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June 12, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Buying a bicycle for our 14-year-old. I know nothing.

My husband and I offered my 14-year-old stepdaughter a couple choices for a graduation gift from eighth grade, and she's opting for a bicycle. I haven't ridden a bike since I was younger than she is and know absolutely nothing about the process of buying one. I don't think my husband's ever had a bike that wasn't a hand-me-down or a dumpster rescue. So we need some help.

We live in a suburban area and my stepdaughter probably will be riding this bike either on the street to friends' houses or stores within a couple miles of our house or on paved bike trails in our local parks. I doubt she'll be doing any kind of unpaved trail riding. She isn't particularly athletic, nor is she much of a risk taker. She's about 5'4" and may be about done growing, based on her mom's and dad's builds.

What should we be looking for in a bike for her? How much are we going to have to be prepared to spend? Where should we go? (We are in eastern CT.) We're not rich but we do want something decent and durable.
posted by dlugoczaj to Shopping (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a bike last year for the first time in my life. I didn't know anything about them, either. I just went to bike shops, told the people working there what I wanted and what price range I was looking at, and they were very, very knowledgeable and helpful.

That said - I did go to a couple of different shops and didn't have a great experience at one of them. If it feels like they're scamming or ignoring you, leave and go somewhere else. Most bike shop people really like bikes and bike riding and want to help people incorporate cycling into their lives.
posted by something something at 1:31 PM on June 12, 2012

Take her to a bike shop and let her pick something out, within the limit of your budget. Ask the folks who work there for advice. Make sure she test-rides a few. Don't go to a big box store. Be prepared to spend $300 or more on something decently made.
posted by adamrice at 1:38 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You want either a hybrid or a road bike, depending on how sure you are about the unpaved trails. A new name-brand hybrid is about $400. Don't let them talk you into getting shocks.

Get it at a bike store with attached repair shop, not a department store. Some bike stores sell only one brand, so check a couple. Best to get it at the shop nearest your house since they will usually give you a free tune up coupon with purchase.

There is a hip-ness factor to having a used road bike with single or fixed gears, which may or may not matter to your particular 14-year-old.

Also, get a U-lock.
posted by fbo at 1:47 PM on June 12, 2012

Others have sort of said it upthread, but the key is to find the right bike store. There is no magic one bike. If they're a good store with a decent selection of bikes they won't be afraid turn your stepdaughter away from bikes that aren't right.

The second key tip is that particularly at the sub $1000 level you really get what you pay for - lots of bike kinda look the same but more expensive bikes should have lighter, stronger, more efficient and more reliable components - this will not be immediately obvious so trusting the advice you get is important.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:47 PM on June 12, 2012

Here is a brief plan of attack, followed by a grab bag of potentially useful facts/resources. Apologies for hopping all over the place:

First, you'll want to find out what style of bike she would like, and what kind of riding she will be doing.

There are dozens of sub-divisions, but the three largest families you'll be dealing with (and a good starting point for further exploration) are: Road, Mountain, and Hybrid. Ask which she thinks appeals most to her.

Road/hybrid bikes are for roads. I imagine she will be riding mostly on roads. Tell her not to get a mountain bike (unless she's gonna be riding on mountains [which I don't think she will be]).

Her aesthetics will come into play, no doubt, and she will have strong preferences that you should heed, of course.

Good fit is very, very important. Several online guides can help you with that.

Department store bikes are an order of magnitude cheaper than local bike shop prices. But the bikes are an order of magnitude more shoddy. The very thing that allows WalMart to sell that bike for $120 all but ensures that every component, and the assembly itself, has had corners cut to get it to that price point.

That said -- and bike people will never, ever admit this -- but if she's only going to ride once a month or so, a department store bike would work just fine.

Used is a good option, once you've fitted her you can make custom craigslist and eBay searches that return only the style and size you'd like. Then again, it's difficult if you don't know what you're looking for.

Many large cities have bike co-ops that restore and sell old bikes. It's been my experience that the prices are fair, and that (many, but not all) of the people helping a child get his/her first bike would be very patient and helpful and accommodating.

New and (fairly) cheap is doable. Not shilling for them at all, and I have no stake whatsoever in their success, but I've had good interactions with BikesDirect. The prices are the best you'll reliably find for components/frames of reasonable quality. Here's their Road, Hybrid, and Cruiser selections.

Downside would be that there is some assembly required (nothing outlandish; 30-45 minutes with an allen wrench). I've also heard people complain about their customer support being non-responsive. Haven't had occasion to use their customer support, but you see it come up a lot on bike forums as being non-responsive and bad.

Very few people complain about the quality of the bikes they receive from BD, though, which is noteworthy.

