What type of city bike should a newbie get?
July 6, 2012 11:44 AM   Subscribe

What should I be looking for in a decent city bike?

I live in Los Angeles, and want something that ideally fills the following criteria:

-Will likely get nominal use. Expecting this to be a starter bike.
-Something small enough to easily take on the subway and fit in storage.

Pretty sure I'll be going for something used, or building from existing parts with some help. But I have no idea what questions to ask, what price range to look at, etc.

Should I get a single gear, multi gear, banana seat (j/k), or anything else?

If there's a particular, pre-built model that's a favorite, would love to hear.

(for the locals, I'm thinking of going to Bicycle Kitchen to have them help me construct a bike... if there's anything I should ask while there, or another direction I should take, please let me know)
posted by Unsomnambulist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I like recommending simplicity. Like: singlespeed, or, internally-geared hub, or, just 7-9 speeds instead of like 27, makes a modest bike work better for longer.

BK should be able to help you out, for sure.
posted by entropone at 11:51 AM on July 6, 2012

If LA is anything like DC, if you intend to lock this bicycle anywhere outside, you want a cheap bike that will not attract theft or vandalism, or at least something that you won't feel like you lost much if it is stolen or vandalized. In other words, you want a banana seat.
posted by massysett at 11:53 AM on July 6, 2012

Well, unless you go with a folding bike they're all going to be roughly the same size. A road/touring bike is going to be smaller and lighter than a cruiser though -- they're just built a lot more compactly.

When you think about your bike, are you thinking something more like this road bike, or this cruiser, or maybe even this mountain bike?

I'd go with something with multiple gears, for sure – even in a cruiser, one of those three-speed hub gears will make your bike a lot more pleasant to ride.

Basically I'd just decide what general style of bike you want and then I'd troll Craigslist and contact everyone who looked like they had something promising in my price range. Then I'd go visit the bikes of the people who responded to me, and when I saw one that I liked the look of (good condition, fits me well, nice looks, well built) I'd buy that.

It's just a starter bike, right? Keep your budget low and don't worry about getting it perfect. Buy something that looks good to you, ride it for a while, and then buy another bike once you have a better idea of what you like.
posted by Scientist at 11:53 AM on July 6, 2012

This is going to be one of those questions where you're going to get a million answers. My personal suggestion is to go to a locally-owned-and-operated bike shop in your area, and ask this very question. You're almost certainly going to be talking to a knowledgeable person if you do. You mention Bicycle Kitchen - while I'm not familiar with that, a quick Googling tells me that it's a non-profit co-op bike shop, and yeah, you'll get some awesome advice there as well.

As far as bike specifics, my personal city bike is a Schwinn hybrid. It's beefy enough to stand up to not only bad city roads but also my fat ass, and it's served me well for many years of at least occasional service - I've probably put at least 3000 miles on it over the 15 years that I've owned it. Your body type, roads, and use profile will vary so wildly as to make that bit of advice almost meaningless, I'm afraid.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:55 AM on July 6, 2012

Oh, and I don't know a lot about the topography of LA. If the area where you intend to be riding is particularly hilly, you might want more speeds than one of those ubiquitous 3-speed cruiser hub gears can offer. Hub gears exist with more speeds, but they're a bit rare especially in the cheap/used part of the market. If you have a lot of hills, you might look into a road bike, a hybrid (halfway between road and mountain bike), or maybe an old hardbody mountain bike from back before they started putting suspensions on them. (Shocks on a street bike are just wasted weight, more moving parts to go wrong, and unnecessary expense.)
posted by Scientist at 11:57 AM on July 6, 2012

I like old mountain bikes with no shocks. The tires are wide enough to deal with potholes and going up and down curbs and it's cheap and simple.

Get some good lights, a front rack, a bell and a good U-lock and cable to secure your tires.

Record your serial number and have fun!
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:01 PM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you are not in a rush and have a few free hours, just do what Scientist suggests.

