My last bike was flattened in a building demolition 4 years ago. True story.
November 7, 2010 10:36 PM   Subscribe

As a novice buying a bike for an urban commute, what should I keep in mind?

- I commute half a mile, twice a day M-F, in a suburban part of a large city.
- Next year I'll probably commute about a mile through downtown.
- I'm not terrifically fit, though I have freakishly strong legs.
- I'm not certain I'll love this sport.

1) If I buy a cheap ($80) used bike from a fellow student my height, and then get it tuned up professionally by a highly-rated local shop -- am I likely to have a bad experience?

2) Do I really need a $50 lock to keep my bike safe (in this admittedly dishonest part of town), or is this salesman bullshitting me?

3) Will a "cruiser" suffice?

4) Any specific tips for a rank amateur, either for enjoying the experience or for buying or accessorizing intelligently?

posted by foursentences to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
don't get a fixie. a geared bike is best. hipsters will tell you otherwise. they don't know cycling.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:39 PM on November 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

don't get a fixie....

Jesus, I agree but that's a hell of a way to start a war.

If the bike originally came from a department store, don't bother. If it's a decent model from a decent brand, go for it. Bad bikes have chromed steel rims, chromed steel handle bars, stamped steel dropouts and the like. Good brands are called names like "Specialized" or "Trek."

Thieves will steal ANYTHING off of your bike. Ideally, the frame, both wheels and the seat are secured and everything else is removed. A good lock with a cable that can do all these things is pretty much essential.
posted by klanawa at 10:54 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow. Quite the question. It's really hard to answer, without knowing way more.

Bicycle fit is a function of leg and torso length, not height.. Males and females are also different. Other variables are top tube and stem length, etc. etc. etc.

"A cheap $80 bicycle" really tells us nothing.

Yes you need a good lock. Period.

A helmet goes without saying, but many people forget the importance of gloves, and proper riding shorts.

LIGHTS. Never ride after dusk without lights. If you ride at night without lights, I CAN'T SEE YOU.

A cruiser is not what you want. Sounds like you are a good candidate for a hybrid

You mentioned a highly-rated bike shop as a part of the mix. You are on the correct path here. I highly recommend that you visit an independent bicycle dealer in your neighborhood for a fitting and to discuss your options. Developing a relationship with a knowledgeable and helpful salesperson in a bike store might just turn out to be the best thing you ever did.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:59 PM on November 7, 2010

1) If the cheap used bike is a road bike from the 80's or 90's you will be fine. I rode around a bike from the 70's for most of college. The tune-up will run you $50+ so keep that in mind. It might need new brake pads, etc. Can you borrow a bike for a month or two to see if it's worth putting more money into it?

2) A u-lock through the back wheel and a cable to run through your front wheel should deter most thieves. The best thing you can do is to not leave it outside overnight. I use something like this: U-lock+Cable. See if you can get a used u-lock from someone's garage. I managed to inherit two locks and two cables and I don't know where I originally got them. I have never managed to have a bike stolen in Berkeley (where lots of bikes are stolen).

3) A cruiser should be fine. But make sure it has gears. Are we talking a comfort bike like this? Comfort Bike or something like this single-speed cruiser? Your main concern is weight and if you'll be miserable.

4) -Get your seat height adjusted properly.
-Understand that you'll be saddle-sore for the first week.
-Ride with someone more knowledgeable to show you proper road safety. This will help you get comfortable while you are still dedicating part of your attention to maneuvering the bike.
-Follow the road rules (use left hand turn lanes, don't run stoplights).
-Buy a set of front and rear blinkers (and leave them blinking).
-Biking should not be super-strenuous. Choose a low gear that will let you spin at least 60rpm. "Mashing" the pedals will tire you out quickly.
-Learn to start and stop on a bike properly.
-Don't forget how invisible you are to cars. Much like motorcycles, ride like they're out to get you.
posted by just.good.enough at 11:10 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Last, just get yourself out riding. Don't worry about bike shorts, gloves, or if the bike is optimal. I rode a bike that was too small for me for a whole year. It took me a month to properly adjust the seat and the brakes so they wouldn't rub so much. I've seen a lot of beater bikes that get ridden every day (in the US and in Asia).