A fashionable choice for many kids nowadays are fixed/single speed bikes. They are very "hot/in/trendy" right now. They are also quite a bit cheaper. Ask her what she thinks about "fixies" (I bet most kids know that term, now). She'll likely have a strong opinion on it one way or another. If she wants one, then you just saved a ton of money. Make sure you install the brakes that come with it, and it will be good to her. A Kilo TT will run you $310; and it's a quality bike that's easy to love.

Sorry so scattered, it's a difficult (but not impossible) thing for a novice to research, and I'm not sure how best to condense the million small pieces of advice that might help.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 1:59 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

fbo: "Don't let them talk you into getting shocks."

This is important. Until you get into the higher levels of purpose-built mountain bikes, suspension is nothing more than an expensive gimmick. They need to be properly and regularly maintained in order to continue to function, and cheap ones never work very well to begin with. Avoid at all costs unless you have a budding Alison Sydor on your hands.
posted by klanawa at 2:38 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The above answers seem a tad out of whack with my own perspective. I really cannot imagine a 14 year old suburban girl without much riding experience, getting a fixie to ride to her friends' houses. Nor can I imagine her trying to measure and order a bike online, with nobody to give help with fit or decision making, and not being able to try things out first.

I'd go to a few local shops and try out some options. REI has decent bikes too, and they're super duper helpful - no commission, no attitude, no upselling. Some bike shops have used bikes, and they've been tuned up and are ready for use. She might get 'more' bike (or bells and whistles, like a rack) for the same cost.

Craigslist is also an option but it wouldn't be my first recommendation for this situation.

What does 'Eastern Connecticut' mean? New Haven area? We could recommend bike shops...
posted by barnone at 2:46 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

> I really cannot imagine a 14 year old suburban girl without much riding experience, getting a fixie to ride to her friends' houses.
Not sure where you ride, but I passed at least three separate early-teen girls matching that exact description (minus "suburban") on my 12 mile ride, this morning (all riding freewheel, but small matter). Not at all sure how such things become popular, but for middle-class early-teens here (STL), "fixed gear" (as an aesthetic, at least) has become quite commonplace in the last year or so.

No idea if that's a regional thing, or just confirmation bias on my part, or what.

As a note to the Original Asker just so that this aside might be of some use to him/her: Without going in deeper than is warranted, "fixies" as used here refers to bikes that have a single gear. Most sold have the option of being set-up as a "single speed" which differs in that the bike has a freewheel -- which means, most basically, that it can "coast" without the pedals moving.

It's not really a good or a bad thing, and it's not more or less safe (when set up responsibly, as is true of any bike), it's not any better/worse... anybody with strident convictions on either pro/con side are fooling themselves. It's just a type of bike.

It's a fashionable thing, and because of this (and assorted "hipster" identification/vilification), a lot of people make a bigger deal about it than is warranted.

(They are cheaper, though. And they are rather "hip" amongst the kids -- at least where I live. She might not care one whit about "hip", though... and there are a million other options, of course.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 3:10 PM on June 12, 2012

Anecdata - I just bought my son a Trek 3500, which has a reasonably light aluminum frame. It was $400, which I am coming to realize is near the bottom end of anything decent. Pretty happy with the purchase so far, although because the frame is so small it is hard to mount a rear rack, or a frame mount for a U-lock.
posted by bashos_frog at 3:23 PM on June 12, 2012

Yeah, I'm sure the teens in my neighborhood skew slightly less 'hip' and more towards the... 'hand-me-down' type of bikes. And you make a good point about single-speed and freewheel.

Based on the details in your question, I'd say a hybrid or comfort bike would be a good idea. She can also try out an Electra Townie, which helped to popularize the user-friendly "feet on the ground" concept. The position is more 'upright' and like a Dutch bike, instead of being bent over the handlebars. The pedals are slightly in front of the seat, which means that you can put your feet flat on the ground when you're stopped -- no wobbling over from side to side in that awkward balance. Lots of teens and women ride them around here. You do compromise on power (for hills) though. There are tons of models besides the Townie - that's just an illustration of the general concept.

But really, it depends on a) her comfort level, b) your terrain, c) your price point. I'd make a few trips to different bike shops, preferably NOT on a Saturday, so that you can get a bit more personalized attention.

