The tips on this page are for buying a bike with the main purpose of cycle commuting to the Harwell campus which will probably involve town riding, off road routes and country lanes. If the bike is required for other activities e.g. mountain biking, racing, triathalon, touring etc. then the requirements of these activities need to be factored in.
What type of bike?
There are three types which are most suitable for cycle commuting to the Harwell campus; Touring, Mountain Bike or a hybrid of both types.
A touring bike is a good option if the route to work is mainly on roads, they are robust and can easily go on off road tracks like the Sustrans routes but may not be best suited on off road tracks like the Ridgeway. Touring bikes are equipped a good range of gears, good brakes, rear pannier racks (sometimes front ones as well) and full mudguards. Touring bikes usually have 700C sized wheels (70cm diameter or approx. 27”) which are the same size as racing wheels but have wider rims, most have drop handlebars which allow different hand and riding positions. They are designed for cycling long distances with luggage so are good for a comfortable and fast ride.
Mountain bikes are currently the most popular type of bike being sold in the UK and everybody appears to be selling them, making it easy to be sold something that does not do the job. Mountain bikes have tough frames, a good range of gears, very good brakes, knobbly tyres and sometimes suspension. Wheels are 26” diameter and the handlebars are straight, there are usually no mudguards or pannier racks. There are various sub divisions of the mountain bike genre, the most suitable for commuting are the ATB (all terrain bike) or XC (cross country). For commuting purposes to the Harwell campus there is no need to have suspension and it may slow the journey down as the suspension will absorb some of the pedalling power. Beware of cheaper mountain bikes offering suspension, it is more worthwhile to have better components fitted than suspension. Knobbly tyres are good for serious off road riding but are slow on tarmac, so for commuting it is better to get the bike fitted with road tyres. Some mountain bikes are fitted with disk brakes which are very efficient brakes but again are not really needed for the type of cycling needed to get to the Harwell campus. The best advise for buying a mountain bike is to fix a budget and go and speak to a local cycle shop to get the correct bike for the job. Mountain bikes are generally heavier and slower than road bikes unless big money is spent but they are the best for off road cycling and a good option if the route to the Harwell campus uses the Ridgeway.
A hybrid bike is a cross between a touring bike and a mountain bike. They have the tough frame geometry of a mountain bike and 26” wheels fitted with road tyres (suitable for off road riding also). They can have straight or drop handlebars and are fitted with mudguards and rear pannier racks. Like mountain bikes and touring bikes they have good brakes and a wide range of gears. This type of bike will easily cope with off road riding on the Sustrans routes and the Ridgeway and is equally at home on tarmac. Not as comfortable or fast as a touring bike but lighter and faster than a mountain bike. This type of bike is a good option if the route to the Harwell campus is using the Sustrans routes i.e. part off road and part on country lanes.
As with all things, you get what you pay for. If cycling regularly it is worth investing in a good cycle that is light, reliable and uses good quality components that will last longer than cheaper ones.
Other bike tips
Mudguards are highly recommended, they do cut down a lot of spray and help keep your clothes and feet dry or less wet.
Bells on bikes are sometimes thought of things only fitted to children’s bikes, but if using the Sustrans cycle paths a bell is a very useful accessory. Bells are used to warn other people using the paths i.e. dog walkers, joggers etc. that you are there. Usually people will move to the side and dog walkers get their dog under control if they here a bell and let the cyclist past.
Lights are mandatory for cycling at night. Sometimes cyclists do not put their lights on soon enough at dusk, what appears to be still good daylight in the open can be quite dark behind a windscreen. A good idea is to have a set of flashing front and rear LED lights that can be put on at dusk to ensure other road users can see you and a separate front light that can be used when it becomes dark to light the way. Flashing LED lights are cheap to buy (around £10 for front and rear lights) and in flashing mode the batteries (usually 2 or 3 AAA batteries) last for ages, typically 100 hours, and the LEDs do not need to be changed, so they are ideal for using at dusk. There are various options for a separate front light (they should be made to British standards if they are to be used on roads) :
Battery lights with Halogen or Krypton bulbs are bright and reasonably priced (around £10 to £20). Carry a spare bulb and batteries. These lights tend to use larger type C batteries and can be expensive to run if cycling regularly. If using rechargable batteries, be aware that when they start to run low they die very quickly.
LED battery lights, these usually have 3 or more LEDs to produce the beam. They are bright, they typically have double the battery life of the Halogen / Krypton bulb types and use cheaper AA or AAA batteries. The LEDs do not need changing so there is only the need to carry spare batteries. They are more expensive to buy than the Halogen / Krypton lights (around 25 to £40).
There are also high performance front lights designed for mountain biking at night which can be LED or Halogen / Krypton bulb types. They are very bright, very robust and very expensive (£100 to £650) These types of lights have a long battery life due to having a separate battery pack that can fit into a bottle cage or attach to the frame and are rechargable. Unless using the Ridgeway at night it is unlikely this type of light is needed to commute to and from the Harwell campus.
Powering your lights with dynamos is still a very valid option. Dynamos have had a bad press in the past but are now a lot more lightweight and efficient with very little drag and obviously save buying any batteries or batteries running out. If using a dynamo ensure that a front light with an LED standlight is fitted, this will switch in when pedalling stops to give you light at traffic lights and when turning. Basically there are two types of dynamo:
The bottle type which runs on the rim of the wheel, this type is easy to retro fit, can be switched on and off easily, they are fairly cheap but can slip in wet conditions. They do not wear the rim out as the urban myth has it.
The hub type dynamo is built into the hub of the wheel, so will mean buying a new wheel which can make it expensive. These tend to be more efficient than bottle types and have a lot less drag but the drag is there at all times. These dynamos work well in all weather conditions.
Lighting technology is moving forward fast, better batteries, brighter LEDs, better magnetic material for dynamos etc. So it is best to check for the latest technology at the time of purchase.
Bike tips for females
Not many manufacturers make the ‘step through’ style frame or women’s frame and these are not as strong as the frames with a crossbar. So unless there is a need to cycle in long dresses it is good idea to look for bikes with the crossbar style frame. Unfortunately crossbar frames are still classed as and designed as men’s frames so in order to get the best ride from these it may be necessary to make a couple of changes:
Fit a saddle designed for females. Womens saddles have a wider base at the rear and a shorter nose than a standard saddle which is deigned for men. Most women prefer the saddle nose tilted down a little.
Women have proportionately longer legs than men so an extra long seat post may need to be fitted. This also means that the reach to the handlebars feels stretched so get a shorter or adjustable stem fitted. The stem is the horizontal (ish) piece that connects the handlebars to the vertical head tube.
Women also tend to have smaller hands so check that the brakes can be operated comfortably and easily without changing the grip on the handlebar.
A good cycle shop should go through these checks when buying a bike. A new saddle will probably cost extra but will be better than the saddle fitted as standard to the bike.