level European city and touring bikes - they'll have most of the features mentioned above.

An aluminium frame is probably the best bet.

If you live somewhere with proper winters and the roads are salted, you'll need to still clean it off regularly otherwise risk of rust and corrosion. Consider using bike polish before winter starts.

I have the impression that having some suspension (e.g. hydraulic fork, sit-post with at least a spring) eases stress on frame and components (with drawback of potential additional maintenance). Depends are what the road conditions are like on your route.

3

My experience with long time commuting results in the following list of priorities:

  1. Top priority: Puncture resistant tires. Good ones. Invest here, they are worth every cent. Once you have those, you can basically forget about patching.

  2. Internal Gear Hub. Get at least a seven-speed one. Those things are rock solid in my experience, even when you buy them cheap second hand. You only need to invest more if you want either more gears, continuous shifting, or more than 3x range.

  3. Aluminum is the beauty, but steel is your friend. This is especially true for parts that take wear. Like drive-train components. No point in using an aluminum cassette or chain ring, steel will keep you happy when the aluminum is long gone.

  4. Use beefy components wherever possible. Especially when they are carrying loads like luggage racks. Most luggage racks and bike baskets are nothing but a bad joke. If you want something to last, it needs to be much sturdier than the average components. Forget about the weight, if you want longevity, you need some material.

  5. A chain guard that completely encloses the drive train. The best wear is that which does not happen, and dirt from the road is the main contributor to chain/sprocket wear. So, keep the dirt away from your chain, and your drive-train will live long and prosper.

1

Just pointing out that if your main goal is zero maintenance you can achieve that simply by sacrificing live expectancy of the bike. A well-maintained bike can last for many many years, only a few pieces need to be replaced regularly. But:

Even with zero maintenance a standard commuter bike will last for 2 or 3 years when stored outside all year around. The only thing you have to do is repump the tires every few months and replace flat tires (flat tires are more a question of bad luck than of maintenance).

Once the bike doesn't feel nice anymore bring it to a good bike store and ask for an all-around check up and replacement of all worn parts. Afterwards you should get another year or two with zero maintenance.

Of course with only a minor investment of time and money into regular maintenance you can keep your bike in better condition for longer but even with doing nothing at all you can get several years of use from a bike.

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  • The mentioned two smallest sprockets serve for only about 2500 km even if operated with care (smallest one only at high speed on tarmac). Fortunately, they can be bought separately and replaced without replacing the cassette. It is the same for both bicycles I used. It is less than a year of riding for me.
    – nightrider
    Mar 28, 2023 at 7:52
0

You won't find a totaly maintenance free bike, so imho, the best is to have the simpler bike, than you can completely maintain by yourself.

Forget about internally geared hub (IGH): it's a pain to repair and internal sprockets have a reduced life, moreover if your thigh are strong.

Same problem with single gear speed: it wears too quick.

I would also dodge the dutch one: also hard to operate by yourself.

I won't advice for hydraulic brakes: it also require frequent maintenance.

So just take a simple bike: 5-7 sprocket (not too much: they will be thinner), disk brakes, because they are simpler to adjust and don't need to be changed too often, and go!

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    I don't know what IGH you are basing this opinion on, it certainly has nothing to with the ones that I've been using. My experience from a life with IGH shifting is, that those things are rock solid. Virtually impossible to break. Also, while you are not distributing wear across several sprockets, single-speed/IGH sprockets are/should be steel and have long enough teeth to make chain skipping completely impossible. They work just fine until they begin loosing teeth, which takes many, many thousands of kilometers. Sorry, I'll have to downvote this, it basically contradicts all my own experience Mar 28, 2023 at 21:27
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    You recommend against hydraulic disc brakes, but you recommend mechanical discs. Mech discs do not self-adjust, and adjusting can be tricky for uninformed consumers. Also, cheap mech discs are more vulnerable to being compromised by the bike setup (esp. housing quality, maybe the routing on performance bikes). Hydraulics are sealed systems, and require relatively little maintenance if set up correctly. That said, it's true that they do eventually require bleeding and other maintenance, which is more complex than rim brakes.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Mar 31, 2023 at 13:19
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    Got two nexus 7, after 2 years of commuting 24km every day, my favourite gears started to wear out: when I pushed too hard on the pedals, it jumped, which was very unpleasant and hurtful for my legs. almost impossible to open and change the damaged gears. Apr 2, 2023 at 20:25

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