A Group Build of Building Your Perfect Commuter Bike

Over the next couple weeks you the readers and I will be walking each other through the process of building up a commuter bicycle. This isn’t only going to be a how to, but also going to go through the questions you need to ask yourself as you are building or picking out a bike for daily use. From the position you want to be in, if you want to carry things to the look and feel of the bike. Along the way I’ll keep some boundaries, mainly to keep this affordable out of my pocket, but keep an open mind as well.

Now go test ride, ask yourself what you want out of a commuter bike and come back tomorrow to read our introduction on who the rider will be (me!)

Phase 1 : Bicycle Type
Phase 2 : Which bicycle frame/fork
Phase 3 : What type of shifting
Phase 4 : What type of components
Phase 5 : What type of lights
Phase 6 : Fenders or no fenders
Phase 7 : How to carry your belongings
Phase 8 : Putting it all together.

Also, read all post using this link to our tag system for the Group Build.

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0 thoughts on “A Group Build of Building Your Perfect Commuter Bike”

  1. Matt says:

    Sounds interesting, I’m in phase 4 of my first build right now so I’ll be keeping tabs on what you and others say here.

  2. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    For a useful commuter/utility bike –
    Start with a step through frame… so I don’t have to do gymnastics every time getting on and off a loaded bike or after a long day at work with a head wind ride home”

    Also, a long enough wheel base that panniers don’t get kicked off” but short enough to fit on city buss racks”

    It must have disc brake mounts” riding in the rain with rim brakes is not much fun

    Oh yeah, a full chain case”. Cleaning the chain 5 days straight during a rainy week in no fun either.

    I have looked for a frame like this”. I guess I’m going to have to learn welding and frame building”
    After building three bikes, I guess I’m getting picky…

  3. Bigger Dummy says:

    I think flexibility in the setup is important. A frame like the Steelwool Tweed comes to mind as it has fender mounts, can run disk or canti brakes, room for bigger tires (or even studded tires) and its steel frame is very forgiving. Another great example is the Salsa Fargo.

  4. Bigger Dummy says:

    My next build will also have a Shimano Alfine hubset – rear IGH and front dyno hub, both capable of running disks. The IGH gives the ability to run a static chainline and therefore a full chain case.

  5. Mark says:

    You know, I didn’t consider the full build-out of my first bike for commuting. I ended up buying an off-the-rack hybrid that actually ended up working out really well for me. I’d have liked the wheel base to be a little longer, but I just attach my panniers to the bottom fender brace and it works great. The speed shifters were a sticking point, granted, but a lot of bikes come with those now so I wasn’t too limited.

    When it comes to disc brakes vs rim brakes, I am able to swap out brakes for something on the gummy side when it starts to get rainy out. Granted, they’ll wear down faster, but they’ll grab the rim quicker and it opened up my options on getting a frame. Besides, the frame I currently have already has disc brake mounts so at some future point I can add the ones I actually want to get, not what the factory thinks will work.

  6. bikebike says:

    step one – what are you going to use the bike for? simply commuting? what do you need to carry with you? office clothing? are you planning on doing any errands during your commute? groceries? how many bags? picking up/dropping off kids? how hilly is your area? will you be riding through snow/ice as well? how far do you need to commute?

    so many questions need to be answered before recommending a bike and every person is different. my feeling is that your bike needs to do everything YOU need it to do and finding answers to the above questions is a good start.

  7. Andreas says:

    Good idea for a series of posts. Look forward to reading your suggestions 🙂

  8. MB says:

    Hi, great idea. I’m in the process of tring to find a great do it all sort of bike that leans toward the commuting/touring end of the spectrum. I have several higher end road bikes that are collecting dust while my old faithful 1996 Bianchi Eros gets all the work. I have no idea what’s out there now so I’m glad that I stumbled on to your project.

  9. Tinker says:

    The women’s bikes I see for sale at a reasonable cost are all 16″ frames, maybe 18″, not larger frames.

    So getting a woman’s frame to build on is the first problem.

    Then you need a fork that will permit you to use the size tires you feel are necessary, and that’s no slam-dunk either. (26 x 2.55″ anyone?)

    I like internal gearing (6/7/8/14 speed), or a Nuvinci hub (CVPT), and would consider adding a Schlumpf internal-front gear shifter mechanism.

    Fenders, keep em out of the way (I am retired, so if it is raining, I don’t HAVE to ride, so I would only buy fenders for the extra life they can bring to the bearings and chains.) Already have in mind the 55 lb-load, rear rack for the bike.

    Lets face it, my budget will probably reach to buying a new pair of cheapo aluminum wheels for my elderly Raleigh. So, why go through this?

  10. ac says:

    Here are the qualities I’d like to see in a commuter:

    1) Low maintenance
    I’m not sure what best reaches this goal, but things like IGH, full chain case, and/or non-metal chains should help.

