The Best Budget Utility Bikes: Buying Advice

Shopping for a utility bike? Don’t think fancy, think function.

Oct 23, 2012
Outside Magazine

Shopping for a new bike can be difficult.    Photo: Agata Dorobek/Shutterstock

When we say utility bike, we're talking about commuter or city bike built first and foremost for getting you around, whether that’s to work each day, to the market for groceries, or out to meet friends at your favorite watering hole. The good news is that because utility bikes are focused on function rather than high performance, there are a lot more inexpensive options. You pay less for utility bikes because the frames are made from sensible metals like aluminum or steel, the components are durable, hard-working mid-tier or lower grades, and the bells and whistles tend to be modest (like hub-powered lights and built-in locks).

But a bargain here doesn’t mean cheap: a good utility bike rides and handles as well as its trail or road counterparts and is burly enough to stand up to potholes, rain and road grime, and the scrum of bike racks. Since transportation is the end goal, don’t get too caught up on bike weight. Instead, consider geometry (upright for shorter distances; longer top tubes if you’re doing distance commutes), frame materials (steel is great for soaking up bumps, aluminum is lighter), wheel size (26-inchers make for more compact and maneuverable bikes; 700cc is a great option for longer rides), and tire size (fatter is smoother while skinnier is quicker).

Probably the biggest consideration is the bike’s drivetrain. First choice is single speed or gears, and while many utility bikes cut costs and complication by going one speed, it’s important to think about whether a single ring suits your environment (hilly places not so much) or your temperament (how do you feel about occasionally walking?). Next option is between standard gears and derailleurs or an internal hub. The former works fine, with trickle-down technology from performance bikes making even the least expensive systems adequate. Internally geared bikes, which pack the drivetrain inside the rear hub, offer simplicity, tidiness, and little maintenance, but they definitely cost more. Likewise, bikes that replace the chain with a Gates Carbon Belt Drive are great for commuting because they eliminate greasy pant legs and require zero upkeep. Again, however, the perks cost more.

Beyond the basic nuts and bolts, the trimmings require some scrutiny. Kickstands can be aggravatingly cheap and tipsy, so look for solid hardware and attachment points built directly into the frame rather than simple clamp-on designs. A chain-guard can keep your pants clean, but we recommend the half variety as the fully-enclosed designs are a total headache if you drop the chain. Fenders are de rigueur in wet climes, but if you live in, say, Phoenix or Santa Fe, they’re probably just ballast. And while Dynamo hubs that power built-in lights are great for recreational use or that occasional after-dark jaunt, if you’ll be commuting in the dark you might forgo the cost and put it toward more powerful lights.

As always, buy at a local bike shop for help with fit and after-sales service, and look for deals on last year’s models at the end of the bike season.

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