Help me figure out what sort of bicycle I need
April 27, 2010 8:01 PM   Subscribe

What kind of bicycle do I want? Purpose: to ride to the shops or the library, possibly working my way up to riding to work. I'm thinking more casual Copenhagen than speedy lycra-clad.

Considerations: I'm a short (5'1") woman; I don't exercise much so fitness = low.

Budget: I don't know yet. I usually prefer to buy the best quality I can manage, but am thinking it might be better to start with a basic model, in case I don't enjoy cycling as much as I'd hoped to.

Do I want an electric bike? I think they're cool and they'd probably expand my range. But is that overkill when I could just get a basic model for cheaper?

Is used ok, or should I get something new?

What about accessories? Helmets are compulsory where I live, so that's a given. I want to be able to take a handbag and/or a bag of groceries/books with me. What else will be necessary or just nifty?
posted by harriet vane to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You don't mention how hilly your area is, but I'm thinking a three-speed would do you just fine; assuming your work place is within a five-mile radius of your home.

I own and ride a Breezer Citizen.
It includes fenders, front and rear lights, a bell, rear rack, and a built-in lock. I've got a couple inches on you, and I find the ride to be very comfortable. The price is right. It's a very well-made bicycle.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:16 PM on April 27, 2010

I am an avid cyclist (three bikes), and I recently purchased this Globe Live 1 Mixte. It is very low maintenance and amazingly fun to ride. I still step on it and smile like a goofball. Comes in three different sizes, and the stock bike is very classy. I put a springy Brooks saddle on, and it's beautiful. The basket is great, too. Holds tons of stuff.

If you want gears, you can go with the Live 2 or 3. However, I get up hills on the coaster with no problems.

I really love this bike. I get so many compliments on it. I actually recently went to Amsterdam, and it's very similar to the Dutch-style bikes.

Here is my bike: With brooks saddle, and all.

Also, Globe is a line by Specialized, with is a very reputable company.

Good luck! :D
posted by Lizsterr at 8:19 PM on April 27, 2010

I recommend a bike you can sit comfortably in upright, with high handlebars. I bought a much-recommended bike that is beloved by serious bicyclists, and I never ride it because I feel uncomfortable leaning so far forward.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:21 PM on April 27, 2010

Oh, and I forgot to mention: I ride in all weather, and usually in nicer non-bike clothing (heels, short skirts, dresses, stockings, etc), and the full coverage fenders and step-through frame is perfect for all of the above.
posted by Lizsterr at 8:23 PM on April 27, 2010

Apparently internal gear hubs are coming (back?) into style, and are on a lot of newer bikes this year. The Globe Live 2 and 3 both have them. I personally wouldn't want dérailleur bikes for commuting-- I'd say single speed or internal, depending on how hilly your town is. Lower maintenance, less chance of the chain falling off, and less likely to snag your pants.
posted by supercres at 8:28 PM on April 27, 2010

Go to the bicycle store - seriously, they will give you much much better advice than anyone here can. And you can try out different rides to see what suits.

For your needs I would recommend getting the cheapest "real" model you can (around 350-450 $aud for a mountain bike [what I would recommend] a bit more if you want to go hybrid); in the kind of price bracket you're looking at, buying second hand isn't especially viable (second hand is much better for more expensive bikes, or for dirt cheap. In the mid-range arena you're looking at, people tend to keep those bikes, and/or ride them into the ground).

Electric bikes are cool, they're also particularly heavy. And expensive. Start with a normal bike before you blow your budget. Hybrid bikes are often attractive to beginners because of the relaxed "ride" and more motor cycle styled handles. But honestly, unless you're really married to it, a straight mountain bike is a much better deal, and will weigh half as much/fold up twice as good as a hybrid. In the kind of basic price range I'm talking about you can get plenty of mountain bikes with a less aggressive (not leaning on handles so much) ride, and you can chuck some thinner tyres on them if you want more streamlined.

Brands to consider for us Aussies in this price range include but are not limited to: Giant, Avanti, Specialised, Trek and many, many more. FWIW I have had both Giants and Avantis, and was happy with both (Avanti is an NZ brand). I rode my Giant Boulder into the ground and it served me sooooo well for many, many years until some bastard stole it and I upgraded. Good luck!
posted by smoke at 8:36 PM on April 27, 2010

Here is what I'd do: I'd make a list of four or five local bike shops that sell used bikes, and I'd visit each of them (preferably when they're not busy) and tell them what you just told us. Visit them all before you make any decisions.

One or two will probably approach your questions way more impressively than the rest.

Revisit those shops, ride several candidates, and buy the one that makes you merriest.

