What Kind of Bike Do I Need for My New Commute?

As part of my ongoing (secret) mission to make this blog all about me, I’m here with a “bleg” as I believe the kids call it.

To be fair, this “blegging” wasn’t really my idea. I merely asked a perfectly innocent and not at all loaded question in the comments on Walker’s post about declining bike sales, and a wise fellow commentor suggested that it was fodder for a post. Despite my enthusiastic agreement, please direct your complaints elsewhere.

Anyway, silliness aside, I’m sitting at my desk at a chair that does not belong to me, because my home is currently staged for showing to (hopefully deep-pocketed) real estate shoppers, and my name appears on a line somewhere on a contract to purchase a different home, which means I’m busy ignoring how much all this is going to cost me and instead fixating on how I can manage the 5.5 miles or so between the new place and the office without getting in a car.

I mean, I guess I could drive, aside from the fact that I really hate driving in rush hour traffic. And the fact that paying for car storage is annoying. And the fact that I maybe sorta have been mildly evangelical about the virtues of car-light urban living.

But the bottom line is that I do not want to drive to work. If everything goes as planned, it will be pretty easy to take the bus to the office (doesn’t even need a transfer!), but that’s a little passive for my taste, so I’m looking for something a tad more physically involved.

It occurred to me today that I can grab a Nice Ride to the train station and ride the rails to work about as quickly as anything, so that’s going to rocket to the top of the options pretty darn quick during the biking season, but this suburban kid turned urban advocate is thinking about how best to cut out the choo-chooing middleman.

So, yeah, let’s stop beating around the bush and get to the question. I want to bike to work, but I’m not sure what I need to do it.

Up until recently, I’ve biked mostly for recreation. This summer, I’ve added a Nice Ride membership to work in a little discretionary bike “commuting” for a trip that’s around a mile and easily walkable. Now it’s time to take it up a notch (hat tip, Guy Fieri).

My trusty, inexpensive hybrid Trek has served me well. I’m at around 700 miles this biking season after going over 600 or so last summer, mostly on weekend rides for exercise. I like the upright riding position, and the gearing and tires do reasonably well for faster-than-mountain-bike-slower-than-road-bike tooling around. With some modifications, maybe it can do the commuting job?

A trusty steed at rest

A trusty steed at rest

At minimum, I will need some cargo capacity and some protection from flying debris kicked up by the rear tire. I figure adding a cargo rack and some panniers in which I can carry work clothes and maybe I’ll be fine.

But is fine really the goal? So, let’s get right down to the question. I’ve got 5.5 miles each way to go between home and work. I’ve got to spend the day at a desk in an office, with no real access (or desire to have to) clean up. So, leaving aside truly inclement weather, what’s your recommendation of the right two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle to get the job done? Or, just as good, what features should I be looking for in picking one out?

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

41 thoughts on “What Kind of Bike Do I Need for My New Commute?

  1. Kirk

    You’ll need fenders of course to protect you from the flying debris. If you ever plan to bring your bike on the train, be careful not to get a rear fender so long that your bike is resting on the rear fender (and not the rear tire) when stored in its upright position on the train.

  2. Julie Kosbab

    On a longer commute, we have a steel road frame (a Surly Cross-Check) with fenders, a rack and two very good waterproof panniers. We have an additional waterproof protective sleeve for the laptop that is often carried in one of said panniers.

    When it rains, there is no avoiding changing and cleaning up. A washcloth in a bathroom or a nice tub of wet wipes (but the ones in the baby section, generics, unscented — they’re cheaper) goes far in helping you be crescent fresh.

    1. jeffk

      I’m a big proponent of steel road bikes with slightly relaxed geometry, such as a Surly Cross Check, a Biachi Imola, or if you carry a lot of shit, a Surly Long Haul Trucker. These aren’t quite as comfy as the hybrid or “city” bikes, but in our relatively low density cities, they’ll get you there a lot faster if you have to to 10 miles across town. Similar bikes in a single speed configuration are a good option, especially for winter, as they’re simpler and cheaper.

      1. Ben

        Yeah, single speed is the way to go, especially around here where it’s flat as a board. Much lower maintenance and slightly more efficient too.