If you are willing to spend a few more bucks for convenience, I'd mail order a new $200 bike from Nashbar or Performance. You can call them and get basic advice. No, you won't get the personalized service or support a local shop or be able to ride it before buying. But you will spend $200 rather than $500+. It will be a decent bike that will be fine for your limited needs. (You can get something even cheaper at Walmart, but that will be a truly junky bike.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:01 PM on July 6, 2012

For casual, city errand type riding I like older steel road bikes (well made & bomb-proof, not particularly flashy, very comfortable) set up with non-dropbar handlebars that are setup a little more upright (ie Nitto's moustache, promenade, all-arounder, etc.), a rear rack and/or front basket, and a reasonable number of gears depending on your neighborhood (if you're getting a slightly older road bike maybe you just keep it 12/14 or whatever it is now, if you're going to the co-op and building one maybe you do something like 1x6 for simplicity).

If you really want to go all out, add fenders and get a dynamo generator front wheel so you can have an ultra-bright head light and you have the ultimate city bike.
posted by bradbane at 12:15 PM on July 6, 2012

Best answer: I ride all over the central city here in LA, from Highland Park down to USC, and parts inbetween including Echo Park and Silver Lake and East Hollywood, and occasionally I go over the river to East LA. Sometimes I also ride down the river to Long Beach.

From that standpoint, I would suggest you don't get a single-gear or fixed-gear bicycle if you are going to be riding anywhere east of Vermont. It gets hilly, and it stays hilly, pretty much all the way over the river and into the Eastside.

I ride an old steel Raleigh road bike with a straight bar handlebar. To me, the heavier bike makes it feel like a more comfortable ride when I hit a rough patch.

Some people prefer a mountain bike because there are so many potholes and the tires are more substantial on a mountain bike, but I have never had a problem specifically related to potholes with my skinnier wheels.

One thing I think you should weigh, with respect to the Bike Kitchen, is when you want to use the bike. If you're talking about building the bike, you're going to put in dozens of hours (think days and days and days over a period of weeks) of time on the bike stand before you have a bike that you're using.

Also, even if you get a rideable project bike from them, you're going to spend $7 an hour on stand time, the volunteers are very much hit and miss, and you gotta make sure to show up when they open if you want to get a stand.

One thing I can recommend with the greatest confidence is Coco's Variety Store, in the Frogtown area by the 2 freeway. They used to be a variety store, and now they're really settling into being a full service bike store with a random collection of used books for sale.

No one there will ever be a creep to you. No one there will ever condescend to you. No one there will ever try to make you buy a $600 bike when you want a $300 bike. Occasionally someone there will offer you pizza. They can talk to you about seats and they have several options, from $20 to $100. I've lived in LA for six years and this remains one of my very favorite local businesses, and I go to them for everything bike-related.

Ask them to rig you a little loop of used bike chain that connects your seat to your bike frame. You can get your seat stolen in this town, for sure.
posted by kensington314 at 12:22 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a city bike, the best money I've ever spent is in upgrading to reinforced puncture-resistant tires. For my bike, they're $50 per tire next to $20 for a regular tire, but the difference in reliability is amazing. If you couple that with super-thick puncture-resistant tubes, keep the air pressure high, and keep the valves capped, punctures will become a thing that only happens to other people.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:25 PM on July 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I live in Santa Monica and riding takes me all over L.A. west of downtown. I find the three speed to be a very suitable choice, unless you must traverse steep hills. Derailer multi speed bikes are fine, though, with quirks all their own.

My preferred tires are narrow road bike tires. However, there is much to be said for wide 26" mountain bike/beach cruiser size tires in a real world urban environment. They seem to be more durable, offer a bit more cushion, more stability over obstacles, and tend to be cheap and ubiquitous. The tradeoff is that they are heavier and offer more resistance to pedaling. But that doesn't seem to stop millions of people who ride everyday.

A step-through (girl's bike) is often a very practical choice. Standover height won't be an issue, they tend to be more plentiful, if you go the co-op route. And less desirable from a theft standpoint. Unless you intend to jump off roofs, they are plenty durable.

Avoid shock absorbers. Disc brakes will offer you no advantages. If you get a single speed or coaster brake hub, be sure to get a front brake, too.

I don't know Bicycle Kitchen, but the sister shop Bikerowave is a pretty good place to put together a bike.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:29 PM on July 6, 2012

My recommendation for a cheap commuter bike is to go out and get an old (80s or 90s) hardtail mountain bike, and then put street tires on it to replace the knobblies. It'll make it a lot easier to ride, but still be fairly comfortable (on pavement) and able to go over curbs and onto grass / dirt if necessary. Not nearly as vulnerable to a pinch-flat as something with 700c road tires either.