Just worry about safety and enjoying yourself. The rest can be taken care of as you gain more experience. It's the classic dilemma where it's easier to learn on a nicer tool so you don't want to go too cheap, but you don't want to sweat it so much that you don't ever get out.
posted by just.good.enough at 11:14 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

A helmet goes without saying, but many people forget the importance of gloves, and proper riding shorts.

I agree with the helmet, but you can probably forgo the riding shorts for a half mile commute. As long as you wear pants.

I think for such a short trip, any road-worth bike should suffice. Gears are great, but if you're just riding half a mile on a relatively level route, a big, heavy cruiser shouldn't be a problem. If you find yourself riding more frequently, or going on longer rides, then gears/a lighter bike are more enjoyable.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:32 PM on November 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Half a mile is so short a commute that any bike you get will do the job. I have never paid more than $50 for a bike (always second hand, from markets, etc) and although I have sometimes had bad luck - i.e. one that is heavier, has clunky gears, or bad brakes - it really doesn't matter for the short commutes I have (always less than 5 km).
posted by lollusc at 11:34 PM on November 7, 2010

Seconding gloves and helmet. I recently switched to BMX gloves after getting cut off by a car taking a right in front of me and scratching my hands up under my old gloves when I hit the asphalt. The helmet is more important because it is easier to get by with messed up hands than a messed up skull, but yeah protect your hands too.

For a half mile to mile long ride, you could even commute on a unicycle. Bike style, quality, or model is very flexible for that kind of distance. But a bike you buy at a department story is not worth the money, and isn't even safe to ride until someone who actually knows bikes checks it out. Regarding gearing, mashing the pedals won't just tire you quickly (hey that even sounds good, you want a workout right?) it will also permanently damage your knees. Lower gears than you think you should be in and keeping about a 60rpm spinning rate is really the best way to go.

Regarding a lock, a good rule of thumb is to spend about 1/10th the value of your bike on the lock (down to a minimum of at least getting a U lock of some type - but not all U locks are made equal). The on-guard and the kryptonite new york series are the only U locks that cannot be destroyed using hand tools in under a half an hour. The smaller a U lock is, the harder it is to break - use the smallest lock that can reliably secure your bike.
posted by idiopath at 11:39 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the extremely helpful answers so far.

The used bike I'm being offered is a 21-speed Huffy with "new shift cables"; the photo includes gears. I'm not sure whether it's more like the comfort bike or the single-speed cruiser. It can be viewed here:

Is the concern that if it's not a comfort bike I literally won't be comfortable on it?

just.good.enough, that's my dilemma exactly, and you make a good point that I don't need to optimize this purchase per se -- I guess I'm mostly aiming to avoid whichever bad experiences are easily avoidable.

Thanks again for all input!
posted by foursentences at 11:41 PM on November 7, 2010

You need a bike that is practical. A cruiser is not. You might like a cruiser for the 10 minute test ride, but they are not efficient machines for any kind of distance. How do I do that flashing text thing? DON'T GET A CRUISER!!!!

FFS you can't have a bike thread around here with the same routine bullshit 'don't get a fixie' hipster snark. Why getting a fixie is good:

1.) Fast. Fun. Responsive.
2.) Easy to maintain, and cheaper too.
3.) Most efficient bike over short distances. Accelerates easily and smoothly, perfect for the city.

You don't have to get a fixie though. It's hard to find a track bike for $80. If that's your price range, the first option you suggested for yourself is a good one, although it helps to know what you're buying. Echoing klanawa, nothing from a department store. Brands like Huffy and Next suck always! Also, nothing with suspension unless you need it due to medical issues or the like. Bigger wheels are better too.

Another good option, if you're in a city that has one, is going to a bike co-op or community bike shop, and buying a refurbished bike from them. At least then you know someone who knows their shit has looked over and okayed it. If anything goes wrong you know who to talk to.

A summary of this post would read as follows: Your perfect bike is a 70s or 80s road bike (either geared, singlespeed or fixie conversion), tuned up by some kind of bike shop, and then upgraded over time as you find out what you like. But now that I typed all that stuff there's no way I'm not hitting 'post'!
posted by seagull.apollo at 11:41 PM on November 7, 2010

That bike you linked would be perfect to get going on. Go for it and have some fun.
posted by just.good.enough at 11:46 PM on November 7, 2010

The bike in the picture is a department store pseudo-mountain-bike.

