Help me buy a bike please
November 12, 2013 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Shopping for a used bike for light commuting and weekend touring. What questions should I be asking?

I'm beginning the process of shopping for a bike, and I'm a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. I've stopped in a couple bike shops for advice and done some reading around the internet, but I'd like some more advice specific to my needs please!

Here are some details about my needs:

- I Live in Oakland, California (mostly mild weather, generally only moderate hills, lots of potholes).

- I want a bike for a short commute to and from work, and also for weekend, longer rides on paved roads, and finally, I'm hoping to start moderate touring and bike camping. Would like to be able to do the occasional century.

- I am 5'3", a woman, and in good (but not exceptional) aerobic and muscular form. I've been riding up to about 20 miles about once every week or two along with short rides a few times a week.

- I have mostly ridden hybrids, and am currently borrowing my daughter's 90s rockhopper which I actually like a lot, but after a few test rides on old road bikes, I think I might like a road bike, as long as it is hearty enough for longer rides and some camping. Don't care about being super speedy but do care about the bike being fairly ligthweight. I have some concern about ergonomics as the horizontal handled mountain bike has been giving me some numbness in the outside of my hands on longer rides.

- I hope to buy used because cheaper and also I try to buy used in general for environmental reasons.

- I am curious about cyclocross but no idea if I'll actual pursue it at some point. This may be a red herring - don't recommend me a bike based mainly on this point because I may never follow through on it.

More specific questions I have:

Should I look mostly at road bikes? Hybrids? Something else?
What sizes should I look at?
What kinds of tires or wheels I should be thinking of or even what exists? What brands of components are better or worse?
How do I meaningfully test drive a bike?

When I go into bike stores and look at ads on craigslist, I'd like to better understand some basics about what to weed out or consider, so any other specific things I should be thinking about?

Thank you mefi bike fans!
posted by latkes to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You'll get lots of good advice, I'm sure, but one thing that I would advise is to learn to recognise the quality of the components. For example, Shimano has a hierarchy for its components, as does SRAM, and an easy way for a manufacturer to cut costs is to go for cheaper bits and bobs. Knowing this helps you compare apples with apples, as it were. I've just linked to the mtb ones, which are also used in some hybrids. There are different ones for road bikes.

Also: if you did want to change your mind and buy new, you might still catch some end of season bargains.

On tires. If you're going some commuting then get Armadillo, Gatorskin tires or equivalent, i.e. puncture resistant tires.

If you're not clear on things like type of bike or size then my final bit of advice is to pick your bike shop carefully and pick your time carefully. Get a recommendation. Don't buy your bike on the weekend - go when it's quiet and you can get proper attention, a proper fitting and try out a few options.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:09 AM on November 12, 2013

Unfortunately a bike that is good for touring will have several special characteristics that will make it probably somewhat harder to find. A touring bike might be OK for commuting and weekend rec road rides, but the reverse is not really true (a perfectly OK commuter would probably suck for touring). Touring bikes have long wheel bases so you can mount stuff to them without hitting your bags with your feet. They have lots of mounting points for bags and stuff, etc. If you're serious about want to tour, look into getting a touring bike. Touring bikes are usually not particularly light, as far as I know.

I like road bike geometries way more than "hybrids" which are usually kind of clunky/heavy/upright.

Almost any bike is fine for a "short" commute (I assume short means like 5 miles or less)

For weekend road rides you want a road bike - 700c tires, traditional road handlebar (the curved ones), a less upright geometry, etc.

As MuffinMan says, the brand is not the deciding factor on quality for components - every manufacturer has an entry level to pro line with increasing costs and quality along the way. The very lowest line usually goes on walmart bikes and sucks. The next few lines are usually fine but with higher weight and reduced longevity.

Buying used is absolutely a good way to go. Cruise craigslist. However, if you're not that familiar with evaluating the quality of bikes, get someone to come along and look it over. It is very hard to "meaningfully" test ride a bike, but also a bike that is approximately the right size for you and in good condition can almost always be adjusted to suit you.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:16 AM on November 12, 2013

Actually, a cyclocross bike, if you can find one that fits you, wouldn't be bad--something like the Surly Cross Check. Put slick tires on it, and you'd have a good all-around bike: wide tires run at low to moderate pressure soak up bumps from the road, and a cross bike would be spry enough to do long rides but tough enough for carrying a load to work or for light cycle touring and camping. Keep the knobby tires that cross bikes tend to come with, in case you decide you want to do some off-roading. The drop bars of a cross bike give you more hand positions. But drop bar bikes do require a different riding position than a flat-bar bike. You can get more hand positions on a hybrid or hardtail mountain bike by adding bar ends.

