A Beginner's Guide to Cycle Commuting 1: Choosing the Right Bike, Sizing and Adjustment

The world of cycling can be a confusing and bewildering place. For newcomers who want to get to the heart of the matter here's the important information a beginner needs to know. Distilled by MICK ALLAN. The first of a five-part series.

For a beginner or returning cyclist a visit to a modern bicycle shop can be a bewildering experience. It's not like the good old days when the choice amounted to Racer, Roadster or Folder. Now it's like a maze, with ten varieties of mountain bikes, several classes of street bikes and an ever growing range of road bikes, tourers and racers. Luckily it's not as complex as it seems and armed with a short list of answers to the following questions even a child can find the right bike for their needs.

How far? Broadly speaking, for rides up to… three miles almost any bike will do. Unless you live somewhere particularly hilly a cheap shopper or roadster will cope with short distances perfectly well. An able bodied person can cover such a distance in around fifteen minutes so you simply won't be on the saddle for long enough for discomfort to become a serious issue. And reliability isn't a major concern since the worst that can happen is that you have to walk a mile and a half.

A six mile commute equates to half an hour on the bike twice a day. At this distance saddle comfort and bike-fit really start to play a part so a six mile bike should be designed for comfort and reliability with large-section comfy tyres and an upright riding position.

At nine miles and above commuting becomes a rather more serious business. At roughly an hour and a half of daily travel time a nine mile bike should still be comfortable and reliable but now efficiency becomes more important. A more aerodynamically efficient (bent over) riding position and skinnier tyres trade a bit of comfort for speed.

How many gears? There are bikes currently available which feature 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 27, 30, or even 33 gears. A commuter on a dead flat route might only require a single speed whilst a tourist on a fully laden touring bike over an alpine pass will need every gear she can get. Between five and nine is an adequate range for a six mile bike on moderately hilly terrain. To an extent the number of gears is determined by the type of bike you choose and whether it has hub or derailleur gears.

Which wheel size? With the exception of folding bikes there are only two common wheel sizes; 26inch and 700c (also known as 28”). 26” is derived from mountain bikes and is generally available in a larger (ie more comfortable) range of sizes. 28” is (obviously..) larger than 26” and is generally available in skinnier (ie faster) sizes. All the way down to super fast 18mm, about the size of your thumb but there is some cross-over, you can get skinny tyres for 26” and fat tyres for 28”. Skinny equals fast. Fat equals comfy. You choose.

Folding bikes often have suspension to overcome the higher rolling resistance of their smaller wheels. Few people ride folders more than six miles thanks to their ability to sneak their bikes unnoticed onto buses and trains.

How much? Some people will ride a horrid bike from the catalogue or supermarket for many years without a grumble. At the other end of the scale are the bike snobs who wouldn't be seen dead on anything less than the most expensive bike in the shop. Of course most people fall somewhere in between, but how is a new cyclist to decide how much to spend? It's unrealistic to expect a super cheap bike to be reliable, comfortable or even nice to ride, cost cutting at the factory leaves the absolute minimum required to qualify as a functioning bike. And don't expect a super expensive bike to still be attached to the railings when you come back to it. A commuting bike is above all a tool. It doesn't need to be super-light with all the bells and whistles but it does need to be up to the job of day in day out riding in all weather conditions. We reckon no less than £200, whilst £600 will get you something quite special to last a decade or more.

Sizing. Bikes, like shoes and cardigans, come in different sizes. Sizes vary between brands so don't count on an 18” Brand X fitting the same as an 18” Brand Z. These are the key considerations: Stand-over, Saddle height, Reach.

Minimum Stand-Over Height. Standing with the bike between your legs it is essential that there is a decent gap between the underneath of you and the top-tube. It's simply the difference between your inside-leg measurement and the height of the top tube from the ground. To establish your Stand-over clearance simply stand astride the bike with the top tube under your crotch and with your feet flat on the floor, then grab the handlebar stem with one hand and the saddle with the other and lift the bike up as high as it will go. Try and keep it level and ask a bystander to measure how much gap you have under your wheels. On a street bike, racer or touring bike this might be as little as an inch (25mm), on a mountain bike we aim for no less than four inches (or 100mm). This procedure establishes the maximum frame size in that particular model and you can progress to..

Saddle height. “Sit on the saddle, place the flat of your foot on the pedal and adjust the height of the saddle until you can just straighten your leg. When pedalling the ball of the foot should be directly over the middle of the pedal and as a result your leg never fully straightens out”. It's the universal bike shop saddle height adjustment method. However, for a beginner this method will set the saddle way too high for comfort or confidence so it is the job of a good bike fitter to help the new cyclist find a compromise between a saddle height high enough for pedalling efficiency and a saddle height low enough to feel safe. Usually, after a few weeks of regular cycling our cyclist should have developed enough confidence to cope with a few centimetres of extra seat height. The saddle also has a few mm of fore and aft adjustment should you need it.

Reach. The distance from the saddle to the bars is called reach and it's every bit as crucial as saddle height to get right. Adjusting the handlebar stem up and down (or replacing it for one of a different length or height entirely) puts the bars where you want them. High for more control and a sense of safety in traffic, low for better aerodynamics and greater speed. Too close and you'll feel cramped, too far away and you'll feel too stretched out. At first it's hard to know how you are supposed feel on the bike but making a conscious effort to be aware of your position really is the key to many happy miles of cycling. Adjustments can be usually undertaken with a single tool, the folding multi Allen key tool. So universal are they that many companies make them and many make several versions. Get one and learn how to wield it.

Pedals to saddle, saddle to bar. Adjust the bike to fit your body, don't force your body to fit the bike.

This article was originally written for the Bike Boost Project , a Get Cycling creation.

Read more in this series:

Safety Wear and Other Equipment

Cycle Security

Maintenance and Roadside Repairs.

Adjusting to Life with Your New Bike

Previous article:
Family and Children's Cycles

Next article:
A Beginner's Guide to Cycle Commuting 2: Safety Wear and Other Equipment