        1. Gabe

          Depends on how many are commuting via your bike–My kid’s trailer is basically a weighted drag ‘chute, and a few extra gears make a big difference, especially on the hills into and out of the Mississippi River gorge (we commute between south Minneapolis and Dinkytown.) The climb up the Sabo bridge ramps isn’t trivial, either. My mantra: Gear down, spin faster.

            1. Ben

              “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft…As for me, give me a fixed gear!”– Henri Desgrange

              Where do you fit on that spectrum, Adam?

              (joking obviously, but your body has a pretty incredible ability to adapt to pushing a single gear in a huge variety of circumstances)

              1. Gabe

                In the joking spirit: This Desgrange person–barefoot runner? Or is the derailer the only “artifice” to which he takes offense (as opposed to, say, wheels, frames, seats, roads…)?

                1. Ben

                  Henri Desgrange (31 January 1865, Paris – 16 August 1940) was a French bicycle racer and sports journalist. He set 12 world track cycling records, including the hour record of 35.325 kilometres on 11 May 1893. He was the first organiser of the Tour de France.

                  He didn’t allow derailers in the Tour de France until 1937.

              2. sa

                Oh come on. I’m a 47 (nearly 48) y.o. woman commuting 10 miles one way from Mpls to Roseville. No need for a derailleur.

      2. Aaron Berger

        Does anybody know if there’s literature on single speed bikes and knee injuries? I would expect that city biking that requires frequent starts and stops would produce greater knee strain on a single speed bike unless the gear ratio is really low.

  3. Gabe Ormsby

    I agree with fenders being vital. Also recommend a key-fob style garage door opener. Bought one for my commuting bike–Getting around the ‘squeezing out the back door and through the gate shuffle’ has been an improvement well worth the $15-odd cost. Zip-tied it to the handlebars. Ortlieb Backroller Classic is a nice, if pricey, commuter pannier. If you do plan to make a new bike purchase, disc brakes are a nice upgrade.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I commute with a steel-frame hybrid/”flat bar road bike” (a Jamis Coda) which does reasonably well. But the wheels are problematic for a big tall guy, and I want fenders. And I wish it had an internal gear hub for ease of maintenance, and a chain guard for keeping my pants legit. The bike has served me well for about 4 years for commuting and for recreational trips, and was less than $500.

    But at this point I’m considering a new commuter bike (probably one of those euro-style city bikes) that has all those features from the start.

    One thing about bike commuting… why do so many people bike with backpacks/messengers? I can’t imagine having something on my back while I bike. I like panniers, and I use two laptop sleeves: One for my work laptop, and one for all my other good stuff. That way, if I take the bus or have a “fancy meeting” or travel for work, I just throw the two laptop sleeves into my briefcase.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I bought a Topeak bike rack from the get-go, one that is designed to work with their slide-in bags (which I also bought). It works fine for carrying toddler stuff (snacks, diapers, etc) for family rides, but isn’t big enough for work things like a laptop or notebooks I frequently carry. And, unfortunately, it’s not a great design to keep a solid-sized pannier bag from swaying and hitting the tires (though I only tried it once). So, I end up wearing a backpack for commuting up to the 94 in downtown, and a Henty backpack when I make the full 12+ mile journey from my house to downtown St Paul.

      tl;dr, yeah I wish I had a better rack and pannier bags. I get sweaty when it’s above 80.

    2. Gabe

      Love my Jamis Coda for commuting. Someday this “aluminum frame” fad will fade, and we’ll all be riding steel or cabon fiber again 🙂

    3. Rosa

      I went through a lot of different panniers finding a set I liked (before I got the cargo bike) and they’re expensive to be trying a bunch of different ones. My husband finally gave up and made his own, out of heavy canvas – he was as frustrated as me with taking off and carrying bags that had random metal bits sticking out, I think.

  5. Mark Snyder (@snyde043)

    I commute 10 miles each way to work, mostly along Como Avenue, on an older Diamondback mountain bike with a rack and panniers, with no fenders and that’s working pretty well for me so I think your current bike would be more than sufficient once adding storage.

    I do have showers available once I get to work, though.

    1. Joe

      Oh man Walker I think you’ve got me convinced. Can you comment on going with Workcycles vs some of the cheaper options like Gazelle or Linus? Also on buying from J.C.Lind in Chicago vs buying from Europe and having it shipped (it actually seems cheaper to buy from Europe)?

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        JC Lind are good folks. I wouldn’t hesitate buying from them.

