Summary: This post lists the key decisions and questions that once resolved will narrow down significantly the range of suitable bikes that will best meet your needs. These include your total budget (for the bike AND yearly maintenance), common trip distances, desired speed, type of frame and handlebars, riding style, number of gears needed and tyre width.
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> See the buying a bike and gear category of this blog
> The best existing design solutions for transport utility bicycles
> Designing a better utility bike in developing cycling cities
Set a total budget for all on-road bike costs
- Some bikes come with fenders and racks, most don’t. Some come with more comfortable/suitable saddles, most don’t. Most come with tyres that aren’t sufficiently puncture-proof, but some are decent while many are terrible. The wheel (rim) width and strength is another component that varies significantly and which you may need to upgrade. And soon after purchase you may decide that horizontal handlebars don’t suit you and you prefer swept-back ones. So it’s important to consider all essential, bike on-road costs at the beginning inclusive of all foreseeable upgrades/changes to make the bike more suitable, robust or useful.
Exclude equipment that is best bought separately
- The total on-road bike budget and comparison shouldn’t include equipment that doesn’t typically come with a bike – such as lights, saddle bag, helmet, clothing, etc. You will find it cheaper to buy such equipment separately and get precisely what you want rather than what the bike retailer throws in. If the package-deal equipment doesn’t best suit your needs you will likely end up replacing it later so try to eliminate non-essential equipment from your bike comparisons.
Factor in an affordable, yearly maintenance/upgrade budget
- There’s no point buying a bike that looks smashing and rides perfectly initially but then requires frequent maintenance services and repairs (gear tuning, wheel trueing, punctures). It is very common for urban cyclists to spend as much or more a year on maintenance, repairs and upgrades than they did on their bike itself. Often they then can’t afford to keep maintaining it and end up using it much less as the gears don’t work properly or it has too many issues or limitations. So your yearly maintenance/upgrade budget should be a key criteria for your bike type and equipment.
Exclude the cheapest, eBay/Department store bikes then decide if buying New or Used
- The very cheapest bikes on eBay and in Department stores typically have the lowest quality parts that often rust and break quickly and are not enjoyable to ride or own. Having excluded the lowest prices, then based on your total budget, you should determine whether you can afford to buy a New bike or will need to get a Used bike. Value-for-money (e.g. on sale), suitable New bikes are usually better for those without sufficient knowledge about bike condition or who don’t have experience replacing parts on a bike. If you buy a Used bike it is likely you will need to replace parts in the short to medium term.
Decide early if optional bike add-ons are suitable or you are best off adding on later the specific equipment that best suits
- For example, many utility bikes come with built-in metal fenders. If weight isn’t an issue (short trips, few hills), then the more comprehensive protection of built-in fenders may be desirable. However, if buying plastic fenders that save weight and can be taken off in summer are more suitable, then this is worth deciding up-front. Note: Plastic fenders/mudguards are simple enough for even a novice to attach and remove but you need to find a type that will fit your bike so this is best checked at the time you are choosing a bike. (e.g. The Zefal Swan is a recommended rear mudguard but you should check it will fit your bike).
- Racks and baskets are another common add-on that often come with utility bikes. However, there are many different types available and some come with detachable carriers or better suit lightweight pannier bags. The weight difference between types of storage options can also be significant. So this is a key area you should investigate up-front and decide on the most suitable carrying option for you. Then if some of the bikes you are considering come with this type of storage, great – that’s a plus. But you won’t be forced into limiting your choice of storage options to only those available with bikes under consideration.
Narrow down your Bike Type preferences based on general suitability, riding style, speed, trip distance, weight, style
- Almost all bikes fall into common Bike Type categories based on similar features. So if you first narrow down a suitable bike for your needs to a few Bike Types this will immediately narrow down your choices. Urban cyclists riding primarily for transport are most likely to be suited to the following types: City/Commuter, Flat-bar Road, Single Speed, Hybrid, Mixte, Cruiser/Comfort. Thus most can ignore these types: Drop-bar Road, Cyclocross/Touring, Mountain, BMX, etc.
- For example, if definitely only using the bike for short, slow trips on flat ground then a Cruiser/Comfort or Vintage bike that is heavy and slower may be fine. However, if planning to eventually use the bike regularly for trips where weight, speed and trip distance will matter, you are best off focusing on lighter, quicker bikes - Flat-bar Road, City/Commuter, Single Speed. If almost never riding bumpy, off-road tracks where suspension is desirable then you can eliminate Mountain and Hybrid bikes with suspension.
- If an angled, step-thru frame is important (one you can easily get your leg across), then you’ll want to look at Mixtes and step-thru Hybrid/City bikes rather than Flat-bar Road or most Single Speeds (which generally don’t have step-thru frames).
