Bicycles Suitable for Commuting, Used or New
Although the usual practice when beginning something new, such as riding a bike to work, is to buy something new to do it with, such as a new bike, I recommend using an old bike, purchasing a used bike, or at worst buying an inexpensive bike.
The used bike makes sense for two reasons: 1) A commuter bike gets exposed to a lot more weather than your pride and joy, as you may end up riding it through the rain and yet lack the time to dry it off after arriving. If you live in the Northern States or Canada, your bike will be exposed to salt in the winter which will destroy the frame. 2) A brand-new expensive bike is more likely to get stolen if you have to leave it locked up somewhere. There is no greater deterrent to theft than an old bike, although you will still need to lock it up.
Not everyone will be willing to commute on a older bike, and not everyone needs to, as you may not have salt on your roads, and you may be able to keep your bike inside your office, so I will also say a little about newer bikes too.
Where to Buy a Used Bike
Finding a used bike for sale is a little harder than finding a new one, but there are a number of likely sources. First, many bike shops sell older bikes, and they are an excellent source, as they usually overhaul the bike and correct any problems before selling it. Second, in many towns there are retired men who collect, repair, and sell older bikes at a low cost. One form of advertising used by them is to simply park some of the bikes in the front yard. Third, I often see bikes for sale at flea markets and trade days or from roadside venders. Try yard/garage sales too. Fourth, in many towns the police collect abandoned bikes and, if no one ever claims them, sell them at a yearly auction. Fifth, in college towns, the students are often anxious to sell their bikes at the end of the year, often selling a practically new $500 bike for $50. Sixth, Goodwill, pawn shops, and others sell older bikes. Finally, if you enjoy tinkering, practically new bicycles are discarded every day because they need a little repair; a friend was able to supply his family's bicycles from the town dump.
What to Avoid in a Used Bike
Unless you get an extremely good bargain and enjoy tinkering, do not buy an older bike that needs repair. It's OK if the tires are in poor condition, because tires and tubes usually need replacing anyway, but replacing any other bad parts is too expensive, unless you buy additional used bikes for parts. The only part that I consider worth replacing, other than cables, brakepads, and tires, is the rear derailleur, as derailleurs before '85 are generally poor and those before about '75 are terrible. I have bought very good used rear derailleurs for less than $10 at a bike shop.
Avoid the Worn-Out Bike
Many older bikes were never ridden very much and were kept in a dry garage, basement, or attic, and this is the kind you want. If the bike shows signs of heavy use -- say a worn-out seat -- then most likely bearings will need to be replaced, and the components will have a greatly reduced lifespan. On most older and less expensive bikes, the chainrings can't be replaced, so worn chainrings indicate a bike to avoid, as replacing the crankset would cost more than the bike is worth. Wheels should also be in fairly good condition, and there should be no damage to the sides of the rims, as the brakes will grab on any imperfections there, leading to short tire life. Again, new wheels will cost more than the used bike is worth. With a less-expensive bike, 10,000 miles is as about as long as the frame will last anyway.
Avoid the Rusty Bike
Avoid any bike that shows a large amount of rust. Rust indicates that, at least, the bike was kept in a damp location. Remember that besides the rust you can see that there is rust damage that you can't see. The only time I would accept any rust is when buying a fairly new bike from a student who kept it locked outside. In this case, the rust should be light, and the sides of the wheels (where the brakes ride) must still be smooth.
Avoid the Junk Bike
Some bicycles were very inexpensive to begin with and have a short lifespan. To buy a bike that originally sold for $250 for $50 is a good deal, but it's no bargain to buy a bike than once sold for $70 for that price. Any bike made by Huffy or Murray originally sold for less than $150, and most sold for half that price new. I saw some new Murray bikes tear up after just 500 miles of use once: the wheels could not be retrued and wobbled terribly, the components were breaking, and the frame separated on one of them. These bikes were frequently improperly assembled to begin with.
Avoid Bad Components and Frames
Especially watch for these things: wheels that wobble either due to loose bearings or loose spokes, that have rusty or damaged places along the rims, or that have loose or damaged spokes; chainrings that are badly worn (the notches for the chain will be enlarged); brakes or shifters that won't work; any binding in the headset or any moving part; broken pedals; chipping paint; any dents, cracks, or bulges in the frame.
Avoid the Racing Bike
The old racing bike, with its beautiful frame, perhaps fancy wheels, and thin tires may be a good bargain. However, the tires will flat easily, and if they are sew-ups, will be difficult to repair; there's no room for fenders, and the only way to carry anything is on your back. Likewise, avoid a mountain bike designed for racing, technical riding, or equipped with shocks for all of the above reasons except tires.
