Turn your commuter bike into a personal transportation machine

by Justyna Frank
Chicago commuter bike

Forget electric motors, fancy hydraulics, and anything that some guy you know might have to say about what makes a good commuter bike bike. These four quick upgrades will turn any basic bike in good repair into a super-efficient, user-friendly personal transportation machine.

1. Best tires for your commuter bike

Not only do quality tires enhance the performance and efficiency of your bike, they are your first line of defense against flats that could leave you stranded, and are absolutely essential for maximizing the use of your bike in the city. It’s important that you know how to fix a flat, but—let’s face it— no one wants to get one in the first place.

It is a common misconception that fatter tires offer better protection against flats. Rather, it is the materials and the construction used to make the tire that determine how much flat resistance you will get. The best tires use either a Kevlar or similar belt, or a combination of a thick (3-5mm), resilient layer sandwiched inside the rubber, and special sidewall construction to prevent cracking and premature aging of the rubber.

Below are some of our favorite options available for a wide variety of wheel sizes:

  1. Schwalbe Marathon: these are some of our most popular, puncture-defying tires, usually available in an impressive range of sizes, from tiny 16″ Brompton tires, to 29-er. They will eliminate the majority of flats for the majority of riders. A 3mm highly elastic, puncture resistant layer combined with long-wearing rubber casing makes for an extremely durable tire that is impervious to glass, tacks and other problematic road debris, and comfortable to ride on whether you’re commuting or touring. (For a heavier, but even more bombproof tire, talk to us about Schwalbe Marathon Plus!)
  2. Continental Contact Plus: a similiar, slightly “gummier”, extremely puncture resistant tire that offers excellent durability, good grippiness and low rolling resistance, and also available in a range of sizes*.
    *NOTE: supply chain issues continue to create some tire shortages, so check with us for availability or suitable substitutes.
  3. Bonus: FLAT PREVENTION PACKAGE. Few things are more inconvenient than flats, especially when your bike is your transportation. We offer a service that will give you maximum protection against flats, and minimum inconvenience should you happen to get one. With the purchase of a set of any of the above tires (or other puncture-resistant tires from Kenda, Panaracer, Serfas, and more), new tubes and installation, we will cover your bike against flats for 90 days. Contact us for complete details.

2. A commuter bike needs fenders

We recommend a full-coverage front & rear fender set to keep your bike and your person protected from excessive splash and dirt accumulation in inclement weather. Fenders can be fitted on most bikes. If your bike is especially hard to fit, come in for a chat with one of our mechanics, who have made fenders fit where others said it couldn’t be done!

We keep an assortment of fenders in stock, but with proliferating tire sizes you should be prepared to have to special order a set (which usually doesn’t take more than a day or two). There are lots of brands and options on the market, but here are two we like for the assortment of sizes, ease of installation and durability:

  1. SKS Longboard fenders are constructed of lightweight, tough chromoplastic material, offer an unsurpassed degree of coverage from the skinniest tire road bike to a beefy MTB. They come in a choice of silver or smoke color with tasteful pinstripe down the middle.
  2. Planet Bike Cascadia ALX fenders are lightweight aluminum, and are a great choice for applications where the Longboards are too much, and for 650b (aka 27.5) tire sizes.

If you don’t plan to use your commuter bike in inclement weather, and prefer an inexpensive emergency fender option, SKS makes a range of affordably priced quick release front and rear fenders that you can easily stash away during dry season.

3. Lights & reflectives are a must for commuting by bike

For night riding in Chicago, a front lamp with a white light visible from at least 500 feet to the front, and a red reflector or lamp on the rear visible from at least 200 feet are required.

Even if you don’t plan on cycling after dark, you will feel much more secure venturing out on your bike knowing you have reliable lights in case you get delayed on your return home before nightfall. This is one area where you can’t go too far overboard. We recommend redundancy!

  1. For your main light set, choose a USB rechargeable set that is powerful enough to light up the road in areas where street illumination may be lacking. For the majority of urban applications, we like the a combination front/rear light set with the headlight that offers 500-600 lumens when needed, but can be run on one of the lower settings to prolong battery life when appropriate.
    A lower setting will ensure you are visible to motorists and other road users, and 500-600 lumens is enough to illuminate an unlit path ar street in case streetlights are out or non-existent.
  2. If you regularly commute on unlit suburban trails, you may wish to go to an even higher brightness, such as a 800 lumen single beam, or a 1600 lumen dual beam light. When using such lights in traffic, be mindful of the fact that bike lights are not angled to avoid blinding oncoming drivers, and run them at a lower setting.
  3. We suggest you come up with a charging schedule, and keep your charging cords where you can easily find them. Because each set comes with two cords, you could keep one at home and one at work.
  4. As a backup, consider getting a more basic (perhaps battery-operated) front & rear blinker set to keep in your bike bag for emergencies. It won’t be enough to light up a dark road, but it will do the job of making you visible and street legal in Chicago, should anything happen to your main light set.
  5. Spoke and pedal reflectors, as well as reflective stickers applied to the frame of the bike, help ensure that you are visible in traffic from all directions. (Reflective garments are a must, of course, but in this post we’re focusing just on your commuter bike.)

4. Cargo capacity boosts the utility of your commuter bike

I’ve written a detailed post on carrying stuff on your bike, but I’ll recap the basics here for the sake of completion. The idea is to get stuff off your back, and let the bike do the hauling.

  1. Start with a rear rack attached to the bike. This will give you a base to which you can fasten your cargo using bungee cords or purpose-made bike bags (panniers). There are many choices for bike-mounted racks, including very affordable options from Planet Bike, Topeak, Axiom and more. They all function basically the same way, and are designed to easily integrate with the majority of bicycle panniers on the market. Some bike frames or brake configurations make racks challenging to fit, so work with your local bike shop on finding a suitable rack, or consult your mechanic about modifying the rack struts or points of attachment.
  2. Add bags! Most bike panniers mount to the rack either saddle-bag style, with a pair of connected bags draped over the top of the rack, or with hooks that attach to the top rail of the rack. The advantage of the latter system is that you can carry one orboth bags, depending on your cargo needs on each occasion.

There are literally countless tire and accessory options available to suit virtually any bike and rider. If you need help optimizing your commuter bike, we hope you stop in at Cosmic Bikes (or your local bike shop) and chat with us in person. We’ve been setting up transportation bikes long before Milwaukee Ave became know as the bicycle superhighway, and have many tricks up our sleeve to adapt your bike to fit your personal transportation needs.

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