- Chain guards protect your trousers/skirt from getting caught in the chain or dirtied by it. For most cyclists they are not essential as this rarely happens given their cycling clothing or they tie any loose clothing back. However, some people (e.g. females wearing dresses) may prefer chain guards as they eliminate this hassle. Some bike types (Cruiser, Mixte, City) are much more likely to come with chain guards. Chain guards can be added on to many other bikes but if you really prefer one you should check this before you purchase a bike. Most people who use chain guards purchase them with their bike – so a strong preference for them will narrow your choice of bikes considerably.
- Handlebar types are a key area affecting comfort and riding position. Drop-bar Road style handlebars are the most difficult to adjust to and are generally suited only to those who like to crouch into low wind-resistance positions to go faster and are comfortable with them. Horizontal bars are the most common and suit most urban riders as they provide an upright riding position that is good for seeing the road. Swept-back handlebars are found on some Cruiser/Comfort, Mixte and City bikes. They also support an upright, comfortable riding position but most people will have a preference between horizontal vs. swept-back handlebars, so if considering the latter, give both a test ride to determine your preference. Some bikes support changing handlebar types but this is best done at the time of negotiation/purchase not after.
Choose the correct bike size and seat and handlebar height for long-term comfort
- An incorrect bike size or seat and handlebar height can cause knee, back and hand pain or more discomfort riding than is necessary. Most bikes come in a suitable range of sizes and have enough adjustment in seat and handlebar height to make them suitable. However, in some cases there are only a few different sizes of frames and the handlebar height can’t be adjusted upward significantly without using more angled riser handlebars. So it is vital to check that the correct bike size and adjustments can be made to suit your body dimensions and preferred riding position. This is especially critical the longer the distance of your trips. Over short distances (less than 7km), pain and discomfort is much less likely. Over long distances (greater than 10km), pain and discomfort becomes much more likely.
Choose carefully how many gears you actually need and what type
- Counter-intuitively the less gears you can get away with the better. More gears generally means more maintenance, cost and weight. The biggest advantage of Single Speed bikes is that they are extremely low maintenance due to only having 1 speed (1 gear at the front and back). This also reduces wear and extends the gear and chain life significantly. However, due to hills, carrying weight and distance, Single Speeds aren’t suitable or enjoyable for many people. So instead you’ll need to work out the minimum number of gears you can get away with. For most people, 7 gears is ample – which means you only need 1 gear (chain ring) at the front and up to 7 at the back. Having only 1 gear at the front significantly simplifies your gear shifting and long-term maintenance.
- Most utility bikes still come with 3 gears at the front, providing either 21 or 24 speeds in total (3 x 7 or 8). If you find a bike that ticks all the other boxes but has 3 gears at the front (21 or 24 speed), then you may find you can live with the extra gears. However, it is still worthwhile assessing how many gears at the front you really need and considering removing ones you don’t.
- To simplify down to 7 gears, you’ll need to ensure that the easiest gear is sufficient to climb the hills you’ll need to while carrying whatever extra weight you might have. The only way to do this is to test ride the bike on an equivalent hill and factor in additional weight. You’ll also want to check the heaviest gear is sufficient for the maximum pedalling speed you’ll need – for example when going down a slight slope. If you like to go very fast when possible you’ll want a heavier gear than if you are happy to just coast. Note: The gear you spend the most time riding in (on the flat) should be closer to the heavier end as you need more range for the hills.
- To simplify further down to 3 gears, you’ll need to be even more confident that the easiest gear is sufficient to climb hills and the heaviest allows you to keep pedalling at speed without spinning out too quickly. Good 3 speed bikes have larger ratios between the gears so they actually cover a range equivalent to 5-6 normal gears. What you lose in fine-tuning you gain in simplicity, so simply base your decision on a test ride and see how smooth changing gears is and if the range is sufficient.
If going for 3 to 8 gears consider an internal hub
- Internal hub gears are contained within a hub affixed to the rear wheel rather than using external derailleurs. The benefit is that internal hub gears require maintenance much less often – both cleaning and tuning. 3 speed and 7 speed internal hub gears are the most popular choices and Shimano Nexus hubs are the most popular types. If you’ve determined that you can live with 3-8 gears, test ride an internal hub bike with the most suitable number of gears (usually 3, 5, 7 or 8).
- If you find shifting gears and the gear range suitable for an internal hub bike, then this will narrow down your bike options significantly. Internal hubs are not typically an upgrade option for traditional geared bikes, so you will be looking at bikes that come with your desired internal hub gear range. E.g. Searching for “3 speed internal hub” will show you only bikes which come with this setup and this will be quite a small subset of the total number of bikes.