Comfort bikes are pretty much for people who don't bike yet so they don't realize that comfort bikes suck or people who need one due to a medical condition - they are actually much harder on your ass because you are sitting up and your hands are not taking any of the weight, and the bigger padded seat will chafe more, and the overall body position gives you less pedaling power. But they are supposedly good for people with certain back conditions.

Really if you plan to bike daily for more than a few months in the long term the lightest bike that you can afford and that fits you is probably the one that will make you happiest. And after biking for a while you will figure out what style bike you are looking for - soft handling and long wheel base for a more stable and plush ride, stiff frame and short wheelbase for quick acceleration and better cornering, fat tires so you can ignore potholes, or skinny ones so it is easier to go fast, etc. etc. etc.
posted by idiopath at 11:52 PM on November 7, 2010

I really need to think through my posts. It occurred to me that the bike might be a little over-valued at $80. Huffy isn't a particularly good brand but will be fine for your purposes. It's hard to tell what kind of bike it is in the photo so I can't give you a more informed idea of how much a bike like that should cost. From googling, I'd guess that bike might be closer to $60 than $80.

If you have any bike friends, have them look it over before committing to a tune-up. The price of a tune-up on top of buying it makes that bike a bad deal.
posted by just.good.enough at 11:53 PM on November 7, 2010

I'd advise against getting a fixie for safety reasons. If you turn around a corner too sharply and touch your pedal to the ground, you're going over the bars. If you're riding in a busy street and suddenly need to brake (assuming you have a hand brake) and forget to backpedal, you're going over the bars (and into whatever you were trying to avoid).

If your commute is relatively flat, single-speeds are good.
posted by bodaciousllama at 12:01 AM on November 8, 2010

The Huffster may seem like your friend. He says 'biking will be easier with me, I have suspension'. You've got to be smart with this guy. Look him over. Are his brakes, and maybe cranks and derailleurs made of plastic? Is there rust on his seatpost and bars? Do his rims shine in the light like steel or are they matte and alloy? Monsieur Huffy will try to fool you with his decals and empty promises. His fonts will be modern and 'edgy'. His styling will be 'extreme'. Huffy is not your friend. Never buy him. He is not a product meant to be used; he is a product meant to be sold.
posted by seagull.apollo at 12:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

That bike is about the WORST thing you could possibly buy. It isn't worth the gunpowder to blow it up. It's complete and total garbage. Gloves cost about $10, and will save you from days of pain wen you fall, as you will. Bicycles are dangerous, period; but Fixies are incredibly dangerous, for a new rider, it's like giving a gun to a baby.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:10 AM on November 8, 2010

Buy a set of front and rear blinkers (and leave them blinking).

A blinker does not illuminate the path in front of you. You can't see potholes, railroad tracks slick with dew, sewer grates, broken bottles and other obstacles. More worrisome, a blinker doesn't indicate your path to a motorist. To ride past dusk, you need a HEADLIGHT.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:25 AM on November 8, 2010

Anything that rolls will do. A cruiser will be fine. In fact, they seem to be the preferred commuter bike around here for people who actually commute and do not think of themselves as Bicyclists. And it seems cheap discount store bikes are quite the norm for a good deal of these commuters.

What do you need besides a bike? A helmet would be a safe bet. Bright blinky lights for low light conditions. A good lock. An air pump and a tire patch kit. Learn how to use it. For your distance, the specialized clothing is unnecessary. Hell, I ride all over L.A. and I haven't owned "proper" bike attire in decades. I simply no longer find it necessary.

Although you didn't seem to be considering one, and you've gotten advice about them, a fixed gear is probably something you'd want to stay away from until you've really gotten bitten by the bug. For someone like you, they offer no practical advantage over any other kind of bike, even a cruiser, and have a steeper learning curve. And now that every junior high kid wants one, they may be prime objects of theft.

Sadly, no matter what kind of bike you buy, you may have to wrench every now and then to keep things running. Doesn't matter if the bike is new, used, cheap or expensive. A single speed/cruiser has many advantages here, with fewer things to go wrong, and typically less specialized tools needed to maintain the bike. The Huffy you show would suffice. But for the price, you may as well get it new at walmart. Which, by the way is a reasonable place to get a beater commuter if you're capable of wrenching. If not, splurge at a bike shop with a good service department.

