Wanted: ultimate commuter bike

I’m on the lookout for a new bicycle.  The mission: find what bicycle racers in the Pacific Northwest call a “rain bike” – something to ride during the eternal gloomy wet months, a bike intentionally sacrificed to the rain gods.  And I do mean sacrifice.   Riding a bike in consistent wet conditions is hard on the equipment – rims, brakes, drivetrains, cable systems, everything slowly succumbs to the increased levels of grit and grime that come from riding in sloppy conditions. If you only ride in the rain by accident, you don’t worry about it – your normal primary race bike still performs just fine in the rain. But if you’re out there slogging around for more than a few hours a month in the rain, you start thinking about how to make the experience better (or more specifically, how to make it suck just a bit less.)  In winter I ride my bike both for training for the upcoming racing season as well as a way to get to work.  In summer, my race bike works great.  But in winter I need to factor in the additional challenges of constant rain and darkness.  So in short, I’m looking for a durable and versatile commuter bike + a semi-performance-oriented winter training bike all in one.  For me, this combination would be the ultimate commuter bike!

For many racers, their rain bike is an old racebike that is past its prime but still works fine. Toss some fenders on it, call it good. But that’s a compromise for several reasons, key among them these days is the fact that modern racing bikes have such tight frame clearance between the wheel and the frame / fork / brake, that there’s no room to fit decent fenders in there. A few companies (like Crud) have attempted to fill this void with their micro-fenders, but after trying them out I found them to be almost a complete waste of money that gave me little more than a few spindly pieces of plastic that flopped around on my bike and at best only did a half-hearted job at keeping me dry.

So after a few winters of riding in the Seattle gloom I came up with my “ultimate commuter bike” checklist.

Must haves:

  • enough clearance for full fenders
  • enough clearance for slightly wider (700c x 28c) tires
  • slightly more upright riding position compared to my race bike (I wear a backpack for commuting and a full race crouch sucks with a backpack on)
  • drop / road handlebars – suitable for group road training rides with my team – no mountain bikes, no flat-bar hybrids, etc. – it’s already hard enough for me to keep up with my teammates as it is!
  • is not a POS, but should be less expensive than my race bike.  I don’t want to sacrifice a $9k bike to the rain gods.  🙂
Nice to haves:
  • Disc brakes (hydraulic preferred, cable-actuated OK also)
  • Total weight under 20 pounds (not likely given that I don’t want to break the bank on this bicycle)
  • Not horrible to look at (I’m vain, even in the rain…)
The closest I’ve come to finding a bike that met these criteria up until now is my cyclocross bike, a Ridley X-Ride.  Cyclocross bikes are pretty good all-rounders.  They’re a bit like modified road bikes with some mountain bike traits, using the same basic components including the same size wheels and drivetrains.  So swapping out the knobby tires for road slicks is a simple affair.  With plenty of tire clearance there’s no problem getting full size fenders mounted on it.  The relaxed geometry and more upright riding position is perfect.  I’ve used my trusty Ridley cyclocross bike as my commuter & winter training bike for the past 2 years, with no major complaints.  But a few annoyances are starting to get to me:
  • Cantilever brakes (standard equipment on cyclocross bikes) are absolute garbage.  Worst piece of technology still alive in the bicycle industry today.  For actual cyclocross use their shortcomings aren’t as noticeable because for the most part you’re not going that fast (this is especially true in my case) and the courses typically don’t have long steep downhill sections that require big braking maneuvers.  So for ‘cross racing, you can get by with anemic brakes for the most part.  If they slow you down a bit, good enough.  But when you try to make them work at higher speeds under road riding conditions (20+ mph) you haven’t a prayer of stopping quickly.  Not an ideal situation when you’re riding home from work on a dark and stormy Seattle evening, heading downhill towards a stoplight.
  • No water bottles – at least on my particular ‘cross bike, there are no water bottle mounts.  (Since most cyclocross races are less than an hour in length, there’s no need to carry a water bottle.  So the “hardcore” ‘cross bike manufacturers skip the mounts.)  Fine, but when I want to use the bike for other kinds of riding for more than an hour, I’m screwed.  I’ve looked for other ways to carry water, and used these for 2 years, and they work OK, but I keep having to adjust them / fix them, and they never stay put.  More than once I’ve nearly dumped it when my bottle cage unexpectedly rotated into the path of my pedaling feet, catching me unaware at inopportune moments.  Scary.  And even more so when riding on the road in traffic for that evening commute home.
  • Conflicting configurations – if I want to use the same bike for both commuting / rain riding AND cyclocross racing, I have to plan on “converting” it back and forth between the two modes every race weekend.  Fenders removed, tires swapped, etc. and then I have to do the whole thing in reverse on Sunday night if I want to ride to work on Monday.  Sounds whiny but the older I get, the less free time I have to waste.  I’d much rather spend my evenings with my family than futzing around in the garage working on my bike any more than I absolutely have to.
An aside about disc brakes:
The timing’s a bit strange to be shopping for cyclocross bikes with disc brakes.  Now that disc brakes have been made legal in cyclocross racing (yay!) you’re starting to see the first attempts come out from the mainstream brands, as well as from a few of the high end framebuilders.  Disc brakes on a cyclocross bike would pretty much get me 90% of the way towards the “ultimate commuter bike” I’m looking for, but the market is still transitioning towards disc brakes and the pickings are a bit slim.  The sticking point at the moment is getting disc brakes that work well with road bike brake levers.  There’s no shortage of great disc brake options in the mountain bike world, but there you have levers with enough throw to work the brake properly, AND you have the option of getting hydraulic disc brakes because there are levers out there capable of using a master cylinder for the hydraulic system.  So far, nobody’s made a road bike brake lever capable of using a master cylinder.  Within a few years I suspect the major manufacturers (Shimano, SRAM) will come out with them – and I eagerly await their release.
More on disc brakes and cyclocross:
So with all that said, I’ve been looking around and have identified a few candidates.  Listed in no particular order:
Raleigh Roper:
Another outlier from Foundry Cycles:
And at the high end / fancy end of the spectrum, if money was no object at all I’d throw down for a custom built rig from Baron Bicycles which are handmade here in Seattle:
So, what bikes / manufacturers am I overlooking?  Any suggestions?  Discuss…  Now that “summer” is coming to a close in the Pacific Northwest, I’m facing another long wet Seattle winter.  I loathe my indoor trainer; if I had a more capable rain bike maybe I won’t have to spend as much time on it this winter?

Updated 11/28/2011 – Found my new bike!

Posted by Brian

One comment

  1. What is the difference between cyclocross-bikes and road-bikes?…

    When you ask “what are the downsides of a cross bike” – the answer depends on how you intend to use the bike… If you’re looking to use a cyclocross bike mostly for road riding, other than weight I’d say the only major downside is that most curren…

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