Finally: HELMET. Insist on it. They make cooler ones that look like skate helmets but are used for bike riding. And a lock. There are locks with a word code instead of a key, which might be useful if you're in a low crime area. Whatever you get, learn how to lock it up properly.
posted by barnone at 3:24 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the lower end of budget, I suggested this to a friend in an area with no access to bike shops, and nothing much on Craigslist. It's fairly cheap, and has held up surprisingly well. Super easy to ride. Schwinn Discover - no idea what size she'd be, sorry.
posted by barnone at 3:26 PM on June 12, 2012

This would be a good question to post in the Recreational & Family section of BikeForums.net. It is probably busier than this forum and it's all about bikes, with lots of helpful folks.
posted by Doohickie at 3:32 PM on June 12, 2012

A singlespeed setup is indeed much safer than a fixed-gear setup. There is no way to prevent possible pedal strike in a turn on a fixed gear bike, and in cases when the rider stands to pedal incorrectly or stops pedaling in a specific, common manner, they can be launched off the bike.

That said, on the other hand, a fixed-gear bike used properly (not trivial) can be safer than a singlespeed setup since you've got an additional braking method.

In any case, a fixed-gear bike is not an appropriate first bike, in my opinion.
posted by kcm at 3:34 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a good bike would be a significant expense for you folks. Be sure to get a good lock to keep it safe while riding around, and to teach the young lady to always lock the bike, even when stopping for a moment, since a thief on a bike can escape faster than she can chase him.

In a suburban area, you're probably not going to face particularly serious thieves, but get a lock thick enough that it can't be defeated by twisting, and make sure the young lady learns to use it to lock through the frame to a solid object, rather than one that can be kicked out of place (e.g. a fence on a porch). A moderately-price cable lock will probably do the job, though a U-lock is always a better option and will serve her through college as well, as a campus is usually a bit of a higher-threat environment. Kryptonite and OnGuard are good brands, and one can get locks from them for good prices at Amazon.
posted by akgerber at 4:03 PM on June 12, 2012

I'd recommend going the bike shop route unless you know someone who is a semi-serious bicyclist who owes you a favor. The odds are much better of the bike being properly assembled and a lot of bike shops will do annual once-overs for free or cheap if you bought the bike there.

I ride a Trek 7200 hybrid that's served me well for about 10 years now. It's a skosh harder to pedal on paved streets than a dedicated street bike (so I'm not going to win any races) but I pretty regularly take it on not-exactly-paved trails (crushed limestone, etc.) with no trouble at all.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:37 PM on June 12, 2012

REI does have some good choices, especially in the hybrid area, which is what I’d recommend.
posted by bongo_x at 5:26 PM on June 12, 2012

I had good luck buying someone a Novara Buzz from REI when they needed "A basic bike. Not too fancy, just to ride around" They have it and still love it ten years later. It cost $400ish then, and it looks like they cost $600 now. The Buzz OneBike (a single-speed) costs $450. The cost can be brought down if you are an REI member ($20 buys a lifetime membership), as REI members get one item per year at 20% off, making the bikes $480 and $360, respectively.

Definitely get them a lock along with the bike, however. U-lock or chain lock, and ideally with a mount on the bike to hold the lock. Also, a bike helmet a good idea if there are going to be cars on the same roads she is biking.
posted by pmb at 6:15 PM on June 12, 2012

What is the terrain like around your house? If it's hilly, then be sure to get something with gears! You don't necessarily need lots of gears, just one that's low enough to get up the hardest hill. Riding a bike (for those of us who aren't uber-fit) is no fun if you end up all hot and sweaty because you can't get into a low enough gear.
posted by kjs4 at 10:01 PM on June 12, 2012

I really cannot imagine a 14 year old suburban girl . . . trying to measure and order a bike online, with nobody to give help with fit or decision making, and not being able to try things out first.

Exactly. That's why I'm asking. Absolutely she's going to go with us to try things out, but I don't think she knows that much about bikes either. She can ride one, but everything we or her mom have had have been hand-me-downs and we haven't had any input on choosing anything. Possibly she's picked some things up through friends but I don't think it's too likely.

Craigslist is also an option but it wouldn't be my first recommendation for this situation.

I'm not too likely to do this because we probably want professional consultation (i.e., bike shop). That and, well, it's a present, and it feels tacky to go the used route. I just don't want to go in to a bike shop completely unprepared and have someone try to sell us something we don't need or ridiculously overpriced.

What does 'Eastern Connecticut' mean? New Haven area? We could recommend bike shops...

No, northeastern (near UConn). Hartford is closer than New Haven and I know that area a whole lot better.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:56 AM on June 13, 2012

Go to a bike shop, not a hardware shop et al that also sells bikes. They're cheaper at the big stores, but they're put together haphazardly by untrained staff and then things happen like the pedal arms falling off (happened to me). Check Yelp or Google Map reviews of local shops, find one that has good things said about it, go in and chat with the staff. If it's a good shop, they'll find the right bike for you.
Also try asking co-workers and friends with bikes where they go. I found my current absolute gem of a hole-in-the-wall bike shop that way, and it's FANTASTIC.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:23 AM on June 13, 2012

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