Help a bipedal human get on two wheels.
April 30, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Bikefilter: I know zilch about bikes. What kind of bike do I want?

I'm a 5'7" female who really just wants a bike for recreational flat urban riding (I live in north Brooklyn). I don't plan on distance riding, maybe just a spin with friends or to work every once in a while (also in Brooklyn). I will not be spending more than $200 so I'm mostly perusing craigslist and used bike shops. I have never purchased a bike or really ridden one since before I was a teen. I also like 'cute' bikes. I don't want a fixie.

What I have seen that I like are some vintage Schwinn cruisers with fenders (most seem to be 3 speed or 5 speed) because they, again, are cute, and I don't have to bend all the way over to just hold on to the handle-bars. I would like to be as upright as possible. Would this kind of bike be what I want? What other kinds should I be looking at?

Also, when looking at used bikes, what kinds of things should I be looking at to make sure they are in workable order? Assume I know nothing (I don't even know where to look when someone says 'gears'; I just learned what 'tubes' are). Naturally, any and all resources for a total bike n00b are appreciated, as I plan on educating myself.

I've already researched used bike stores in the area and have been to a few of them, but if there is a place you can recommend where the staff won't laugh at my complete ignorance, that would be appreciated as well.

Thanks guys!
posted by greta simone to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What most beginners like is a hybrid with an upright position, or for real beginners, a so-called "comfort bike". Until you know how you ride, I suspect a decent Schwinn cruiser -- 5 speeds are better than 3 -- will do you just fine.

Any used bike store worth its salt should be very, very nice to you no matter how ignorant you are. They succeed when more people bike, after all. But this isn't as hard as you make it out to be. Bike shops mainly exist so that you can get a bike in good condition and get properly fitted (bar height, seat position, handlebar height and/or angle, etc.), not to make you buy a bike you don't want or understand.

Anybody who understands your situation and pushes you toward a fixie is more ignorant than you are. That's ridiculous.
posted by dhartung at 1:14 PM on April 30, 2011

I'll leave others to advise on the bike model, but for you to file under bike n00b resources for future reference - Bicycle Maintenance Made Ridiculously Easy was linked to in a recent "show me your favourite pdfs" thread which I can no longer find. If you've yet to find the gears you'll probably need someone to take you through the absolute basics first, but once you're up and running it'll come in handy.
posted by penguin pie at 1:16 PM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you learn better by doing, a local bike co-op is a great place to learn how to repair your bike. I don't know how close Time's Up is to you, but it may be worth checking out.

BUT -- they also have a bike recycling program, which means you may be able to find a suitable bike for a decent price that you know has been repaired and/or maintained properly. If you scroll down that link, you'll find some very nice Dutch style bikes -- single speed -- but they offer other types as well.
posted by maudlin at 1:24 PM on April 30, 2011

I am a bike noob too, and I love my blue Trek 7100, which I have dubbed my "lady bike." The Trek Allant is lovely too, and might be more your style (it's more cruiser-ish). I chose the former instead because I'm a big lady, and the 7100 felt more sturdy.

These are above your price point new, of course, but they might be good ones to look for at a used shop. Also, my husband just explained to me the other day what tubes were, so don't feel dumb! Ask questions when you need to!
posted by timetoevolve at 1:26 PM on April 30, 2011

Last year I got a lady's vintage bike like you're describing for riding around Chicago and it was *perfect* for something like that. I have a bunch of bikes--I know my way around basic bike maintenance, but that bike has become my go-to, ride-around-town, don't-care-if-I'm-slow bike because it's damn fun to ride.

Make sure it's not making any clunking noises when you ride it, make sure the chain isn't too rusty (preferably not rusty at all), make sure the brakes make the bike stop in a reasonable distance, make sure you can adjust the seat up and down (that the tube connected to the seat isn't stuck in case you want to adjust it), and make sure the gears shift. In a bike shop, you can ask them to "run through the gears" for you while the bike is on a stand with the back wheel lifted up off the ground. Or you can ride it and move each gear lever a little bit at a time to see what happens. There may be a little bit of clunking when you shift the gears, but there shouldn't be otherwise.

