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Commuter Bike? Oh Please… 17

2014 Orbea Avant disc brake fondo road bike fenders

Our friend Carlton Reid over at posted an article about a high-end carbon fibre “commuter bike” (pictured above).


You can put fenders and a rack on a racing bike, but it’s still a racing bike. Lipstick on a pig.

imageThis article has been updated from its original version to add additional commentary.

People may argue that because they commute to work on their racing bike, it’s a commuter bike. People can and do commute to work on their racing bikes. There is nothing wrong with that, and they are indeed “commuters”.

But call a spade a spade. If a bike’s primary purpose is for racing, it’s a racing bike. A road bike with fenders is still a road bike.

A friend of mine once commuted to work on his hockey skates along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. He was indeed a commuter, and there is nothing wrong with commuting to work on hockey skates.

But I would have chuckled in the same way if I came across an article on the Internet that claimed “Bauer creates high end commuter skates” and displayed a photo of $1,500 hockey skates. Sure, you can use those hockey skates for commuting, but branding them “commuting skates” is misleading.

There seems to be a perception in North America that road bikes, riding gear, and showers are required for distances longer than say 5km. My friends in the Netherlands don’t think twice before hopping on their heavy Dutch bikes and commuting 12km to their office.

I believe this perception is detrimental to expanding bicycle transportation in North America.

I regularly commute more than 10km on my heavy Batavus Dutch bike, often with steep inclines along the way (my Batavus has 5 speeds). I have also done the 22km trip to the airport on my bakfiets cargo bike many times without issue.

Below are a few photos of utility bicycles that are designed primarily for commuting. Sure, you could race one of these bikes, but I would be reluctant to brand these bikes as “racing bikes”. Heavy Dutch bicycles are fully capable of riding on the road, but I wouldn’t brand them as “road bikes”.


“Commuter bike” in Copenhagen – Photo courtesy of Mikael Colville-Andersen / Copenhagen Cycle Chic – All Rights Reserved

James D. Schwartz is the Editor of The Urban Country and is based in Toronto, Canada. You can contact James at or follow him on Twitter.

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17 thoughts on “Commuter Bike? Oh Please…

  1. Har Davids Jun 21,2013 7:31 am

    The ideal bike for the Commute de France. I prefer the Oma-variety for my commute.

  2. Emanuel Borsboom Jun 21,2013 9:02 am

    I think this comes down to what you mean by “commute”. I think the common understanding in North America is that commuting is usually from a suburb to a city centre, and usually a fairly long distance (in fact the term originates with the “commuted fare” that people travelling by train to from suburbs to city centres payed). At least, that’s always been my understanding, and when I’ve lived relatively near work I’ve never thought of it as a commute, it was just going to work.

    For what the average North American would think of a commute, I actually think the “racefiets” makes a more sense than a regular bike. If your commute is 25 km each way, a regular bike is going to take too long and get uncomfortable. You want something pretty fast.

    I think most of the people riding regular bikes you pictures are taking trips within 5km. That’s not really a commute; it’s going to work, going to the shops, or going to visit a friend, or something like that.

    That being said, when I was doing a long-distance commute, I opted for a recumbent. The ideal commuter bike would probably be a velomobile.

    (now my “commute” is walking upstairs to my home office — better wear a helmet, because I’m probably at more risk of a head injury going up those stairs than than riding during my old 25km commute!)

    • James Schwartz Jun 21,2013 10:30 am

      The definition of commute and commuter certainly leaves room for interpretation. With the urban sprawl that we have seen spreading over the past few decades a “considerable distance” in 2013 is probably significantly longer than a “considerable distance” in say 1950. People often talk about their commutes in terms of whether it’s a “long commute” or a “short commute” (still subjective measurements).

      However, even if my daily commute was, say 20km each way (which I would consider a “considerable distance”), I would still opt for a sturdy Dutch bike over a racing bike. I regularly commute more than 10km to client offices on my Batavus, and I have done the 22km ride to the airport on my cargo bike several times without issue.

