The Difference Between a Road Bike and a Commuter Bike

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If you’re getting serious about buying a new bike to ride to work or school—first of all, we applaud you. A bike is a great alternative to public transportation, especially with our current climate concerns.

If this is your first time buying a bike, or first time making a substantial investment in one that you intend to keep for a long time, we understand that picking the right style of bike can send you into a deep, somewhat complicated search.

How can there be so many different types of bikes?! What are they all for? And what are the key elements you should consider to make sure you pick the one that fits best for you?

Split image of a typical road bike on the left and a commuter bike on the right
That’s a road bike on the left and a commuter bike on the right, although there are plenty of variations. (© Heinz Mittler and Rex Hammock | Creative Commons)

We’re here to explain the difference between a road bike and a commuter bike, which are probably the most common styles for commuting. We hope this will be useful information for both casual riders and those of you who are already commuting by bike, and want to upgrade to a higher quality bike that is more aligned with your lifestyle.

We’ll go over the key features of road bikes and commuter bikes, and cover similarities and differences. We’ll detail some considerations you can factor in as you’re thinking about which bike is the best fit for you. We’ll help you end up with a bike you’re happy with that makes you want to ride daily for a long time. So let’s get started!

Road bike vs. commuter bike

Here’s a simple breakdown of a few features that differentiate these two types of bikes:

Road bikeCommuter bike
Fast and lightweightWider, more comfortable saddle
Frame and fork, no suspensionSuspension systems available
Drop handlebarsFlat, straight handlebars
Aerodynamic riding positionUpright riding position
Large-circumference wheelsWider, heavier tires

But what does it all actually mean? Let’s discuss these two styles of bike in a little more detail.

Qualities of a road bike

Road bikes are built for speed. They are designed to thrust you forward with every pedal stroke. They are very light, and have a lot of gears. Many road bikes have 27 gears, so they can adapt to any sort of incline or decline.

Closeup of the rear gears on a road bike
A typical road bike has many gears. (© Camera Eye Photography | Creative Commons)

Everything about a road bike is meant to push you the farthest distance with the most efficiency. Even the handlebars, which curve downwards, are designed to keep you leaning forward. This reduces your drag in the wind and encourages your legs to put more force onto the pedals.

The wheels are narrower and very tall. They usually have less tread, so as to minimize contact with the surface of the road (which slows you down).

This all may sound very intense for someone picking a bike for the first time, but it’s all going to come down to the features that are important for you.

Are road bikes good for commuting?

Yes! If you have a lengthy commute of 10 or 15 miles and need something that can cover that distance without making you late for work, then a road bike is your best bet. These bikes are used almost exclusively by serious cyclists, professional or non-professional. They can reach some serious speeds and are built to cover ground more quickly than a commuter.

Qualities of a commuter bike

A commuter bike is built for comfort and longevity. You can use it for your daily commute, or just for riding around in an urban environment. The wider saddles and straight handlebars are meant to keep you in a comfortable, upright position for a longer time. They are ergonomic—designed primarily to get you where you’re going in comfort and safety.

Schwinn Wayfarer Adult Bike Hybrid Retro-Styled Cruiser, 18-Inch/Medium Steel Step-Over Frame, 7-Speed Drivetrain, Rear Rack, 700C Wheels, Blue

A commuter bike’s geometry allows for more upright riding.

Commuter bikes aren’t really built to be taken on hiking trails or terrain that isn’t paved. They are purely for city riding within an urban environment. These bikes often use a suspension system instead of just a frame and fork, because the suspension softens the bumps and vibrations when you ride. They are easy to handle and don’t demand a lot of work to get you to your destination

Bikes that lie ‘in between’ road and commuter

Either a road bike or a commuter bike will get you to where you’re going, but before you decide on one of these, you should know that there are plenty of bikes that try to incorporate qualities of both these styles.

Hybrid bikes

Hybrid bikes are for those who like to swim in the middle. They have some qualities of a commuter bike and other qualities that lean toward a road bike or—in the opposite direction—a mountain bike. This makes them potentially a good choice for those who are on the fence.

There are many types of hybrid bikes, but what hybrid bikes share is a commitment to comfort and versatility.