        Personally I’d prefer a Workcycles or Azor over Gazelle. Gazelle are still good bikes though and I think the differences are fairly small. The biggest for me is that Gazelle is a tighter cockpit which may be a benefit for some people. I’m thinking there were some minor things like not including a steering stabilizer (or lug for one) as well.

        Getting something directly from Workcycles works well and may be less expensive. I think they can tell you what shipping will be and may also be able to include customs duties.

      2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Oops, forgot about Linus. A Dutchie 8 is $829 MSRP. It doesn’t include many things that are standard on Dutch bikes such as a front dynamo and dyno powered front and rear lights, no rear wheel lock, external brakes instead of internal (coaster, roller, or drum), no chaincase, no steering stabilizer, no spats, and smaller tires (though do appear to be Schwalbe Marathon which are good).

        How sturdy are the rims and spokes? Quality of seat and peddles? How sturdy is the rear rack? Option for front rack? Powder coat paint and stainless fittings?

        From my memory the geometry is kind of halfway between English and Dutch.

        All that said I wouldn’t rule them out as they might be the right bike for some people if the price is right.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Alas, Calhoun Cycle did not have any Gazelle in stock (or didn’t mention when I asked about Dutch bikes). They had something pretty cool & manly looking (perhaps too much so for lame me) that was Dutch, but I can’t recall the precise name.

      Lots of nice looking Linus, though.

  6. Nicole

    If I had a 5 mile commute (which I don’t, it’s more like ten feet and/or 1000 miles) my Linus 3-speed hits almost all the marks (a better chain guard would be nice) and puts smile on my face every time I ride it. A good basket and panniers are essential, as I HATE riding with a backpack.

    A 3-speed Brompton with the huge cargo bag would also be an excellent choice with the added bonus of not needing to lock it somewhere outside and also fitting in any train or bus without issue. (and they’re an excellent complement to a cargo bike!). Of course, that’s the Cadillac option.

    But really, you need a bike that carries what you need and puts a smile on your face when you’re pedaling. My ideal isn’t everyone else’s. Try some bikes and find the one that works for you!

  7. brad

    I’d say just get some fenders (you appear to have lights already) and try it for a while! You can add more gear as you go.

    In addition to all the great advice above, you might also think about a pump and basic tools (although it sounds like you could also just put it on a bus and get home if you got a flat). And, if you’re going to ride even when it rains and/or gets colder, you’ll find you want some weather-specific clothes–at least a waterproof shell and gloves.

    Tip on panniers: REI seems to have the Ortliebs on sale every spring.

  8. Rosa

    What are you doing with the bike at the work end of your commute? My vote is something cheap enough you won’t die of rage when it gets stolen, light enough you can easily get it onto a bus rack, and with panniers for the benefit of not sweating under a bag and still being able to run errands on the way home. And I’m a fan of wired-in lighting, too, because it sucks to get done with work late on a fall day and find you forgot to strip the lights off your bike that morning and have no lights for going home with. I’ve never had indoor bike parking at a job, though – “secure”, yes. “Cameras” yes. Indoors, no.

    All the suggestions people have given you are great. I vote for gears, though – it’s nice for arriving at work presentable from not having to work too hard on hills.

    I do not commute on my cargo bike because, if some change in the plan requires putting it on a car or bus rack, it does not fit. And I like to have a backup bike for the morning when there’s no bike-maintenance time built into the schedule and I walk out to the garage to find a flat tire or unfixed broken thing I forgot about after my last ride.

    So actually this comment is a vote for owning THREE bikes – a regular commuter, a backup/winter/beater, and a cargo bike.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      And excellent question. There are bike racks outside the building on the sidewalk (downtown). My guess is that there are enough people around for these to be reasonably safe during the day, although I’ve only used them for a few hours at a time on the weekend.

      I think there is bike parking in the building’s garage somewhere, but I’ve yet to check that out.

      1. Rosa

        I think if you park a bike downtown often enough, theft is kind of inevitable.

        In the years I worked downtown I think I averaged one “not able to get home” theft about every two years – twice the whole bike, once the rear wheel, once the seat (I actually biked home that time, sitting on the rack, but it was only 2 miles, not 5). Once someone stole my cranks and pedals – and they weren’t even expensive ones!

