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There’s no need to spend a fortune on a new commuter bike. With a little bit of know-how, you can convert any old bike into the ultimate commuting machine.
Building a commuter bike is easier than you think. Keep reading for all the info you need to hit the road!
7 Bike Mods To Make A Killer Commuter Bike
A classic commuter bike is characterized by its strength, practicality and reliability.
You could theoretically cycle to work on any zany bike. But, how do you go about turning that discarded bike in your garage into the ultimate commuter?
Read more: Guide to bicycle commuting
1. Wheels & Wheel Strength
Wheels are vital part of a good commuter bike. So, what should you be looking for?
If you’re a heavy rider and/or intend to carry a lot of luggage to work, commuter wheels need to be strong
Qualities that affect wheel strength include the number of spokes, the shape and gauge of spokes, wheel size (hence spoke length), and whether the wheel rim has a single or double wall.
Most people aren’t going to rebuild a wheel, so you can disregard the type of spokes the wheel has and their thickness. However, a strong wheel designed for carrying heavy loads will usually have 32 or 36 spokes (written as 32H or 36H).
For commuting purposes, what you generally don’t want is a lightweight wheel with a low spoke count. More spokes spread the burden of a bike’s load, so there is less stress on individual spokes and less scope for the wheel to buckle or go out of true.
Onto the single-wall versus double-wall wheel rim.
A double-wall rim has an extra rim layer beneath the surface. Essentially, it’s reinforced. With a single-wall rim, the exterior layer of rim is the only one that exists. The latter are generally found on budget bikes.
How can you tell if you have a single-wall rim or a double-wall?
Short of sawing the wheel in half, the only way you’ll see this is by removing the tire and valve and peering through the valve hole. If you can see an additional chamber above the tube chamber, it’s a double-wall rim. This is best for commuting purposes.
Strong wheels aren’t necessarily expensive, so think about replacing them if your existing ones seem weak based on the above criteria.
First off, if the bike in your garage has been lying idle for a long time, the rubber on the tires has probably degraded and you’ll need new ones. Let’s say you need to change tires. What do ideal commuter tires look like?
Read more: Our wheels and tires section
Most people want two main characteristics in a commuter tire: puncture-resistance and comfort. So, how do we achieve that?
Comfort and puncture-resistance are conflicting qualities in some respects, because a puncture-resistant tire is usually made with stiffer sidewalls. The only way to make that type of tire more comfortable is to increase its width and decrease tire pressure.
Choose the widest tires your bike will accept if you value comfort, because then you can inflate them to a lower, more comfy pressure. Most bikes will allow at least a 25mm tire.
How wide is a wide tire?
On a smooth road, a tire of 28mm or over can be described as wide. You must measure the clearances available on your bike before buying the tires.
Areas on a bike that affect the maximum possible tire width include:
- Brake calipers – if your old bike has rim brakes, the clearance between them limits the size of tire you can fit. Squeeze the brakes before measuring the distance between the calipers, where the tire will sit.
- Fork crown – the width of the gap at the apex of your front fork.
- Chainstays – the space that exists at the narrowest part of the chainstays near the seat tube.
- Fenders – how much space do your fenders leave for a wider tire?
A classic commuter tire is the Schwalbe Marathon Plus. You should practice installing your chosen tire and removing it a couple of times at home. This will give you the confidence you need to effect simple repairs at the roadside.
Video: Installing The Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tire
3. Cargo Rack
A rack isn’t essential on a commuter bike, but it helps you to carry luggage without bearing the weight on your back. You can attach panniers to the sides of a cargo rack or secure a bag directly to the top.
Many bikes have eyelets in the lower part of the seat stays for attachment of a rear rack. At the front, eyelets are positioned near the fork dropouts.
Most people prefer carrying commuting panniers at the rear, as you can put more in them that way and it doesn’t greatly affect the handing of the bike.
On bikes that don’t have eyelets for a rack, you can still install one by fixing P-clamps to the frame. This is often the case with road bikes, designed primarily to be lightweight and efficient without carrying extra weight.