Sizing is hard to judge without knowing your riding style and how flexible you are.

I'd recommend looking at Sheldon Brown's articles for beginners, and Peter White's article on fitting bikes.

Generally speaking, I would advise Craigslist bikes only if you're knowledgeable or can bring a knowledgable friend along when you look at them.

My advice on tires differs from MuffinMan's. Unless your commute has lots of debris or goathead seeds, I would recommend a tire like the Panaracer Pasela, which is fairly supple and fast for the price. Put 32 or 35 mm wide tires on for a heavenly ride. Don't inflate them too much.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:20 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Should I look mostly at road bikes? Hybrids? Something else?

I was going to offer the same advice as brianogilvie about considering a steel-framed cyclocross bike. They Surly Cross Check is very popular for what I read in your post. Personally, I dislike bar end shifters and cantilever brakes, so I might suggest something like the Redline Metro instead. I'm not suggesting a cyclocross bike for cyclocross use (although that's a nice side benefit); it's more that the style of bike lends itself to multifunctional usage while keeping weight down.

Another warning is that there are a lot of bikes that have useless (for your purposes) rack mounts that a bike salesperson will try to sell you for touring purposes. Touring bikes have a very specific geometry so that loaded panniers aren't in the way of your leg. However, this geometry is not amenable to performance or precise handling, so more performance-oriented bikes tend to avoid it. Further, touring bikes tend to have very strong frames to avoid excessive flex when fully loaded. This comes with a weight penalty, so again it's avoided on more performance-oriented bikes. Surly bikes, in particular, tend to be designed with at least light touring in mind.

What sizes should I look at?

At 5'3", you will have problems finding bikes on Craigslist, and I suggest you not do it - again, for exactly the same reasons as brianogilvie. Although you might not find a better selection at a local bike shop (LBS), they will be able to have you try a larger size then order the proper size. Further, they will be able to fit the bike to you. Although this will cost extra (a "fitting service"), I highly recommend it.

What kinds of tires or wheels I should be thinking of or even what exists?

Effectively all road bikes use 700C wheels. However, 650C (a bit smaller) might be appropriate at your height. However, you tend not to have a choice of wheel size - it comes with the bike. At your size, any wheel is functionally equivalent. If you were, say, 6'3" and 250 pounds, that answer would change.

The trade that brianogilvie and MuffinMan allude to is ride quality vs flat resistance vs performance. Narrower tires tend to be faster (lower weight), but tend to be prone to flats (especially pinch flats), and tend to have a harsher ride. Wider tires tend to be slower, less prone to pinch flats, and have a smoother ride. Your choice here - I prefer somewhere in the middle for all around use (28 mm tires are highly underappreciated). However, your bike choice is dependent on this; more performance-oriented bikes tend not to be able to fit wider tires. However, cyclocross bikes tend to be able to fit very wide tires. There's nothing wrong with putting a narrower tire on a bike designed for a wider tire, although it might look a little odd.

What brands of components are better or worse?

If you get a Shimano equipped bike, you'll probably look at Sora or Tiagra components. Lower than Sora is 2300 or Claris, which I would not recommend - their shifters are counter intuitive to everyone I've heard of using them. Higher than Tiagra is 105, which is perfectly fine, but would probably be more expensive than you're looking for.

If you get a SRAM equipped bike, you'll probably look at Apex components. SRAM shifters are "love it or hate it". I'm on the "hate it" side, but I understand their appeal. If you try one out, you'll find out which way you go.

If you get a Campagnolo equipped bike, it doesn't matter what you get because bike enthusiasts will admire you regardless of what you pick. ;) More seriously, I would not suggest Campagnolo because it'll be more expensive and be harder to repair. In general, Shimano and SRAM components are more-or-less compatible, but Campagnolo and Shimano/SRAM components are almost always not interchangeable. It's not common for bike shops to stock the components, although also not unheard of.

