Terribly confused looking for a bike
July 26, 2011 6:37 PM   Subscribe

What should I be looking for in buying a bike?

I live in San Jose, California, and am looking to buy a bike. I'm not interested in "serious" cycling, or anything--I just need something to help with transportation to and from college (most of which will still be on bus).

The problem is, I know nothing about bikes--what sort of bike to get, what sort of features to look for. I'm utterly clueless, so any bit of advice I'd be thankful for.
posted by KChasm to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Look at bikes designed for commuting and urban transportation. These bikes tend to feature practical things like fenders (to keep you dry when you ride through puddles), racks to carry stuff, chain guards (to keep grease off your pant cuff), kick stands, wider tires for a more comfortable ride, and more durable components. Most bikes don't have all that stuff; a lot of bikes are sold with athletes in mind, and those guys want super-light bikes that don't have utilitarian features. You don't want this; you want convenience and comfort.

Find a local bike shop, not a big box store. Look for a bike shop that is a dealer for at least one of the big brands, like Trek, Specialized, Giant, or Fuji. If you don't find the sales associates helpful, leave and go someplace else. Give any bike a long test ride. Ask the sales associate to make sure he or she measures your height and recommends a frame size appropriate for your body.

This is a great time of year to buy, by the way--lots of shops have sales to get rid of their summer inventory.
posted by jgfoot at 7:17 PM on July 26, 2011

how much are you willing to spend?
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 7:21 PM on July 26, 2011

If you're near a college campus, there should be hundreds of 70s-80s lugged steel ten-speeds floating around at absurdly cheap prices. Google image search for "Schwinn Varsity" to see a (low-end) example. You can find them on Craigslist or (better) whatever knock-off you university hosts, or by walking around until you see a secondhand bike shop. The last option will give the best results if you know little about bikes and find a good shop, but requires some legwork.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:37 PM on July 26, 2011

1) We need to know your budget.

2) We need to know what you're like - tall, short, skinny, fat, fit, and if you have any injuries that might make cycling uoncomfortable - bad back, blown knee, etc.

3) We need to know what your commute is like. Are there lots of hills? Is it mostly flat? How far are you going to ride the bike? Are you going to take the bike on the bus - if so, how? (Some busses have bike racks up front, see if yours does.)

Once we know that, boy, are you in good shape! Commuter bikes are popular like they've never been before - all of the big-name bicycle manufacturers make some pretty good ones. The trick is to find a local bicycle shop you're comfortable with, and ask the sales staff lots of questions. They may even let you take a model or two for a test ride. You should let us know what brands the bike shop carries, and we can then suggest good models that meet your budget and needs - all the manufacturers make something you'd like.

I would avoid any bike not sold by a bike shop or bike co-op - either new or used - to avoid a couple of issues.

- The bicycle may be stolen.
- The bicycle may not be worth what they're asking, they depend on you not knowing what you're looking at.
- The bicycle may be unsafe, with steel rims, rotted brake pads or tires, frozen cables, cracked frames or worse. Unless you know bikes, you won't spot these kinds of issues.
- The bicycle may need more work to make it safe, comfortable and convenient than it would cost to buy a new bike.

A tuned-up used bike from a bicycle co-op or bike shop is a very good idea, tho.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:05 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy's post is a great one. Once you answer all those questions, it will be just a matter of finding the bike. It's hard to know what to look for for anyone without knowing your specifics.

Some bits I've learned since June:

Whatever you do, don't buy a bicycle from a department store unless you expect to get a poorly put together machine with equally poor parts [that break the same day of your purchase].

Buy a helmet and use it, no matter what. One just saved my life this past weekend. And last month.

Don't change your jacket while riding- I watched a rider attempt this, resulting in a broken wrist and collarbone.

Don't be afraid to visit the local bike shop or read up on bicycle maintenance for when you need it (odd sound, jiggling headset).

I found it easy to spend over $1000 on a bicycle or two, but it's also just as easy to employ or enjoy one for a fraction of the cost.
posted by Giggilituffin at 1:59 AM on July 27, 2011

What Slap*Happy and Giggilituffin said.* If you post answers to some of those questions you can get good answers.

The best way to start learning about bicycles is to find a welcoming bike shop, a bike co-op, or a club that is not exclusively for bike racing. Where do you go to school? I teach at UMass Amherst, which has a bike co-operative as a registered student organization. Find out whether your school has one.

The second-best way to start learning about bicycles is to read the late Sheldon Brown's website. The articles for beginners are, not surprisingly, good places to start.

For riding technique, especially how to ride in traffic, look at John S. Allen's great pamphlet, Bicycling Street Smarts, which John has kindly posted to his website.

Other things being equal, a good starter bike would be an old hard-tail mountain bike from the 1990s. If you're like many college students, your family or your friends' parents might have one in the right size lying around unused in the garage. If you can find one, take it to a shop and ask them if it's OK (and if not, how much it would cost to fix up). Have them replace the knobby off-road tires with slick tires for riding on the road, add a rear rack, fenders, and lights, and you will have a cheap, reliable commuting bicycle. If you can add a chain guard too, to keep grease off your trousers without having to tuck them into your socks, that would be even better.

*Except that if you need the protection of a helmet twice in a couple months, you should maybe change your riding style or rethink where you ride your bike.... And it is possible to change your jacket while riding; experienced randonneurs do it all the time. But you'd better be very good at riding no-hands before trying.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:44 AM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

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