Honestly, find something that feels pretty comfortable and buy it and ride it. Resale on older used bikes is pretty good, so you won't lose much $ if you decide the first one you picked isn't for you. You can sell it and try a different one.

(Also, pick up a helmet and a good lock.)
posted by BlooPen at 1:53 PM on April 30, 2011

I don't know a lot about bikes but I've been in your situation a few times: trying to buy a sub-$200 bike in North Brooklyn. Anything to do with used bikes in North Brooklyn costs way more money than it would anywhere else. I seriously think if you had a car you could make good money buying up bikes in Jersey or Penna and selling them in NYC.

So, with $200 as the limit of your budget it's going to be less about what bike you want and more about what bike you can get. Bike shops won't even have many used bikes in that price range.

I also always want bikes that you sit up on as vertically as possible and are comfortable and aren't complicated or anything. I think of them as grandma bikes. My strategy for finding these on craigslist is basically based on your observation that "many are old schwinns", "many have 3 speeds", etc. So I just search for a word that seems uniquely associated with those bikes, like "sturmey" because a lot of those types of bikes have hubs made by Sturmey-Archer. Or "3-speed".

I think, generally people call these types of bikes 'dutch bikes' but that's not very useful to know, as any bike being described that way is also being sold for waaay more than $200.

The thing about bike shops is its one of those areas of retail where the people are overwhelmingly likely to be assholes. I never really get why people on the internet are always like, "I miss record stores!", "Support your LBS (local bike shop), "Let's all cry for the independent bookstores!" Mostly, I don't miss going to a tiny record shop where I could never find what I wanted and the staff was rude to me at all. Anyway, I'm getting off track here. Brooklyn is probably worse than average in this regard. Off the top of my head, in North Brooklyn, I think the people at B's Bikes in Greenpoint are the nicest/most helpful, especially for someone who doesn't know anything about bikes. And they won't try to convince you to buy some expensive crap you don't need. The people at NYCBikes on Havemeyer in Williamsburg are the _worst_. There's another bike shop on Grand in Williamsburg, they don't really carry many bikes though, but its a place you can get repairs.

There's this bike Co-op on South 6th in Williamsburg that's part of Time's Up. I've never actually been in there but I hear good things about it and the people seem nice. Also, they keep chickens there, so its hard not to like them. Seriously, they have this vending machine out on the sidewalk that sells tubes and velocipediacal sundries, and you see all these bike anarchists walking in and out of there door and every once in a while a chicken wanders out onto the sidewalk.

My last North Brooklyn piece of bike acquisition information is that sometimes, like now, 3rd Ward gives you a free bike when you join. So if you were thinking about joining 3rd Ward anyway, or you have a friend who is, might be a way to kill two birds with one stone.
posted by jeb at 1:57 PM on April 30, 2011

You want to head to the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene and talk to the guy who sells used bikes. He's got some Schwinn cruiser type stuff, some old 10-speeds, some fixie conversions, some newer stuff, and the occasional really swank ride. For $200 he can get your sorted with something cute and simple. When I bought my bike from him, he gave me an on the spot tune up and a 2-month guarantee. He'll adjust the seat to fit you and make sure the frame size is correct (try to wear pants to go out bike shopping, as this is determined by having you stand over the top bar of the bike).

When you test ride the bike, make sure that it fits you well and that you feel comfortable on it. The chain shouldn't squeak, the brakes should work smoothly, and all the gears should work reasonably well (or perfectly, if it's a three or five speed with internal shifting - look for this by checking out the back wheel - if the hub is extra thick and you don't see a bunch of large visible gears, that's internal hub shifting). Look closely at the frame to make sure it's not rusty - a chain can be fixed, but a corroded frame is basically garbage.

As for what to shop for.

