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Make your old Mountainbike a Commuterbike

April 5, 2010


My 1993 Avanti ready to hit the road.


Mountainbikes make great commuters. A lot of us have old ones hanging around the garage gathering dust because a new “shiny thing” has caught our eye as we wandered past the bike shop or we just stopped riding for one reason or another. With a few well-chosen accessories they can be repurposed as a dedicated commuter without spending a fortune. This advice applies to any bike of course, but after the 10-speed craze of the 70s mountainbikes became the next big thing and there were millions of them made.

The first thing you will need is some lights, especially at this time of year when part of your commute will most likely be in the dark. I recommend a red “blinky” on the rear and a headlight with a blinking function that also takes rechargeable batteries. Batteries are expensive and rechargeables will save you a lot of dosh in the long run. Unless you are traveling on unlit roads or cutting through a park the flashing function of your headlight is more important than the solid beam. That’s what will get you noticed in traffic and you need to invest a significant sum to get a headlight that actually lets you see where you are going at a reasonable speed. Get a good quality branded rear blinky as they are significantly brighter than the cheapos. If you have to lock your bike outside, make sure you can quickly remove the lights from their mounts and take them with you. Turn those suckers on when it’s raining or gloomy too. Motorists tend to lose further brain-cells when it’s raining and become even more distracted. 

Modern LED lights are easy on batteries but rechargeables are still the way to go.


Buy a good quality lock. A solid steel U-lock is best as they take much longer to defeat. If your bike is unattended for long periods a decent pair of bolt-cutters will deal to cables or chains with little difficulty. 

The next upgrade I would recommend is a pair of tyres actually made for the road. The knobbly tyres your mountainbike came with are noisy and slow on pavement and very dangerous in the wet. Good tyres are not cheap but last a long time and transform the ride. My Schwalbe Marathons roll fast, soak up the bumps, show little wear from three years of commuting, have a reflective strip on the side-walls and offer supreme puncture resistance. An investment I have not regretted. 

The Commuter's Cockpit with bell, headlight and a nice high stem.


Even with the best tyres you will get a flat at some stage. If you only ride a kilometre or two you could take a chance and simply walk when the inevitable happens. For the rest of us a basic toolkit is required. This should include a spare tube, tyre levers, pump, a basic multi-tool and the appropriate sized wrench if your bike doesn’t have quick-release wheels. A five or ten dollar note is also handy for phone calls or an emergency Snickers bar. Knowing how to fix the flat might come in handy too!

If any part of your commute is on a footpath get yourself a bell. The melodious tinkle of a bell is a lot more polite than yelling at people as you approach or giving them a shock as you whoosh past.

Most commuters in New Zealand tend to use a backpack to carry their gear. A good backpack can be reasonably comfortable but in the warmer months you WILL get a sweaty back and any form of sweating is unacceptable on my commute as I wear my normal work clothes. The solution is a rack of some kind or even a basket to get that lump off your hump. There’s a bit of reluctance here for many as once you put a rack on a bike it ceases to become sporting equipment and becomes practical transport. Once you have a rack however the bike starts getting used for carrying other stuff like shopping because it has become useful and convenient to do so. You could upgrade to waterproof panniers now that you’ve got a rack, but any old bag, a plastic bag for rain protection and a couple of bungee-cords will get the job done.

Commuting bike repurposed as baguette-hauler thanks to rear carrier.


I have several bikes, but if there’s even a hint of rain about I reach for the old commuter because it’s the one with mudguards. A wet crotch and a dirty stripe up your back is never a pleasant experience and mudguards (or fenders as the Americans call them) make a huge difference to your riding comfort. Even if it’s not actually raining you still get soaked if the road surface is wet. A good set of mudguards will all but eliminate this. The first time you run over fresh dog poo you’ll consider putting them on all your bikes!

One more thing to consider is an after-market stem that brings your handlebars up higher. Unless you are traveling long distances or battling headwinds sitting up straighter is a smart move. For a start it’s more comfortable, but the main advantage is you get a better view of the road and you are more visible to other road users. 

By the time you add all the stuff above to your mountainbike you end up with a facsimile of the bike your grandfather was riding, and his grandfather before him. Bicycles from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s came with most these “accessories”  from the factory and we’re only just starting to relearn these lessons today.

A 1956 Raleigh with an enclosed chain-case for even greater practicality.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 2:10 am

    Excellent article! I’ll have to reference it when I start my commuting series for Bike Month.

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