How to Choose a Bicycle

Seeing the myriad of bicycles on display when you walk into your local bike shop to buy one, can be intimidating. However, buying a bike is actually pretty simple. Here's how you do it. Pick a bike shop you like; determine what type of bike you need; decide how much you want to spend on it; get on the right size; test ride a few; and take one home. It's really that simple, but read on for the details.

First, Choose a Bike Shop You Like. It's nice to establish a relationship with your bike shop. You'll be going back for service, accessories, and information; and knowing the folks at your bike shop, and them knowing you, simply makes your visits there more enjoyable. Plus, a good shop will fit you properly, show you how to operate your new bike, and help you get started biking. It's a relationship kind of business.

Second, Determine What Type of Bike You Need. What type of bike you need, of course, depends on how you are going to be using it. These days there are more types of bikes than ever from which to choose. Moreover, different companies call them by different names, so what type of bike you're looking at can be confusing. Here are some descriptions of the most common types of bikes out there to help you determine what kind you need, excluding children's and other specialty bikes.

Road Bikes. No doubt you've seen them with their drop bars and thin tires. They are light and fast and efficient and good for riding long distances. Although road bikes are most often associated with racing, they are also made for a multitude of other activities such as touring, commuting, cyclocross, and gravel grinding. These bikes differ in a lot of ways, but mainly in wheel sizes and frame geometry, which affects how they handle and adapts them to specific uses. A lot of road bikes these days are being designed to do several things. At any rate, a road bike is a good choice for anyone that wants to take up the aforementioned activities, or more commonly, a road bike is good for anyone looking to add cycling to their exercise routine, to add something new to the mix.

Mountain Bikes. No doubt you've seen these too with their fat, knobby tires and flat handlebars. Like road bikes you'll see several variations on the theme as manufacturers offer different wheel sizes and slimmed-down transmissions.

Mountain bikes are still offered in front suspensions models called hard tails, and in dual suspension models with suspension on both the front and rear wheels. These bikes have traditionally come with 26" wheels. However, in the past few years, mountain bikes have begun to be offered with larger 29" wheels. These bikes, called "29er's", will roll over anything with their big wheels, but they're not quite as nimble as the traditional 26” wheeled bikes. So now we're starting to see yet another wheel size called 27.5 or 650b, which is between the two sizes.

Still another development has to do with transmissions. Under the less is more heading, manufacturers are reducing the number of gears on mountain bikes by going to one chainring up front and removing the front derailleurs. These bikes are called 1 x's (one-byes).

Which type of mountain bike you pick: hard tail, dual suspension, 29'er, 650b, or 1x, depends on what you plan on doing with it, whether you're taking up the sport of mountain biking, or riding predominantly on the street.

Hybrids This is the largest category of bikes, and perhaps the most confusing.

In the late eighties when they were first introduced, hybrids were designed as a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike (thus the name, hybrid). They had a slightly more upright riding position, flat handlebars, and a medium size tire. They were touted as being able to ride on or off-road, but in reality they did neither very well. They did over time, however, evolve into nice, comfortable, sit-upright bikes for casual riding. In the last few years, there have been several off-shoots of hybrids, a lot of them with a more retro theme.

What defines a hybrid is primarily the comfortable upright riding position and the medium size tires, which makes the bike more rugged, and allows for the occasional foray off pavement. Comfort bikes, commuter bikes, and upright or retro bikes all meet this criteria. A comfort bike is basically a hybrid, except that it has a fatter tire, which gives it more stability, but it's not quite as nimble as a true hybrid. Commuter bikes are hybrids with fenders and sometimes a luggage rack. They typically have fewer gears, like eight instead of twenty-one. Retro bikes (my own definition) are also hybrids of a sort. They're a throw-back to the old English bikes with fenders, medium sized tires, and a slightly swept-back handlebar. You can just imagine the village vicar or Oxford professor riding them through the English countryside. All of these bikes are good for more casual riding. They also make good city/urban bikes for commuting, running errands or for just getting around on.

Flat Bar Road Bikes are often called hybrids as well, but we call them flat bar road bikes because that's a good description. They have flat handlebars, and a narrow road-bike-like wheel. However what you're looking at can be confusing because manufacturers all call them something different, such as: fitness bikes, urban bikes, performance street bikes, or simply hybrids. Regardless of what they're called, flat bar bikes are good versatile bikes. They make great city bikes because you can put a luggage rack on them and ride them to work or to the grocery store, but they also have a little performance, which means they're good for longer rides or for going out for a workout. Although not designed as mountain bikes, many have the ability to go off pavement, depending on the tire size. These bikes are a good choice for anyone that wants something more than a casual bike, but is not looking to get into a full blown road bike.

