Where would a rusty old bike rider like me find a easy and good bike?
August 25, 2009 1:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about getting a bike to ride to work on, but I have no idea where to start, or what to look for.

I'm living pretty close by my work, and have been walking to and from work most days. It's not a bad walk, half an hour and I'm there, but if I had a bike it would take 10 minutes or so. Well, half an hour at first, and hopefully 10 minutes after not too long a time!

The thing is, I haven't ridden a bike in about 8 years, and I know that they say that you never forget, but I'm a little nervous about it - as I'll be crossing one of the main roads into Melbourne's CBD, in peak hour, and I'm quite rusty, obviously.

Also - I have no idea what kind of bike to get. I know nothing about bikes, prices, where to get, or what to look for. I'd probably prefer something second hand, I'm not fussed if it's the newest latest thing, I just want a comfortable little bike that will get me from A to B with a minimum of fuss, and if it looks cute and retro so much the better.

Where should a novice like me look for a bike in Melbourne's CBD / Southbank / South Melbourne area? I can travel further, and have heard rumours of places near Carlton / Fitzroy that will have bikes.

Also - What should I look for in a bike? What kind of bike will suit my needs? and how much would I be looking at spending on it?
posted by jonathanstrange to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You will get a lot of advice from hardcore bikers here, which you should accept with caution.

I strongly recommend you read
the collected jwz bicycle wisdom
. It's written from the perspective of cycling in San Francisco, but it should apply equally to any large urban area.

jwz speaks much truth.
posted by Mwongozi at 1:39 AM on August 25, 2009

IF you're like me you basically want a bike with 700C tires with a width of 35mm or so. This falls into the "hybrid" category of bikes.

(700C is the basic rim size, upon which you are free to mount tires of width from 25 to 38mm, depending on whether you want a Tour De France roadracing or offroad mud experience).

Looking at Melbourne's streetview map I see the Southbank area is flat as a board so you really don't have to spend a lot to get a bike that will meet your transportation needs.

I ride a Bianchi Volpe but that's more for its weekend roadracer abilities (or pretense thereto). All you need is a basic single-speed cruiser.

I don't really like drop bars (again, think Tour De France) for city riding so you'll probably want something like this Schwinn with a lowish seat and a highish set of bars.

When fitting a bike to your size the most important thing is just making sure when you're pedalling your knees stay somewhat bent, say only 80-90% leg extension for each stroke.

Which reminds me, you won't want clip on or fancy pedals for fancy bike shoes, just normal pedals for street shoes.
posted by @troy at 1:57 AM on August 25, 2009

To get over your (reasonable) fears of re-entering cycling in the middle of a downtown rush hour, why not "practice" your route to work on a Sunday morning, and/or start going to work very very early for the first few days?

Maybe you can get breakfast or coffee somewhere near your workplace.

And really, for a 10 minute daily ride, you don't need a very fancy vehicle. You might be able to pick one up very inexpensively from someone whose plan to start riding didn't work out so well. Check Craisglist.
posted by rokusan at 2:02 AM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: Starting early could work - I have flexitime and start at 7.30ish or earlier on Mondays, and there is a great coffee store I stop off at, so that would be good for getting my confidence back up with.

Thanks for the help.

Also - if it makes a difference, I'm 5ft2, and a female.
posted by jonathanstrange at 2:05 AM on August 25, 2009

I live in a much hillier city than Melbourne, but for what it's worth, I'm very happy with my commuting setup.

I have an elderly Specialised mountain bike. Elderly, so no bugger wants to steal it. No suspension (useless in the city, wastes your energy, adds weight). Street slick tyres (less weight, less rolling resistance, I never take it off road), with kevlar reinforcemnt (punctures suck). I also have cleats for pedals because I need them on the hills - you probably don't. But, because it's a mountain bike frame etc, I feel fine about mounting the curb, going over potholes etc. The more erect riding position seems smarter in traffic too where visibility is at a premium.

I have a carrier with Ortlieb panniers and they are an absolute joy. It is so nice to not have a backpack. My back doesn't get sweaty, the weight distribution is better, and I can carry a lot more crap around. If you're determined to be all retro and cute, you might like a basket.