The distance you mention is really quite short by biking standards. Have you considered a push scooter like a Razor? If the commute is over flat ground with good sidewalks, they can be a very good alternative. They're durable, inexpensive, low maintenance, and fold up nicely for storage. Just throwing that out as a possibility.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:20 AM on November 8, 2010

2N2222 is right on. If you're only commuting .5-1 miles, it doesn't really matter what kind of bike you have, especially if you don't think you're going to be getting in to the sport. If you think you want a cruiser, go to a bike shop and try one out. Billions of Dutch people commute to work every day on bikes that are basically cruisers. If you end up really liking cycling, you can get another bike later that would be more fun to ride for pleasure.
posted by Aizkolari at 3:12 AM on November 8, 2010

The thing that made the most difference to my cycle-commuting experience was puncture-proof tyres. I went from a puncture every few weeks to not a single one in the last year. Mine are Schwalbe Marathons but there are plenty of others out there. True they're heavy and may cost more than the bike itself, but the annoyance saved will be worth it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:19 AM on November 8, 2010

Seconding (thirding?) lollusc - I commute about 3-4 miles to work on my Granny's old bike (new tyres and brake pads) and it's fine. I'm not really fit but I enjoy the ride a lot. Invest in other comforts depending on the climate to make it easier. I wouldn't say you need an expensive new bike.
posted by hannahlambda at 3:43 AM on November 8, 2010

Actually, if you are buying used, the cost of the bike itself is relatively minimal. Let's treat the Huffy as a generic bike. If the following are not included, you will also probably need:

Lock - yes, about $50
The brightest front/back lights you can afford (so you can be seen) - $30-$40?
Front/rear fenders - $30+
NEW Helmet - $30-40
Gloves - $20?
Tune-up - $50? (I normally tune myself).
Decent pump -maybe a floor pump - $25

Depending on what you carry to work, a rear rack and panniers are worth it - say $80+
Depending on climate, I would get a good packable jacket. I like Goretex - say $50 for a lightweight jacket.

This all adds up to $235-$385. Sticker shock, etc. But the point is, at this point the cost of the bike is relatively marginal. So it's worth looking for a better 2nd hand bike, for a bit more $$$. Also if you buy from someone who is a more serious cyclist, odds are that they may have some of the above, to throw into the deal as well.
posted by carter at 4:08 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your commute is REALLY short. The bike you've shown will probably work fine and shouldn't cost much. Like carter says, get a pair of fenders for riding when it's wet. Get some flashers for front and back (you don't need a "head light" for the front, just a white flasher because you will never will be driving in pitch darkness). Get a helmet. I like the little bike pumps they sell now. 21 speed is great but even a 10 speed will work.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:00 AM on November 8, 2010

Beware the $80 bike you have to spend $100 to repair...If the used bike rides ok now (brakes, gears, tires, and chains good) then go for it. If it needs anything more extensive, then you're looking at expensive repairs and you might as well put down $300 for something new.
posted by yarly at 5:42 AM on November 8, 2010

.5 mi is really short. If you like your commute, keep in mind that you may end up wanting to ride farther and will eventually upgrade. As someone who rode longer distances on a cheap mountain bike, I would say avoid them if you live anywhere hilly. I switched to a hybrid, then to a road bike, and with each switch, the hills that had been so hard on the mountain bike got so much easier. I agree with whoever said that upright seated bikes (anything but a road bike) are harder on your ass than a road bike.
However, if you really just want to get started riding, buy a really cheap bike knowing that you may only ride it for a month or two before needing to invest in something better. I probably never would have gotten back into riding a bike if I hadn't just bought some cheap thing off Craigslist.
Also, you really don't need special clothes, or gloves, or fenders, or rack/panniers for half a mile unless you carry a lot of stuff or it rains a lot where you live. You need: U-lock (and I guess a cable if you live in an area with a lot of bike theft, but I wouldn't for an $80 bike), helmet, back blinker and front headlamp (if you will be riding anytime after dusk ever).
I would try to talk the person selling the $80 bike down to a lower price.
posted by elpea at 6:07 AM on November 8, 2010

Kind of what Yarly said.

Where are you located? I.E. What kind of hills are you likely to be dealing with?

