For many students, a bike is likely to become their first choice means of getting about. A cheap form of travel and good exercise to boot, cycling can also prove to be the best way to get to know an unfamiliar town or city.
While the initial cost might prove greater than a bus pass or rail card, a bike is likely to prove by far the better investment in the long run. Student discounts are one thing, but public transport costs recur month after month and even if you end up saving just a tenner a week by cycling, that’ll soon add up.
Relying on buses and trains can also be limiting. Depending on what lines and routes are available to you, journeys can prove convoluted and time consuming. The beauty of travelling by bike is that you can simply go from A to B without needing to wait around at A, continue on foot from B or change at C or D.
But it’s not just as simple as buying any old bike and getting on with things. While much of the appeal of cycling is that it’s so easily accessible, you’ll want to make sure you get the right bike for your specific requirements and that you have everything you need to ensure your journeys are quick, safe and straightforward.
In this guide we’ll take a look at bikes, bags, lights and security, but regardless of what you go for, it’s also worth ensuring that your bike is properly set up, with the right saddle height and so forth. It might also be an idea to have a quick look at the Highway Code. Even if you’ve passed your driving test, if you’re new to cycling on the road, you’ll soon be seeing things from a different perspective.
And even though the academic year ends soon, the better weather means this is a great time to get a bike. It'll be ready in September to get you to classes.
With budgetary constraints likely to play a part, a major question is whether to buy new or second-hand. If you’re reasonably happy replacing bike components – or feel that you could learn – then you can certainly pick up a bargain by investing in something that might initially need a little attention. If you’re not so confident in this regard, a new bike should give you a little less to worry about at the outset.
Beyond that, it will be a matter of personal preference and your individual needs whether you go for a commuter bike, a road bike or something else.
Hybrids are Britain's most popular style of bike because they offer practical, comfortable urban transportation while also being happy on slightly rougher surfaces, such as canal tow paths or the sometimes underwhelming off-road tracks which are frequently earmarked for cyclists.
The Belmont has an aluminium frame, a mudguard, chainguard and rack, making it very practical urban transport. Halfords provides a free service after six weeks and will put the bike together for you. There is also a women’s version – the Apollo Elyse. Both bikes have 18-speed Shimano gears operated by twist-grip shifters.
B’Twin is the cycling brand of sports megastore, Decathlon. Being as the firm sells bikes all over the Continent, its town bikes are tailored for European tastes, which means the Hoprider 100 has a feature that's rare on UK-specced bikes: dynamo lighting. The lights are powered by a generator in the front hub so they're always ready when you need them. You also get a gel saddle, mudguards and rack and the Shimano Altus mechs are a notch up in quality over the gears found on cheaper bikes. There's also a kickstand for easy parking.
If you want something more stripped-down so you can add your own choice of extras, this Pinnacle is well worth a look.
The name's not just marketing — Cambridge really is full of bikes like this. The upright riding position is great for leisurely cruising to lectures and some versions have a basket for your bag so you don't have to get a sweaty back riding in a rucksack.
Flat bar road bikes
It’s quite possible to get the gearing and fast wheels/tyres of a standard road bike but with flat handlebars. Many prefer the vision and control they get from a more upright position and it can prove to be ideal for city cycling.
Road bike geometry, but with flat handlebars. The cheapest version of the Sirrus comes with Shimano Altus gears, a triple chainring and eight-speed rear cassette.
The flat handlebar version of Decathlon’s B’Twin Triban 100 can be fitted with mudguards and rack to make it a practical round-town bike. It has 32mm tyres for pothole-eating comfort and a seven-speed rear cassette. Want drop bars? There's a version with those for £249.99.
A road bike is a fast option for longer journeys, but it can also do double duty for training and sportives or simply for getting a little further afield on a weekend leisure ride. We’ll assume you have a fairly traditional student budget and have therefore focused on some of the cheaper options below.
There are now very few decent road bikes available for under £300. Several brands that used to offer sub-£300 bikes have dropped them as the weak pound has made it hard to source and sell a reasonably good bike for this little money. This machine from Wiggle/Chain Reaction house marque Brand-X has an aluminium frame with 2x7-speed Shimano gears. It also comes in five different sizes, so you'll be able to get one that fits well. Almost every other bike in this price range comes in just one or two sizes.
With bikes under the Triban and B'Twin brands, sports superstore chain Decathlon has long excelled at making road bikes that offer startlingly good performance for the money. The latest offering in the crucial under-£400 price bracket is this Triban RC120 with aluminium frame, carbon fibre fork and wide-range Shimano 2 x 8 gearing. The frame has clearance for mudguards so you don't have to get a wet bum when it rains and it'll also take a rack for carrying stuff.
Several of the bikes mentioned above feature a rack or a means of adding one, but by far the simplest way to carry your belongings is in a rucksack. Having everything on your back also brings the added benefit that you’ll probably remember to bring it all with you when you lock your bike up and head to your next lecture.
Convenience is the great advantage of a rucksack. Throw in everything you need, strap it on and away you go, with no faffing about with pannier hooks and no effect on your bike's ride. There's a huge range available, from bike-specific packs with lots of pockets to ordinary walking daypacks that can be used perfectly well on a bike. However, our advice is that you don't want to carry too much, so you probably don’t want to go bigger than about 20 litres. Water resistance, padding (particularly on the straps) and reflectivity may be other major considerations.
It’s not so long after the start of the academic year that the clocks go back – although you may well need lights long before then. It's the law in the UK to have lights on after dark. They're a major safety aid about town and they also allow you to see where you're going on darker streets and lanes.
A front light has to perform the twin duties of being visible enough to stop inattentive drivers mowing you down whilst also allowing you to see where you're going. A rear light is really just for getting noticed. You can probably get away without the top-of-the-range lights intended for dark rural roads, but do make sure yours are fit for purpose. Modern LED lights are both bright and affordable, so there really is no excuse.
Invest in a good lock.
This is not really an area where you want to cut corners. Here’s our selection of the best bike locks that are currently available and you should also have a read of our bike locking bible which will give you some tips about how best to use yours.
It’s also worth taking out insurance. If you have some form of contents insurance, this may cover your bike to some extent – but don’t count on it. There are often exclusions for bikes over a certain value or for bikes stolen away from the property, so check what’s covered and see whether bikes can be added if need be.
You’ll probably also want third party insurance. You may get this if you join certain cycling organisations – student membership of Cycling UK is £21.50 a year, for example and will give you third party insurance and legal claims advice. Otherwise, cycle-specific cover from a specialist is the order of the day. Prices vary, but here’s our guide to cycle insurance for more information.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.