Good lights. Something reflective to wear at night. Helmet. Gloves for the winter months. Small pump. Light rain jacket. Spare inner tube.

If you're in Melbourne, watch out for tram tracks!
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:44 AM on August 25, 2009

I found Paul Dorn's Guide to Commuter Cycling very helpful when I started cycling to work.

Here also is a blog post I wrote about the experience of going from not having ridden a bike since my teens to a 12-miles-a-day London cyclist.

Echoing what has already been said, a 30 minute walk is, I'm assuming, going to be about 2 miles, which you can comfortably expect to cycle in 10-15 minutes. Having looked at a topological map of central Melbourne, it doesn't look like you'll be hitting many hills, or at least not the long, gradual ones which puff out many novice cyclists.

Personally I don't agree with the 'buy a beater' school of thought, I've known a few new cyclists who make unneccessary work for themselves cranking up and down hills on something rusty and knackered. It also makes an easy excuse to quit if anything breaks, and will likely require a lot of maintenance which will quickly negate the savings you've made on buying cheap.

I would personally recommend a good 'hybrid'. These are commuter bikes specifically designed for city riding. They have thin road tires, but a mountain-bike-esque frame which copes well with potholes and the odd offroad in parks and suchlike. I have a Ridgeback Comet that I'm very happy with. Have a good think about the ups and downs of your ride hill-wise and go for as many gears as you can. We very stupidly bought my wife a funky town bike with three gears, and it's no fun at all to ride on the hills of South London, being as it's really designed for flat-as-a-pancake cities like Amsterdam.

As for busy junctions and the like, I can't emphasise how much being an assertive cyclist really helps, as does making yourself very visible. Bright colours and reflective things. Lights at night. A big ol' bell you can ring when pedestrians inevitably step out right in front of you without looking.

Here's my quick guide to assertive cycling:

- Get away from the pavement edge - In some cities and on some roads, you'll have a cycle lane - use the whole of it. On other roads, you'll have nothing. Don't cower in close to the edge. Get out at least a metre from the pavement. Seriously, doing this one thing will help you gain confidence very quickly. Drivers will give you much more space, you won't risk striking a pedal and going head-over-heels, and you'll be using the road as you should, i.e. as a human-powered vehicle with as much right to be there as any other.

- Learn and use hand signals - Practice making right and left turn hand signals, with your arm right out at 90 degrees from your body, making it very, very clear what you're about to do. If you're changing lanes, do the same but hold your hand about 3/4's of the way up to show you intend to merge into a lane in front of the person behind.

- Practice the quick look - Get very used to quickly turning your head to look behind you, then looking forward again. It might feel like every car that passes you is dead set on knocking you off your bike, but most crashes happen because you miss something in front of you like a braking or turning car, an opening car door or a truck that hasn't seen you. When changing lanes, do the 3/4 hand signal, quick look, keep hand signalling, change lanes, quick look again. Don't be afraid to make a very definite 'hey, slow down I'm changing lanes in front of you' hand signal.

- Don't jump red lights - Seriously, don't. It's dangerous, illegal and pisses drivers off no end. My only exception to this is late at night on empty junctions where there are no other drivers and visibly no-one coming.

Finally, learn some basic bike maintenance. You don't have to be able to strip the whole bike down or anything, but you should be able to at least change a tire (I taught myself after having to wheel my bike four miles home one night), tighten loose headsets/seatposts, clean and oil your chain and replace/reset your brake blocks. Get a good bike multitool and carry it with you every day, you will need it.

Also, keep it relatively clean, like a sponge clean once every month or so. Get it serviced professionally every 6-8 months.

Good luck! Cycling to work has seriously changed my life in a lot of very good ways.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:50 AM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Second the trying your route at the weekend before you ride comment. Did that recently in Sydney and it's helped a lot.

In terms of a specific make/model - try and hear out your local bike shop (LBS) and their advice. For something new, 1/2 decent, that will last, look to spend between $600 and $900 AU. Get and trust the LBS to advise you on size, and test a few for 10-15 mins each before you make your decision.

I am fan of trek's - have a look at something like the Allant WSD, or 7.2 FX WSD. Both prices here in AUD.