Don't worry about weight, gears, performance (You're in Perth, right? Perth's not hilly, right? If not, worry a little bit about gears.) Just get the bike that makes you think, "It sure would be fun for that to be my bike." Because that's the one you will actually use.

Ninety-eight of the hundred bikes I've owned were not new, but I think new is OK. But new is not necessarily better, and pricey is not necessarily better. A $100 used bike may be the one you actually love and use. Whatever the price, get that one.
posted by gum at 8:37 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

PS, don't get a single speed bike. Gears are fantastic, and you will be grateful for them.
posted by smoke at 8:37 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you're totally new to biking and aren't sure you're going to stick with it, can I strongly recommend looking at used bikes? I got mine from the local University surplus store (over the summer they round up all the bikes abandoned by students). Thrift stores and many bike stores also sell used bikes, everywhere I've lived. And yes, it's an old an slightly rusty Sears (US dept store) model, but it has three speeds and what I think of as "girl's bike" styling (so I can wear my skirts while biking), and after a $40 tune-up at the local bike store worked fine and cost $50 total.

Which is, well, a lot less than the $550 price tag linked to above. Plus, I didn't feel at all bad (nearly) leaving it outside all the time (in rain and snow and hail and, once, a tornado), which in my initial living situation (and still now, once I get to work) was my only option.
posted by obliquicity at 8:39 PM on April 27, 2010

Without recommending a particular model or style, here are some factors for your consideration:

- This may be obvious, but you'd probably want a bike with a step-through style "womens" frame - eg if you wear skirts. As a novice rider, you'll also feel a bit more at ease.

- Avoid the bottom end of the market! I can't stress this enough. You'll end up with a heavy clunker that's horrible to ride, with parts that'll rust within months & which often cannot be replaced.

- Seat: get one that's nice & comfy for you, maybe even with a spring in the seat pylon. If buying a new bike from a store, try various seats & see about swapping out the original seat with one you prefer.

- Lights: the point of lights is to make you visible to other road users, not to light your path. That's what streetlights are for, and bike-mounted lights are generally next to useless for that, unless you're riding on country roads on moonlit nights. Flashing LED lights (front & rear) are what you want, NOT regular bulbs (which are much less visible & chew through the batteries a lot faster). Get some rechargeable batteries while you're at it, though.

- Mudguards: nothing more unpleasant that water spraying up from a wet road straight up your arsecrack. If your preferred bike doesn't come with them, they're relatively cheap to buy & easy to install.

- Plenty of people buy nice bikes, then lose interest in riding & flog their mint-condition bikes on the Trading Post / Gumtree etc. Once you've done your research in the shops, you should be able to get the same kind of bike for about 50% cheaper second hand.

- Gears: yeah, get a bike with gears. Riding is easier & you won't look like a Noughties hipster tosspot in 2 years time about 3 years ago.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:42 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Largely what smoke says. Go to a bike store, see what you like, get gears. If you could find a bike store where you could rent bikes you could try some there.

In Australia you can then price compare using bike exchange so you could get the best deal in your area.

I've had a few friends who have had electric bikes and none have had good experiences. It's a great idea in theory but in practice the extra weight and cost isn't worth it. Some in Australia also get speed limited for licensing reasons and the speed is fairly low ( 25 km/h off the top off my head ). After that they slow you down.
posted by sien at 8:46 PM on April 27, 2010

For biking around town/campus, ask for a "hybrid" bike at your local bike shop. No relevance to hybrid cars, it's a cross between a mountain and a road bike. They're cheaper than road bikes, but usually come with narrow, slick tires which are better for pavement and hardened paths. Used is definitely ok

Accessories: a kryptonite U-lock, they're the best (the pen trick was fixed long ago). With a helmet and a lock, and you're good to go. Bike addons can get pricey though. To carry stuff, you could just use a backpack. Or you could get a rear rack and a folding basket (or two). You can also get a bungie net to just hold stuff to the rack, but that might not work so well for heavy books and making turns. Consider getting fenders so that you can ride in wet weather (you will get a mud stripe on your back if you don't), a tail light and a headlight.

Other advice: don't get a kickstand (many grownup bikes don't come with them). They fall off, add weight, and there's always something to lean your bike against.
posted by mnemonic at 8:47 PM on April 27, 2010

Get a bike with a kickstand if you love that bike. Get a bike with no gears if that's the one you love. Get a bike that's "the bottom of the market" if that's the one you think is sweetest. Get that one. The bike world is filled with magnificently snobby opinions that don't amount to much if you're not trying to win the Tour de France. Just get the one that makes you happy. Then be happy!
posted by gum at 8:53 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought my mom would love a vintage Schwinn-type bike for that Miss Gulch look. Then I remembered how many hills she'd have to ride, and how she'd at least have to carry it up four steps to the porch.

