How to Turn any Mountain Bike into a Commuter Bike

Byron Kidd
Thinking of buying a commuter bike? Have a mountain bike in the garage but don't think its suitable for cycling to work? Then think again, because with just a few easy modifications any old mountain bike can be resurrected as a lighter faster commuter vehicle saving you a lot of money in the process.

Commuter/Mountain Bike, Tokyo, Japan

Replace Your Tires

The very first thing to do is get rid of those big, heavy, off-road tires because while they're essential on the dirt, on the road they just add weight, drag and slow you down.  Replace them with the narrowest slick or semi-slick tire you can fit on your rim. Believe me, you'll notice an immediate difference in the weight, speed and feel of your bicycle by taking this simple step alone.

I have two mountain bikes set up for city riding, one is a GIANT MCMone with 26x1.25 Specialized Fat Boy slick tires. The other is a Cannondale F300 which I recently fitted with semi-slick 26x1.25 Schwalbe GreenGuard tires. Despite being the same size the Marathon tires are heavier and slower than the Fat Boys, primarily due to the fact that they're virtually indestructible. If you're commuting on a daily basis and don't want to constantly worried about puncturing your tubes I'd highly recommend trading some speed and weight for the security of a tougher tire.

When fitting narrower tires you'll most likely have to use a different sized tube, so take this opportunity to switch to a pair of puncture resistant tubes. When it comes time to put air in your new tires be sure to pump them up hard, really hard, this will make a huge difference in reducing the rolling resistance of your bike.

If you're not confident on a thinner tire or aren't willing to give up the comfort of a wide tire, even a fat tire with less tread will result in an immediate improvement in speed on the roads.

I can not stress enough what a difference narrow, slick tires will make to your ride.  Just a small investment in tires will breathe new life into any mountain bike. Try it, you'll be surprised.

Fenders (Mudguards)

Despite the fact mountain bikes are designed to be used in the mud and dirt, few come equipped with fenders, the primary reason being that mud will quickly lodge itself between the fender and your tire and before you know it your wheel will no longer turn. As an urban bicycle commuter getting your bicycle clogged up with mud shouldn't be an issue. (If it is, you have an awesome commute to work!)

The simple addition front and rear fenders to your mountain bike will stop water and grime from the road splattering your clothing ensuring that you arrive at work clean and dry. While considered unsexy by some, fenders are considered essential equipment among regular bicycle commuters, or at least among those who like to arrive at work clean and dry.

Racks, Panniers and Baskets

As a bicycle commuter chances are you'll be carrying some luggage, be it a change of clothes, your lunch or your laptop, but riding with a backpack in the summer leaves you with a wet and sweaty back.

Fitting a rear rack to your bicycle gives you a number of options for carrying your luggage. You can simply tie down your bag to the rack with an elastic strap, but this can be time-consuming, awkward, and leave you dirty. Some bicycle commuters opt to use pannier bags, the type you see long-distance bicycle tourists using. Despite modern attachment mechanisms, putting pannier bags on and off the bike can be a chore, and once you've got them off you have to lug them about which is why I've chosen to fit a folding basket to the side of my rear rack. Something else that may work for you is a set of handlebars with an inbuilt basket.

With a basket I can cycle to work with any bag, backpack, briefcase, or even a shopping bag, all I have to do is fold out the basket and dump it in. When it comes time to park I remove my luggage and fold the basket away so it doesn't take up valuable space in the bicycle parking lot. I find the basket a lot more versatile and convenient than panniers, but that's a personal choice.

A final, often overlooked, option for carrying luggage is the simple front, handlebar mounted, basket. These can be easily fitted and has ample space for whatever a bicycle commuter will need throughout the day.


A bright pair of lights are a must for any bicycle commuter who finds themselves out after dark and sticking to convention most bicycle commuters install a red rear facing light and a white front facing one. When it comes to bicycle lights options abound, battery operated, USB rechargeable and those with generators, from small flashing lights to ones more powerful than a car's headlight.

As the streets of Tokyo are generally well-lit bicycle lights aren't required to see the road ahead, but rather to alert motorists of your presence on the road. Given this, I have installed nothing but two small flashing LED lights from the local Y100 store to my handlebars. They're bright, have a good battery life, and cheap enough that I can leave them attached to the bike at all times without fear of theft. So cheap in fact that I carry a spare around in my backpack in case one is stolen or runs out of batteries in the ride home.

In contrast to my minuscule front lights, I have quite a chunky rear facing light. As I can't see behind me to take evasive action I'm reliant on getting the motorists attention, therefore my tail light ranks right up there with those of a fire engine for brightness.

In Japan riding with a headlight at night is not only a good idea, but it is also required by law.