      If someone is training, or if somebody needs to race to the office as fast as they can, then a racing bike would make sense. My point in the article is that a racing bike is still a racing bike, even if it is used to commute a long distance.

      I find people generally view a “hybrid” bicycle as half racing bike, and half comfort/cruiser/commuter. But even then, a hybrid bike probably wouldn’t have the racing handlebars as this bike has, so I think it’s a stretch to say that the bike above would be considered a “commuter bike”. I would consider it a racing bike that can be used for commuting long distances. Semantics I suppose.

  3. rubbomike Jun 21,2013 9:14 am

    Emanuel makes a good point that commute connotes considerable distance. But studies in Australia show that people are not commuting as far you’d think, and what drives most riders towards a bike like Carlton’s pick, is that many riders see going to work as training for the weekend, and so their commuting bike is a training bike.

    This leads, in my opinion to lots of other problems. Riders in a training mode go fast, are grumpy if delayed, and are more apt to run red lights and stop signs. Those of us who want to see transport cycling grow, hope there’s a gradual shift from Carlton’s pic. to James’s, or that that the growth, the new riders coming on, are more of that type

  4. BarbChamberlain Jun 21,2013 10:31 am

    Funny timing to read this–just yesterday I sat in a session on bike culture at the Bicycling Urbanism Symposium and saw lots of pictures of various types of bicyclist classifications Byron of Bikehugger showed.

    For me there are two ways of thinking about what makes something a commuter bike: posture/design (the way the bike manufacturers have typically classified bikes) and what you need in the bike to make it functional for you on your commute-type trips.

    This bike has both fenders and racks, which are requirements for a commuting bike. Chain guard would be nice but the step-through I bought recently (a “commuter”) didn’t come with one either.. Carbon is better than aluminum for dealing with road buzz and if your ride is on county roads in the US you’re on a lot of chip seal.

    I commuted for 5 years on a road bike before getting a step-through. I added the accessories needed to make the road bike work as a commuter, and took that stuff back off if I was heading out for a long weekend ride. That was when I had only one bike and it worked fine. I never felt I wasn’t a commuter based on the bike I rode, I couldn’t afford two bikes, and I wanted to be able to ride for fun as well as functionality.

    The point about distance to work is not an insignificant one. My trips to work and for errands when I started commuting regularly were relatively short–I usually rode around 7-10 miles/day. I’ve now moved over 12 miles from work and am going back and forth between the road bike and the step-through.

    I definitely appreciate the lighter weight and more efficient range of gears on the road bike (particularly on Seattle’s hills) and may end up commuting on it more than on the other. The road bike is also lighter for lifting onto the bus rack, and when I’m the third bike on the rack and having to get past two other bikes that’s an additional factor; carbon would be quite welcome at that point.

    Saying someone has to be on an upright bike to commute separates people who ride bikes from each other. I may think carbon is overkill, but if someone who typically races is more comfortable handling this type of bike and will add utility riding to the mix when he/she wouldn’t make the move to an upright, then this bike is awesome. It’s about the ride, not our human drive to classify and separate.

    • James Schwartz Jun 21,2013 10:41 am

      Hi Barb, thanks for the comment and insight. I certainly wouldn’t say someone needs to be on a certain style of bike to be considered a “commuter”. People can and do commute perfectly fine on road/racing bikes – they are indeed commuters.

      A friend of mine once commuted a considerable distance to work on his hockey skates in Ottawa along the Rideau Canal. But his skates were primarily designed for playing hockey, even though he commuted with them.

      Had I been browsing the Internet and I came across an article with the headline “Bauer creates high end commuter skates” which showed a photo of $1,500 hockey skates, I probably would have chuckled in the same way that Carlton’s article branded a high end racing bike as a “commuter bike” just because it has fenders and a rack on it.

      • BarbChamberlain Jun 21,2013 10:44 am

        I do get the point. My training, racing husband looked at the picture of the Orbea and said, “That’s not a commuter.” I just wonder whether the chance to recruit more commuters (people who ride bikes for utility, errands, getting to work) goes up if you expand the definition of “commuter bike” in this way.