You certainly don't have to buy new (in fact, if you've got a decent-sized bike emporium, they might even sell last year's model for cheap), but you should be very honest with yourself. Go about your normal routine, or what you think you might do when you have this bike, and make a note of the surfaces, hills, seasons, etc. that might come into play.

I highly recommend folding rear baskets like these. They hold a grocery bag apiece and fold flat very easily.
posted by Madamina at 9:03 PM on April 27, 2010

To carry stuff, you could just use a backpack.

This is what I do (because it's more convenient for me than unstrapping & carrying around rear pannier bags) but...if you do this you will get sweaty all over your back in the Australian heat, no matter how slowly you ride. OK if you have showers at the far end; not so nice for the library.

On preview: absolutely, get the bottom end bike if you think it's the sweetest. I'll even donate $100 to the cost* if you can honestly state that the 20kg clunker from Kmart is, in fact, or in any possible way, sweeter than a midrange commuter bike (not talking carbon fibre tour de france here, roughly anything in the $500-$1K range will do nicely).

*offer not valid in WA
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:06 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a white Bianchi Milano Cafe Racer (with women's frame) that makes my heart go pitter patter every time I look at it, after trying out a ton of bikes at local stores. I'm 5'5", but my legs are short, and I bet something like it would work quite well for someone your height.

I'm a casual, fair weather rider, and had not been on a bike in 15+ years when I got it as a gift. It's perfect for biking about town. Very comfortable, very pretty, and fun to ride. We have a rack on the back for attaching bags/panniers. I tried out a bike with a basket on the front, but frankly, not having ridden for so long, I felt really anxious over the loss in visibility. Also, the bikes with the really, really high handle bars threw off my center of gravity and made me feel like I was going to fall over. It's important to find something you are comfortable on.

Great accessories to have? Reflectors and lights. Don't ride at night without them. Get a brass bell. Great sound, non-suck look.
posted by bloggerwench at 9:09 PM on April 27, 2010

I just bought a new bike after months of research and test rides. You really need to go somewhere in person, sit on the bikes and ride them around to see how you feel. Some bikes that I was in love with online were very obvious no's once I got on them.

Why not look for a used 3-8 speed to see if you like biking (you'll save money so you can afford a front basket or rear rack) and then invest in something nicer next year if you want to push it farther? I just got a new 8 speed with a large iron basket. I was skeptical at first but the front basket is great. Despite its heaviness its much faster than my old bike and I fit a large pizza in the basket last night. Handy! I started out on a used bike and eventually invested in this when I rode enough to make it worthwhile.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:26 PM on April 27, 2010

I think previous answers have addressed most concerned, so just two quick notes:

When you go to your local bike shop (this is often abbreviated LBS), ask about accessories. I paid almost $100 on top of the bicycle itself for a helmet, lock, pump, spare tube, tire levers, and patch kit. Your prices will be different in Australia, but the point is that this can be a significant amount of money. (For comparison, my bicycle was $120 nth-hand.)

The difference between single-speed and geared bicycles that hasn't been mentioned is maintenance. A single-speed omits the most sensitive components of a bike: the two derailleurs and the shifters. That makes it much less sensitive to neglect, mud, and collisions. I like gears myself, but sometimes I do miss the ability to throw my bike down on the derailleur side.

Also, if it's a fixed-gear single-speed, then the chain stops only when the wheel stops, so you can easily rip off a pant leg or a finger tip if you're not careful. Not something to obsess about, but you should keep it in mind if you go that route.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:35 PM on April 27, 2010

Can I just comment on Copenhagen, having lived there? It's an amzingly bike-friendly city. EVERYONE rides bikes, in all weather. But the thing that you have to get used to is that they ride FAST. And there are a lot of bikes, so you have to be aware of the rules for cyclists on the bike lanes. Stay to the right, obey the traffic lights (yes, there are traffic lights for bikes that are separate from those from cars), keep moving. Unless you are able to maintain a pretty decent pace on a road bike, you will have grannies or mums with kids smoking your ass!
posted by conifer at 9:53 PM on April 27, 2010

See this analysis of a reliable, everyday bicycle — the kind you would see in Copenhagen or any other place where most people cycle. I would highly recommend finding a bike (used or new) that resembles that as much as possible. It'll require little or no maintenance and make it easy to ride for utility. If you'll need to ride in hilly places, you'll want gears and maybe a lighter bike.
posted by parudox at 10:23 PM on April 27, 2010

You want a Gazelle! Sturdy, elegant, practical bikes designed to be used and abused as a daily workhorse.
posted by dance at 1:05 AM on April 28, 2010

Don't spend a lot of money getting the trendiest thing, only to have it stolen. Get something plain that feels good for the distances and terrains you think you'll be negotiating most days.