Grades of Bicycles
Bikes come in four general grades, although there are wide differences in quality within these grades. The lowest grade bikes will have unlabeled frames, steel rims on the wheels, steel unreplaceable chainrings, and steel seat posts, stems, and handlebars. The brakes and derailleurs will be steel as well. These bikes will weigh 35 to 45 pounds, varying with the thickness of the steel and the presence of fenders, carriers, and/or balloon tires. These bikes originally sold for prices below $150. The middle grade bikes will have stickers indicating the frame type, either saying high-tensile steel or giving a number for the steel, such as 1020. Wheel rims, chainrings, seat posts, stems, and handlebars will usually be aluminum alloy. The brakes and derailleurs may be aluminum as well. The bike will be noticeably lighter, weighing 27 to 35 pounds, varying with the presence of fenders, carriers, and/or balloon tires. However, careful inspection will reveal that the chainrings are not replaceable. When I had one of these bikes, I found I could not retrue the wheel much due to soft spoke nipples. These bikes sold for under $250. The highest grade bikes will have a chrome-moly or Reynolds steel frame. However, they fall into two categories depending on the choice of steel in the frame. Some will just have high-grade steel in the main triangle, others will have straight-gauge tubing, and a few will even have seamed chrome-moly tubing, but most, and the best, will have a name-brand double-butted main triangle and high quality seamless tubing throughout. Generally, aluminum, carbon, and titanium bikes should be considered the equivalent of the better steel bikes. On the higher grade bikes, the rims and spokes will be of the highest quality, and the chainrings will be replaceable. These bikes will weigh 21 to 30 pounds, varying with the presence of fenders, carriers, and/or balloon tires. These bikes originally sold for from $250 to $400 for those with cheaper tubing, and for $400 and on up for those with double-butted tubing. I have seen high-quality used biked sold for as much as $200, and they were well worth it, as they would outlast any new $200 bike. However, before paying that much for a bike, be sure that the components are in good condition as the cost of replacing them will quickly add up and must be considered part of the price.
Older Wheels, Freewheels, and Shifters
I have seen many excellent older bikes which had parts that were standard in their own time but that are not standard now. Bikes sold in the 80's or before had 27-inch wheels and freewheels, and shifters kept changing for some time. As long as these parts are in good condition, I see no reason not to buy the bike. It is still very easy to find tires, tubes, and freewheels for these bikes, although the selection is now rather limited. With the three-speed 26-inch bikes (mentioned below), it is probably no longer possible to buy replacement parts, and it would not be economical to do so anyway.
Kinds of Older Bikes
It is possible to ride to work and to get groceries on any bicycle, but in some cases you would have to carry everything in a pack on your back. While a backpack is suitable for a short distance with a light load, it is not very satisfactory for carrying extra clothes or heavy groceries. In addition, fenders are a very good idea if riding on wet roads and almost a necessity if you can't change and shower at work, but many bikes won't take fenders. The following bikes are most suitable, starting with the oldest designs:
The English "Racer" Three-Speed Bike
Although rather old, these bikes are very suitable for short distance commuting and shopping, although few of them are English and none of them are racers. These bikes started appearing in the US in the late 50's and didn't disappear from the discount stores until the late 70's or early 80's. Most of them used 26 x 1 3/8 inch tires, which are still available at most discount stores, and three-speed or five-speed gears. The three-speed transmissions are more reliable. If you find one that takes 27-inch or 700c tires, perhaps with aluminum wheels, you have a rarer and newer model. In the beginning, English versions of these bikes, which were usually black, dominated the market, but later Japanese and other Asian imports took their place. They have handlebars that keep the rider upright, and thus they are very comfortable for short-distance riding. The gears can be shifted by backpedaling while stopped at a traffic light, a nice advantage over a derailleur-equipped bike, which has to be moving in order to shift gears. These bikes all came equipped with fenders, a real advantage in rainy weather. Some had rear carriers, which is a good idea, although I was able to carry a small load on the rear fender. They all have rather small frames and are pretty heavy by today's standards, although they were considered light-weight back then.
The Old Schwinn Five and Ten-Speed Bikes
There are a lot of old Schwinn Varsities and Collegiates out there, made from the early 60's to the middle 80's. Although they look like light-weight bikes, they are not as they weigh between 40 and 45 pounds, with fenders. Most parts are steel. They use 27 x 1¼ inch tires and have five or ten gears. The Collegiates have upright handlebars while the Varsities have dropped bars. They lack fender and rack eyelets, and the fenders braces were attached to the axles. The original derailleurs are pretty poor. The front crankset and cranks are a single piece, and the chainrings can not be replaced, so check for wear. On the positive side, these bikes are dirt cheap and fairly indestructible. I traveled 18,000 miles on one before it was stolen.
Sports Touring Bikes
These bikes started being imported into the US in the late 60's, but I didn't see them until the early 70's and they seem to have disappeared between 1985 and 1990. The tire size will be almost always 27 x 1¼ inches but some were sold with 700c wheels. They could take fenders and a rear rack, but they had double chainrings on the front and a shorter wheelbase than a touring bike. They were often called touring bikes, but they lacked double eyelets on the front fork. While some bikes of this type were made with chrome-moly frames, most have high-tensile steel frames, which means that they would weigh about 30 pounds and may not last more than 10,000 miles.
