Do you need a road bike for commuting?
I’ve been commuting by bike on and off for 10 years, and consistently for the last four. During that time I have not exclusively used a road bike for commuting. Instead I’ve had to utilise whatever was serviceable at the time to get me where I need to go. If you are looking at getting a bike specifically for commuting then I have some pointers that might help you decide.
In this post I will distill everything I’ve gathered from my own experience cycling to work. I will tell you the good and bad points of using a road bike for the job. Importantly, I will highlight some cost effective alternatives that you may not have thought of.
The pros of a road bike
There’s no doubt about it. This is the ace in the pack for road bikes over others when it comes to choosing a bike for commuting. Road bikes are the fastest option and this is mainly due to the frame geometry.
The angles in a road bike frame put the rider in a more aerodynamic position than on other bikes. Pushing air out of your way is the most significant factor when it comes to how fast you ride. So keeping this to a minimum is important if you’re in a hurry. And even for racing snakes, the rider is always the weak point, aerodynamically speaking.
Road bike tyres also usually offer the least rolling resistance, often due to the lack of tread and the thinner profile. However, rolling resistance is more complicated than it appears at first glance, so I’ll say no more about it in this post!
I guess what you need to ask yourself is, “Am I looking to be the fastest cycle commuter in town?”
The universally accepted method of measuring a bike’s quality is to weigh it by lifting the bike by the top tube. This is usually accompanied by a nod and raising of the eyebrows to show that it has passed this stringent quality check.
Road bikes are often lighter than other types of bikes. The frame, wheels and tyres are usually more slender and made from lighter materials. This does make a difference to weight, and can make the bike feel generally more nimble.
The weight of the bike however is only really an issue if you are likely to encounter many hills on your journey. Weight makes very little difference on flat terrain, but when the road heads upwards having a heavy bike can be hard work.
This is open to debate, but there can be no doubt that road bikes are having their days in the sun right now. They have become exceedingly popular in recent years with other bikes falling out of favour. Whether you like it or not, choosing the right bike to stir your loins is very important if you want to ride often.
In my opinion this is a good reason to choose a road bike for commuting. If riding a road bike really sings to you in a way another bike doesn’t, go for it!
The cons of a road bike
As explained above, the aero position offered by a road bike which makes it faster can cause issues on a commute. You may not find it very comfortable riding in this position on your way to work.
Riding in an aero position whilst wearing a rucksack is seriously annoying! A rucksack makes sense if it hangs down from your shoulders, but on a racing bike it basically sits on top of your back like a snail shell. It bugs the life out of me!! You also have the ‘sweaty back’ problem once you get to work and take your bag off.
If you really want a road bike to commute on then rack mounts for panniers are a must, in my opinion. Pannier bags have loads more room for stuff than a rucksack. You can add more bags if you need to carry more that day. And no ‘sweaty back’! They just make the whole experience easier and more comfortable.
The body position on a road bike also makes it harder to see all of your surroundings. Looking for other road users is essential for safety, and being in an aero position makes this harder. If looking behind you is an effort on a road bike, then I would look at alternatives to a road bike.
The fact that road bikes are so popular right now means they are comparatively more expensive to purchase than alternatives. There is a significant amount of technology trickling down from the pro peloton into bikes for the retail market. This means that much of what you pay for in terms of the bikes components is designed for racing, not everyday commuting.
I would argue that the knock on effect of this is that you get less bike for your money if choosing a road bike for commuting. Cycling to work takes a toll on your bike and its components. Quality components do much better than inferior ones when being ridden every day in all weathers. Spending the same money on a better tool for the job will give you a better experience.
Road bikes geometry is designed towards responsiveness over stability. The angles are sharper than mountain bikes or hybrids, and this make them very nimble machines. This can make them more difficult to control as any input from the rider results in a sharper change of direction. Higher centres of gravity also play a role. This is because a greater proportion of the rider’s mass is perched on top of the frame, rather than ‘in’ it.
When I ride to work I may need to carry waterproofs, lunch, flask, spare clothes, laptop, book, shoes etc. These additional loads can have a bigger impact on the feel of a road bike, as it’s designed to be more responsive.
Good alternatives to road bikes for commuting
For some reason of all the people I see riding bikes, the majority are astride old mountain bikes. Most people have access to an old mountain bike or two. For this reason they are a great option if you just fancy trying your commute out prior to spending your money.
Mountain bikes are more stable than road bikes and for many, they are more comfortable. This is especially true where your commute is short (i.e. less than 5 miles or so). The advantages of a road bike don’t really come into play for short commutes, and the more upright position is beneficial for safety.
Larger tyres are usually more puncture resistant than those typically found on road bikes. There are plenty of road friendly tyre options if your commute is mostly paved. Save the knobblies for off-road commuting!
They can be very robust machines so you will have no worries when it comes to potholes and the like, particularly if the bike is of good quality.
They often don’t have rack mounts, which does still means lugging a rucksack. Full sussers are also not suited to road riding as this can steal valuable energy which could go into forward propulsion. This is particularly true for hilly commutes.
Now to be clear, I’m calling this sort of thing a ‘town bike’…
These bikes are intended to carry people and a variety of loads to their destination of choice in normal clothes! They are perfect for for the job of commuting because they have been designed specifically for it!
If you aren’t so bothered about going fast or having a myriad of gear options then these machines could be worth a look. You really get incredible value for money and you’d be surprised how many are waiting to be found!
There are many cheapish modern ‘sit up and beg’ bikes available but I would proceed with caution. Modern bikes of this style tend to come with inferior components unless you are happy to splash the cash. If you are lucky enough to have a decent budget then Pashley do some beautiful modern variants of town bikes.
If you haven’t got a wedge to drop on a commuter, I would suggest an older classic. Bikes in the 70s and 80s were designed and intended for everyday use, and in my experience are more ‘bombproof’ than today’s. They are interesting, incredibly comfortable to ride and really put a smile on your face.
There is one significant drawback to older bikes and that is the lack of stopping power. You don’t appreciate how amazing modern brakes are until you ride a bike from 30 years ago. The difference is night and day.
I think what we can draw from this is that a road bike is not necessarily the best tool in the box for commuting. If commuting is your only goal, then pick something specific for this task. That needn’t cost the earth.
If you just want to try out commuting then maybe borrow a bike first to dip your toe. Realistically, commuting can be (and is) done on any bike whatsoever. So just give it a bash.
Road bikes are designed for speed and energy efficiency. Maybe your goal is to get some miles in at the weekends and use the same machine for your daily commute. If so, then road bikes are a good option provided you consider your route, and what you may need to carry.
The important thing here is to achieve your goal of cycling to work. If having a cool bike makes that more likely, just get what you lust after. If comfort is most important, maybe look at town bikes and ensure you test ride it before you part with any cash. There are no right or wrong answers.
I hope this has been helpful in working out what bike may work for you. If this has made you even more keen to refine your bike search you may be interested in my newsletter. As well as my latest posts, it will highlight some of the best bike deals currently available, both new and used! Sign up for the newsletter in the sidebar!
See you on the road!