Thursday, October 4, 2012

Building Your Ideal Commuting Machine

I like building things.  More specifically, I like building bikes.  People ask me all the time, “If money were no object, and you were building your dream bike, what would you get?”  The truth of the matter is though, that I don’t think I have one end all dream bike.  If I had endless bike funds—which I don’t—I would build many bikes.  None of them would be $25,000 masterpieces.  I would build bikes that are very well suited to specific things.  I would have one of every category: road, mountain, singlespeed, city bike, retro cruiser, etc.  Each would serve its very own specific purpose, and I would choose every component to perform its job just so.  In this manner I would build the bicycle stable of my dreams. 

Somewhere near the top of that list would be a tailor made commuter bike.  Commuting is one of those areas where having just the right equipment for the situation can be the difference between arriving to work energized and ready to go, or prepared to separate head from body on the first unlucky co-worker who talks to you. 

Not all commutes are created equal, though.  So how do you decide which set-up is best for you?  Well luckily for you, you have someone like me to walk you through it. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the many benefits of commuting by bike here.  After writing that article, I was inspired to build a commuting masterpiece of my own.  For a few years I had commuted on my regular road bike, constantly installing lights, then taking them off.  Regularly getting caught out in the rain, I would yearn for full fenders, but never really wanted to put them on the bike on which I also race. 

A beautiful bike to be sure, but probably not well suited to commuting.

So I embarked to build something only for commuting.  Luckily I already had a single speed that I used for zipping around the city and whatnot on the rare occasion that I would get a haircut, or had a quick errand to run where parking was scarce. 

I crafted this bike in the image of my ideal commuter bike.  Something perfectly suited to my 10-mile ride that I could leave just so, and over many many miles completely ride into the ground.  I needed a bike that was begging to be ridden into the ground.  That is the number one concern of any well-crafted commuter: durability. 

The finished commuter.
If you are commuting on a daily basis, and have a commute of more than a few miles, than you can rest assured that you will be putting more miles on your commuter than every other bike you own.  Your steed needs to be able to handle that load.  Comfort, durability, and convenience need to be on the top of your list when deciding what to use for your build. 

Before we make any decisions though, we need to decide what type of commute you have, and then choose our build around what is best suited for that.  I will use my own commute as a case study:

My daily commute is exactly 10 flat miles each way, consisting of busy city streets and a long stretch of a combined bike and pedestrian path.  Because of the nature of living in the Mid-Atlantic, terrible weather is par for the course and my bike has to be ready for that.  Because of the hours I work, it is likely that my commute will often take place in the dark, especially during the short days of winter. 

Single speed drive train: simple and dependable.

A single-speed is well suited to this type of commute.  I don’t have a terribly long distance or any major hills to struggle up.  There is simply no reason to invite the problems and maintenance that comes with a multi-speed drive train unless you really must.  Single speeds need little to no adjustment, and the cog, chain and chainring lasts exponentially longer than any modern 10-speed set up of which I’m aware. 

If you had a longer commute than mine, however, you might opt for a modern ten-speed drive train.  The same goes for a commute with rolling hills.  No one wants to struggle for 15+ miles each way with rolling hills, only to have to work an 8-hour shift—so don’t.  A commute like this might be better suited to a more traditional road or touring set up.   

Phil Wood: Bombproof
I wanted a set of wheels that I could literally set and forget.  So I built myself a set of 32-spoked wheels, laced between the ever-bombproof Phil Wood track hubs and Velocity rims.  Aside from changing flats, I’ve never had to take these wheels off the bike since I originally installed them.  In the two years since I built them, they have never needed a true or a hub adjustment. 

Pasela TourGuard
Choosing my rubber was quite simple actually.  I didn’t go for anything but flat protection.  Though this phrase is often overstated, there might literally be nothing worse than having to change a flat in the rain when it's dark and 50 degrees out.  The Panaracer Pasela Tour Guard tires in a 25c are incredibly durable.  When these wear out though, I will be stepping up to the 28c version though.  Bigger is always better—when it comes to rubber anyway. 

RaceBlade clip-ons, with cat cameo.  

Fenders are an absolute must for any commuter.  If I had my druthers, I would have gotten some rugged full coverage fenders, but because of the frame I had available to me, I had to opt for some clip on race blades—which still get the job done just fine.  Fenders are the accessory that are kind of lame to have on your bike until the exact moment that they aren’t.  It only takes one wet ride to learn that lesson.

For longer commutes you may also want to opt for a rack and pannier bag system.  My ride is just short enough that I don't get too bothered by a back pack, but if I was carrying more cargo or had further to go, I would surely decide on panniers.  You can even get super stylish ones from our friends at Laplander Bags, like this:

I’m not a big fan of riding at night, but sometimes you have no choice.  Until someone invents teleportation for commuting purposes, there will be occasional instances where I will have to ride home in the dark.  Reflectors don’t cut it.  You have got to light it up. 

I have a USB chargeable mini-Newt NiteRider light illuminating my path, and a Knog Skink 4-LED flasher on the rear.  For night riding I think this should be an absolute minimum.  While I don’t always subscribe to the more is better mantra, I would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to being seen by 3,000lbs of metal and the sometimes-idiotic plebeian pilots that fill our streets. 

Chicks dig bells.
Don’t discount the merits of a nice resonant bell either.  Yelling “on your left” makes me think you’re a jerk even if you’re the nicest guy around—not to mention the fact it usually makes people move to their left.  I’ve had so many seriously close calls yelling at people that I had to switch to a bell.  It’s so much more cosmopolitan. 

And there you have it:  a complete commuting machine.  This is really only have the equation though.  We have covered the hard goods side of things, but the soft good—that is, what is protecting you and your body—will have to wait for a future post.   Until then, you can start the lobbying process with your significant other for the funds to build your perfect commuter. 


  1. Great write up, commuter biking is always an aspect of cycling that seems to get overlooked. It seems like most companies seem to cater more towards the racer and mountain style riding, and commuting bikes are often an after-thought. Which is probably why we see so many people commuting on Ill-fitting big-box store mountain bikes with knobby tires, and then give up soon after. This will be an article I will pass around to friends thinking about starting to commute by bike.

    I was curious, on the photo where you are mentioning the panniers, I was wondering which saddlebag you are using. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for reading! Commuting can be a truly miserable experience if you don't have the right equipment, but if you do, it is literally life changing.

      Unfortunately that photo isn't of my bike. Though that is likely a custom saddle bad by our friends at Laplander Bags. They are an all handmade outfit based in Philly. If you are interested, check out their website and talk to Shane about having one made.

  2. Ah! it's an old memory now.I used bicycle to go to school. Now every day i go to my office with an electric scooter.

  3. christania’s “rent christania bike” bikes are rolling across the city. The system, less than a year old, is funded by christania’s municipal government. It is currently only in one of christania’s 22 administrative districts. Although a 2nd generation system, there are 12 “Houses” in this district, each with around 40 bikes. The yearly subscription cost is the equivalent of $2 US, and allows the use of a bike for up to four hours at a time. In less than a year, there have been 6,000 subscriptions sold. There are larger 3rd generation systems in the world, which do not have a subscription to bike ratio as big as that.