Buying the Right Bike for You

Three young women riding bicycles on beach, smiling
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While buying a bike is not on the same level of commitment as, say, getting married, it is still a decision that calls for serious consideration (not to mention test-rides). This can be a little overwhelming at first, as the options seem endless. On some level, they are pretty much endless, but you can narrow them down by starting with the basics of which type of bike you want. Then you can worry about the minor details, like which bottle cage color looks faster, black or blue?

What Is the Right Kind of Bike for Me?

Your first decision comes in determining what type of bike you are after. There are basically four main styles of bikes to choose from, and your selection should be based on the type of riding you plan to do most often. 

Road Bikes

Road bikes are designed for riding on paved streets and going fast. Featuring skinny tires, a lightweight frame and a riding position that puts you bent over the handlebars, you might choose this type of bike if traveling longer distances at higher speeds is important to you.

The frames of most road bikes are not particularly beefy in construction and generally won’t stand up well for extended periods under heavy loads or on really rough surfaces. They are about as well-suited for a rugged dirt path in the woods as wearing high heels at the beach. 

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Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes have exploded in popularity over the last 25 years or so. These bikes have wide tires, usually with knobby treads and a stout frame, and are designed to handle the rugged trails without damage. Mountain bikes do not go as fast as road bikes. If road bikes are sleek track shoes, mountain bikes are comfy hiking boots. This makes mountain bikes useful for variable urban terrain as well as off-road riding. Mountain bikes are generally more comfortable than road bikes, but this is relative to the type and duration of riding. Any type of off-road riding, as well as tooling around town, is great for a mountain bike, but the big, spongy tires and upright frame geometry of mountain bikes really sap your strength on long road rides.

Warning: sometimes mountain bikes are the default choice of salespeople at the bike shop because they are easy to sell and usually less expensive than road bikes. Too many times though, new mountain bikes with lots of impressive features for climbing a steep mountain trail end up like those four-wheel drive SUVs that never actually go off the pavement. If you are going to buy a mountain bike, make sure you are doing so intentionally because you know that you will, in fact, be riding off-road. Otherwise, you will be paying for unnecessary features, and probably missing out on a bike that would be a better choice for you.

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Hybrid Bikes

Hybrid bikes are a compromise between road and mountain bikes and offer the best features of both if most of your riding will be shorter trips on pavement. With skinnier, smooth tires, they typically can go faster than mountain bikes, yet feature the upright seat and handlebar position that many people favor.

Hybrids are a good choice for most city riding and offer speed, durability, and comfort. They can range widely in appearance and performance. Those closer to road bikes have 27-inch (or 700c) wheels with relatively narrow, often slick (no tread) tires. These can be ideal for urban areas where most of the road riding is on city streets or concrete paths. They're almost as fast as road bikes but are tougher and a bit easier to control. Hybrids that are closer to mountain bikes have 26-inch wheels, knobby tires and possibly even front shocks. These are true recreational bikes for all-purpose urban and light off-road riding. 

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Cruiser Bikes

Cruisers are bikes that have wide tires, wide seats, upright handlebars and sometimes even just a single gear. These are the bikes that you’ll often see at the beach. More simple mechanically, they are easy to maintain but work best with flat terrain and a rider whose main interest is more about being comfortable than with going fast.

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Outside the Realm

If you’ve checked out the basic bike styles and none of them offers you what you need, check out these other kinds of bikes. Tandems, recumbents, and tricycles are all unique types of bikes that you likely won’t see very often, either out on the trail or on the showroom floor at your local bike shop. There are even tandem recumbents if you really want to get far out.  But each offers specific features and functions that may be just what you are looking for. 

Smart Shopping for Bikes

Once you’ve figured out the best style of bike for you, it’s time to start shopping. Here are tips to help you out.

Borrow a Bike

When you've figured out the right style of bike for you, to be double-sure that you're making the right choice, borrow a bike from a friend and try it out. Be sure to go on a ride longer than a lap around the parking lot, too. Twenty minutes should be enough to know if you are comfortable with the way you sit on a particular type of bike, and if the pace is right for you, or if it will be something that ultimately disappoints you.

An example – I thought I’d get a hybrid bike for commuting. I thought that the upright posture and a sturdier frame would be just what I needed. But just a few minutes on the bike and I could tell that I wasn’t able to go fast enough to suit me, and that I wasn’t going to be happy with that type of bike for the long run.

Don't Go Cheap

With bikes, like most everything else, you get what you pay for. Chances are you won’t be happy over the long run with a cheapie bike from a big box discounter, even if it was a deal. They are heavy and the components won’t last like they would in a quality model. Ultimately, you’ll be frustrated and end up spending the money to get that better bike you should have bought in the first place.

Spend Some Time at Your Local Bike Shop

The people who run your LBS are your best resource on bike buying. These folks are knowledgeable and can offer tips, advice and service that you can never get over the internet. Perhaps most importantly, bike pros know how a bike should fit. A good fit is critical for any type of rider and riding. 

Consider Buying Used

The best way to get a decent bike without forking out a whole bunch of money, particularly if you’re still wondering if you’ll stick with it for a while, is to buy a used bike rather than purchasing one new.  And sources abound, from sites like Craigslist to the classified ads in the newspaper to a swap board carried by your local bike shop on its website.

While shopping for a used bike on your own means you won’t have the same input as you get from knowledgeable sales staff at a local bike shop, the opportunity to take the bike for a test ride coupled with a little online research should be enough to tell you about the suitability of your purchase.

So, after you’ve thought thoroughly about the type of riding you’ll be doing, and taken several different types out for test-rides, go get the very best bike you can afford. It’ll be money well spent.

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