Reflective Tape and Stickers

Controversial, as many cyclists are religiously against high viz, but reflective tape is a great way to improve your visibility on the road at night for minimal cost. Such tape can be purchased at your local Y100 store, and I tend to place it on areas of my bike where it will not attract too much attention during the day, but shine brightly at night. I like to place some tabs of reflective tape on my cranks, as reflective items moving in ways a motorist isn't expecting are more likely to attract their attention.

If it doesn't offend your fashion sensibilities, I recommend some strategically placed reflective tape on any commuter bicycle.

A Good Maintenance Guide

While you're in the mood and working on your mountain bike is a perfect opportunity to perform some other preventative maintenance tasks and there is no better reference for mountain bike maintenance and repair than Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance. With the tips above and a few maintenance tasks out of the way, your mountain bike will be the perfect commuter bike.

Bicycle makers will try and sell you a bicycle for every purpose, road bikes, mountain bikes, cross bikes, fat bikes, commuter bikes and now even gravel bikes are a thing. Don't fall for it. For much, much, less money the simple addition of narrow slick tires, fenders, a rack and some lights will turn your old mountain bike into a fresh new ride, perfect for commuting in the city.

Article posted by Byron Kidd.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.

This article was reviewed for accuracy August 2022.

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  1. The bike pictured above is my current commuter bicycle. It was bought second hand and came with off road tires. It's a nice frame with really cheap components, but with the addition of some slick tires and a rack it makes a pretty slick commuter bike.

    At the time the photo was taken I was using Panaracer Closer slick tires which I just replaced with the heavier, but much more puncture resistant Schwalbe ones. This was also before I added a brighter tail light and the side mounted basket to the rack.

  2. Nice bike. Compnents can always be upgraded over time; frame is a tad more difficult.

  3. I've have done just the same. Tires really makes great difference. Though I would add just one thing. Usually mountain bikes comes with very low flat handlebars (not in your case), so I would suggest changing them with bars with more rise. In that way you would seat more upright and be able to see more above the traffic. That is more like personal choice, but I found commuting easier in that way.

  4. Nice post as always.
    I am starting to try and use my bike for part of my commute. I added a rear rack and a secure easy on/off bag from Topeak to the top for warm months to hold things and I filled it to the brim. Now that teh weather is getting cold I don't have anywhere near enough space.
    What folding basket do you use?

    1. I bought my folding basket from the local mom and pop bicycle store. I believe the basket has a Bridgestone badge, it came in a plastic bag with no label, and no instructions. I used the two hooks, two plates, four bolts and four nuts to attach it to the side of my rack as best I could. It tended to rattle a little so I tightened everything up with a few strategically placed and trimmed wire ties. Sure it sounds dodgy, but it cost Y1,000 which is a lot cheaper than others I've seen on Amazon Japan. I'd been looking for one for ages before I stumbled upon it.

      I've seen the same basket on the bicycle floor at Yodobashi Camera in Kichijoji if you're anywhere near the area.

      It's as ugly as sin, but it suits me fine.

    2. Haha, I'm not looking for pretty so it should suit me fine. I will take a look at my local stores and be sure to pick up some wire as well. Thanks!

    3. I also use a Topeak for warm weather riding. During cold weather I simply use a day pack which has more room but is really hot when riding in the summer.

  5. Even in winter I warm up and am constantly shedding and adding layers. The worst spot for me is my back which even walking from my home to a train station 10 minutes away in the dead of winter with a full on blizzard on will be soaked in sweat when carrying a backpack.

    1. Cycling with a backpack in the Japanese summer is murder, I'd be drenched in sweat in just seconds. I fitted the rack and basket so I could commute in Tokyo all year round. Surprisingly cycling through the summer is much more difficult than cycling through the winter in Tokyo.

      One thing about the side basket is that it isn't protected from the wet, so when the rain comes down I put my backpack into a plastic shopping bag before dumping it in the basket. Not classy, but it works.

  6. Besides the fact that flashing lights are forbidden in many countries, I once read a scientific paper which stated that flashing lights offer less security. People determine the velocity of a bike with flashing lights much worse than constantly shining lights.

    And: flashing lights are just annoying to me personally.

    For your safety, please do use constantly-on lights.

  7. That looks great, I did that with a road bike
    Check it out

  8. Pls help on my decision, I am gonna buy secondhand HUMMER FDB268 Wsus bike for a 13000yen (7months old). is it worth to buy? I am going to use as commuting and what it your opinion? Thanks for your time.

  9. Byron, your article speaks to the need for fenders, but your bike photo clearly shows none. In addition, there is no chain guard so I must say that it seems you are leaving out some essential arrive to work "clean and dry" information. Like. How did you arrive at work clean and dry? What unmentioned strategy did you use to keep mud, water, dirt, chain grease from spoiling your work presentation?

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