If you live in a flat area and it's going to be 99.9 percent smooth road riding, for example, you shouldn't buy a bloody mountain bike that will force you to hunch over the straight handlebars and work hard to propel the chunky wheels down the road. Instead, you would get something with large-diameter wheels and skinny tires. If you have a hill between home and work, you'll want some gears, but gears add purchase and repair costs and are more likely to leave you stranded somewhere with a broken bike, so don't get 18 gears if 3 will do. If you're going to be carrying it up and down stairs, or if your hills will be many, make sure you get something light. If you want to go shopping, you'll want a good lock and a basket in front or back or both, and that will cost you extra. (If you get a removable basket, you can carry it as a shopping basket and then pop it right back on to the bike when you leave.) If you plan to ride after dusk -- probably yes, eventually -- you'll need a bright light so you can see and blinky lights so you can be seen, and that will cost you extra. And you'll need a sturdy helmet that looks good with most riding outfits and feels nice, and that will cost you extra. And you'll need a pump, and that will cost you extra.

Do you have friends with bicycles that you think you'd like? Ask whether you can borrow their bikes for some extended test rides. Make sure you adjust the seat for your height. You can always set it right back to the way they had it when you're done. If you really like someone else's bike, ask whether she'd like to sell it to you.
posted by pracowity at 2:41 AM on April 28, 2010

One thing that's made a huge difference to my bike-riding experience has been buying a couple of puncture-resistant tyres. I used the basic tyres that came with my bike for a couple of years and got a puncture every several weeks (this is riding almost every day along a major road, mind). About six months ago I got a pair of Schwalbe Marathon+ tyres and have not had a single puncture since. They're a *lot* heavier than normal tyres (meaning the bike can be a bit harder to start moving) and a bit tricky to put on (get someone who knows what they're doing to do this) but really, really worth it because changing tubes is no fun at all. I paid about $AU160 for the pair.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:39 AM on April 28, 2010

Response by poster: This is awesome advice, thanks everyone. I'm making a note of it all, but it does look like I'd mostly want something step-through, with a few but not too many gears, somewhere between $300-$800. I'll make a list and take it to some bike shops to see what they've got for me to try - I feel better knowing at least the basics and what questions to ask before I go talk to salespeople.

And yep, Perth is mostly flat as a pancake. But there's one big lump in-between my house and my office. I'm told by a cycling friend of a friend that there's a good path around it though, and a lot of other places I've been thinking of riding have either nice wide streets with bike paths, or actual bike lanes.
posted by harriet vane at 7:41 AM on April 28, 2010

Urban Velo is a magazine & blog that has a few listings such as:
posted by wcfields at 4:37 PM on April 28, 2010

I'm also five one and looking for a bike. I'm crazy nonathletic but might be looking for a bit more in a bike since I'm looking for a bike to marry and grow old with, not a starter bike.

My budget is a bit higher than yours simply because I know if I buy a decent bike with limited options I'm simply going to upgrade it in a few years, and if I go ahead and get the luxe model now I'll save money in the long run. Or so I tell myself. I also carry a lot of groceries, so you may not have the lust for heavy duty cargo carrying Dutch bikes I do.

You don't need to become the next Sheldon Brown and know what every single spec listed on bike manufacturer sites means, but if you're a short girl, bike shopping is going to be a lot easier if you know your inseam and ideal frame height. Look up how frame height is measured, and keep in mind that you're going to be doing a lot of conversion between cm and inches. Personally, I'm looking at bikes with a frame size of 44cm-47cm, and a standover height of 27 inches tops.

Here are just some of the bikes on my wish list. These are all Dutch style bikes that should fit short girls. I still recommend test riding any bike before buying it, and I know how hard that is. The bike shops in my area recognize my voice on the phone by now.

LINUS DUTCHI (well within your price range,it's missing a few classic Dutch bike features like a skirtguard and enclosed chain but it's well made for the price)

BATAVUS PERSONAL DELIVERY BIKE (over budget and hard to find, but authentically Dutch, will last a million years, and could carry a month's worth of groceries)

(around $1300 but it has every feature anyone could ever want and is just so twee and class, extremely well made)

FIETSFABRIEK LOW STEP (super authentic Dutch, super low to the ground, super hard to find, super expensive)

BATAVUS YOUNG DUTCH (batavus is one of those most classic and respected Dutch bike brands, and this is the kid's version of their ultra traditional Old Dutch omafiets)
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:33 PM on April 28, 2010

You said Copenhagen, so I suggest Velorbis, an amazing Danish bicycle company available in the U.S. here. These are quality bicycles.

And if you want a custom bicycle made in Denmark, check out Cykelmageren.
posted by jardinier at 4:13 PM on April 29, 2010

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