Good luck!
posted by newformula at 3:06 AM on August 25, 2009

I would suggest going to a bike shop or few, being all meek and clueless, and seeing what they tell you. Some will just humor you, some will go over your head, but you may well be able to find a genuinely nice person who wants to help you.

In the US I got a relatively low-end Raleigh step-through bike that was a little on the heavy end, but would have probably been awesome if I lived somewhere less hilly than Pittsburgh. It cost me about $300 US, which is probably at the low end for a not-awful bicycle. I had never really ridden a bike before (on friends' enough to not immediately fall down), and the guy at the shop I went with was nice, and understood my desires and level well enough to know that I wasn't really into putting $1000+ onto my first evar bike.

Ride around other places before getting into the big-street riding. Small neighborhood streets with low traffic are awesome.

I don't know the biking environment in Australia. In the US, the "everyone is out to kill you" mentality is probably the best one to take, lights are your friend in the darker hours. You ride on the street unless you have a bike trail to follow. Bicyclists are on the whole more into cycling--casual riders aren't all that common. In Japan, it's almost the opposite (except for the lights thing). Most people in Japan have a bike that they ride casually around to the store or wherever, including every single little old lady and man in town. Sidewalk riding is accepted, permitted, and there are signs everywhere for whether or not a sidewalk is bicyclable (most in my city are). People look for cyclists on the sidewalk, and will stop to let you cross. Being still somewhat in the America Mindset, I'll stop if I see a car signaling to turn, and then they'll stop to let me cross, and I'll think "Argh, momentum."

Early morning will be entirely better for biking when it gets to be Hot Outside.
posted by that girl at 3:11 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned to ride a bike last year and, being unfit, found dutch-style bikes perfect. I started on a Raleigh Caprice and bought myself a Pashley Princess Sovereign (both very cute and retro, but no idea if you can get them easily in Aus) this year after going to a bike shop and telling them that I knew I liked step-through frames but am otherwise clueless.

I'm not riding on the road yet though :)
posted by mippy at 3:27 AM on August 25, 2009

The first time I read through the jwz link, I thought that $20 was a ridiculous amount to charge for changing a tube. Then I realized his trick with the bent bolt. Yeah, if he makes people pull out an angle grinder just to fix a flat, I can see why he pays through the nose and thinks his mechanic wants to violate him with bits of his own bike. Some of his advice is good, but unfortunately it's all mixed together.

To answer OP, 5ft2 makes no more difference than any other height, but if female means you might ever want to ride in a skirt, you should consider a "female" frame where the top tube is dropped lower to accommodate a skirt. If you want one, ride it as fast as you can (down hill, with the wind at your back, etc.) and see if it starts to shimmy at high speed. I know one person whose frame does that, and apparently it's unpleasant.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:42 AM on August 25, 2009

I personally prefer riding in a skirt - it allows freedom of movement, and I don't need to change or wear ridiculous looking gear just to hop into town.
posted by mippy at 3:53 AM on August 25, 2009

Hai fellow Melbournite!

Recommendation: I got a Kona Dew Plus about 6 months ago and I love it to bits. It set me back about A$700 brand new. It's a hybrid, which means it'll go reasonably fast on roads but can still handle the odd gravel and grass.

IMO it's worth investing in disc brakes. These won't malfunction when it rains...which it does.

One thing to look out for in Melbourne is tram tracks. Especially when wet. Why yes I did learn that the hard way. You need to cross them at a 90 degree angle, or (if possible) not cross them at all!

As for the major intersections, I tend to morph into a pedestrian and use the crossings if it looks too complicated. It's not worth taking any risks, especially when you're new in the game.
posted by heytch at 4:09 AM on August 25, 2009

The thing is, I haven't ridden a bike in about 8 years, and I know that they say that you never forget, but I'm a little nervous about it - as I'll be crossing one of the main roads into Melbourne's CBD, in peak hour, and I'm quite rusty, obviously.

