How much should I spend on a commuter bike?


Finding your first commuter bike may seem like a daunting task. If you’re new to biking you are probably overwhelmed by the different options available in terms of bikes, accessories, tools etc. You will notice that in each category of bikes there is a vast range of price-tags too ranging from as little as 100 dollars to several thousand, which may lead the untrained eye to two false conclusions: a) there can be no real difference between the cheapest bike and a really expensive one; b) the more you spend on a bike the better bike you will get. 

In reality both of these conclusions are misleading: a cheap department store bike may have to be replaced after a few hundred miles of use, and a 10,000 dollars will not get you a 10x better bike than 1,000 dollars.

How much should you spend on a commuter bike then?

When buying new, 500-1,500 dollars is the optimum range for a good commuter bike. Anything under 500 dollars won’t be suitable because it’s not durable enough. The quality of its components will be lower and it will be very heavy. On the other hand, money spent over 1,500 dollars doesn’t offer proportionally more bang for your buck. You will get marginally better components and save a little bit of weight, but overall you won’t see many benefits.

Why are sub 500 dollar bikes not good for commuting?

If you think that it doesn’t make sense to spend so much a commuter, consider that a solid bike can save it’s own value back within the first year if you decide to use it all-year-round. I have done the math in this other article on Bike Commuter Hero.

In order to make bikes more affordable, manufacturers have to cut down on their production costs. This means that everything starting with the frame all the way to the screws and lubricants will be of lesser quality. The savings have three major effects on the bike. 

  • It will weigh more, 
  • components will work with less precision and 
  • it will be considerably less durable. 

Weight

Let’s consider the weight penalty first. It is a non-issue for most commuters, unless your commute includes steep climbs or longer uphill sections. Even at the 500 dollar price point you will not get a super light bike. 500 dollar hybrids will typically weigh around 28 lbs (13 kg) before adding fenders, a decent lock, water bottle and panniers. Your entire commuting setup with such a bike is around 40-46 lbs (18-21 kg). Does it slow you down? Yes, it does, but since a commute isn’t a race, it isn’t such a huge deal.

Precision

When it comes to mechanical precision, a bike in the 500-1,500 dollars range will give you considerably better components than a cheap department store bike. This may or may not be immediately obvious when you purchase the bike, but even with very little use you will notice the difference in shifting and braking. Even after tuning up your bike it won’t hold the settings as well as it should. Poor shifting precision results in the annoying clicking sound coming from your chain, or even in being unable to shift into the highest or lowest gears. This becomes frustrating. The loss of braking performance is not only annoying, but it is also dangerous and may cost more than just money.

Durability

The third big issue is durability. 90% of bikes never pass the 1000 mile mark. In these cases a cheap department store bike is perfectly fine. A daily commuter however, belongs to the rare top 10% that gets used all the time and typically clocks 1500-3000 miles a year. Cheap department store bikes’ headsets, bottom brackets, bearings wear out very quickly with any significant use. Shifters, derailleurs, brakes need frequent replacing, which means that whatever you were able to save on the bike, you will spend on parts and repairs. Even after a trip to the bike shop there may be other issues that can pop up unexpectedly. 

Riding experience

Besides the three main issues listed above, there is another, one that can’t be ignored, i.e. riding experience. When shifting is smooth, the pedals and the wheels rotate and roll almost effortlessly, you know that you’re on a quality bike. Such a bike makes you want to ride more. After riding a good bike for a few days or weeks and sit on a cheapish bike, you will immediately feel the difference in ride quality. Conversely, after riding only cheap bikes, a good quality bike feels like it rides itself. 

If you’re getting into bike commuting all of these issues can lead you to frustration and loss of interest in something that, with a little extra investment, could be a perfectly viable means of transportation for years to come. If you buy even an entry level bike for around 500 dollars from any well known brand you will get a decent minimum quality suitable for everyday commuting. 

1,500+ dollar bikes 

Diminishing returns

Most well-established brands offer their entry and mid level bikes in the 500-1500 dollars price range. Paying more than that will buy you their mid-high-end machines. Similar to the differences listed above, what sets them apart are the components used. Their shifters, derailleurs, brakes, wheels, bearings will be slightly better, more reliable and lighter. In fact, you can see big differences between a 500 and 1500 dollar bike, and the more you spend within that range the better bike you will get. 