True touring bikes didn't start appearing in numbers until the late 70's, and their numbers declined by the late 80's, but they are still being made today. One of these bikes would weigh 22-25 pounds without racks or fenders. They were designed to carry racks and fenders front and rear, and the older style "high" front rack can be very handy to support an odd extra package and makes a good place to mount a light. Almost all of these bikes will have chrome-moly or Reynolds frames, but some will have mixed tubing. These bikes are excellent commuting bikes in my opinion and will last a life-time if protected from salt. The older models will usually have 27 x 1¼ inch tires while the newer models will always have 700c tires. Freehubs started showing up in the late 80's, and the newer models all have them; the older bikes have freewheels instead. Another and more obvious difference is that all the early touring bikes had downtube shifters and these were superseded by bar end shifters.
Although these bikes originated as modified one-speed bikes, by the time they reach the market in 1982, they were very much like fat-tired touring bikes. However, the pressure was then on for them to become more like fat-tired racing bikes. During this decade, they have acquired strange frame shapes and suspensions. Most of these changes have made them much less useful for commuting. A good mountain bike for commuting would have a diamond frame with eyelets for a rack in the rear, or even better a rack already mounted. Front rack eyelets would be a plus but are not essential. Fender eyelets (lower and towards the rear) are important, as fenders are almost a necessity for rainy weather. Finally, any wide tires should be replaced with tires no wider than 1.5 inches, as the extra weight is a handicap. The price range on mountain bikes is very wide, as some sold for over $1,000 while others sold for under $100. Older and less expensive mountain bikes will have freewheels while newer, high quality bikes will have freehubs. Avoid mountain bikes with shocks, straight front forks, or odd frames.
The first hybrid showed up in 1986 but they didn't appear in numbers for a few more years. These bike originally were touring or sports touring bikes with a higher bottom bracket and wider tires for cyclo-cross riding. However, they caught on as street bikes, and most riders preferred the straight bars of a mountain bike. Basically, they can be categorized as a lower-cost touring bike with mountain bike handlebars. In time, the tires on these bikes have grown larger, but the extra size is not needed for street riding. Again, look for fender eyelets, front and rear and rack eyelets, at least on the rear.
From time to time, a manufacturer will attempt to sell a bike designed for city use. Generally, these bikes have internal hub shifting, making shifting after a sudden stop possible, upright handlebars, a protected chain, a generator hub and installed lights, fenders front and rear, and a rear carrier. While these bikes sell very well in Europe, most customers in the US want something much cheaper.
Recumbent bikes are beginning to show up in numbers. With these bikes, you sit lower to the ground with your pedals well in front of you and usually higher. As I don't any practical experience with these machines, I will draw your attention to the excellent and thorough discussion by John Andersen listed on the sidebar.
Here's another kind of bike I know little about. Some folders are very comfortable for riding, while others are suitable for only short distances at slow speeds. See the sidebar article for further information.
The Comfort Bike
These bikes appeared very recently. Nonetheless, I have noticed in one bike shop that most of the bikes were comfort bikes. Based on the mountain bike, the comfort bike has smoother tires for street riding, a seatpost with a spring in it, and a heavy seat, designed for sitting upright. I purchased a comfort bike recently, and I both like and dislike many of the features of this bike. In its favor, the bike is very stable and has components which work well together. It's the first bike I've gotten that I did not immediately have to replace something. The components seem to be well-made, so I think this inexpensive bicycle should last awhile. On the weak side, the front chainrings are steel and pressed together, meaning that the entire crankset will have to be replaced, not just a worn chainring. Also, even though the rear cassette is labeled "Mega-range," there are only two low gears out of the total of 21. When the chainrings and the cassette become worn, they should be replaced with better choices. I also consider the spring in the seatpost to a mistake, as it makes an accurate adjustment for leg length difficut, and as I could not tell that it was making the bike more comfortable. It can be adjusted, however, so it will have little effect. While there are fender eyelets on the bike, there are no eyelets for a front carrier or basket, which would be appropriate. Due to the upright position as sold and the heavy tires, the bike is slow and mainly suitable for short distance riding. However, the stem can be lowered and rotated forward (a very nice feature) and that change plus the substitution of smaller and lighter tires would improve the speed somewhat. In addition, more advanced riders will want better pedals. All factors considered, this is an excellent beginning or short distance commute bike which can be improved at little cost.
The statements I have made about the various kinds of bicycles apply to new bicycles as well. Don't try to buy a new bike from a discount store, as the quality will be low, the adjustments poor, and the service non-existent. The sales people at bike shops are knowledgeable about the products they sell; however, you have to watch that they don't try to sell you a bike that you don't need. Point out and emphasis that this bike will be used for commuting, and make sure you have the rack and fender eyelets that you need. Indeed, why leave the store without getting racks and fenders mounted? Read my article on accessories before buying the bike, so you'll know what to get at the same time.