If not using an internal hub, check gear and derailleur quality
- If using standard derailleur gears you should make sure the quality of gears and derailleurs is good enough to last at least a few years in all weather conditions as long as looked after. Avoiding the cheapest eBay or Department store bikes and spending at least $275 on a new bike should ensure the gears are acceptable. For utility bikes there is no need to spend hundreds on better gears. All known quality brands (e.g. Shimano) will be sufficient.
Steel, aluminium or carbon fibre frames?
- Carbon fibre bikes are designed for racing and speed and apart from needless expense they require gentle handling as they are more prone to the frame cracking and needing replacement. So only cyclists doing long-distances at speed need even consider them. The main choice urban, utility cyclists will make is between steel (including Chromium-Molybdenum alloyed steel) and aluminium alloys. Steel is heavier, more robust/tough, and less stiff (slightly more comfortable). Aluminium is lighter, less robust/tough and more stiff (slightly less comfortable).
- Urban bikes carrying a lot of weight (e.g. many gears, racks, etc.) are usually aluminium alloys to save frame weight. Urban bikes with little additional weight (like Single Speeds) are often Cr-Mo steel alloys as the extra weight is manageable given the extra robustness and comfort. If you are going Single Speed or your bike might be subject to some rough handling/riding and you want your bike to last a long time, then steel is preferable. If saving weight is a priority and you will not throw the bike around then aluminium is fine.
Wheel quality and rim width
- The wheel rim quality is often where most cost savings are made so bikes that are otherwise quite decent can often come with low-end wheels that may more easily buckle or go out of true (not be straight). The heavier you and your load is and the rougher the territory you ride on (bumps, potholes) the more important it is to get good quality wheels.
- The rim width (and thus tyre width) makes a big difference to the robustness of wheels. Wide rims (hybrids, mountain bikes) supporting 32-45mm width tyres are much less likely to buckle or go out of true given the same wheel quality. But narrow rims (supporting 21-28mm tyres) are more likely to buckle if of poor quality. So the necessary quality of your wheels should depend on the rim and tyre width you choose.
Tyre width and profile
- Rims can support a small range of tyre widths near the rim width. So narrow rims may support 21-28mm tyres. While wider rims may support 28-38mm tyres. Bike Types tend to have a place on the spectrum of rim and tyre widths. Flat-bar road bikes and single speeds have smaller rim/tyre widths. Hybrids and Cruisers tend to have larger rim/tyre widths. While you can change the wheel size and rim widths on bikes this is limited by the space between the forks and brakes, so the rim width the bike comes with is a good indication of the potential range.
- All other things being equal, the narrower the tyre the less rolling resistance and the faster the bike will go. Tyre profile (tread depth, pattern, smoothness) also affects rolling resistance. If planning to use the bike regularly for longer trips, where you want a higher average speed, then you should lean toward narrower rim/tyre widths.
Tyre puncture resistance
- Most bikes come with stock tyres that have much less than optimal puncture resistance. The faster and cheaper the bike the more likely the tyres are to need upgrading to a more puncture-resistant type. This is because puncture-resistant tyres are heavier so a bit of speed is sacrificed. And because it’s one of the areas cost can be saved because consumers don’t often focus on tyre quality. If you really want to entirely eliminate punctures you will want to upgrade the tyres to Schwalbe Marathon Plus or Durano (or similar quality brands). These are unlikely to come as stock and can be expensive to purchase from a retailer compared to online, so check the upgrade cost from the retailer and decide if comparing tyres between bike retailers actually matters – if you are going to purchase Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres online and upgrade them yourself then it doesn’t, you just need to check the rim size will fit.
- Some cyclists won’t want the speed penalty (around 5%) of puncture-proof tyres like Schwalbe Marathon Plus and so in their case the quality of the stock tyres does matter. Some urban bikes are offered with tyres that have decent puncture resistance while others have tyres that are puncture-magnets and will definitely need upgrading.
Cantilever brakes, V-brakes or disc brakes
- Disc brakes have the best stopping power especially in the wet but are more complicated, expensive and generally over-kill for most urban cyclists on the road. V-brakes don't provide significant advantages over cantiliver brakes and tend to have thinner pads that need replacing more often. So the simplest form - cantilever brakes, which are applied at the rim - are typically best.
What type of saddle should I get?
- Saddles are easy to replace so unless you already have a strong preference this is something you will figure out if you need to change only after spending significant time riding the bike - especially for more than 5km.
- Saddle comfort is mostly due to bike fit (correct size, correct saddle height and handlebar height). You shouldn't be moving around on the saddle as you ride. If you're not used to riding a bike, don't assume initial discomfort means you need a new saddle; you'll need some time to adjust.
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