Two Wheels - Six Strings

Random news and thoughts about various two-wheeled projects and music, especially my band, Skull Full Of Blues.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Quest For the Perfect Commuter Bike

I am currently on my 8th commuter bike, since starting my daily commute back in May of 2007. That doesn't count the 3 dedicated "snow bikes" that I've used over the past two winters.

"Why so many bikes in such a short time?", you might ask. Basically, I have been trying to find that one bike which works for my commute, with the least amount of repair and maintenence. To that end, I have experimented with different styles of bikes (all set up with a fixed gear drivetrain, with the exception of the snow bikes).

The first bike was the pink Gary Fisher(May, 07 to August, 07), set up with a White Industries ENO hub and On-One Mary Bars. I started out with a fat-tired bike because the relatively large air volume protects the rims, gives a smoother ride, and requires airing up fewer times per month. I really don't want to have to mess around with the bike constantly, since I ride it constantly.

All of these bikes were outfitted with a rack, panniers and (for most) fenders.

Unfortunately, the ENO hub did not want to stay adjusted in the dropouts on the Fisher. Eventually, this resulted in the chain dropping into the spokes, on the way to work, taking out 8 spokes. I had to go home, switch to my orange Peugeot, and ride to work.

I replaced the Fisher with a GT Peace 9er singlespeed(August, 07 to September, 07). I replaced the stock wheels with a set of flip-flop wheels, with the rear hub spaced out to fit the 135mm rear dropouts. I couldn't come up with fenders, and just never really got comfortable on that frame. Plus, I suffered numerous flats on it, which sort of gave me a bitter taste in my mouth. Eventually, I just decided to sell it, since I couldn't get it to suit me.

I had built up the Miami Vice bike(September, 07 to December, 07), in the meantime, and moved the rack and bags over to it. A set of fenders went on, and I really liked it. I did notice, though, that I seemed to be working harder to maintain the same speed as what I had come to think of as "normal" on the 9er.

In December of 07 the snow began to fly in earnest. I built up the Fisher, again, this time with SnowCat rims (double width), six speed drivetrain and studded snow tires. There was no way to get fenders on the bike, with the studded tires, so I had to put up with a lot of road spray on thaw days. Nonetheless, I used that bike as the snow rig all of that winter, and through November of the next year.

In February of o8, I acquired a 1989 Rockhopper frame, and built it up as the red "magic bike" (February, 08 to April, 08). A "magic bike" is how I refer to these old mountain bikes built up with 700c flip/flop wheels and flipped 3-speed handlebars. For some reason, these bikes seem to go faster with less effort than any other bike I ever build up. Plus, they are extremely stable, especially with the bags loaded down.

I retired it and built up the 1988 yellow RockHopper (April, 08 to May, 09) because I wanted to use the red frame to build up a bike for Brad. The red one had cantilever mounts front and rear, while the yellow frame had a below-the-chainstay U-Brake mount, and Brad wanted cantis on his bike.

This yellow bike is the bike I eventually spray-painted and named the "Ghetto" bike.

In the meantime, as I was using the RockHopper on the dry days, I built up a DiamondBack Voyager as the snow bike (November, 08 to February, 09). I built it with a 24 speed drivetrain, On-One Midge bars and bar-end shifters (along with the SnowCat wheels). I could never get comfortable on this bike, in the snow. For some reason, no matter if it was snowy or dry, using the snow wheels or the standard wheels, I was s-l-o-w on it, taking 5 to 10 extra minutes to get to work.

So, in February, I built up the chrome Schwinn, using the 26" flip/flop wheels from the Miami Vice bike, the studded tires and the Mary bars which had originally been on the Fisher. This bike worked fine, and I used it on snow days for the rest of the season (including during the blizzard we had in April).

During the year that I used the RockHopper, I broke a spoke here and there on the rear wheel. I suspect that the 35c tire just couldn't absorb enough of the shock as I dropped off of or jumped up onto the curb at the point where I cross the Interstate on-ramp every day. Finally, one day in May, I broke 4 spokes at once on the way home!

I limped it home, drug out the "Motobecane" (Kinesis-built) 29er frame I had been playing around with and built it up as a fixed-gear 29er with a rack and fenders, and mustache bars. I rode it a couple of days and, happy with the the performance of the bigger wheels and the protection that the big tires were giving me, decided to buy a steel 29er frame to use on a "permanent" basis.

Why did this bike suit me when the GT did not? I don't know, really. It might just fit better. It might just be the tires. It really didn't matter to me, I just liked it.

I went looking for a Raleigh XXIX frame, but couldn't find one. I ended up with a SOMA 415, and modified it to take the 29 inch wheels and tires. Then, almost immediately, found the Raleigh frame I wanted. All told, I used the SOMA for 2 weeks.