Make sure the bike you ultimately buy has the number of gears you want. In other words, don't buy a single speed if you plan to commute into Manhattan at all and aren't in great shape (bridges = GIGANTIC hills!). In the other direction, don't feel like you need some crazy 21 speed granny gear elite racing thing, either. I only ever use about 3 of my 10 speeds riding around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

You also want to buy a bike that isn't too heavy. A lot of the old Schwinn cruisers are very heavy, so that's a point against them. Heaviness in a bike means that it'll be difficult to carry up and down stairs (even just a few stairs like a front stoop), and almost impossible to mount on one of those nifty ceiling hook setups that a lot of people in small apartments use to store their bikes. Heaviness will also make it more difficult to deal with hills, again, remember that for your purposes any bridge between boroughs = a hill.

Many to most older ten-speeds with the drop handlebars can be fitted with different bars to give you a more upright position. Also, it's possible to ride most of those older road bikes in a more upright position by using the top of the bars instead of the lower curvy part - just make sure the brakes allow for that hand position when you test ride. So don't be afraid to try them out.
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing. If you end up looking at road bikes over cruisers, but you aren't really comfortable in a low riding position - make sure the gear shifters are NOT on the "down tube", i.e. the downward sloping part of the bike's frame. If you're in any way petite, it's going to be difficult to shift gears if you don't feel comfortable in a low position. You want your gears to be up near the handlebars or on the "bar ends" (i.e. mounted to the ends of the handlebars).
posted by Sara C. at 2:19 PM on April 30, 2011

a hybrid with an upright position, or for real beginners, a so-called "comfort bike".

If you live in Williamsburg and are in any way concerned with aesthetics, do not get a bike like this. They are ugly as sin and you will feel super lame riding one around in "hipster" Brooklyn. Keep in mind that a lot of people in this neck of the woods treat their bicycles more like a fashion accessory than a vehicle. Maybe you hate all that crap and are happy to appear as frumpy as possible - but seriously hybrids and comfort bikes are only half a step above recumbents in the hierarchy of bad-ass vs. lame.
posted by Sara C. at 2:24 PM on April 30, 2011

Swing by recycle-a-bicycle to see what they've got on tap. Also go to Ride Brooklyn, talk with them and see what new bikes they recommend. Then look for used ones that are similar.

Buying a used bike isn't easy. There's a lot of junk out there, and it can be hard to know what you're looking at. A knowledgeable friend is invaluable.
posted by entropone at 2:25 PM on April 30, 2011

You want an Electra Townie. They are awesome, look good, are comfortable to ride, and are well-nigh indestructable. You will be able to ride upright, put your feet down on the ground when you stop, and, depending on how tall you are, be able to see over a lot of traffic. I've seen used ones on Craigslist around here (here=Denver, for what it's worth) for around $200-300. Some bike people will possibly laugh at you, for whatever reason, but the aura that you'll exude when you ride by them in a cloud of happiness will make them cry tears into their beers when you get home.

(Seriously, I've had mine for four years now, and use it constantly for both pleasure and utiliarian riding, up hills and on flats. Lots of Serious Bike Riders, both of the commuter and hipster variety told me that I'd switch that thing for a "real" bike within months, but it's still my favorite thing I own, and no other bike feels as right to ride for me, nor as enjoyable.)
posted by heurtebise at 2:49 PM on April 30, 2011

Seconding the 'recruit a friend'. Used bikes on Craigslist in SF or NYC is not a spectator sport.

Honestly, I think wearing tweed on a recumbent penny-farthing is the only way to go in Williamsburg.
posted by kcm at 5:26 PM on April 30, 2011

Electra Townies (and their other cruiser style bikes) are really fucking heavy. Do not consider this unless you are a dead lifter or live in a ground floor apartment with a ramp entrance.
posted by Sara C. at 9:46 PM on April 30, 2011

Internal gearing, like the famous Sturmey-Archer hub jeb mentioned, are great because you can shift without pedalling. This means that you never have to be in the wrong gear, even if you forget to shift down before stopping at a traffic light or behind a car. (This may not make sense right now, but if you get an internal-gearing bike you will come to love it.)

