Long Commute Bike recommendation

I teach high school in Gresham, and live in Southeast Portland. Pre-pandemic, I’d ride the easy 4 miles or so from my house to the MAX, and hop on for the rest of the commute. With COVID, though, I feel far better commuting the whole way, which is about 14.5 miles, on my bike.

Here’s the thing, though: while my mid-90s used Trek 720 has been great for commuting within Portland, I have some doubts about its suitability for long-distance commuting, in that it’s heavyish. I am thinking about getting an e-bike, but I’m also wonder what are some non-electric bikes that people might recommend? I’m thinking lighter frames, which suit longer distances, but also have the capability to carry a pannier.

Thanks!

Your Trek could be made to work. You should plan on the commute being at least an hour, longer if elevation is involved but my guess is you’ll be taking the Springwater in which is pretty flat. Being older, you may also need to take care that components are still in good working order so you don’t experience mechanicals on your commutes. This can eventually nickel and dime you into some considerable money that could have been better spent on a newer used bike or just a new bike, especially if you’re having the shop do all of the work.

If you’re looking to update your ride, then I recommend something along the lines of a Trek Crossrip, Specialized Sequoia or a Cannondale Topstone. These gravel bikes make good commuters, can be outfitted with fenders and racks and because you can put beefier tires on them, won’t be prone to flats especially in the winter. They won’t be the lightest but still lighter than your current ride, are good value and fairly inexpensive to maintain as commuters.

Enjoy and check out the Gresham Fairview Trail which is a good alternative to Eastman and 182nd.

A lot of bikes could meet your needs, but most people would probably use a touring bike or a cyclocross bike for your application. In all honesty, your 720 is a reasonable choice for the job.

Since you’re interested in a lighter (presumably faster) ride, be aware that you won’t notice a big difference simply by lightening the frame. Presuming you have your positioning and fit dialed in, the area that makes the single biggest difference is probably tires. I’d specifically recommend against beefier tires. They have significantly more rolling resistance and they’re much heavier – especially if you go for wider sizes – and they’re more of pain to change when you do get flats. You only need tires appropriate for your commute. I personally use Continental Grand Prix 5000 year round – they’re WAY better than flat resistant tires for everything except flat resistance and even in that category they’re not totally hopeless.

Another area to pay attention to is wheels. People seem to ride really heavy wheels out here so that’s another good place to drop weight. Be aware that the wider tires many people favor require wider rims – again more weight as well as greater aerodynamic resistance.

Then there are all the other components, and it all adds up. Portland cycling culture is to ride heavy. On flats and for short distances, this works just fine. But when you stretch things out, add hills, or need to accelerate a lot as traffic changes, it becomes a drag.

The e-bike option will give you a boost, but it will also increase your maintenance costs and be more of a hassle when things go wrong. Not a reason not to do it, but it’s a factor.

How big/heavy a pannier do you need to lug, and is a backpack an option for you? If you really want a nice fast ride, a race bike with downtube shifters will be fast, lightweight, and super reliable. You can get special lightweight fenders for them that work in the winter.

Bottom line is that if you want a faster bike, make sure it only has what you need and nothing you don’t and you’ll be fine.

I have a similar length commute I do year round. Not to doubt or question your ability but even for someone who rides and “trains” quite a bit, 25+ miles a day is a lot of riding back to back to back on top of a full work day. It doesn’t sound like much but throw in the weight of panniers/backpack and it adds up, you will get in great shape! For this reason alone I would encourage you to go towards an E Bike if you can afford it. I have an E Cargo bike and while it’s not faster than a regular bike (due to how big it is) it’s much less effort and allows me to get to work without having just “worked out”. I have recently found myself riding the E Bike even when I don’t “need” to just because it’s more enjoyable when I’m not feeling 100%.

Regardless of type of bike I would recommend panniers and a comfortable geometry (aka not a race bike with downtube shifters). I ride an aggressive position with a backpack and would not recommend for someone starting out. Lots of newer touring and lighter adventure bikes have mounts for racks. Also recommend getting as durable a tire as possible (E Bikes typically have great oversized and durable tires). You will gladly sacrifice 2 minutes on your commute for a heavier tire that won’t leave you changing a flat on the side of the road in the rain and dark (speaking from a lot of experience). You could consider tubeless if you find a setup that works well for you but in my experience the type of flats you get commuting (larger cuts) do not seal well and a tire change becomes more of a hassle when one does happen.

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Out of curiosity, what’s your general fitness and interest in activity?

Even though cycling things will most likely be faster than alternatives, you’ll be out in cold, wet, wind, and/or dark a lot of the time – you’re going to need to like your commute to actually stick with it.

Part of liking your commute is liking your bike. You’re going to spend a lot of time on that bike so there’s a strong argument to be made for putting your money where your time and passion are. So do this on a bike that really speaks to you.

The distance is very doable for a healthy middle aged person or younger person and can be invigorating rather than tiring. This might sound like a long commute if it’s new to you, but you’ll get used to it quickly (I’d guess 2 or 3 months) and it’s no big deal once you have.

For a distance like that, speed matters. Powering a heavy slow bike that far day after day, year after year will not be fun. So one of the decisions you need to make is whether you’ll get your speed from your legs and a faster bike or going the electric motor route.