And it's cheap and probably less likely to get stolen, or leave you out a lot of money if it does.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:55 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mention the subway. I take the train through Union Station, and the subway is down essentially 4-5 flights of stairs and/or escalators. So unless you are pretty fit, I would recommend that you include 'light' in your requirements.

For riding on the train etc., really any bike will fit; just don't go crazy, and get normal-sized handlebars, and consider the total length of the bike when comparison shopping. All the trains, including Metrolink, have dedicated bike/wheelchair/etc areas that are pretty roomy.

For a new biker, the seat is actually more important than you'd think. Definitely get yourself fitted for a seat and definitely don't skimp when you do.
posted by felix at 12:58 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can we get a sense of your budget? A lot of the suggestions being made here are great ones, but things like replacing the tires on a bike can easily add an extra $100 to the price. If you're really trying to keep things cheap, you want to buy a cheap used bike (something old, probably cruiser style – these can still be great bikes) that just needs a little love, rather than new parts. Of course, if "cheap" to you means $300, then you have a lot more leeway.
posted by Scientist at 1:00 PM on July 6, 2012

For a city bike, I consider fenders and a chain guard a must. These things protect you from dust, grime, and chain gunk, all of which are a bummer if you're bicycling to get somewhere other than a shower.
posted by u2604ab at 1:11 PM on July 6, 2012

Best answer: A helmet to accompany the bike. Cannot stress that enough.
posted by pakora1 at 1:33 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a friend who knows about bikes that can help you look?

A used hybrid/tourer/commuter bike of some sort is almost certainly your best bet, but if you don't know what to look for, a $50 bike can quickly turn into a $200+ project. On the other hand, you can also get a beautiful, fun bike for a fraction of the cost of a new POS Walmart junk pile.

General tips: lighter is better. In LA, there's no excuse for fat tires unless you want to go offroad. Fat cushy seats are bad; they're comfy for a few miles, then get bad fast. Shocks do nothing on the road except make you work harder. More gears is usually not better; unless you're getting a top-end road bike, more gears is usually just a sign of a cheapo bike that will need adjustment all the darn time. A rack on the rear is invaluable for odds and ends, or for truly massive loads (I've done well over 50 lbs on mine, though the handling does get squirrelly).

In the end, though, just find something you like to ride; that's the most important thing. Whatever you do, don't buy one without a test ride.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:50 PM on July 6, 2012

If having a smaller bike for storage and use on public transit is important, but you don't want the expense of a Brompton or a Bike Friday, consider the Xootr Swift. It doesn't fold quite as compactly as those (especially the Brompton) but it is cheaper.

A mini-velo is another possibility. Originally developed in Japan (I think), it pairs a regular bicycle frame with smaller wheels, so that it takes up less space and is more maneuverable. It doesn't fold, so it's lighter than a folding bike (whose frames have to be reinforced at the folds and to compensate for the lack of triangulation). Soma has a mini-velo, though it is not cheap. (But it looks like good value for money.)

Otherwise I'd agree with Kadin2048 and bottlebrushtree: an old rigid mountain bike (no shocks in front or back), with wide road tires like Panaracer Paselas (an excellent tire for the price). Add fenders and a rear rack, and maybe a chain guard, and you've got an inexpensive, reliable commuter.

If you want more gears than a single-speed, and you don't want the complexity of a derailleur drivetrain, consider a 3- or 5-speed internally geared hub. And if you get a 3-speed, set it up so the high gear is good for level ground. That way you have a normal cruising gear (top speed), a gear for moderate hills or getting started from a stoplight (middle speed), and a gear for serious hills (low speed). If you're going downhill, either learn to pedal real fast (a useful skill) or coast. If you get a 5-speed hub, set it so that the 4th speed is good for level ground. (Hub speed advice is courtesy of Sheldon Brown and John S. Allen.)
posted by brianogilvie at 4:53 AM on July 7, 2012

P.S. My only bike for about a decade was a Trek Multitrack 730 hybrid, which was essentially a rigid mountain bike with 700C wheels. It gave me great service as an all-around bike, and I've still got it in my stable as a winter bike with studded snow tires.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:55 AM on July 7, 2012

I asked a similar question a little while ago and got some good responses.
I ended up with a refurbished 8-speed from an excellent small local shop, and it's been brilliant in the city.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:56 AM on July 7, 2012

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