Many brand-new commuter bikes or urban bikes come with a rear cargo rack. This is one of the practical changes you can make to your old bike to avoid having to carry a backpack.
Let the bike take the weight!
Fenders are another practical addition you can make to most potential commuter bikes. They prevent you from becoming sprayed with water on a rainy commute or wet roads. This is especially useful if you bike commute in the same clothes you’ll work in.
Like cargo racks, fenders or mudguards are usually fixed to eyelets on the bike frame where they exist. They can also be attached by P-clamps if eyelets do not exist. Thus, the mounting options are much akin to those of racks.
Road bikes are often among the most problematic when it comes to installing fenders. They often have limited clearance for them, but you can buy lightweight, closely fitting fenders especially designed for road bikes.
A minimalistic type of fender often seen on road bikes is the “ass saver”. This fits easily into saddle rails without requiring any tools. It protects you from the worst type of spray that comes off the back wheel and paints a stripe up your back.
Video: How To Install Fenders On A Bicycle
Anyone who bike commutes all year round is likely to be riding in the dark for some of the time. That being the case, you’ll need to install lights on your prospective commuter bike. What should you look for when choosing some?
A front light serves two basic purposes: to help you see and be seen. If you ride dark rural roads on your way to or from work, you’ll need in the region of 400 to 800 lumens to illuminate the road ahead. Go for something stronger if you’re riding off-road.
Note: lumens measure the total light output in all directions. They don’t describe the intensity of the light, though the two things are closely related. An identical number of lumens in two lights will be more intense on a light with a narrower beam angle.
LED lights are naturally directional, so the design of a bike light and its optics can make a significant difference to the coverage it offers. Light fall-off can be sharp, as you may have noticed in LED street lights.
You need far fewer lumens in a front light if the aim is only to be seen. Around 20-200 lumens will suffice. Similarly, a rear light with roughly the same output can be seen from several hundred yards away if a driver is undistracted.
General consensus says a flashing rear light attracts more attention than a static one, but a flashing front light can distract drivers and impede their ability to judge distance. With that in mind, a constant front light and flashing rear is a good place to start.
In most places, bike lights in the dark are a legal requirement.
6. Locks & Lock Holders
Most people who ride into work will need to lock their bike in a bike shed. Depending on the value of the bike you’re preparing for commuter use, you might want to invest in a good lock—or even two good locks.
One of the benefits of riding a beaten-up old bike into work is the low value will deter knowledgeable thieves. Therefore, you needn’t invest heavily in a lock. Definitely don’t buy a lock that’s worth as much as the bike!
If the bike you’re upgrading for commutes was valuable to begin with, you ideally need a couple of strong locks. U-locks or chains with a wide shackle or wide links will be hard to cut even with an angle grinder.
Buy two expensive locks if your bike is valuable. Choose different lock designs to slow a thief down further, so maybe a U-lock and a chain. If you always park your bike in the same place at work, you can leave the chain in situ to avoid having to carry it.
Note that cheap cable locks are ridiculously easy to cut with hand tools, so only use these as a quick deterrent or on a low-value bike.
There are many brackets, holders and holsters you can fix to a bike to carry a hefty U-lock. Most of them fit inside the inner “triangle” of the frame, but there are other options.
Read more: Where to keep your lock while riding
Video: How To Lock Your Bike
7. A Bell
A bell may seem an uncool accessory for experienced bicyclists, but it’s invaluable if you’re commuting through areas full of pedestrians.
It’s true a bike bell can look a bit clumsy on some handlebars (e.g., road bars), but you can buy discreet, minimalistic bells that wrap around the bar and are barely visible. These are perfect for maintaining a sleek look.
If it avoids hitting a pedestrian with potentially disastrous consequences, a bell is essential. In today’s world, many people are walking about distractedly, but they don’t deserve to be hospitalized or worse for their sins.
Other accessories to consider might include a saddle bag for tools, reflectors, bottle holders, or even cameras to record any unwanted incidents for insurance purposes.
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