    2) Rain friendly
    Fenders! A full chain case or a non-metal chain may also help here.

    3) Some cargo capacity
    At the light end of the spectrum, this could mean enough frame-length to accommodate panniers without kicking them. At the heavy end, the bike should be suitable for pulling a kid or cargo trailer.

  11. WD in SEA says:

    Thank you, bikebike and ac. I’ve been riding my bike to work for 20 years, but I know next to nothing about bike building or components. People who don’t bike to work now – but might be inclined to do so with a little nudging – know less than I.

    Who cares about custom-built bikes? Why not focus on practical advice about how to become a bike commuter?

  12. WD –

    This isn’t going to be a custom bike, the questions we will be asking during the build will be, hopefully, soul searching to you as a commuter.

    Keep checking back and give your feedback.

  13. ac says:

    Here’s a question for the first phase, “bicycle type”: A lot of my commuting involves stopping at stoplights. What do people think of “crank forward” or other frame geomtries which let you stop flat-footed?

  14. ac says:

    One more rain-friendly feature request: Disc brakes.

  15. Great Idea! I’m looking forward to discussing this over these posts. They’ll especially come in handy at the community bike shop where I live.

  16. Anonymous says:

    YES!! Step through frame!

  17. Bigger Dummy says:

    The ability to run 700c x 38mm tires is a must for my next commuter. Having commuted on everything from 26″ x 1.95″ mountain bike slicks to 26″ x 2.5″ Hookworm semi-slicks and recently reverting back to 700c x 23mm roadie single speed setup, I prefer the larger diameter wheel for speed and smoothness. My current commuter is limited to running 23mm tires with fenders, so unpaved pathways and rougher roads are a little harsh.

  18. Ghost Rider says:

    If you ask 100 commuters what their ideal bike would be, you’ll get 100 different answers. There is no “ultimate” bike that serves the needs of everyone who wants to use a bike as transportation.

    Still, this is a great exercise — thinking about what you need and the types of tasks you need your bike to perform BEFORE shopping is crucial. Too many people run into a bike shop with a wad of money and no real understanding of their needs, and exercises like this go a long way to eliminating that pitfall.

  19. BluesCat says:

    I’m going to get really radical (to some people) here and say for Phase I: a long wheelbase recumbent.

    1. You sit down in it, so flinging your leg over it is no problem. (And, ac, it is sort of the ultimate in “crank forward” geometry; you stop and are always relaxed and flat footed.)

    2. Panniers fit great on a rear rack out of the way of your crank … and your entire drive train, actually.

    3. Every LWB recumbent made comes with fender mounts. Almost all of them come with fairing mounts, too, for the ultimate in bad weather riding comfort.

    4. You can get an LWB with 700c, 26 inch, or even a combination of two different size wheels.

    My Sun EZ Sport LWB recumbent is the perfect commuting bike.

  20. ac says:

    I like the recumbent idea, and I’m happy that folks are thinking “outside the box.” One disadvantage of a LWB recumbent: It won’t fit on the bike rack of a city bus. This can be a good option for getting home with a malfunctioning bike.

  21. Cronometro (not the shop) says:

    Just built a Salsa Fargo frameset up in may 2009.
    * Salsa bell lap bars, wide I think like 48cm
    * STI shifting, hate it for touring or commuting, will be replaced soon with bar ends.
    * Mostly shimano components with Avid bb7 discs.
    * Salsa Delgado Cross rims 36 hole 3x, Inexpensive and reliable for me.
    * Planet Bike lights now will change to generator using Planet Bike’s new generator light.
    * Full coverage fenders, planet bike
    * Jandd expedition rear rack, nice rack, paint sucks.
    * Banjo Brothers “market panniers”, nice! and inexpensive
    * Origin8, coffee cup holder
    * Schwalbe Big Apple tires, 29 x 2.35, Sweet ride!

  22. Ghost Rider –

    My main idea behind it all is to show people that something for me, or you.. probably isn’t perfect for them. They need to get the best thing they can and make it their own over time.

  23. Mark says:

    Fixed Gear, fenders, one brake, flared drop bars, 65mm front squish for rough uneven roads and buff trails, brooks saddle, clipless pedals, rack for panniers, seat bag, handlebar bag. That describes my perfect commuter.

  24. BluesCat says:


    I see your point about the LWB not fitting on a bus bike rack. In my situation, however, if I encounter a mechanical problem I can’t fix with the tools on my bike, I call my own, personal SAG wagon: my wife in my pickup. My bikes are too important to me to risk hanging them on the front of a grubby city bus, where they can get banged around and scratched.