How do I meaningfully test drive a bike?

Don't worry too much. Although enthusiasts are loathe to admit this, most bikes are pretty much interchangeable. You will rapidly decide what vague area of bike you want (more touring-oriented, more performance-oriented, etc), and at that point, if there's anything you notice about a particular bike that you like, that's enough for me to suggest to buy it. Don't get too stuck in picking the perfect bike - you can make almost anything work with a bit of work.
posted by saeculorum at 9:53 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can learn the hierarchy of components as described by MuffinMan, and you can learn enough about bike sizing to buy a CL bike that can be set up to fit you okay, then I would disagree with brianogilive. Buying a cheap old tourer on CL and paying for a good fit from a good shop, plus a new component or two, will get you a much better bike than buying a cheap new tourer, at the same price point anyways.

So it all depends on how much you spend. If you buy a new bike, budget for a good saddle and your pedal solution of choice. (I like wearing street shoes and using PowerGrips.) Buy from a shop that If that calculation says you can buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker, then do it! Otherwise read brianogilvie's links, canvass your friends for bike-knowledgable folks who can help you pick out a bike, and hit up CL.

On preview - Cross Check, hmm. I am a tourer who commutes and I would avoid the Cross Check because I like touring bikes for all the reasons that saeculorum says that touring bikes are unsuited to you. So do you want to be a commuter who also tours a bit? And one who cares about performance and shaving ounces and riding fast? Take saeculorum's advice and ignore mine. Otherwise, a tourer will be a fine commuting bike, and you'll only be sacrificing a bit of performance due to the weight.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 9:58 AM on November 12, 2013

To clarify my post a bit, I am not saying not to get a touring bike, I'm more saying not to get an aluminum-framed race bike with rack mounts and expect to be able to tour with it. That sort of bike would be fine for carrying a small pannier just to work, but not for weekend camping.

(although my last sentence in my post is still true - I've seen some very "interesting" combinations that end up working out. You can fit racks to almost any bike with some work. On other other side, I saw two guys ride Schwinn beach cruisers from Seattle to Portland in one day).
posted by saeculorum at 10:04 AM on November 12, 2013

I commute and have done some bike camping with my cheapo touring bike, and would recommend looking into frames designed for touring specifically because of your height. Smaller frames tend to have less room to work with all around, and it's kind of a pain to find a road bike that both takes a rack gracefully and has a long enough chainstay that you won't have heel strike problems with your panniers. Bring a tape measure with you when you're shopping, and if the bike hasn't got a rack on it already, hold one in place and measure to be sure it'll work out.

I lucked out with my bike: somebody on CL was selling the exact model of low-end touring bike I'd been thinking of mail-ordering, brand-new since they'd ordered one too small for them. Perfect size for me, though. I suggest riding as many bikes in your general size range of as many varieties as you can at every shop in your area (even if they're not the kind of bike you want) as that'll give you a good basis of comparison for how bikes fit, and go through measuring yourself with an online fit calculator to get some good ballpark numbers to use when you're shopping. Top tube length's generally much more important than standover height, especially when you're shorter. (Once you get a short enough effective top tube length to be comfortable, the standover height'll take care of itself, unless you have a really stupendously long torso/short inseam.)
posted by asperity at 10:13 AM on November 12, 2013

I want a bike for a short commute to and from work, and also for weekend, longer rides on paved roads, and finally, I'm hoping to start moderate touring and bike camping. Would like to be able to do the occasional century.

Well, a touring bike would do these things best. You can commute on a touring bike, it's literally made for longer rides on paved roads, and of course touring and bike camping. The occasional century would not be a problem with a touring bike.

I have some concern about ergonomics as the horizontal handled mountain bike has been giving me some numbness in the outside of my hands on longer rides.

Touring bikes generally come with drop bars, which give you at least 3 positions for your hands. You can experiment with different bar tape, gel pads under the tape, gloves, etc. If your hands are going numb it's too much weight on your hands, or too much weight in the wrong spot on your hands. You can also experiment with different stem lengths and angles. If you buy new, a good shop should be able to swap out stems. If you buy used, budget $20-$50 for a new stem.

I hope to buy used because cheaper and also I try to buy used in general for environmental reasons.