Quick note: I was in the same position as you. I used to ride my road bike all the time when I was a teenager but hadn't been on a bike in about 15 years until I took it out again a few weeks ago. It will feel weird and you'll be tentative initially but after a few days on it, it will all come back. And you'll remember that riding a bike is a blast! Yeah, I recommend practice riding on quieter streets or parking lots before you try the busy roads.
posted by That takes balls. at 6:42 AM on August 25, 2009

That jwz list is a huge sweltering pile of steaming acrid bullshit.

Heavy bikes are annoying to ride and light bikes are fun, the hillier your ride or the more frequently you have to stop and start the bigger a deal this is.

Knowing how to change a flat, keep the pressure in your tires topped off, and oil your chain are requisite knowledge for riding unless you want to spend ludicrous amounts of money to a bike shop. Learn and do basic maintenance, it saves money and your bike will be more enjoyable to ride.

Cleaning and oiling your chain is as important as changing the oil on your car. Doing it is easier but you have to do it more often. Not doing it means eventually having to replace a bunch of expensive parts much sooner than you should have. If you do this one piece of maintenance you won't need to bring your bike in for expensive tuneups nearly as often as he recommends.

A decent set of road wheels can handle potholes better than the wheels on a cheap hybrid, and the difference the tire size makes is pretty small in comparison to the difference in wheel quality.

As mentioned above bending off the ends of your skewers to prevent your wheel from being removed is a dick move if you expect anyone else to work on your bike.

Don't use gas station air pumps on your bike, it is too easy to overfill and get a flat, spend $40 and get a good portable bike pump, and the presta valves that are not compatible with gas station pumps are actually much better than the schraeder valves that are. Top off your tires at least weekly, if not twice a week for an optimum ride.
posted by idiopath at 7:22 AM on August 25, 2009

That jwz list is about 50% good, and 50% absolute nonsense, and it doesn't sound like you're in a position to tell the difference. Bending bolts so that you can't get your own wheel off to change a flat with anything less than a hacksaw? Thieves have saws at hand, and you probably don't.

Later on, he advises riding on the sidewalk if it makes you feel safe. Feeling safe will be little consolation when a huge freaking car hits you because they never see bikes coming off the sidewalk at intersections.

For buying a bike: get something you like. By far, this is the most important; you won't ride a bike you end up unhappy with. Short version: internal hubs (shifting mechanism inside the back wheel) are good but not critical. Fenders are absolutely critical. A rack is also very good (most bikes won't come with one, but can usually be installed with one if you ask). A chain guard is good for protecting your pants, but are often noisy and rattly; I took mine off and am just careful about strapping my pants down. Tires around 3-4cm wide, with a little tread but not huge knobs offer a good compromise between performance and traction.

But, again, just ride things at a couple different stores until you find one that you like. Make sure they let you take it for a real test ride, too, not just a few laps around the parking lot. See how it feels going fast, going slow, over rough pavement, up hills...

For riding: you may not feel confident, but fake it until you are. The safest way to ride is to be highly visible and highly predictable. This means obeying all traffic laws, and taking the whole lane unless you have a safe bike path or shoulder to ride on.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:51 AM on August 25, 2009

Addendum: the thing new riders fear the most is getting hit from behind. This is wrong. If you are visible and taking command of the lane when necessary, you are massively unlikely to get hit from behind.

Cyclists die most at intersections when cars cross their path (be hyper vigilant for people pulling out of side streets, or trying to sneak a turn in before the light changes, or for whom you just have a gut feeling they're going to do something stupid), and second most mid-block when they get hit by the door of a parked car that's been opened without looking. Those two feet next to the parked cars? That is the death zone. Stay out of there.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:07 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any bike that rolls and you can fit on comfortably will handle your commute. You do not need to worry about light weight or fast tires. In the US you could get a bike that would be fine, (not beautiful and not with all the features you might want) for around $350 to $500US. Don't worry about all this fix a flat stuff, you get a flat you can walk home and you can learn how to do it later.

A used bike would also work fine but if you are unable to asses the condition of bikes think of buying a used bike more like renting a test ride. So if a used bike is $60 think of it as a $60 test ride that should last about a 6 months.

Lower priced bikes that might work well for you should look something like this or this or or this.

