How to iterate towards your ideal commuter

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While there’s a growing range of interest in and options for commute-oriented bicycles (e.g. the $900 Novara Fusion, the $1100 Breezer Uptown, $1600+ Civia Hyland, etc.), if you’re considering bicycle commuting, I would recommend against purchasing one these. Instead, I’d suggest borrowing a lesson from Agile software development: iterate.

Somewhere, in your basement, in your garage, your old bike is leaning against wall. The tires may be flat, the chain may be a bit rusty, but the frame is the right size. Let’s start here. You’re willing to give bicycle commuting a shot, at least for a week or two. I don’t think this necessitates the Hyland just yet, but a tune-up at your local shop is definitely in order. Give them a call and schedule it.

My bicycle

Let’s skip ahead a bit. You’re enjoying the daily commute, have done a bit of reading online about the little things that help make commuting easier. But even after a two or three weeks, your seat is still uncomfortable. Or perhaps your back is sore from leaning too far forward. Or you’re having trouble seeing bumps in the road on your ride home. Whatever is bothering you most, it’s time to address it. Head back to the shop, and get that new saddle, the handlebar extensions, or the headlight. The following week, you’ll be able to appreciate the difference. Another few weeks later, when something else is bothering you, repeat the drill.

I’ve seen a few instances of the big, up-front new-bike investment based on good intentions to begin commuting, and it’s always sad when it doesn’t play out as planned. What I’m suggesting here is an alternative: that if you incrementally improve your commute, you will keep your investment in line with the experience payoff.


I’m not saying this will be pretty. I started in grad school (which, by the way, is an excellent time to begin commuting by bicycle), on an early-nineties steel-frame mountain bike, to which I bungee-corded a milk-crate to carry my laptop and books. Over the past few years, the milk-crate has been replaced with REI Garage Sale panniers, the seat has been replace by a more comfortable saddle, the pedals now sport Power Grips, the front headlight, rear blinky, and wheel monkeylectrics are all LED-based. The tires got skinnier, more puncture-resistant, and grew fenders. The handlebars sprouted comfortable extensions. The water bottle holder now holds my sound system. I’m still waiting for the opportunity to turn it into a NuFixie. Lest it should sound like I now ride a completely different bike, I will point out that these changes happened slowly, over the course of several years and thousands of miles of commuting. In that time, I continued to prove to myself that the incremental improvements were worth the time and cost. And while this early-nineties steel frame bike now likes like some sort of FrankenGiant, it’s one that I’ve been quite happy with.

At this point, now that I’ve convinced myself that I’m in it for the long haul, I feel comfortable investing in a shiny new bicycle. Every now and then, I stop in a bike shop to try out something new. Ultimately, I seem to always walk away disappointed, thinking about the ways that I wished the test-ride was more like my daily commute. I’m sure some day soon, I’ll try something that grabs me. But until then…



Rick Gilbert wrote on October 8, 2011
Good approach - similar to what I did. Rode my old Huffy Alumina over 2500 miles in my initiation into year-round bike commuting, making some modifications along the way. Wore out both wheels, bottom bracket, chain rings, and cogs, despite efforts to 'keep it clean and oiled.' Rebuilt the bike, but started looking for something built to take nasty, wet Seattle area commutes. I also wanted a bike that would be fun to ride on longer day tours (50-100 mi). Bought an '09 REI Randonee touring bike, and it's served me well for 3500 miles so far. Grit's taking a toll on the rear rim, and I just replaced the bottom bracket. But it has a durable steel frame & fork, adequate hill gearing, and it's pleasure to ride. Like you, I try to go overboard on visibility. Added Light & Motion 180 rechargeable tail light this fall. It outperforms the AAA and AA blinkies. I'm trying out a trio of Hokey Spokes, although I'm concerned about adding that much rotating weight to the wheel. Testing them on the bike stand, I notice the the battery rattle. Hmm... By the way, I still have the Huffy, but it hasn't seen much ride time since the rebuild.