Buying a bicycle is about more than just dishing out the dough. It’s also making an emotional commitment to riding it for what it’s worth: making time for it in your life and space for it in your garage or even studio apartment. We determined its worth based on planned frequency of use and the cost per rental over time. We became bike fanatics and made bank on our investment. But we had no idea what we were doing, where to even buy a bike or what kind of bike to buy when we got there. Things were not as simple as they used to be.
As a kid, buying a new bike meant you had outgrown your last. Whether it was finally dropping the training wheels, a growth spurt or crashing your BMX one too many times, your next bike was a minor iteration from your last and usually came from the same local big-box store, where the selection and prices were the same. Single-speeds were the name of the game and the most you’d pay for a bike as a kid (back then) was $60-$100.
For the beginner, these early bike purchasing experiences are as much knowledge as most people have. So seeing a $600 price tag on a low-end hybrid could just blow your mind! When you’ve outgrown the bikes at Wal-Mart, how do you know you’re getting what you pay for?
After the fortune and misfortune of having to purchase four bikes in the past eight months ranging from commuter oriented hybrids, a women’s specific full carbon fiber road bike, to an aluminum frame road bike on a budget, we’ve earned our stripes in bike buying expertise. Here’s what you should know.
Think Before You Buy
Buying a bike and buying a car have a lot in common. The range of bicycles on the market is as diverse as the people who ride them (see above). From purpose driven bikes like single-speed commuters and comfortable hybrids, to recreational ones like hard tail and dual suspension mountain bikes, to competitive sports bikes like the road, cyclocross and triathlon bikes. A premium bike can easily cost as much as a car! Knowing where and how you plan to use your bike and how often will determine the type of bike you need and how much you should spend. Spending some time online at sites like those for Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Scott or Trek to familiarize yourself with your options before visiting bike retailers so you know what to expect. These sites can also direct you to their dealers in your area.
Here are some quick questions to ask yourself as you get started. Don’t worry if your answers change during the purchasing experience, our answers changed as we both saw more and more bikes. (You may want more than one. Our friend Mark and his wife own 16 each.)
1. Determine the purpose of your bike: Commuting, recreation, racing, training, etc.
This helps you to know which type of bikes to rule out and which to test. If you have no specific preference try test riding a hybrid, mountain and road bike. You may find they can be used interchangeably for some purposes and used based on preference.
2. Identify your terrain: Where you ride will determine what you ride.
-For a hilly city like San Francisco, a multi-geared hybrid might be the best solution for a daily commuter, though some fit locals still manage on their single-speeds.
-For a flat city like New York City, the single-speed bikes might be all you need to cover flat pavement.
-Dirt trails? Both mountain bikes and comfort hybrids can use wide, low-pressure tires that easily tackle this terrain. Cyclocross bikes combine the competitive nature of a road bike with the off-road capabilities of the mountain for the die hard.
-Mountain trails? You can find hard tail mountain bikes with front-suspension only for moderate trail riding or a dual suspension bike for extreme off-roading.
-Pavement and paved paths? A speedy road bike is calling your name!
Show me the money!
Just so you’re perfectly aware . . .
2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador’s Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 LTD racing road bike (available for purchase!) costs $9400.
Their recreational hybrids run as low as $440.
Used bikes can be found on the cheap on sites like Craig’s List but without knowing how (or whether) the bike has been maintained, you could be looking at high costs in refurbishments, a short life span or a total lemon. New bikes cost more, but there’s a certain satisfaction knowing no one’s ridden in that saddle but you.
The store with the cheapest advertised prices or largest selection on display may seem obvious but not necessarily be the best place. Smaller bike stores frequently keep their inventory in basements, so don’t be fooled! New bikes have an adolescent-like growth spurt and require attention and maintenance shortly after putting on mileage, especially for cable stretch. Friendly advice from the mechanic working on your bike could also save you additional repairs, parts and trips to the shop. As important as it is to love your bike, it’s equally important to find some loving hands to care for it.
Like cars, good mechanical work doesn’t (nor should it) come cheap, which is why time specific (i.e. 3 month or 1 year long) unlimited service plans are highly desirable and sometimes come free with purchase. A service plan is only as good as the technicians who execute it. Make sure you like the people you’re dealing with. To find a maintenance location more convenient to where you live, work or ride, check out reviews from bike savvy Yelpers on yelp.com.
YOUR bike is out there.
Don’t let another person convince you that a bike that just feels wrong is the right bike for you. If you feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied on your test ride (a MUST) just think how unhappy you’ll feel riding it after you’ve paid for it. MINOR modifications to adjust the saddle, stem and handlebars can enhance a bike you already like, but don’t count on them to fix a bike that just doesn’t fit. Move on.
Finding the right bike is equivalent to the avatar selecting its banshee (winged dragon/ mode of transportation) you select it as much as it selects you. Out there was a bike manufacturer who created a bike with you in mind and it’s waiting to meet you. And when you make contact, you’ll know. If you saw the movie ‘Avatar’ you’ll know that this process wasn’t easy for them either.
Finding the perfect bike is an exercise in frustration.
We plowed through five stores before finding a bicycle that other stores said could not even be manufactured in my size. I contacted 12 stores in the Bay Area to locate a road bike to accommodate Jon’s size, specifications and price range.
But all that’s another story . . .
But while the ideal number of bikes is always N+1 (where N is the number you have now), you only really ought to buy one bike. After some experience of that you realize that maybe the wheels are no good, and the tires are certainly no good, so get a replacement set. After a season you realize you really needed 165mm cranks not the 170mms they always supply as stock. The pedals need changing anyway, when you upgrade to cleats. After a second season, those anatomical bars that all stock bike suppliers are cool have been irritating you so much that they have to go in favor of classic bends. The plastic bar tape is ditched and you wrap something more comfortable on. The stem was always 2cm too long anyway, so you hunt round for one that doesn’t have you overstretched. You swap out the seatpost for a zero setback, to eliminate the same problem. Pretty soon all that’s left of the original bike you bought is the frame and brakes, and maybe derailleurs.
The need for a second bike comes after about two seasons. You don’t make the same mistake and settle for some compromise on wheels, or tires, or bars and stem. You get the ideal frame and build it up with parts you identified yourself. All the swapping in and out from the first bike, together with the inevitable chain and cable replacements, and the many puncture repairs, has taught you enough about bike mechanics that you can put your own together, and do the adjustments, with the tools you acquired along the way.
Buy a bike and ride, ride, ride, absolutely. Accumulate a mean stable of bikes. But never buy more than one as a complete bike.