Now, I have this Raleigh XXIX:

Why do I feel that this bike is closer to the ideal commuter than the first (or second, or third...) bike that I built up? Well, the big wheels and tires roll almost as well as the 700x35c tires on the "magic bikes", but the 29er tires have the air volume to allow me to run a bit lower pressure and protect the rims/spokes. Plus, the disc brakes allow me to run the 26" snow wheels, now equipped with matching 130mm rotors, rather than having a separate dedicated snow bike.

When it snows, I simply have to swap wheels, rather than go out to the shop and drag out a whole other bike, transfer my stuff to its bags and then ride.

Above is the Raleigh with the 26" snow wheels on it. (The chain is not on the cog, because I didn't have another 18-tooth cog to match up the gearing, and I didn't want to adjust the eccentric bottom bracket just to take a picture).

I don't think I'll have any clearance problems with the fenders, when it snows!

So, as of now, this is the best version of a commuter that I can come up with.

What's not perfect? Well, the frame doesn't have any eyelets to mount racks and fenders, so I had to use P-clamps to mount everything. So far, that's all I can point out that doesn't suit me.

I've been riding it for a couple of months, now, with no problems to speak of. So, I'm hoping I may have finally gotten it right.

Why all of these words about my stupid bikes? Mainly, I wanted to go through my thought processes on this in order to help answer the question, "What kind of bike makes a good commuter?" For me, this is it.

For you, some variable might make this bike less than perfect. If you have a hilly commute, you might want multiple gears. If you really want to go fast, and pack lightly/ride smooth roads, skinnier tires might be more appropriate.

It has taken me two years of trial and error to arrive at this bike. It might take you a while to figure out your needs, as well. And, if I didn't have the luxury of being able to build up my own bikes, I'd have made the pink Fisher work out, one way or the other. But, building bikes up is my main hobby, so I was able to experiment.

Now, I just need to sell off some of my experiments to people who see them as close to right for their own commutes.



At 7:39 PM , Blogger Big Oak said...

I had never ridden a fat-tired mountain type bike before this past week, when my nephew let me ride two of his mountain bikes. I can see why fat tires are valuable in snow, and his bikes seemed to ride well on hard ground as well. I use 700 X 32 tires for my commute, which is almost exclusively country chip and seal roads and some gravel. At some point, I think I'll look for an old mountain bike and do some tinkering myself. Thanks for the inspiration!

At 6:42 AM , Blogger frankenbiker said...

What about pedal strike with the 26" wheels? It seems like they would be pretty close to the ground.

At 6:59 AM , Blogger Erich said...

I can say that though I've strayed once or twice, the Bridgestone XO-3 I bought from you has been quite the commuter bike. It can't run fixed due to the vertical dropouts, but all the eyelets and braze-ons are awesome for racks and such.

At 4:24 PM , Blogger Rat Trap Press said...

I stumbled on these fenders yesterday on the Axiom site. They fit 29" wheels. They also sell an adapter used to mount standard fenders on a disc brake equipped bike.

At 4:38 PM , Blogger Jon said...

Bill: Good luck with the tinkering. Let me know if I can help out with anything.

Frankenbiker: I don't tend to really push the lean angle too far over on the ice and snow. I figure with the snow tires, it won't be any problem.

Myles: Thanks for the link. I'll check those out.

Erich: Did you ever find a bike for your wife?

At 8:12 PM , Blogger Erich said...

I did find a bike for my wife, two actually: an old Raleigh Super Course Mixte, and a Trek 560 that I've put 650B wheels on. She's happy with them, though she'd like some fenders for both. Any suggestions on good-fitting plastic 650B fenders?

At 8:53 PM , Blogger Doohickie said...

I like tinkering with my bikes, and I have 4 different bikes I use for commuting, but I don't see any of them as superior to the other. They are just different rides to take out to suit my mood.

At 9:01 PM , Blogger Jon said...

Erich: I don't know about plastic 650b fenders. I've only ever bought alloy fenders in that size. I get them from Velo orange.

Doohickie: That's how I am with the 3 mountain bikes. Though I have to say that, since I haven't ridden the 26"-wheeled mtb since last October, I'll probably liquidate it. The 29er and the 650b get all my time, now.

At 4:43 PM , Blogger frankenbiker said...

Yeah I think 29er or 650b is the way to go for Mtn. and 650b for anything but really fast road racing.

Does anyone know of a mtn. hardtail frame singlespeed with iscg tabs that will fit the truvativ hammerschmit 2spd bottom bracket?

Like an idiot I welded tabs to the bottom bracket of my Surly Pugsley only to realize that the bottom bracket is too wide to be compatible.68 or 73mm only, Pug is 100mm.

Erich, score on that Raleigh mixte for your wife.SWEET RIDE.I picked up a '72 Super Course recently for free, alas at 53cm it was WAY too small for me,I used some of the parts though and donated the rest to my local bike coop.

At 1:19 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

I just came upon your thread...

Thought you might like my "Absurd Commuter"...


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