    That gives me a heck of an entrepreneurial idea. I realize some people, maybe MOST people, don’t have their own SAG wagon. Maybe there’s a market for a Bike Rescue Service. You pay a monthly subscription for a mobile fix-it service to come out and rescue you if you have a flat or mechanical problem.

    First Million $, here I come!

  25. BrotherScott says:

    Gates carbon drive=no chain cleaning, yes?
    IGH Alfine. I’d like to try a 29er with 2.35 Big Apples. Recently rode a Retrovelo with Fat Franks, very comfy. Can’t beat recumbents for comfortable seat. Recumbent QUAD means no slip & fall on wet leaves! Slow up hill though.

  26. Chunky says:

    Why bar end shifters? I really like STIs. They’re easy to reach too.

  27. Ghost Rider says:

    @Chunky — many people prefer barends over STI for long-term durability’s sake. There are a lot of little pieces that can go bad in an STI body, whereas barend shifters tend to be simpler (and often have a friction mode when something goes wrong).

  28. Cronometro says:

    The STI shifter I have do not down shift well when the temp gets below 40 degrees F. I have flushed them with lube but no help. Above 40 they work but for how long like so much S brand stuff it wears out quickly.

  29. Heh there yes sounds good – reckon you should always start with well sized frame – structurally solid but most of all strong enough/low key to resist theft (sadly)

    Second hand market/Police auctions good starting point (in Uk at least)

    I fix/repair old bike in my spare time so understand the arguments for old/new



  30. Steve says:

    I’m going through this process right now, so its neat to see at website going through it as well.

    I have pretty much decided on my frameset, but will be researching it for the next several months until I can afford it.

    I want a commuter bike that can also be used for long social road rides in the summer. It needs to be able to accomdate larger tires for the winter, or if I want to ride a rail-trail on a weekend trip. In fact, I’d like it to be able to fit fenders for the rain, AND a rack so I can load on some panniers for weekend trips.

    Right now I’m riding 30-50 km road rides with other cyclists who ride road bikes – and I’m riding an old mountain bike. I can feel the friction.

    So, I’ve decided upon a cyclocross frame, or a 29er mountainbike frame. I want to be able to fit on tires that a road bike won’t fit.

    I’ve also decided that I want disc brakes – riding in the rain with rim brakes isn’t great.

  31. Jim says:

    I’m also going through this process, and have been going in circles as I learn more and more. I commute 8 miles each way to work, mostly on bike paths, but am on a busy street for part of it as well. I started commuting 6 months ago (the best decision I ever made!), quickly ditched a mountain bike I had in favor of a new cheap hybrid that didn’t hold up to the wear and tear at all. Broken spokes every week or so ended with my buying a good used wheel that even used cost over half what the original bike cost. Now the crankset area sounds like it is going to blow up any day. So I’ve been trying to figure out the right approach, since constantly repairing and upgrading the current ride makes no sense given that the frame size and geometry just isn’t right for me. I’m 6’6″ tall and weigh 220. The overriding concern for me in the “type of bike” phase has to be -geometry-. I can’t stand feeling like I’m doing a handstand on the front wheel! My current belief is that the best frames to start with are touring frames, because they tend to be stretched out a bit, and rugged enough to last. I commute primarily for exercise, and so, while I want a reasonably efficient bike because, well, a good design should be efficient, I’m not looking to make the ride toooo easy, as that would defeat the whole exercise thing.

    Great thread, and very timely for me. Can’t wait to see how the discussion pans out!

  32. d-a-n-i-e-L says:

    I’m impatient and so I can’t wait for each post as I’ve been perfecting this formula for years:

    ” Mtn frame that can take 700C wheels, preferably a used Titanium one off eBay with no decals, but a Surly Karate Monkey isn’t bad
    ” Decent 700c disc wheelset (XT 6 bolt hubs + Mavic rims can be found for around $250-$300), preferably all black
    ” 28-32cc tires, preferably Kevlar beaded Conti Ultra Gatorskins
    ” Nice 700c disc fork, preferably carbon (I’m partial to the Wound Up)
    ” King Nothreadset, set it and forget it
    ” King BB, see above
    ” Commodity seat post (some moron will always figure out how to steal your seat and post, even with a pinhead)
    ” Saddle of your choice, wrapped with brown (yes brown) electrical tape in weird places. Even if the saddle is perfect, still wrap it randomly, for some reason this is a thief deterrent.
    ” If you don’t live in the Southwest, fenders, I like the planet bike SpeedEZ
    ” Commodity stem, nice light ones like Easton ea50/70 can be found everywhere for cheap
    ” Commodity handlebars, see above ” Grips of your preference (I like Oury)
    ” Nice HYDRAULIC disc brakes (I’m partial to Avid Juicy 70’s which are pretty cheap now)
    ” Shimano/SRAM 9 speed (8 if you can find it) trigger shifter (I like old XTR stuff)
    ” Crank of your choice with 1 ring 34-43 depending on your terrain (I generally go with Shimano 105, cheap and durable)
    ” Pedals of your choice, the WTB grease guard ones are nice though – just remember to locktite the cage screws
    ” Rack and panniers are up to you, I personally like a nice large messenger bag, but as I get older I am starting to eye a nice extracycle setup….
    ” Lock – go with a kryptonite forgetabout it.