All the people who work at a bike shop will be "serious bikers" so bikes like these will be sort of out of their world view. They might try to suggest a road bike with drop bars or a mountain bike but you would be better off with a simple around town bike. The bike shop workers will have types of bikes they like and types they dislike. Most of them don't really like entry level commuting bikes the same way teenage boys don't like minivans.

You should be able to go to a shop and say "I would like to start commuting 4 miles a day. I'd like to spend around $400. I will probably want to put fenders on it at some point. What bike do you have that fit me?" Take some test rides, get some prices and think about it. Don't get pressured into anything. If you go to a shop with a budget they will try to bump you up to the next bracket. You say 300 to 400 they will try to sell you 500 to 700. They are tying to help you, don't worry about it, don't get pressured, don't resent it. It's just going to happen. If you can go up to $700US then you can. If you are on a tight budget, a $400 bike will work fine.

Go in with a plan, just to look. Make a list of 5 shops in your area and go to all of them just to take test rides and see if you are comfortable with the people at the shop. Go back to one or two and only then think of buying a bike. Your goal is to buy a comfortable bike in your price range from decent people.
posted by bdc34 at 8:55 AM on August 25, 2009

You need an $8000 carbon fiber bike with titanium components or you will explode into a thousand pieces and die after your first ride.

OK, I really am kidding. What you should be looking for, as mentioned above, is a hybrid. These are usually available at the lower and of a bike shop's pricing spectrum. There are different sorts, from casual rider types to serious, almost race-quality ones. Since you're getting back into riding, and you're looking for a bike to tool around on, I wouldn't get into anything too expensive. Used is an option, but if you go used, make sure you get a good name brand bike (Specialized, Trek, Raleigh, etc) and have it taken into a bike shop to that they can check it over. Don't be surprised if they want to give it a $50 (I'm working in USD, sorry, not sure of the exchange rate) tuneup. I'd advise at least looking at new bikes before you decide to buy used. I've seen people spend far too much on a used bike when they could have gotten a new one for not much more.

Invest in a quality U-lock. A pro bike thief can still get past one of these, but it takes time, and they do not like to spend time on this - they want out as soon as possible. If you use a cable or chain lock, and a thief wants your bike, they can cut one of those in nothing flat.

And also, as mentioned above, learn to change flats! If you end up using a wider tire, look into Slime tubes (I prefer the Specialized Airlock version.) These can save you a lot of trouble.

Good luck. I hope you enjoy riding, and I hope you start going for longer rides because you find the bike is fun.
posted by azpenguin at 9:17 AM on August 25, 2009

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that you would be fine going to the Aussie equivalent of Wal-mart and getting a 26" women's bike for your commute. This should cost less than 300$ (US). Your commute is short and over flat land. Cheap bikes are not stolen as often. If you decide you don't like biking, you are out less money. The bike will last till / if you decide you want to trade up.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:39 AM on August 25, 2009

Rent a bike for a week and try it, first on the weekend or other low-traffic time and then during the rush hour.

I rode for a week in NYC and found I got woozy from breathing the carbon monoxide from car exhausts. If possible, ride on low-traffic streets parallel to the main drag.

Make sure you can get a place to keep the bike during the day. MANY building supervisors go bananas if you run wet bike tires over a carpet.
posted by KRS at 11:22 AM on August 25, 2009

I've got to disagree with WeenendJen. At least in the US, bikes that come from large discount department stores like Walmart have a horrible reputation. They're usually assembled by the store staff, not by anyone who's been trained to work on bikes. No one at the store is going to make sure you get fitted properly. They have shoddy construction and the cheapest parts available; you won't get much for one if you want to resell it.

My local transit advocacy group has a nice collection of tips on commuting for the beginner, although you'll have to adjust the traffic tips for the other side of the road in for you.

I'll second that if crossing that main road on your bike unnerves you, you can always dismount and cross as a pedestrian. Do the same if traffic's too busy and you can't get over to do a right turn.

Do spend some time in an empty parking lot on your new bike until you're completely comfortable starting, stopping, shifting gears, and looking behind you without swerving. If you can't master that last one, get a rear-view mirror. Also be sure you know how to properly lock a bike.

Good luck, and have fun! Who knows, maybe by next year you'll be shopping for that $8000 road bike.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:45 PM on August 25, 2009

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