        Assuming you’re not right by the stadium, you’re probably immune from “drunken football fan jumped on frame until it broke” but there’s still an awfully high risk of theft from downtown sidewalks – one of mine was stolen right on 6th street directly in front of the building security cameras in the middle of a regular work day. To be fair, it was only on a cable that day – the bike racks were so full, I couldn’t get close enough to u-lock, and I was running late so I didn’t go farther away to find a better lock spot. But clearly somone was watching for mistakes like that.

      2. Rosa

        and I came back to say – saying theft is inevitable sounds really pessimistic and anti bike-commuting, but the cost savings just from not insuring & parking a second car covers a nice new bike every year or two anyway, so it’s really not that big a deal. Assuming you can cultivate enough emotional tranquility. When the first bike i ever bought new was stolen, I was mad for a long time. By the third commuter bike that got stolen…eh. It happens.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

          It’s a definite factor. I think I’ve decided to stick with what I have, with a few upgrades, but spending $1200 for a city bike, which I want, is harder when you figure it might get stolen.

          anyway, heading toward multiple bikes, which can go multiple ways.

    2. David Vessel

      Great comments. I agree a MetroTransit GoTo card is great backup for either bad weather or a breakdown.

  9. David Vessel

    I ride a Surly Long Haul Trucker is set up with fenders, bike rack, panniers (Novarra), basic bike computer and Light in Motion LED lights. I have clip-less pedals (crank brothers). I ride into downtown St. Paul which is somewhat hilly so I appreciate the full range of gears offered on a touring bike. My commuter bike recommendations include a kryptonite evolution lock and gatorskin/armadillo tires. I have a 5 mile commute.

    My wife has a 2 mile commute and likes to run trips to the grocery store. Her bike is a 3-speed Royal Dutch Gazelle (classic). Which has a rack, rack strap, generator lights, rear wheel lock, platform pedals, kickstand, a basket. She loves it because she just jumps on and goes.

    My point is that two completely different commuter bike setups work great because they match the needs of the rider. They have the technical specs that fit the topography of the commute, the ride style of the commuter and the interest area of the rider (I like technical aspects of my commute, My spouse likes the style).

    I started out with a Giant Cypress (comfort bike) for the first couple of years. It was a low-cost entry since I was a little unsure of my level of commitment (and I am cheap). Once I figured out how much I enjoyed bike commuting, I wanted to ride a bike that matched me. My recommendation is that you find a good local bike shop (most have their own vibe so find one that you like) and get properly fitted. Buy your bike there since commuter bikes require maintenance and a good bike mechanic is worth his/her weight in gold.

  10. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I ride a Surly Straggler for commuting (steel, halfway between touring and cross). I also have a Boardman road bike and an older Trek 7200 (similar to your bike now).

    I really hate riding in the Trek, and really only keep it around as a backup-backup. Everything feels slow, and not in a luxurious fun way.

    The Boardman was fast for commuting, but really not good at carrying any weight. Even with just a pannier with my laptop in it, it got tippy and unstable, and I couldn’t put fenders on it readily.

    I haven’t ridden them, but the owner of a new bike shop I’ve been going to (Positive Pedals) is really into Jamis. I like their offerings better than Trek, and they tend to have things at lower prices than the QBP brands (like Surly).

  11. Scott Merth

    I ride a SE Lager single-speed for my 3 mile commute. It has a sturdy steel frame and very tough wheels–a year in and there’s practically no wear. I also like the somewhat forward ‘stance’ that the bike employs, especially with the bullhorn handlebar. On top of it all, it was pretty affordable at $400 from Varsity Bikes, although I’ve seen it cheaper online. Aftermarket modifications included adding a back fender (by Full Windsor), some removable lights (I park downtown), and replaced the seat with one suited for men (I recommend you look into this no matter what bike you buy, for your health).

    I read above about your trepidation regarding hills and being locked into a single speed, but I’d say not to worry too much about that. I climb the Loring bottleneck on my way back home and this hill was by far my largest worry before buying this bike. On the flip side, I realized hills really aren’t that taxing, as I can always take a hill slower when I want to stay dry or not work as hard. My previous bike had gears and switching gears on a ride just make my legs spin more, getting me only slightly less sweaty than I’d otherwise be.

    No matter what, get a bike you love ’cause it’ll make you want to ride that much more. At any rate, best of luck with the new wheels.