  33. Yoshiyahu says:

    Seems we are supposed to be on step 1) which type of bike. In an effort to try and kiss up to teacher, I’ll stick to step 1). Folks with garages can have lots of different bicycles for different needs. I only have the 1 bike. So my bike has to be my commuter bike (just 2 miles each way to the train station and back home) and my grocery/errand bike, and my recreational bike.

    I need a rack for carrying my backpack (i hook it like a pannier), and for carrying grocery bags, and a basket in the front, for carrying my small dog where I can keep an eye on her.

    My commute is through very urban area, very high traffic density, lots of stop signs and stoplights. I feel like I am better able to keep a handle on what’s happening being upright, so the geometry of a city bike would be optimal.

    My optimal bike would look like a Felt Cafe 8. The cupholder is actually useful. Or a Swobo. Cuz of the bottle opener.

  34. Yoshiyahu – thanks for the response! If you follow the above links under the steps it will go to the matching article, if there is one.

    I do like the look and feel of a Swobo or Felt Cafe. No one local stocks them though for me to go drool at.

  35. Justanoldhobo says:

    Reading the comments on what most want in a commuter is a perfect match for the Salsa Fargo.

  36. ac says:

    I agree – the Salsa Fargo is just about perfect. Expensive, though! Time to start combing craigslist for a used one…

  37. Tinker says:

    MY ideal bike is a Yuba Mundo, I’m afraid. The NU-VINCI hub is not recommended for that sort of load, either, I guess. Not bad in the price range of long bikes, but not so good as a regular bike either. Trek Cargo Bike? Felt Cafe 8 Deluxe looks primo, but cannot find it locally. Surly Pugsley? Not sure there is a local dealer, within about 20 miles or so, and its not a step thru frame either.

  38. Gene says:

    This is a great series. My bike build problem, handlebars. After an enjoyable commute to work there then comes the battle of navigating my bike through office doors, elevators, hallways, and yes, at times security. Handlebars seem to have a natural attraction to anything they can bump into or get hooked on including door handles, cubical corners, mail carts, and of course the stray person dashing down the hall who’s late for a meeting. My commute enjoyment meter would significantly increase if I can find an easy way to get my bike from the sidewalk outside my building and into my office without causing havoc and strained relations with my fellow employees. Help!

  39. Chuck says:

    I had the best luck and the blessing of security using the freight elevator. I go in early and leave late to avoid all the other personnel walking in the hallways.

    Fortunately not much rain or snow in my area.

  40. I can’t stand feeling like I’m doing a handstand on the front wheel! My current belief is that the best frames to start with are touring frames, because they tend to be stretched out a bit, and rugged enough to last.

  41. ac says:

    Gene – regarding your handlebars-in-the-office problem: Have you considered a folding bike? They usually result in a smaller, narrower package that’s easier to get through office hallways.

  42. Gene says:

    ac – Thanks. I’m trying to build folding handlebars something like a design I found on the web. Rather than folding, my handlebars will rotate 60 degrees to move them out of the way when entering buildings or riding on elevators. So far they work but look like something out of the junk yard. Well, back the drawing board.


  43. Isolation Helmet says:

    I have already built the perfect commuter and have been using it for two years. I commute from Fairfax, CA to San Francisco and use the following:

    Surly Cross check fixed gear (two speed)
    42 and 38 chainrings with a Surly Dingle cog 17 X 21

    Steel Surly fork. Schwalbe Marathon Plus 700 x 32 tires.

    Use your fingers to move the chain for tough hill climbs no need to adjust the tension of the chain

    Light and Motion Stella 200 and a blinky for the back along with reflective triangles on my panniers.

    Planet Bike Acadia (sp?) fenders.
    Tektro Road V Brake Levers and any shimano v brake you find cheap on the net.

    Two pannier so you don’t get a sweaty back

    The whole rig cost me less than $800 using ebay for frame, fork and cranks. Web for everything else. I have a Pletshcer rear rack that cost me $20.

    I end my ride every evening with an 800 ft climb to my house so don’t tell me a fixed gear bike is not practical.

  44. night laser says:

    I would love to have a Surly steel alloy frame and forks, but I’ve noticed you would have to sell your first born to purchase one. How did Isolation Helmet get into one for less than 4 or 500 dollars? Night Laser

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