Road racers. Loaded tourers. Recumbents. Hardtails. Dualies. Hybrids. Cross bikes. Sport tourers. Commuters. Cruisers. Comfort bikes. Tandems. With such a dizzying array to choose from, it’s a small miracle anyone leaves a bike shop with the right bicycle for them.
Chances are you’re reading this because you started looking for a bike and wondering if Model X made by Brand Y is a “good bike.” The answer to that is more complicated than a simple yes or no. To help you knowledgeably pick a bike, Nick and I offer you following tips to help demystify the process of buying a bike.
Before You Leave Home
Grab a pencil, paper and some brutal honesty. Now make two lists. The first is an inventory of your current status as a cyclist or, for first-timers, your fitness level: how competitive you are, how much time you spend riding (or working out) each week, your highest achievements on a bike. The second is your ultimate vision of yourself as a cyclist. Do you plan to do triathlons? Clean up on the local racing circuit? Do bike tours? Commute by bike? Ride off road? All of these pursuits have a feature or two that you might want in a bike. If you’ll be commuting or touring, for example, you’ll want a bike with “braze-ons” to attach fenders and possibly a rack. A sales person at the bike shop can narrow your bike choices if they know more about your intended use.
Fit Is Everything
I can’t emphasize enough how important a properly fitted bicycle is. This will minimize discomfort and possibility for injury in the long run and maximize your enjoyment of the time spent in the saddle. In addition to what size bike you should be riding, figure out the proper seat height, reach to the handlebars, handlebar height relative to your saddle, etc. If you’re not sure what is ideal for you, consider getting a professional bike fit. Once you have these measurements, you will be able to look for used bikes knowledgeably and/or customize the fit of whatever bike you do get. A note regarding saddles: don’t get too hung up if the one on the bike you’re riding doesn’t feel right. You’ll likely end up replacing it (and every other saddle on every other bike you buy in the future) with “your” saddle…the one that’s just right for your butt.
Light. Strong. Cheap. Pick two.
How important is weight? How important is durability? What’s your budget? These three things are interrelated. Generally, the more you’re willing to spend the lighter your bike will be because it will be made with lighter material(s) and equipped with higher end components. Some might argue that these higher end components last longer too. Depending on your tolerance for replacing vs. fixing, you might consider Campagnolo parts over Shimano parts. Nick and I run Campy exclusively. It’s more expensive initially, but when something breaks, we spend $10 on an internal part and fix it, rather than spending $300+ to replace the entire part like you’d have to do with Shimano. All of these decisions come down to how much you’re willing to spend initially.
The Invisible Component – the Bike Shop.
The shop you buy from will probably be the one you take your bike to when you want it fixed. Element Cycles, for example, offers free tuneups for a year with the sale of their bikes. Whoever you buy from, you want to like the people, be able to get to the shop easily, and feel confident that you can get your bike worked on without waiting too long. Some shops have a 3-week waiting list for maintenance. No good if you want to use it the next weekend for an event.
Time for the Test Ride
No amount of bike buying advice from anyone – not me, not the shop sales rep, not your friends – can replace personal experience on the bike. You’re about to spend $1200 or more (yes, that much) on a single purchase, so take some time to ride a few bikes – at least one bike made out of aluminum, one out of steel, one out of carbon, and one out of titanium. You’ll get a feel for how each bike material feels and which one suits you the best. (With the exception of my mountain bike, every bike in our house is made of steel. We love how it feels. Others love the squish of titanium or the zip of aluminum.) Get your hands on a Campy shifter, a Shimano shifter, and a SRAM shifter. The size and shape alone may have you convinced you like one over the other.
Don’t be shy about taking bikes for a long test ride either. Use the first 10 minutes to get acquainted with the bike. If the handlebar feels too high or the suspension too springy, ask for a fix. And make sure you know how to use the components. If you’re used to Shimano, say, ask for a SRAM tutorial. Then take it out for 30 minutes or so and put it through all the paces. Brake hard, brake slow, corner at different angles and speeds, descend, and climb.
Call Your Friends
Once you’ve done all of this, then and only then, should you seek the advice of your friends. We’re all well-meaning, but we only know what is right for us. Once you have some knowledge under your belt, you can take our advice with a grain of salt. Until then, buyer beware!
Good luck and happy cycling!