  12. John

    Seeing all the comments I’m sure you’ve really got all the help you need but I’ll throw in here too.
    I’ve been commuting by bike since the late 80s (when I finally had to pay for car insurance) and over the years I’ve found:
    For all weather goodness nothing beats and internally geared hub – 3,5,7,8,9 speed – whatever, doesn’t get gummed up by nasty winter crud which can prevent conventional bikes from shifting well.
    Depending on whether you have a place to safely store the bike – if it’s got to be locked up in public, make it ugly and undesirable for thieves.
    Fenders and Rack are required – a gentleman doesn’t show up with a stripe of road grime up his back.
    Sometimes the best option is a winter beater with a 3 speed hub and a nicer bike for when weather doesn’t suck.
    In my opinion single speeds are for young people, older folks know that knee replacements are expensive and painful.
    My main commuting/fun time bike is an old steel framed thing with cruiser handlebars, fenders, internal hub, chain guard and a loud bell. I can see well and be seen, ignore everything but chain lube until spring and if it gets stolen I’m not out a ton of cash. The frame is the key part – I’ve had my old dogg for 20+ years, gone thru a few sets of wheels and all the rest. I’ve got lighter and faster bikes but it’s still my favorite ride. The big thing is building the habit/addiction. It’s a very energizing way to get around and to work. Good Luck!

  13. Noelle

    I have a question about the steel vs. aluminum debate (this could be opening a huge can of worms…). It seems like a lot of the really dedicated commuters prefer riding steel bikes. Is there a reason for this?

    I have an old 70s Raleigh lady sports that I’m in the process of getting into safer riding shape to (for now) take me to the local church park & ride and back and a few other around town trips (generally <5 miles). It's steel. It's heavy. But, I am surprised at how much it absorbs the bumps, plus the swept back bars are crazy comfortable. So if I ever decide to upgrade it, I'll probably lean towards steel, but just curious what the pros have to say.

    1. Gabe


      The basic theory in the steel vs aluminum debate is that aluminum is stiffer, has less flex, than steel. Pro-Aluminum: Won’t rust; weighs less; stiffer means more power transfer efficiency from engine (i.e. you) to wheels. Pro-steel: more flex means a smoother ride. IIRC, steel is more repairable than aluminum, and failures may be more graceful.

      That said, other factors (tire inflation, overall bike/load weight, personal preference) offset the theoretical differences pretty quickly. I prefer steel for triangulated frames, but am happy with my monotube aluminum recumbent (Burley HepCat).

      To compare, find an older paved road with some surface texture, or a recently chip-sealed road, and take comparable steel framed and aluminum framed bikes for a ride. I compared my Jamis Coda (steel) to a very similar Trek model (aluminum) when I bought my Coda, and I thought the difference was stark. But I was also looking for it.

      As with any other factor, it comes down to comfort and personal preference. If the theoretical factors are interesting to you, great, but otherwise don’t sweat it.

  14. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    I have at least two bikes 🙂 … a dedicated winter bike with studded tires, straight bars, internal hub gear, belt drive, and disc brakes (Spot Ajax) and a nice weather bike with smooth tires, derailleur, chain, and drop bars (Surly Crosscheck).

    I have commuted on an old Raleigh 3 speed and a Workcycles Fr8. I live in St. Paul where there are significant hills, and both of these bikes really hurt my knees. The Raleigh didn’t have enough climbing speeds, and the Workcycles, awesome as it was, was just far too heavy.

    For me, heavy is a big deal (and single speed would never work), and those bikes kept me from being able to go very far distances or going anywhere I hadn’t been before because of fear of debilitating knee pain. Maybe in MPLS it is flatter and a city bike would be more appropriate. It was painful to sell the Fr8.

    When I commuted in winter without studded tires I fell on ice and broke my ankle badly. Since using studded tires I’ve never had a problem. I also think a straight bar is better for riding over the mountains of ice on side streets rather than drop bars. If you’re going to ride in winter, I recommend getting a dedicated winter bike with wet and cold weather-friendly features/components. (Again, maybe MPLS clears bikeways (and HAS bikeways), so that studded tires are less important)

    The real key for commuting in nice weather is to have fenders, a rack, a good lock (and locking strategy) – and most importantly, a comfortable bike you want to ride. If your current bike is comfortable and you like riding it, just outfit it for commuting. If it doesn’t satisfy, fix it or replace it. I’ve been very happy with my Surly Crosscheck from Craigslist.

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