Which bike is the right bike?
Chances are you already have a perfectly good bike to begin biking for transportation sitting in your closet or garage. With a tune up and some accessories, you can be on your way.
In case you are shopping for a new bike or wonder whether the bike you have is a good bike for transportation, here's a summary of bicycle types and how they rate for commuting/running errands. Light weight and performance features are not the focus. Instead, overall utility, ease of use, and appropriate features to the task at hand are emphasized.
European City Bike (also know as a Dutch Bike or English Roadster)
With counties like the Netherlands and Denmark having 1/3rd of their population using bikes daily, the Europeans have developed a bike design that is perfect for everyday transportation. These are also quite stylish bikes. These bikes have fenders and chain guards so you can wear pants or a skirt without worrying about getting your cloths oily or caught in the chain. Features also include a heavy duty steel frame, a rack (or racks) to carry things, a dynamo hub to power lights without batteries, and internal gearing and brakes for near maintenance-free operation.
The geometry of your position is very upright, comfortable, and dignified. The down side is that these are usually heavy bikes, and the entry level bikes are 1 or 3 speed (hey, Holland is flat...and so is Florida) If you need a little help from your gears, opt for at least a 5 speed model, preferably 7 or 8 speed. If speed and performance is what you are looking for, skip these.
If you want a bike that is comfortable, has the ability to carry a lot, and to take a lot of abuse and keep on going, these are your bikes. Great bikes by Azor, Velorbis, Batavus, and Pashley are made for the European market, so they can be hard to get. Recently, Electra began making their Amsterdam line based on these bikes. If you do get an Electra, be sure to have your dealer install a front brake if your are getting a model with only coaster brakes. (You need more than your feet as a secondary brake system!)
Rating: Good to Excellent
Touring bikes are both durable and versatile in application. These bikes are usually steel (sometimes aluminum) road bikes with tire clearance and eyelets for fenders and racks. Sometimes they have disk brakes. While they are usually heavier than performance road bikes, they are much lighter than European city bikes and most entry level hybrids. The road bar allows for multiple hand positions, so if you are riding farther, this is a real advantage.
The down side to these bikes is they usually do not have chain guards and their brake and shifting systems are external so they aren’t as maintenance free, and you’ll have to wear ankle straps with pants. They also put you in a more aggressive position on the bike than most city bikes and hybrids. Surly makes a great low cost touring bike called the Long Haul Trucker and Rivendell is also a frame maker that sells great touring bikes.
Rating: Good to Excellent
I have to say I’m very partial to these bikes. They are do anything, go anywhere bikes, and they’re fast. If you are looking for a bike that you can commute on every day and still go out and race or do club rides on the weekends, this is your bike.
Cyclocross is a sport where you ride courses with a mix of road and off road with sections where you dismount and run with your bike over obstacles. These are bikes made to take a beating and are usually very easy to set up with fenders and a rack. Just be sure to stick with entry or mid level bikes. These are going to be made of steel or aluminum and will have eyelets for racks and fenders. The high end bikes are going to be made of carbon fiber and will be sans eyelets and water bottle mounts (“No water?”, you ask. Blame the Belgians; it’s a cyclocross thing.)
You are also going to want to swap the treaded tires you get with slick road tires. Like the touring bikes, these bikes will not have a chain guard, and their brake and shifting systems are external so you will need to plan accordingly. Also, these are racing bikes, so the position will be more aggressive than the touring models. Most bicycle manufactures make at least one cyclocross model. Bianchi makes a good entry level cyclocross bike called the Volpe and Redline has a full series of ‘cross bikes.
Rating: Fair to Good
If space is an issue, you should consider a folding bike. In small wheel and regular wheel models, these bikes allow you to get where you are going and take your bike with you inside with relative ease. Most folders have 16 or 20 inch wheels making them fold up quite small. Depending on the model you get, your folder may have internal gearing and fenders and a rank installed.
The down side to the folders are twitchier wheels on the small wheeled versions, more flexy frames, a rougher ride (due to the small wheels), and difficulty finding the smaller tires in road slick versions locally. Dahon makes a full line of entry level folders, British Brompton and Birdy bikes are the most elegant in design, and Bike Friday can make custom folders for you in addition to the regular line.
Rating: Poor to Fair
Road bikes are bikes designed to be ridden long distances and in competition. They can be the lightest bikes available and can carry some of the highest performing equipment. Though a great road bike is hard to rival for ride quality, most do not make good bikes for general transportation. Most do not have tire clearance and frame eyelets for fenders and racks. Also, the geometry is going to be more aggressive on these bikes like the cyclocross bikes and their will be no chain guard in sight. The higher end models are made of carbon fiber and sell for the price of a used car. Not the kind of bike you want to chain up and leave for hours on end. Stick to entry level or older used road bikes if you want to go this route.
Rating: Poor to Fair
Hybrids are essentially mountain bike frames with more comfort oriented parts, usually slick tires, and a less aggressive position than mountain bikes. Every large bike manufacturer makes these which makes them easy to get and lower in cost than most bikes. However, I think hybrids are a design compromise that makes a bike that is neither good for transportation or competition.
Hybrids are geared more towards tootling around on the weekend or going to the coffee shop. There’s not anything wrong with that, but if you want a bike to transportation, you can do much better. Another disadvantage is that their price advantage compared to the end product isn’t that great once you add all the accessories you’ll need to make it a good bike for transportation.
The frames and fork designs can make it difficult to fit all the accessories you need. If you already have a hybrid, you can make it a decent city bike with the right accessories, but avoid this design if you are buying new.
Rating: Poor to Fair
I’d say these are worse than hyrbids, but at least mountain bikes are good at something: going off road. Unfortunately, they are not very good at riding on road. The suspension systems and knobby tires on mountain bikes make riding them for descent distances extremely inefficient. They are ubiquitous though and chances are if you own a bike, you own a mountain bike. If you already have one and don’t want to get a transportation specific bike, do yourself a favor and swap the tires for slicks and dial your suspension to the least amount of travel. If you have a full suspension bike (i.e, suspension built into the frame), I’d save it for the trail and get another bike.
Fixed Gear a.k.a. Fixies or Track Bikes
Rating: Poor to Fair
Fixed gear bikes are track bikes that have been adapted for street use initially made popular by bike messengers. These bikes have no free wheel which means there is no coasting. If you don’t have a brake (NOT ADVISED!!!), the strength of your legs pressing backwards are what stop you. I have to admit, I’m cutting against current fashion by saying I’m not a fan of these bikes outside of a velodrome. However, go to the downtown of any large city these days and you’ll find all sort of hipsters riding fixies so they are due a review.
Fixed gear bikes have some things going for them: low cost, simplicity of design (no shifting), and improvements in your bike handling skills. However, models are getting more expensive and I don’t find a single gear very charming when I’m trying to haul groceries uphill. If you go with a fixie, be sure to get at least a front brake installed. You’ll also need to add fenders and a rack.
You can also convert an old road bike to a fixed gear or single speed with conversion kits available at your local bike store. There are lots of makers of fixed gear bikes, but I’d recommend Mission Bicycles for beautiful custom and semi-custom fixies. By the way, did I mention to be sure to have a break installed before you ride?
Triathlon/Time Trial bikes
Out of all the bike designs, these should be avoided. Tri bikes are build for one thing: aerodynamic speed. Most models these days are built from carbon fiber (i.e. they’re expensive) and have an aerobar/pursuit bar set up that puts you in an extremely aggressive position. Riding in the areobars mean your hands are not near the brakes: not good for city traffic. Think of taking a Lamborgini to pick up a bed. It can be done, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I love tri bikes, but skip them for everyday use.