Condensed Answer: Track bikes are light and aesthetic but are sub-optimal for commuting because they’re very stiff, have no brakes, and put the rider in an aggressive position stressing the joints.
The Advantages Of Using a Track Bike For Commuting
Track bikes are designed for reaching top speeds at the velodrome. They are made of light materials (carbon, aluminum) and have neither gears nor brakes.
As a result, they weigh a lot less than regular commuters. A top-of-the-line track bike falls easily under 8kg/17.6lbs.
Having a light bike for commuting is great because it’s a lot easier to carry it around.
Track bikes have a simple and clean design which many cyclists find attractive. Truth be told, even people outside of the sport seem to have a crush on simple bikes.
3. Low maintenance
Track bikes don’t have suspension, derailleurs nor hydraulic disc brakes that you have to bleed periodically.
As a consequence, one has to do very little to maintain a track bike in top shape. Most of the time, you will only have to clean the bike and oil the chain. Of course, sometimes there’s a need for repairs (e.g., truing a wheel, replacing a bottom bracket…etc.) but those procedures don’t occur on a frequent basis.
The simplicity and low maintenance of track bikes makes them very reliable. This is also one of the reasons why bike messengers ride fixed-gear bikes (read more on that topic). Of course, fixies aren’t track bikes, but both types of bicycles share many design similarities and rely on a simple, fixed-gear drivetrain.
The Disadvantages Of Track Bikes For Commuting
1. Super Stiff
The frames and forks of track bikes are made very stiff to minimize power transfer losses when pedaling. This quality is beneficial for race bikes, but the extra stiffness is detrimental to commuting.
Ultimately, track bikes offer a harsh ride and have a harder time dealing with bumps.
2. A Very Aggressive Riding Position
To achieve maximum speed, track bikes have an aggressive geometry with a big saddle-to-handlebars drop.
As a result, the rider is put in a stretched position that’s difficult to maintain for long distances, especially when you aren’t in good shape, to begin with.
Most cycling commuters will be happier with a stance that doesn’t stretch them as much.
3. Poor Tire Clearance
Track frames and forks have minimal clearance preventing the installation of wide tires. In most cases, you wouldn’t be able to fit tires larger than 700x25c. This peculiarity greatly limits the rider’s comfort when cycling in the city.
Moreover, the lack of tire clearance makes it impossible to install full fenders which are the best option for commuting. You will be limited to unstable clip-on fenders with low coverage.
5. High Gearing
Track bikes have a single gear which is usually quite high. This property makes track bikes very poor climbing machines especially for individuals who are yet to develop strength and endurance. But even if you’re a trained cyclist, you would still have a hard time going up long hills every single day with a track bike.
Some people may experience tremendous knee pain from constantly riding in the same high gear. One way to mitigate this problem would be to lower the gearing by getting a smaller chainring and/or a bigger rear cog.
At the end of the day, however, nothing beats geared bikes when it comes to efficiency and energy economy.
6. Sub-optimal Cadence
When you commute on a track bike, you’re constantly under or over-geared. Or in other words, you are either in a gear that’s too low or too high. As a result, it’s impossible to consistently maintain high cadence.
The term cadence refers to the number of revolutions that the cranks make per minute. It’s accepted that high cadence such as 90rpm is optimal for reaching a decent average speed over the longest possible distance.
In short, high cadence equals efficiency when it comes to commuting and track bikes rob you of that possibility due to their limited gearing.
6. No Mounts For Brakes
A legit track bike has neither brakes nor mounts for them. The absence of brakes is considered a safety feature on the velodrome because it results in a somewhat predictable braking distance for all racers. When you add brakes, it becomes hard to predict how fast a cyclist would brake. The aftermath could include a collision that the lack of brakes would have prevented.
When it comes to commuting, however, the story changes completely. On the road, you will find yourself in situations when you have to slow down or brake as fast as possible while maintaining maximal traction.
The main way to stop a track bike that doesn’t have brakes is to lock the pedals (halt pedaling). When you do that, the rear wheel stops spinning because track bikes have a fixed gear (no coasting).
