Monday, September 26, 2011

Square one bike advice

Me and Elle with our new bikes, exactly two years ago today.

A high school friend who thinks I know something about bikes 'cuz I have this blog just wrote to me asking for bike-buying advice. Poor guy. If he knew how little I knew . . .

Never to let the lack of information stop me from talking, I responded, and he said it helped. Given that there are probably some biking newbies here, I decided to post an edited version on the off-chance that some of y'all might be in the same boat.

Happy bike shopping!

Mike--Pack a lunch. Not because I'm any sort of expert, of course, but because I know how to run my mouth. :)

This email will not tell you which bike or brand to buy, but mostly (hopefully?) help you hone your ideas about what you want from a bike. I know a tiny bit, but your local bike shop will be your best resource for most questions. Be nice to them, bring them treats (beer and chocolate chip cookies go a loooong way), and your life with your bike will be wonderful.

My first three rules of bike buying:
1. Do NOT buy a bike from a big box store. The low price might be tempting, but the bike will break quickly and may not be able to be repaired due to non-standard or cheap-ass parts. Some bike shops refuse to work on big-box bikes because they're junk masquerading as something useful.

2. Test-ride several bikes. Good bike shops will let you do this for free, but you'll probably have to leave your driver's license. You'll get a feel for the difference between a $500 bike and a $1,000 bike and decide if it's worth the difference in price. Fit makes all the difference between loving or feeling ambivalent about a bike. My road bike cost $525 on sale, and when I rode a $2,500 bike, I could tell the difference in shifting in a second. However, my back hurt after 5 minutes on the thing. I decided to stick with my cheaper, more comfortable bike and upgrade components (shifting mechanism) later.

3. Decide what kind of riding you'll be doing. If you're going to be riding on paved roads or bike trails, you don't need a killer mountain bike with huge knobby tires, nor will you probably need a road bike which is built for long rides on a smooth surface. Again, test ride some bikes to see what feels good.

Don't be afraid that an upright bike makes you less manly (not that you would have that problem, naturally). One serious male cyclist I know who also skis, rafts, etc. has an upright bike with a front basket for his town rides because "it's more comfortable."

A few more thoughts:
--Mountain bikes tend to be more comfortable for guys, who have the bulk of their body weight in their chest and shoulders. Unless you have issues with your wrists and shoulders, you'll probably feel fine on this type of bike, and a more forward position takes some pressure off the heinie. This is why road bikes have a very forward position; they're meant for long rides which could kill your backside if you were sitting straight up.

--If you're riding in traffic, an upright position helps you keep your head up so you can see everything that's around you. I can't wait to switch out my mountain bike handlebars for more upright ones.

--Women and teen girls will probably prefer a more upright position that cruisers offer because the bulk of their body weight is in their hips, not their upper body. Electra ( makes some gorgeous ones, but most bike companies are making them because they're so popular. Three- to eight-speed cruisers will be just fine for the flatland biking, but you'll need more gears for hilly terrain. In the mountains where I live, I make sure I have at least 21 gears, though 8 would do just fine if I was mostly bike commuting.

--Expect to pay $350-$600 for a decent entry-level bike. Paying this price means you can resell it when your kids have outgrown it or you can repair it when it breaks. It's totally worth the extra $100-200.

--Biking is so good for you. Some European countries have calculated that for every dollar they invest in biking infrastructure (bike lanes), they save $10-20 in health care costs. Pretty impressive.

--Biking is great for families. During the tween/teen years, it can be hard to find things to talk about, but biking gives you the chance to do something together without the pressure of having to communicate (insert eye rolling here) while making great memories and getting some exercise. And it's a perfect getaway without having to buy plane tickets!

I think I've exhausted my meager expertise. If you have further questions, I'd be happy to try to answer them, however.


1 comment:

  1. Some readers have emailed to let me know they're having trouble posting comments. If you're having the same problem, please email me at

    Clarification for one of these friends, who asked if I considered REI a big box store. The answer is no. REI sells quality bikes that you can order standard parts for when repairs are needed. A bike from a mega store that also sells carrots, TVs and oil filters, may possibly have parts that were sized and made for that specific run of bikes. This means you can't get new parts if it breaks, which it probably will in a few months. Spending a little more means the bike will last.