The Townie is a relatively new product. Invented by Electra, they feature what they call "flat foot technology". Unlike any other bike on the market, the Townies allow you to have the seat high enough to make the bike easy to pedal, yet still have your feet mostly on the ground when you stop. The riding position is comfortably upright, and the wide tires give the bike a very comfortable, stable ride. This is a great casual, cruise-around bike, but it's especially good if you haven't ridden in a long time or if you just don't like that tip-toe reach to the ground common to other kinds of bikes.

There are Other Types of Bikes on the market aside from the ones discussed above: recumbents, folding bikes, single speed bikes, and more. Most of these are bikes for specific uses. Your local bike shop is the best source of information on these assorted bikes.

Now that we've reviewed the different types of bikes available: road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid, flat bar road bikes, and Townies, hopefully you've gotten an idea of what type of bike you need, which, you may recall, was step two for buying a bike, after picking a bike shop.

Third, Decide What You Want to Spend. You'll find that bikes are very competitively priced from brand to brand and store to store. You don't really pay more for a bike because of the brand. At any given price point everybody uses pretty much the same components on their bikes and they price them about the same. Thus it's better to compare bike by price rather than brand. If one bike costs fifty or a hundred dollars more, it's a better bike. Of course as with anything, the more you spend, the higher quality you'll get. With bikes, nicer ones ride better, shift better, stop better, and last longer. Naturally, the more you ride, the more you may want to spend on your bike. You may also want to spend more given that this is a long term type of purchase. Hopefully you'll have your bike for a long time.

Fourth, Determine Your Size. Bike shop quality bikes come in different sizes to fit different size people. You determine what size bike you need by simply standing over it. In general, you want to clear the top bar by an inch or two, depending on the type bike and the type of riding you'll be doing. However, you'll find that the "stand over height" will vary from bike to bike, even though they may be labeled as the same size. Different manufacturers measure their bikes differently. Some run small. Some run large. Thus, you may ride a different size bike in a different brand. That's OK. Besides the stand-over height, the other critical dimension to be aware of when sizing your bike, is the reach from the seat to the bars. Like the stand over height, the reach will vary from bike to bike. In any case, the overriding goal is to end up on the most comfortable bike. You can best assess the size and fit of a bike by taking it for a test ride, which is the last step in selecting your new bike.

Fifth, Take Some Test Rides. Take the different types of bikes out for a short test ride. This will help you understand the differences between the different kinds of bikes, and help you determine which type you like. You'll feel the difference in the speed and riding position of a flat bar road bike, compared to the stability and more upright riding position of a hybrid. Test ride some bikes at different price points. You'll find that the features on the bikes don't change so much as you go up in price, they all have two wheels, a seat, and handlebars, but you will notice the difference in quality. The better bikes will have a smoother, lighter, more solid feel to them.

Finally, Take one home.

So let's summarize.

First, pick a bike shop you like; determine what type of bike you need; decide how much you want to spend on it; get on the right size; test ride a few; and take one home. Buying a bike is really that simple. You'll know when you find the right one. It's sort of like buying your shoes. It'll just feel right. Enjoy the process.

Happy Trails

Mike

4 Comments so far...

Hi,

With so many types of bikes and manufacturers today it is a bit difficult to make a good decision on which bike to buy. In addition, you will only know you bought the right or wrong one after you use it for a reasonable amount of time.

This article, nevertheless, is right on.

It would be nice if you do reviews of less expensive bikes, those in the $300 range for mountain bikes.

I enjoyed visiting your website, and thanks for the deralleur video.

-Posted on Aug 14th, 2008 by Noel

After visiting several bike shops in the area, I found yours to have the most affordable bikes and by far the most knowledgable staff. True, spending $800 or morecan hit the pocketbook pretty hard, but I think you get what you pay for, and I appreciate the information and instruction.

-Posted on Sep 11th, 2008 by mmbh

I think it does a disservice to the potential bike buyer to describe recumbents as so specialized to be outside consideration. Certainly the distinctiveness of their handling and performance as well as their relatively higher prices make them not the bike for everyone; however, they do suit a wide variety of riders and should be considered a viable an option as any other.

-Posted on Mar 28th, 2009 by Bent Advocate

I knew nothing about bikes but trying to buy one for my partner's birthday gift. This really helped!

-Posted on Sep 21st, 2009 by Nikasha