Flat bar road bike

A flat bar road bike is a type of hybrid that is closely aligned with a road bike. Many cyclists prefer this type of bike over a traditional road bike because the flat handlebar design and seat keep you in a more comfortable position while still traveling at a good speed. They aren’t as fast as road bikes, but they are faster than commuter bikes.

Rugged hybrid bikes

Other hybrids are built to withstand unpaved roads and gravel paths while still keeping you comfortable. They can’t handle the backcountry like mountain bikes, but they can do things that a conventional commuter bike can’t. They are primarily meant for city biking, but they allow you to stretch your definition of “city.”

Schwinn GTX 2.0 Comfort Adult Hybrid Bike, Dual Sport Bicycle, 18-Inch Aluminum Frame, Black/Blue

The Schwinn GTX Hybrid is a good example of a hybrid bike that falls more toward the rugged, mountain bike end of the spectrum.

Urban or city bikes

The various types of commuter bikes made for city living are also very interesting. These urban bikes are built specifically for getting around a bustling town, and most of the time offer features like lights and small storage.

Folding bikes

A folding bike is just what it sounds like. It may be the perfect choice if you live in a small city apartment. It’s meant to be easily stored away. If that makes you think they had to sacrifice something important, you are mistaken. Folding bikes can still be used to ride short or long distances alike, and share the qualities of a commuter bike.

E bikes

Another option for those looking to cut down on carbon emissions and costs, but who don’t want every day to be “leg day,” is an E bike. These bikes are motorized to assist with propulsion.

E bikes use rechargeable batteries that can help you reach speeds of 15-30 mph. Low cost and energy efficiency may be just what you need if you want to reduce your carbon footprint without testing your endurance every day.

Which bike is best for you?

Think about why you want a bike in the first place. You should take into account where you live and what key qualities are important to you.

We’ve already discussed the benefits of a road bike for covering long distance quickly during your commute, but of course, that doesn’t have to be your purpose. A road bike is also a good fit for anyone who is more serious about incorporating fitness/endurance exercise into their daily routine.

A quicker commute, fitness training, or even a change of pace. All of these are good reasons to go for a road bike.

If you find yourself drawn to more low-cost and comfortable bikes, then a commuter bike may be what you’re looking for. There are enough different types of bikes under this category to satisfy any type of rider.

Commuter bikes are meant for just that: commuting. There’s no expectation for exercise, but all biking is exercise; it’s just a matter of degree.

These bikes are great for urban living. For many who live in the city, biking is as much a financial decision as anything. The lower cost might be enough for you to go with this type of bike. Commuter bikes are for working people, but also for those who are conscious of their financial priorities and the environment.

Terrain is also an important factor, because the route for your commute to work or school can vary widely. Living somewhere more outdoorsy and rugged might help sway you toward a study hybrid because of its adaptability to rough terrain.

How to choose a bicycle

Once you’ve decided which type of bike you’d like, you now have to find a brand that will give you all the qualities and features you seek. If this is your first time buying a bike, don’t be afraid to buy something for beginners. Just because something has an expensive price tag doesn’t necessarily mean it will be right for you.

As with any life-changing purchase, research is required! Be sure to read reviews and research the companies themselves. Consider supporting a local bike shop during your process. Heading down to a store is a great idea if you want to talk to an expert and get their advice on how to proceed.

Bikes lined up outside a bike shop
Knowledgeable staff at your local bike shop can help you find the bike that’s right for you. (© Ruth Hartnup | Creative Commons)

Last, but not least, if you’ve done your homework and are still torn between a few models, just follow your gut. In a sea of options, we understand the fear of drowning in it all. Pick a bike and don’t look back. Enjoy it.

Whether it’s a road bike, commuter bike, or even a hybrid bike, you now know the differences. There’s a reason that biking has its own community and people who indulge every single day. Maybe it’s an economic choice, a love of exercise, or concern for the environment. Usually it’s a combination of all three.

We can assuredly say that road bikes will get you where you want to go fast, but not without some effort. Commuter bikes will get you there comfortably and safely, with features more focused on cruising and longevity. If indecision has taken hold of you, then a hybrid bike might be your answer. If your favorite things about road bikes are their speed and your favorite things about commuter bikes are their comfort, then a hybrid could work—it’s just a blend of what makes these other bikes great.

Given the choices, you can’t go wrong. You can only pick what suits your preferences and move forward with the knowledge you have.

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