Hacking Transportation Series- What I’ve Learned After One Year Bike Commuting

It has been a year since I started bike commuting and there are many lessons that I learned the hard way. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a good mentor to guide me through the process, so I made several mistakes. If I started over again, I would start with a higher quality bike with Shimano 105 components, rear rack mounts, and disc brakes. I would then replace the tires with Continental Gatorskins or equivalent puncture protection. I prefer smoother tires because my riding is on the pavement and it makes a noticeable difference in speed. Having the seat height at the correct height also makes a noticeable difference in speed. I would also get toe cages for the pedals, a headlamp, and a tail light that attaches to the rear rack.

I started bike commuting because of the efficiency of the bike, the exercise, the cost savings, and the benefit to the environment. I hadn’t considered biking an option until I read Mr. Money Mustache’s article on biking, but once I did, I removed the limiting beliefs I had about bike commuting and it has turned out to be not only possible but pleasurable.

E-Bike

I already owned a bike when I decided to start biking to work, but it was an old mountain bike and I didn’t trust my fitness to bike the 15 miles each way to work and back. I had done some test runs to do errands close to the house and even 5 miles round-trip seemed difficult. This spurred me to get the cheapest e-bike that I could find on Amazon. I managed to find one for just over $500 and felt like I got an excellent deal because I saw similar bikes for closer to $800 which is what that bike is now selling for. Supposedly, Nakto bikes are popular in China and they were just starting to sell in America so I thought I was getting a good price due to Nakto trying to break into the market. They also had a manufacturer’s warranty on the bike so I felt safe that the quality would be good enough for me.

Initially, the e-bike was very impressive. The motor worked well and I could get to and from work in an hour each way. This was particularly impressive because on my way home driving it takes me about 45 minutes. I pedaled the whole time, but it made it feel like I was going downhill and uphill felt like flat. I also already owned a rear rack that attaches to the seat post, so I didn’t need to buy that. The bike claimed the battery was removable, which I assumed meant that I could easily clip in and out of the bike to charge. Unfortunately, it really meant, you could unscrew the battery compartment, undo the wires to take out the battery, but you still need to charge the battery attached to the bike. This is somewhat of a problem because, in the Phoenix heat, the batteries deteriorate much faster, so you want to keep the battery indoors without a 70-pound bike taking up space along with it.

The battery was mildly annoying, but that was only a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately, I soon started having real problems with the bike. First, the seat-post bent. It came too small for me — I’m 6’1” and some change so I figured I would just buy a correct for me sized seat post and that would be that. The next post broke and I chalked that up to buying a cheap one and having the rear rack, so I bought a higher quality one and stopped using the rear rack. It ended up breaking again after a few months which was the final straw.

In addition the seat problems, I had several flats. After the first few rides, I started to get flats almost every ride until I bought the Gatorskin tires. High-quality tires are a must for commuting, at least on the trails/roads I use in Phoenix. I recommend always using puncture-resistant tires.

In addition to the puncture problems, my bottom bracket, where the pedal arms attach to the bike, got bent and would continually come loose. Unfortunately, this was a non-standard piece and none of the 3 bike shops I went to were able to repair it or even find a replacement online. I started to need to carry a ratchet with me and stop every few miles to tighten the pedal arms onto the bottom bracket.

In addition to the bottom bracket going out. My front hub also went out and needed to be replaced.

In total, buying a too cheap bike cost me a lot. I ended up spending considerable money on repairs in addition to the time I spent getting the bike repaired, and the favors/bus passes I needed due to the unreliability of my transportation. I struggled to contact Nakto to honor the warranty and had to go through Amazon to get them to even respond to my emails and phone calls. They didn’t even have the correct contact email on their website. Eventually, I did get the bike refunded, but I was still out all the money I had spent on repairs.

If I were to get another e-bike, I would look for something that was at least $2,000 to avoid the maintenance issues that come from lower quality components and equipment and make sure the battery is actually removable.

Traditional Bike

DBMetro

Armed with my knowledge of the downfalls of buying too cheap of a bike and with greater confidence in my fitness, I decided to try going with a traditional bike. I ended up finding the Diamondback Metro used on Amazon which I thought would be high enough quality because it retailed for over $500 even though I bought it for $400.

Right away the bike was missing the seat-post clamp, so that was annoying and it didn’t qualify for the free professional assembly, but that was fine because it came mostly assembled and wasn’t too bad to put together. I ended up taking it to a local bike shop a clamp for a couple bucks which Amazon reimbursed.

I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at work in the exact same time it took me on the e-bike. I had expected the loss of the motor to slow me down 30 minutes each way, but I also lost the weight I had been carrying and had a higher quality bike for the downhills which are significant on my way to work. It took me about 30 minutes extra to get home but that time has come down to about 15 minutes as my fitness is improving.

I had several maintenance-free trips before starting to get flats on the new tires, so I ordered some of the Gatorskins for my new bike. Unfortunately, I went with a more narrow wheel on this bike, so my old tires didn’t fit.

I had many more maintenance free trips until I broke a spoke on my rear wheel. It seems like the person I bought the bike from and replaced the spokes with lighter than standard spokes. Unfortunately, these didn’t hold up well to the occasional potholes or curbs I accidentally hit. I had the spoke replaced and had several more maintenance free trips until another spoke broke and the bike mechanic broke two more in the process of installing the replacement spokes. He correctly recommended to replace the wheel with a higher quality wheel as the hubs were doing poorly, and the spokes would continue to break. I only replaced the back wheel but I will get a matching front wheel once I start to have problems with the front wheel.

Since then, things have been going excellent commuting with the human-powered bike. It has become closer to the maintenance free biking that I expected. I bike to work 3 days a week and use the other two days to restock lunches and work clothes. I am able to carry them in my bike bag, but it is easier to bike without them so I avoid carrying them on the bike when I can. I feel confident that I could bike all 5 days a week, but at over 2 hours a day, I feel that the volume of biking is negatively impacting my strength training at the gym, so I limit the biking to 3 days. The main recurring maintenance I do is to lube my chain every week or so. As we are in winter now, I have started to need to wear warmer clothes in the morning and use a headlamp because I leave before the sun comes up, and sometimes return home after the sun has gone down, so those were a couple of additional one time expenses to consider.

All in all, I am happy with the bike commuting routine that I am in. The only change I would make with my current setup is to get drop bars to get a better aerodynamic position. I am occasionally able to draft off of fancy bikers during my commute and the reduction in wind resistance makes a world of difference. However, it isn’t important enough for me to change bikes over.

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