        • James Schwartz Jun 21,2013 10:57 am

          I’m not so sure it does. There seems to be a perception in NA that the photos of bikes that I showed in this article are only useful for short trips (< 5km distance), and we need road/hybrid bikes and gear to do anything beyond those short trips. I think that view/perception hurts urban cycling more than it helps.

          I have friends in the Netherlands who don't think twice before hopping on their heavy Dutch bikes to commute 12km to their offices.

          I have discussed it in several other articles on this site, but I think the perception that riding gear, road bikes, and showers are a requirement to go beyond 5km is detrimental to expanding bicycling in North America.

          • AriShavit Jun 22,2013 4:13 pm

            I think you are spot on.

            I remember (maybe it was here? copenhagenize?) seeing an advertisement/article from a newspaper talking about the perils of winter cycling and detailing all of the gear “needed” to do it safely and comfortably. I loved the counterbalance of hundreds of pictures of people all across Europe riding in a top coat and a winter hat as if they were simply walking outside. Who knew you could ride in the snow without special tires, a face mask, and a $300 REI super-extra-mountain-climibing-ready coat?

            I very much despise the American cycling market because it is geared toward making you buy (and buy, and buy some more) super fancy, wholly unnecessary junk. This is made worse by the fact that none of the major companies commonly available in the states offers anything remotely close to the god send that is the dutch bike. I see the bike in the picture above as a complete failure to offer the consumer a meaningful alternative.

            [p.s. love the blog.]

          • clpolk Jun 23,2013 2:02 pm

            i think it’s a car thing. you don’t need boot covers or merino long underwear to drive a car, so boot covers and merino long underwear to ride a bike seems like a wild expense. and you might not need boot covers, but I do, because my feet get cold really fast. I don’t mind that or my snow tires. I just love riding, and merino long underwear should have been in my life long ago!

  5. Joseph Davis Jun 21,2013 6:35 pm

    I think something that needs to be considered when comparing Europe the the U.S. is that we Americans are incredibly impatient. Our culture drives that. I commute daily on my bike, I would never dream of commuting on a dutch style bike because it would take to much time. I would love a bikefiet to haul stuff around when I am not trying to get to work. But I want to get to work and get away, quickly. Once I am home, then I will take my time and enjoy the ride.

  6. selkiem Jun 25,2013 8:51 am

    I commuted (23 km each way) for several years on my Gary Fisher hybrid – heavy, serviceable, solid bike with a comfortable upright stance and solid tires. But… now in the market for something a LOT lighter … bottom line is that if something happens and I need to take the bike on the subway, the Fisher is awkward and heavy! Due to a cycling accident three years ago from which I’m finally recovering – I still have issues with one leg – thus the need for using the subway occasionally – the new bike I get will have to be a lot lighter and more portable – and I will admit, faster would be good too …

  7. Mark in St Paul Jun 26,2013 1:38 pm

    Nice photos from Cycle Chic but I’m pretty sure Mikael would NOT have labeled these as “commuter bikes”. Read his thoughts here:
    My observation is that the term “commuter bike” is American slang for “a bike for roadies to ride to work so they don’t have to get their pride-and-joy dirty/scratched/stolen”. Usually these bikes put the rider in a somewhat less aggressive but still forward-leaning position (called “upright” by roadies) that is nowhere near the relaxed position of the riders in Mikael’s photos. (My cynical side actually thinks the “commuter bike” term was coined solely to give roadies a reason to buy another bike.) What irks me is when non-enthusiasts want a bike to commute on, the magazines and bike shops often point them towards a high-bottom-bracket ‘cross bike, a single speed fixie-style road bike, or some other niche (non-)road bike best suited to enthusiasts. (I ride a fixie and think it’s great, and I commuted for years on a very roadie bike, but I’m an enthusiast, it works for me.) At best these unsuspecting commuter wannabes end up with a “hybrid” that sits them in a more upright, but still not totally relaxed, position. To be comfortable on any cycle that has one leaning more than a little bit forward requires “training” to strengthen the back/shoulder/neck muscles, not to mention learning to ride with elbows bent to keep the hands from hurting. Without the training, the rider is never comfortable, in pain after only a couple of miles, and the bike ends up sitting around – unused. Is a bike sitting in the garage really a “commuter bike”?
    Now don’t get me wrong, anything that gets more people using bikes for transportation is good. I’m totally OK with the $multi-thousand$ Orbea and any other style of “commuter bike” aimed at enthusiasts. It’s just that with regular non-cyclist people there is a need to consciously steer them towards the right bike for their purposes. Generally one that’s easy to operate and above all comfortable. This will give them the best chance to learn (like we already know) what a pleasure cycle commuting is.