Also, if you like the cruiser style, keep in mind that many cruisers come with coaster brakes and you almost certainly do not want a bike with coaster brakes, not because there's something inherently bad about them (although this is also true) but because they're completely different from any other style of brake. With coaster brakes, you actually stop by pedalling backward, instead of squeezing a lever.

It's a terrible idea because the brakes are the only part of a bike you must be able to operate instinctively, and with coaster brakes you'll fumble for a long time before you get used to them, at which point you will have a habit that you'll have to unlearn before you can safely ride any other bike.

Okay, here endeth the rant.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:06 PM on April 30, 2011

If you haven't seen this already, Sheldon Brown's website is perhaps the most authoritative, comprehensive online resource on bikes and all things bike-related. Definitely worth bookmarking and consulting for future reference. Don't let the Geocities appearance of the site deter you; there is an incredible amount of useful and practical information that remains just as important and relevant today for cyclists of all levels, written in prose that is both educational and easy to read/understand.

I also wanted to say that d. z. wang makes an excellent point about why you should stay away from bikes with coaster brakes (aka footbrakes) - they don't prepare you for safe cycling habits and they're awkward as hell to use anyway.

That said, it's important to realize that with handbrakes, the front brake (generally controlled by the lever on the left handlebar) is the safer brake to use for stopping, especially when bicycling at higher speeds.

More detailed explanation here
, but I would suggest that any bicyclist (regardless of level) should practice getting good at controlling the front brake correctly to reduce the risk of getting into an accident or suffering an injury. No better time to develop safe habits than when you're just getting into cycling again!
posted by matticulate at 2:43 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a 70s bright green Schwinn Varsity (10 speed with the drop handlebars replaced) and it has been my favorite over all my other bikes for years. It is heavy though, so if you have to carry your bike upstairs be sure to try lifting it first.
posted by sulaine at 6:51 AM on May 1, 2011

The problem with an Old Schwinn (of which I was the proud owner of several as a kid), is that limitations in design and manufacturing resulted in a finished product that translated much less of the work you put into it into forward motion of the bicycle than other bikes made back then, such as Raleighs.

An old Raleigh Superbe 5-speed (generally featuring a completely covered chain, which will save you untold maintenance, not to mention laundry bills for the few items of clothing that can actually be saved after coming in contact with the chain, and an incomparable spring mounted leather Brooks saddle), would probably suit you very well.

I rode one around Seattle for years, and it got so much attention from bike aficionados that answering all their questions ultimately became an annoyance.

Similar looking Fuji Cambridge III's and VI's are even better made and more efficient, and the VI is far better on hills because of its 6 speeds.

I'm bound to admit, however, that none of these are anything like as well made or as relatively effortless to pedal as a low-end modern mountain bike outfitted with high-pressure slick tires.
posted by jamjam at 11:38 AM on May 1, 2011

You want a vintage bike, because you will get better quality than a newer one with the same price. Specifically, you want a Raleigh. I have a 3-speed Raleigh Sports, and I sit upright, get compliments on how cute my bike is, and don't have trouble going up hills.

You want to read this about buying a vintage bike, and what you need to do and look for.
posted by aaanastasia at 2:31 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go to Craigslist and look up the guys who sell tons of bikes out of their garage in Sheepshead Bay. It's pretty far out there, but they have a huge selection of bikes. Apparently, they have a photo album of their current inventory. Try out all the different styles and see what works for you.
posted by hooray at 4:17 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Brooklyn Based talks about bikes this week, which may give you ideas of places to look. For what it's worth, I was in a similar situation about six months ago and wound up getting a bike from a bike shop (the excellent Mr. C's Cycles in Sunset Park); it just felt more reputable than shopping around on the internet when I had no idea where to start on my own. They were very helpful with suggestions and letting me try out the bike. In fact, they even assembled a bike for me while I waited, since I'm too short for the ones they had out (not your situation, but still I think an indicator of how helpful an actual bike store can be).
posted by mlle valentine at 7:31 PM on May 1, 2011

Hi greta_simone, check your Mefi Mail!
posted by falameufilho at 5:07 PM on May 5, 2011

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