Saturday, October 19, 2013

Features To Look For In An Ideal Commuting Bike

What defines a good commuting bike? To me, a good commuting bike is a bike that can move you reliably from Point A to Point B without fuss. It should allow you to carry a load on the bike without weighing down your back. It also needs to be relatively impervious to wet weather, so that you can ride it safely and comfortably even in light rain. Lastly, it needs to be low maintenance, so that you can ride the bike every other day without needing to commit too much time to bike cleaning or maintenance.

So how can this objectives be achieved? To get you from point to point reliably, it needs to have reliable components that works every time. In other words, this means that the components need to be of decent quality, so that they don't get stuck or malfunction with regular usage.

Unlike a sport cyclist, a bike commuter is usually headed to or from work/school, and there is usually a need to carry some stuff along. Be it a change of clothes or work documents, a laptop or a pair of shoes, it is best to have a carrier on the bike to carry all these things for you. You should not lug it on your back as it can be really uncomfortable in hot weather.

When commuting by bike to work regularly, it is common to encounter wet weather, especially in Singapore. Of course, if there is a huge downpour or thunderstorm, it is best to skip riding for that day as it can be dangerous to ride in heavy rain with low visibility. No need to be so hardcore! However, a good commuting bike should be able to deal with wet roads or light rain without any issues. This means having waterproofed carriers and full fenders to deal with the wet conditions. The bike components should also be made of material that does not rust easily.

Rear rack for carrying stuff, fenders to protect you in wet weather

Most importantly, the bike should function well with very little maintenance. In dry weather, minimal maintenance such as chain lubrication is usually sufficient. However, wet weather riding will require a lot more maintenance for the bike to run nice and smooth. Drivetrains will need to be cleaned, chains will need to be cleaned and lubricated to prevent rusting. Brake pads and rims will need to be cleaned to prevent squealing and poor braking performance. Derailleurs will need to be cleaned to prevent rusting or pivots from seizing. Folding joints (if any) will need to be dried and lubricated to prevent seizing, steel frames will need to be dried to prevent rusting too. A well designed commuting bike will try to eliminate as many of these issues as possible.

I have been using the Dahon Boardwalk for commuting, but I am usually unable to ride it more than a couple of days a week due to frequent wet weather. In dry weather the Boardwalk is great, but after riding on wet roads or light rain, quite a substantial amount of maintenance is required.

Folding joints will need to be opened up and dried; seatpost will need to be removed and dried; chain needs to be dried and re-lubed; drivetrain parts such as RD, cassette and chainrings will need to be wiped clean. Rims and brake pads will need to be cleaned as the brake pads leave a lot of residue when used in the rain. Chromoly steel frame will need to be dried to prevent rust. All these is a lot of work, and the trouble cleaning up after every wet ride outweighs the benefits of commuting with this bike.

Because of these issues, I have been looking for a proper commuting bike that is rain resistant and low maintenance. This will allow me to continue bike commuting even when there is light rain.

Features that I look for in a good commuting bike:
1) Aluminium bike frame to prevent rusting.
2) Hydraulic disc brakes to avoid dirty brake pads and rims. Works well in the wet too.
3) Internal hub gear to avoid cleaning the RD and cassette. Single speed is not for me, as I like to pedal at a comfortable and optimum cadence, which cannot be achieved if there is undulating terrain.
4) Belt drive system, to avoid chain cleaning, chain lubrication and rusty chains.
5) Frame mounts for fenders and rear rack.

Most of the criteria above can be satisfied easily, except for the belt drive system. Conventional bike frames cannot use a belt drive, as the rear triangle needs to have a split in it to install the one-piece looped belt. The other way to install a belt is to have a bike frame that does not have a chainstay, such as a Dahon Mu Uno. Here is a very informative website about belt drive systems.

I have successfully converted a stock chain drive Mu Uno into a belt drive system, and through that process I have learnt more about belt drive systems. Besides having a split triangle / no chainstay, the frame also needs to have a way of tensioning the belt. Common ways to tension the belt or chain is to use a horizontal dropout, a sliding rear dropout or an eccentric BB.

Belt drive Dahon Mu Uno!

Horizontal dropout enables belt tensioning

Front chainring goes on using a standard 5-arm 130mm BCD mounting

 Barely sufficient clearance for the belt! A Gates CDX Carbon Belt is about 5mm wider than a 9 speed chain.

It is actually quite challenging to look for such an ideal commuting bike, especially in Singapore where internal hub gear bikes are uncommon, much less belt drive bikes. Through the help of many friends, I have finally managed to find the ideal bike that satisfies all the conditions!

An introduction to my ideal commuting bike has been made in the next post!

Avanti Inc 3: Alfine 11 Internal Hub + Gates Carbon Belt Drive


  1. Hi,
    I'm interested in upgrading my Mu Uno to belt drive, have you been able to replicate the 53 teeth / 18 teeth gear ratio of the standard conventional chain?
    I'm also interested in your rear calliper bake - is that another customisation?

    1. Due to limited belt length options available, I could only use 50/24T pulleys for the belt drive. If the front pulley is larger, it may hit the frame. If the rear pulley is smaller, the shortest belt would not be short enough.

      But recently Gates have produced some shorter belts so a higher gear ratio is now possible.

      The rear caliper brake has an adaptor for mounting the brakes. The brand is Elosix, bought from Taobao.

  2. Hello,

    I'm also interested in doing this conversion. Can you let me know what is the belt length you used? Is it 113T?



      Use this calculator to get the belt length you need. I used 50T for the front and 24T for the rear. Can't remember the belt length, but it is one of the shorter ones, either 111T or 113T.

      There is the new 108T belt length which is useful for bikes with short chainstays, such as folding bikes. This allows you to use a smaller rear sprocket for a higher gear ratio. A larger front sprocket may not be possible due to frame interference.

  3. What was the main difference in performance that you noticed after completing the swap?

  4. Hi

    Where in SG have you bought belt drive stuff?

    1. I can't find any belt drive components in Singapore. All of the belt drive parts are bought online.

  5. Hi,

    I'm very interested in getting the Dahon Mu Uno and converting it with a belt drive.
    May I ask where I'll be able to get a Num Uno in Singapore?
    Or are you looking at letting go of yours?


    1. Not sure if the local distributor brings in the Dahon Mu Uno. Anyway it is tricky to convert to belt drive, and the gearing is too low for proper road cycling anyway.