    • MaryL Jul 1,2013 5:59 pm

      My experience with upright bikes and hybrid/mountain bikes is VASTLY different than what you describe. I actually sold a very pretty, near-mint condition upright bike a couple of years ago. Despite it fitting me in all the ways the bike shop and my knowledgeable friends said it should fit, it hurt to ride it. My forearms, shoulders and back hurt when I rode more than a couple of kilometres due to the relatively high position of the handlebars. And if I had to ride into the wind, or if I was carrying groceries on the back, it was hard to get up to even 16-18 km/hour. Going up a grade? Not pleasant at all. I found — and still find — that the slightly crouched position on a mountain bike or hybrid suited me much better.

      So that’s my story: the bike that looked like a perfect commuter bike sat unused for years until I sold it, and my scuffed up mountain bike (plus my new-ish hybrid) are much more pleasant for me to ride for any distance, over any terrain.

      My advice to new cyclists is that if they had a history of riding a certain kind of a bike when they were a kid, that they should try the same style as an adult, even if it’s a road bike, hybrid or mountain bike. If they want to try out an upright bike, sure, give it a go, but try an extended test ride if at all possible. I think I was badly placed on that upright bike several years ago. It felt nice enough for a short ride around the bike shop, but it wasn’t made for real rides that I would take.

  8. Andy Jun 29,2013 1:15 am

    We simply don’t have the cycling infrastructure here for a utopic dutch commute in our suits and suspenders. The lights aren’t timed for bikes, we have stop signs instead of roundabouts, and we have something called a “shoulder” where the divided bike lane should be. So we ride road bikes to work. They are faster and better for weaving around distinctly north american obstacles like suvs in the right lane. We run stop lights because they suck and they are more dangerous to stop at than to run, many times. But at least we get a workout along the way. I wish as much as anyone that my 20k to work was a peaceful pedal past windmills and dairy cows on a 35 lb upright five speed. A 35hr work week would be nice too. But that’s not my reality. So I ride a road bike. Is it a commuter bike? Well, it’s the only reasonable alternative to my car for commuting to work (FYI we don’t have an extensive network of super convenient commuter trains here, either).

  9. Jonathan Jul 10,2013 5:57 pm

    This article is just snobbery, working to drive a wedge between different types of cyclists.
    The bike pictured is just as legitimate for commuting as your clearly favoured upright dutch-style bike. My commute is 64km return, and I use an old steel road bike, with fenders, a big saddle bag, dynamo lighting, and fat tyres. I’ll be damned if I’m going to lug a boat anchor dutch bike that far everyday.
    For trips around my home, and for carrying my son, I have a bakfiets, which is awesome. Works great for what it’s designed for. Just as a dutch bike works great in the city for shorter trips, and a road bike works great on longer faster trips.
    If you want to ride a dutch bike for 20km commutes that’s awesome, but don’t expect everyone to be as stoked on it as you are.
    And for the record, I’d commute the hell out of that Orbea…

  10. F-M. Mellbin Apr 17,2015 6:42 am

    These pictures have been stiolen from me. In spite of writing several times to James about this he has done nothing to either remove them or correct the accreditation. This is of course unacepptable.

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