Building a cheap commuter bike

Commuting by bike has increased in recent years, and so has bike manufacturer offerings in the “commuter bike” category. If commuting by bike is something you’re interested in, you can get into it much cheaper than rushing out and buying a $600+ dollar commuter bike. How? Find a quality late 80’s to mid 90’s rigid mountain bike and convert it to a commuter. You can come by these kinds of bikes on Craigslist or thrift shops, often times for significantly less than $100. Figure another $200 in modifications and you’re saving $300+ dollars over a dedicated commuter. For the sake of brevity, I won’t give many examples but the kinds of bikes that come to mind are Schwinn mtb’s like the Mirada, Trek lugged frame mtb’s like the 930 and Specialized mtb’s like the Hard Rock. These kinds of mountain bikes are mostly built from higher quality cromoly steel tubing. Their components, while not fancy, are durable. Lastly, the riding position on these bikes is similar to what you’d find on a flat handlebar commuter bike, a position designed for higher speeds and efficiency (though less so than a drop handlebar road bike).

When buying a bike, make sure you buy one that is properly sized to you. In general, when standing over the bike in the shoes you’ll be riding in, you want about 1″ of space between the top tube and the top of your inseam. Once you have purchased a bike, conversion is straightforward. Put on some road worthy rubber, from bargain tires like the CST Selecta with kevlar puncture protection, all the way up to the highly rated Schwalbe Marathons. Most commuter tires now have reflective sidewalls for safety, too. You want tires that are 1.5 – 1.75″ wide. These tires will slice the wind better and have street tread which will lower your rolling resistance. Most will also have a higher PSI rating than mountain bike tires, which also lowers rolling resistance. For comfort I’d suggest a pair of ergonomic grips such as one of Ergon’s offerings. Lastly, a decent rear rack and pannier bag setup is in order if you plan to carry clothing, gear, etc on longer distance commutes. For shorter commutes a messenger style bag like those from Timbuk2 work well, too. I used a small Timbuk2 for my 6.7 mile commute. Spend some time cleaning the bike and giving it a thorough tune up. Get familiar with your bike, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time on it if you become a dedicated commuter. One of the best things you can do as a commuter is learn how to tune and maintain your own bike. Park Tool and both have excellent resources to learn. There may even be a bike co-op in your area, or local groups/bike related businesses like REI that offer basic maintenance classes. You will save yourself quite a bit of money by maintaining your own bike as well.

While this post does leave out quite a bit of information about bike commuting, there are plenty of resources to learn about the topic, Google is your friend. I mainly wanted to touch on the commuter bike conversion process and hope you found the information useful.

1 Comment to “Building a cheap commuter bike”

  1. By John Romeo Alpha, November 18, 2010 @ 07:00

    Good information! It might also be helpful to mention something that’s obvious to anyone who already commutes by bike, but would be helpful to someone trying to get started: another advantage of buying an old, but good, mountain bike and setting it up for commuting is that it will be less attractive to thieves. Locked up properly, an old mtn bike with skinny tires probably doesn’t look very appetizing.

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