OK, so I bought the wrong bike. Once it’s back from the bike hospital, I will still love it. But it’s a racy road bike, which is generally not the best choice for commuting. I didn’t know this when I bought it two years ago. It’s kinda like that one time when you went home with the punk band drummer, woke up the next day and went… hmm. Not so smart. Actually, in my case, it’s more like we went to Vegas for a quickie wedding. But I’m committed to it now. We’re not going to Reno.
It turns out, there are a bazillion new bikes out there now that are much better suited for a rainy, dark commute. They go by various names: Commuter bikes, comfort bikes, town bikes… Plus there’s a lot of genre bleeding, with mountainish road bikes and roadish mountain bikes. I love that there are so many to pick from, but the choices are so numerous it’s paralyzing. I started to wonder how I would pick one today, and it all came down to the tires.
Why? Tires are the most important factors for determining the quality of your ride. It is after all… wait for it… where the rubber meets the road. So let’s talk about sizes and their implications. There are two general classes of bike tire sizes, the 700 mm diameter family, and the 26 inch diameter family. Notice that these families don’t bother to have the same measurement system. Already our families are dysfunctional.
Once you pick a family, that’s it. You can’t change, because the frame is designed around that diameter. But each family also has a second number, the width, which you have a lot more flexibility to mess with. Like so:
700×23: This is a typical tire size you see for road bikes. It refers to a 700 millimeter diameter and 23 millimeter width. This generally translates into tall, skinny, lightweight tires designed more for speed than durability or puncture protection. Which is great for racing or going on a century, but not so much if you’re hitting a lot of rain, potholes, etc.
I’ve upgraded my tires to a tougher commuter spec tire, the Continental Gatorskin, but there’s no room in my frame to go to a much fatter tire, say, a 700×28. There’s just enough clearance to fit a 700 x 25, but at that size there’s no room for full fenders. I put a 700×25 tire on the back wheel, and even that small change made a huge difference on the rough spots and wet patches. I wish I could go bigger.
If I were buying today, I’d probably still get a road bike, because I like the riding position, but I’d get one with a lot more clearance, so I could put a 700 x 28 or even a 30 on there, and a set of full fenders as well.
26 x 1.5: This is a typical mountain bike or commuter bike tire, smaller in diameter than a road bike tire. Yes, we have suddenly switched to English measurements instead of metric. Don’t get me started. Suffice to say that the measurements are a little inexact in either system. A 26” diameter is a good choice for a commuter bike, especially in winter. You can put a really beefy, bombproof tire on 26” wheels, for a lot more security and a smoother ride in rough conditions. Plus, your center of gravity is lower, and you’re more stable when things are slippery. Commuter bikes built for 26” wheels are generally more upright, cushier, and more casual than road bikes.
These are really broad generalizations that will vary greatly with your bike, but if speed and weight are the most important things to you, find a bike with 700mm tires, although for commuting I’d still recommend enough clearance for wider tires and fenders.
If reliability, smoothness and the security of a lower center of gravity are more important, I’d go with the 26 inchers.
The next things I’d think about are frame style, brakes and drivetrain, in that order. But that’s for future posts.