Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about cycling in hopes of getting a couple more cars off the roads in exchange for a bitchin’ two wheeled, human powered vehicle. And lately, I’ve been asked by a few friends for advice on purchasing a bike. And I’ve been thinking this would be a great subject for a post. So here it is:
Sean’s unofficial guide to finding the bicycle of your dreams!
Disclaimer: This is in no way the comprehensive guide to purchasing a bike, but I will try to offer at least enough advice/insight to help narrow that search.
Buying a bike surprisingly is a lot like buying a car. There are bicycles made for utility, going off road, racing, touring, looking good, and yes…even bicycles that you can literally pick up chicks (dudes) on. Maybe that can be my second reason to ride: Bicycles make you look good!
So first off, which style of riding is your style of riding? Do you want something you can occasionally ride to run errands and ride to work on? Are there great trails nearby that you’ve been curious about? Are you inspired to pedal from sunrise to sunset and beyond? Do you want to strut your stuff down Valencia’s catwalk?
After you figure out what you’ll be using your bicycle for, I highly recommend visiting a local bike shop (even if you don’t decide to buy a new bike). Just like a car dealership, most bicycle shops will let you ride a bike to get a feel for it. And these days, bicycle shops even offer creative financing and extended warranties. And believe it or not, most bicycle shops have a bike or two on their showroom floor that cost about as much as a car.
While at your local bike shop, you’ll be able to ride different styles of bikes and the salespeople can give you some really good advice and guidance on the right bike for you.
A few years ago, I bought a touring bicycle from my friend and I loved it. Touring bicycles are similar to road bicycles, but with a few differences. They have a ‘relaxed’ geometry that makes it easier on your body to ride long distances day in and day out. They have eyelets which allow you to attach fenders and paniers (used for bicycle luggage). And sometimes allow for bigger tires, which absorb road shock and are easier on your wheels.
Since, I have bought a fixed gear (similar to a road bike, but with only one speed), track bike (a fixie, but with a more aggressive geometry), and a cyclocross/touring bicycle (similar to my first touring bike, but with the ability to put on bigger tires). I personally do most of my riding on-road, so I really appreciate the sleek road geometry and drop handlebars (as opposed to flat handlebars).
One of the main things you’ll be keeping track of when test riding bikes is the frame size. Every bike is adjustable to a certain extent, but if the frame size is too far off, it will be really hard fit the bicycle properly. Having a proper fit eliminates pain during longer rides and helps visibility in crowded areas.
Keep in mind, however, that frame sizes are slightly arbitrary. Different manufacturers measure from different points on the frame and different geometries can change the numbers quite a bit. But for the most part, this will give you a general idea of the size you are in the market for.
The next thing you may want to consider is frame material. Frame material can be as exotic as the bike, but for the most part there are three main materials: steel (and chromoly), aluminum, and carbon fiber.
Steel is time tested. It is the heaviest of the three, but it tends to have the softest feel. It is known to absorb road vibrations, which can really be beneficial during long days on you bike. And should you damage your frame, it can be repaired. I personally have only owned steel frames and I think they are great!
Aluminum is strong and light. These days it seems that you can find bicycles from every echelon of bicycles made from aluminum. People say it’s very stiff and responsive, so if you’re into speed this may be the material for you. I have heard that it doesn’t absorb road vibrations as well as steel and it’s not as easily repaired if at all.
Carbon fiber is about as high tech as you can get. It’s super light, super strong, and consequently, super expensive. I’d say if you have the money, do it!
There’s also titanium, bamboo, plastic, wood, and others. But those are pretty specific to certain brands as of now.
Another thing to look at are the wheels and components on the bike. Looking at a bike, the most obvious part is the frame, but the wheels and components can easily cost more than the frame. And as a result, replacing those components over time and paying someone to do it can be a handsome fee. I find bicycles to be pretty competitively priced. If something costs more, generally the parts are made to last longer or go faster. It’s not necessary to spend a fortune on a bike, but do keep in mind that buying the nicer of two items can be less expensive than buying the inferior of the two twice.
I think you can find a great deal on a used bicycle. My advice on this would be to do your research. Craigslists is a great resource as is eBay. Go to the manufacturer’s site and read about the bikes that interest you and check out the online bicycle forums. I usually do searches by frame size or manufacturer name and get some pretty killer results.
Also, if you are in the S.F. area, I recommend checking out Refried Cycles. They have a pretty good selection of used bikes and are pretty laid back.
Ask how many miles the bike has or how old it is. Just like a car, certain things will need to be changed over time. And ask if the bicycle has been maintained. Regular tune-ups and proper replacement of parts will help dramatically with the longevity of a bicycle.
When test riding a bicycle, listen. A general rule of thumb is that a quieter a bicycle is, the better. If the bicycle’s chain is rubbing constantly when you pedal, this can usually be easily fixed, but if you hear creaking, cracking, crunching this could cost a little more to fix.
Shift through all of the gears (while riding) and make sure the shifters feel like they go from high to low and back smoothly. When shifting, the chain shouldn’t feel like it is slipping off of the gears, especially when you really crank on the pedals. This could be a sign of a worn out chain or worse, a worn out cassette/chainring.
When pedaling, listen for noises that originate from the cranks (connected to the pedals), wheels, or handlebar area. These are the locations contain your bearings. Although bearings can be serviced or replaced, they are not easily accessible so disassembly is a given.
Spin the wheels and look for wobbles. Wheels can be trued, but the further they go from true and the longer they stay that way, the harder they are to fix. Also, listen if they spin smoothly. If you hear crunchy noises or the wheels stop abruptly, this could mean that the wheels don’t have a ton of life left in them.
Look for frayed cables. Although this is far from a deal breaker, keep in mind that replacing the cables involves getting a full tune-up.
Although most anything can be fixed, it is a real drag having your bike in the shop all week and having nothing to ride.
I hope this gives you some initial guidance about finding the right bike. I think the most important thing is to find a bicycle that’s going to make you happy. And almost any bike has that effect, so there are a lot of options. And this post is not meant to discourage you from asking any other questions, but more so a way to get some of my ideas on (electronic) paper and get more people on bikes.
Hope to see you out on the road!