Up to 1500 dollars every extra hundred dollars spent will get you a significantly better bike. It will come with better quality parts and will be lighter too. Beyond the 1,500 dollar mark you can pay a lot more for slightly better components and marginal gains on weight. The difference isn’t primarily in their reliability and durability, but small weight gains and cutting edge technology, which is nice to have, but not necessary for a commuter. The difference between a 200 and a 500 dollar bike is much greater than the difference between a 1,500 and a 6,000 dollar bike.

Theft

Another compelling reason to not buy a very expensive bike is theft. Commuter bikes are daily workhorses, and as such, they are often used for running errands on the way to work or riding home. When you enter a store or an office, your bike will be left locked up outside. You should always find the best lock you can afford to keep your bike safe, but whenever it is locked up there is a chance of it being stolen. Regardless of the bike’s value this is always upsetting, but the more expensive the bike, the greater the financial loss as well. 

An easy way to understand the quality of a bike

One of the easiest ways to understand the quality of a bike is by looking at the highest components of the groupset that it comes equipped with. 

I don’t want to suggest that the groupset is the only thing that determines the value and durability of the bike, but it is certainly a good indicator of what sort of a bike you’re getting. 

Most bikes use Shimano or SRAM groupsets nowadays. Here’s a quick overview of their groupsets.

Most bikes that fall into the typical commuter range come equipped with Shimano parts, and the more you spend within a brand the better components you will get.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how price affects the components.

ModelPrice in USDGroupset
Trek FX 1439Shimano Tourney/Altus (mix)
GIANT Escape 2505Shimano Altus
Trek Marlin 5549Shimano Tourney
GIANT Fastroad SL 3688Shimano Claris
Fuji ABSOLUTE 1.7700Shimano Acera
Trek FX 3 Disc799Shimano Acera
Decathlon Triban Disc 105 RC 520899Shimano 105
GIANT Contend 1950Shimano Sora
GIANT Fastroad SL 11,135Shimano Tiagra
Trek FX Sport 41,199Shimano Tiagra
Trek Police1,439Shimano Deore
Surly Cross-Check925-1,145Shimano Deore/Tiagra
Giant TCR ADVANCED 2 DISC PRO COMPACT2,450Shimano 105
Fuji SUPREME 2.32,700Shimano Ultegra
Giant PROPEL ADVANCED DISC4,200Shimano Ultegra
Giant PROPEL ADVANCED SL 0 DISC12,000Shimano Dura-Ace Di2

Certainly, groupset isn’t the only factor that influences the price. Frame material used, bearings, suspension (if there is any), wheel quality and every single component used come into play as well as the brand. Just like in other industries, some brands can get away with higher prices despite the fact that they offer similar, or at times even lower quality. 

Hidden gems

If you live in a part of the world that has a Decathlon store, it is well worth checking out their bikes too. In terms of quality of bike components you will get the most value for your money, because they don’t sell through distributors, but sell directly to the customer. This is immediately obvious when you take a look at the above list. The Decathlon Triban bike comes equipped with a Shimano 105 groupset, which is the highest in the mid range on the list despite coming in at only 900 dollars.

Decathlon bikes may not be as trendy to ride as Obrea, Fuji, Cannondale, Giant or certain other brands, but when it comes to price/quality ratio, they are hard to beat.

Suggestion to first time bike commuters

If you’re getting into bike commuting and you’re looking for a new bike, I would suggest to buy the highest price tag within the 500-1,500 dollar range that you can comfortably afford. If you can afford to pay 500 you don’t have to save up 1,500 dollars, you should look at bikes around 500 dollars. They will work fine. If you can afford to pay 1500 without any problem, go for a good mid-range bike. 

If money isn’t an issue at all, I would still advise you to buy something for no more than 1,500 dollars on your commuter It is pointless to have a really expensive bike which will take a lot of money to keep in good shape for commuting purposes. If you want to have a top-notch bike for evening and weekend rides, you can buy another one that has all the bells and whistles you want. That would be the best use of your money.

Conclusion

When it comes to choosing a commuter bike there are lots of options and a very wide price-range that all compete for your money. If you don’t cheap out and resist buying a department store bike for 100-400 dollars, you will get a decent bike that can serve you for years to come.

Happy Riding!

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