If hills are in your future gearing is important. If not, anything that is safe to ride should do you.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:43 AM on November 8, 2010

If your planned half-mile ride is flat, I'd just buy an old 3-speed. I'm not sure if that's what you mean by cruiser or not. 3-speeds are great: they are cheap, plentiful and reliable. Many come with fenders, some come with racks even. I found one in the garbage and put a new wheel on it - a friend's mom racks up the miles on it now. I also think they'd be far down on a real thief's list, they aren't valuable and some people think they're dorky. That's a win in my book. The old 3 speeds were made for short, casual commutes in relative comfort. I still think they are the best bike for most people. See Sheldon Brown on 3 speeds

A half-mile commute doesn't really need any specialized cycling gear. I recommend buying some sort of mirror for your ride, again dorky but in my experience have saved me more than any helmet would have. Cheap, too. The only time I really put on my cycling gear is if I'm riding over 50km. Starting over, I'd buy: thick cable or u-lock, decent LED lights, a bell and a mirror. Don't drop more than 50$ on all those things.

If you're lucking enough to live somewhere with a community bike shop, check them out, they might have used bikes for sale and after you get your bike most shops will help you fix them.
posted by glip at 7:55 AM on November 8, 2010

As a cyclist, I'd just walk that half mile. You'll spend more time locking and unlocking than you will riding.
posted by chrchr at 8:31 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

What everyone else said. :)

And my 2 cents... Go to a bike shop that will 1) let you test ride bikes, and 2) fit you properly. Test ride a bunch, then buy the one that feels the best to you. Whether it's a hybrid, MTB, etc. Spend as much as you comfortably can.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:24 AM on November 8, 2010

1. You are likely to have a bad experience if you buy *that* bike. It's entirely possible that the local bike shop will refuse to work on it. 'Tune-up' is something of a misnomer when it comes to department store bikes like Huffy. They are notorious for poor quality and mismatched components and no amount of work will ever get them running really smoothly (or even safely sometimes).

I'm a mechanic for a community bike project and most of the Huffys we get donated go straight to the scrap bin (and this automatically includes anything with any kind of suspension) and small parts like this are the only things we consider worth salvaging. The better quality, no-suspension, Huffy's typically get sold for $30-$60 after we have done the work on them.

2. Yes. $50 isn't all that much for a lock. I paid around three times that for mine (though that roughly accords with the 10% rule).

3. For what you want to do, yes, (but you could walk that easily), for anything else maybe not. If you go any distance the thing you will notice most about a bike is weight and cruisers are heavy. What looks comfortable is not necessarily what is comfortable. I have an extra-wide sprung saddle on one of my bikes (for purely aesthetic reasons) and its less comfortable that narrower saddles at any distance over a mile.

4. For buying try to find someone with experience. If you are planning to buy cheap and take it to a local shop to get work done take it there for them to give it a glance over before you buy it. We do this all the time for people and its much more preferable that having people buy and bike and tell them they've wasted their money.
posted by tallus at 1:14 PM on November 8, 2010

A helmet goes without saying, but many people forget the importance of gloves, and proper riding shorts.

I commute 5 miles each way in street clothes. As in jeans (or skirts!) and mary janes and a hoodie. (I'll be much more layered in the winter). I always wear a helmet.

A huffy is a bad idea, if you look on Craigslist you may be able to get an older (80's or earlier) Schwinn that would suit you far better. You should also see if there is a local bike co-op.

Good luck and enjoy riding!
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:43 PM on November 8, 2010

To add to seagull.apollo's sentiment, the mechanics I know almost universally charge a little extra to work on Huffy/Roadmaster/X-mart bicycles--just due to the fact that they are not machines designed to be serviced.
posted by Ian.I.Am at 7:13 PM on November 8, 2010

The mechanics I know ( I worked in the industry for a decade) won't work on department store bikes, or Huffys, period. Since these bikes can never be tuned properly, the result is always a dissatisfied customer and an unsafe bike. The liability aspect of trying to make the brakes work properly on one of those ambulatory trash-heaps precludes anyone with a pair of functioning neurons from even touching one.

The extra control, comfort, and safety that a $10-$20 pair of gloves adds means you'd have to be pretty dim to not ride with them. Seriously. Gloves are the the number one accident abatement add-on, after a helmet.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:56 PM on November 9, 2010

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