If you go the former route, the fitness base you’d get from riding that can be life changing. Things that would have been outright inaccessible before become easy. Physical strength and stamina are very handy things to have in regular life, and the older you get, the bigger deal that is.

As a long time observer of other distance commuters, the people who seem to stick with it overwhelmingly have faster lighter bikes. Electric riders I see tend to stick with it only for a few months, the notable exception being cargo bikes and the lot that an especially dedicated person uses as a substitute for a car.

As much as I hate changing tires, I still think the PDX obsession with flats is misguided. Roads are good here. I get maybe one flat ever 1500 miles or so out here, and getting flat resistant tires only reduces, not eliminates them. If your route is particularly bad with specific hazards such as broken glass, metal wires, and the like, it could be worth choosing something more durable, but roads here are generally good and there’s always a place you can pull off and work if you have to.

My own experience is that riding heavy, slow, tires with a terrible ride isn’t fun. When I started, I got the most flat resistant I could. I’ve tried virtually all of them and spent years using them, but over time I decided the actual ride that you experience every time you go out was more important than a few more flats per year. A heavy tire is going to slow you WAY more down than a heavier frame. Having said all that, if you go the electric route, may as well get bombproof tires since your bike will already weigh a ton an the motor will be dealing with the extra work.

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Thanks, everyone for your thoughtful feedback.

Blockquote Out of curiosity, what’s your general fitness and interest in activity?

Pretty good, on both; I ditched my (first) car 6 months ago because I barely used it, and I’ve essentially been bike only for two years. I do think a key component, though, is the difference in length: 25 miles a day, as opposed to 10 or 12 that I’ve been doing both pre-pandemic, and now.

It does seem that the general consensus here is that if I stick with a non e-bike, then some kind of touring bike would be best–with lighter wheels and tires?

And just responding to other questions that came up: I generally have a backpack and a Route 7 pannier from North Street. I find that combination works for me, and allows me to distribute weight evenly between myself and the bicycle.

Sounds like the transition might be pretty smooth – you appear to have both the disposition and fitness to make it happen. 25 miles daily is way easier than it sounds once you’re used to it (did over 40 daily for a decade myself).

In short, you want to find ways to minimize weight and aero. That means the smallest/lightest rack that carries what you need, smallest pannier, etc. When you’re getting blasted by head or sidewinds, taking hills, etc, you’ll really notice things that hold you back (especially in precip, darkness, etc). Just a little extra weight spread among different choices can easily add up to the weight of a gallon of milk or more – which convert a fun and sporty ride into pushing a pig.

Most PDX commuters only go a few miles so most of this stuff doesn’t matter. But the further you go, the more impact all these small choices have.

BTW. your maintenance costs will go up significantly doing 25 miles daily. I’d expect to go through at least 2 sets of tires, 2 chains, and probably 2 sets of brakes per year. Cassettes, rings, cables, housings, seats, bottom brackets, pedals, cleats, headsets, shifters, etc also need occasional replacement as well as appropriate clothing/shoes. If you have rim brakes, you’ll chew up your rims (I get about 18 months out of a set). This all adds up to real dough, several hundred if we’re realistic (still considerably cheaper than alternatives).

Being able to do this is all about a solution that really speaks to you and which sounds fun. So you may need to experiment a bit to get everything dialed in.

Tires: My punctures come in 3 kinds, the very infrequent oddball flats you get from unpredictable stuff, glass and thorns. It doesn’t matter what tire you run, some strange construction debris or whatever is going to take it out so there’s not much you can do for that there but these are pretty infrequent. For glass and thorns which make up the vast majority of my punctures, larger tires do substantially better. Thorns are simply a non issue for the Bontrager H5’s I have on the cross bike now and they deal with glass much better too. So you can at least eliminate one failure mode and greatly reduce another with larger, tougher tires. I also recommend checking your tires every time you service your bike. You will be surprised how much glass you will find in them. Digging this out can prevent it from working its way through the tire, especially in wet weather, and giving you a puncture later on.

Ebikes: I don’t own one but I’ve ridden them and they’re fun. From colleagues who commute ebikes, the most common feedback I get is that they make the commute consistent. It doesn’t matter if there’s head wind or you’re sick or its raining or whatever, you’ll get through your commute in a consistently short time. This becomes more important the further you commute. You can choose how much effort you want to put in and the bike makes up the difference and you always get to work/home in the same amount of time.

Maintenance: Unfortunately, the more miles you pedal, the more you’ll have to maintain your bike. It’s just part of life. The easiest way to cut down on maintenance is to go with a belt drive and hub gearing but these systems are still heavy and expensive. So you need to put in the time to maintain your drive train. Two things that cut down maintenance for me are disc brakes and Dumonde chain lube especially in the winter. Finally, having multiple bikes is also good as you may discover a problem with your bike when you’re about to leave or you need to wait for an ordered part or have to take the bike to the shop or something. It’s nice to have a backup bike even if it’s not the ideal commuter.

Enjoy.

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This is makes a big difference even with flat resistant tires. Given the OP’s commute, checking daily would not be overkill (particularly in dark/wet). It only takes a minute

Always carry at least 2 spare tubes, a tire boot, and decent levers. Cheap levers tend to break in cold weather (especially if you have flat resistant tires), large slashes require the boot, and every once in a long while, you’ll need that second tube.

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A lot of my friends use their bike as a mode of transportation. They get use to it as just like you they are also scared of commuting due to the pandemic.