This type of braking creates the following problems:
- Inefficient. A rear brake doesn’t come close to the effectiveness of a front one.
- Difficult. Some people won’t like to brake by locking the pedals.
- Unstable. It’s easy to lose control if you aren’t a trained cyclist.
- Pre-mature wear of the rear tire. Skidding will wear down the rear tire prematurely.
The lack of proper brakes alone is more than a good enough reason not to use a track bike for commuting.
Having said that, there’s a workaround. You can replace the fork with one that has a mount for a brake.
Alternatively, you could skip buying a track bike and go for a fixed-gear machine with mounts for two brakes.
6. Fixed Gear Drivertrains Could Be Dangerous
A fixed-gear bike has one negative side that people rarely talk about – if the bike is moving so is the chain, the cranks, and the chainrings.
If a part of your clothing (e.g., a shoelace, the lower portion of your pants…etc.) gets caught in the drivetrain, an accident may occur instantaneously because the chain will keep pulling you.
For that reason, it’s of utmost importance to keep your clothing secure and away from the drivetrain.
A regular bike with a coasting option is less dangerous in that situation because the chain stops moving if you stop pedaling. Therefore, if something gets caught in the drivetrain, you can coast until you can safely stop and fix the problem.
7. Toe Overlap
The front wheel on track bikes is very close to the rider. During sharp turns, it can easily touch your foot. This outcome is not only annoying but can also harm your balance.
8. No Mounts For Fenders and Racks
Fenders and racks make commuting easier and cleaner.
Fenders stop the water, mud, and dirt coming from the tires and keep you clean and dry whereas racks allow you to transport cargo without having to carry it on your body. Commuting with a backpack is a very unpleasant experience for long distances because your back is suffocated. Even when it’s cold outside, you will sweat if you ride long enough with a backpack on you.
Thankfully, there are some methods that will allow you to somewhat circumvent this issue. You can install clip-on fenders as well as racks that mount directly to the axle or via a clamp-on mechanism of some sort.
9. No Coasting
Track bikes don’t have a freewheel, and you can’t coast. Some people may find this annoying after a hard day of work because you will have to keep pedaling even when you’re riding downhill. Additionally, if you have a big descent as part of your commute, you may reach speeds that make you uncomfortable on a fixed-gear bike because your legs cannot keep up with the required rpm.
10. Lower Visibility
The aggressive forward position of a track bike makes you shorter and therefore less visible in traffic.
The Differences Between Track and Fixed-Gear Bikes
Fixed-gear bikes and track bikes have a lot in common but aren’t identical.
A fixed-gear bike is any bike that has a fixed-gear drivetrain. Therefore, even a folding bike can be categorized as fixed-gear as long as it has a fixed-gear drivetrain.
A track bike, however, needs to have a specific geometry to earn its name. You cannot just slap on a fixed-gear drivetrain on a bike and call it a track bike.
The classic fixed-gear bikes that have become increasingly popular thanks to movies and cool videos online are not always pure track bikes. They aren’t as stiff as track bikes, have more tire clearance (it depends on the model), have pre-drilled holes for brakes, and very often come with a flip-flop hub allowing you to switch between a fixed-gear (no coasting) and a freewheel (coasting).
Those fixed-gear bikes are often referred to as fixies. Some purists consider this name a derogatory term and use it only when referring to colorful but cheap fixed-gear bikes.
Summary: What You Need To Know
- Track bikes are aesthetically pleasing and simple to maintain but lack the necessary comfort and safety to be used as comfortable commuters.
- The main downsides of track bikes as commuters are the stiff frames, the poor tire clearance, and the lack of brakes and mounts.
- Fixed-gear drivetrains are not recommended to beginners and cyclists who experience knee pain.
- If you want to commute on a bike that’s as close as possible to a track bike, the best option are fixed-gear road bikes commonly known as fixies because they have greater tire clearance, mounts for brakes, and “softer” frames.
- Ultimately, neither track bikes nor fixies are optimal for commuting.