Good luck. You can find a good bike used if you know what you're looking for. We get a lot of bikes in our shop that someone bought the same day used, and people tell us "do whatever it takes to make it work good as new", and that sometimes takes $350+. Tires, tubes, chains, cassettes, chain rings, brake pads, cables, housing, and bar tape should be considered "consumable".

Should I look mostly at road bikes? Hybrids? Something else?

Based on the fact you want to tour, I would look at touring bikes. You could try to get by with a road bike and outfit it with a rack and panniers, and lots of people tour on that, but starting with a platform made for touring would be best. I would look for a touring bike first, a cyclocross bike next, followed by a road bike.

What sizes should I look at?

That's hard. Go throw a leg over a bike in a shop and have them take a guess. You can probably find a bike with 700c wheels that fit, but I bet you'd be better fit with a bike that has 650b or 26" wheels.

What kinds of tires or wheels I should be thinking of or even what exists?

If you're not racing I'd get the widest tire you can put in your frame that has the slickest tread. I'm a fan of Continental Contacts, Continental Gatorskins, Michelin City, Vittoria Randonneur. For general riding 32c or 35c is nice. Older bikes have a hard time getting anything bigger than a 28c sometimes. Sometimes you can't fit anything bigger than a 25c. It really just depends. Surly shines in this area because their "Fatties Fit Fine" philosophy lets you run as about a wide of a tire as you want.

What brands of components are better or worse?

This is really more of a philosophy. I would worry less about SRAM x5 versus Shimano Dura Ace and worry more about condition. I'd rather have pristine but used x5 than worn out Dura Ace. Condition condition condition. Doesn't matter if it cost $5,000 new, how good is it now?

How do I meaningfully test drive a bike?

If it's new, put on your helmet, throw a leg over it, adjust the saddle height, and ride it as long as the shop lets you, or until you know it's not the bike for you. Is it comfortable? Do you like the way you shift it? Some people love/hate bar end shifting. Do the brakes stop powerfully enough for you? Some people aren't happy with anything after they try a bike with discs. Do a few emergency stops. Go up a couple of hills. Go slow. Go fast. Think you could get used to this bike? What don't you like about it? Ride back to the shop and tell them.

If used, then do everything above but also check for loose bearings and worn out parts. I'd basically give the bike a thorough inspection. I start with the wheels, spin them and look at the space between the pad and the rim, and see how much wobble is there. How badly are they out of true? Hopefully not more than 0.5mm. Squeeze the brakes and look at where the pads touch the braking surface. Are they parallel? Not too high, not too low? Pads have plenty of life left in them? Are the pads still soft or are they old and brittle? Look at the tires. Plenty of life left? Sidewalls cracking? Cuts? Feel the spokes. Tension should be even. Are some very loose and some very tight? If so, and the wheel is still true, it's not going to last long at all. Spin the wheels and pinch the axle nut and try to "feel" inside the hub while it spins. You want buttery smooth, nothing should feel "grindy" at all.

Bend over the top tube, move the cranks horizontal, and pull up/down on them. They shouldn't budge at all. Spin them 180 degrees and repeat. Move the drive side crank arm until it lines up with the down tube and try to move it in/out. Now do the same with the seat tube. Now doe the same with the chain stay. It should never move. At all. The movement I'm talking about is so slight you wouldn't notice it with your eyes. You're going to feel a very slight "clicking" feeling. If you feel something loose, you probably need a bottom bracket. If it's just that the crank arms weren't tight enough, well, if they rode it at all like that they've basically borked the interface between the spindle and crank arms, so they need a bottom bracket. Tightening it will be a temporary fix.

Loosen the brakes and grab the wheel near the brakes and move the wheel laterally. The wheel will flex, but you shouldn't feel any loose bearing movement. If so, you probably need a hub overhaul soon, or at the very least adjust the hub. Riding on loose hubs will just kill them prematurely. Tighten the brakes and then....

Sit on the top tube, squeeze the front brake with your left hand, place your right hand around the headest/steerer tube junction, and rock the bike fore/aft. You shouldn't feel any clicking here either. If so, the headset needs to be adjusted/overhauled/replaced. Pick up the bike and tilt it down, and spin the bars. They should fall gracefully through their range of motion (cables will sometimes cause them not to swing through all the way, and that's ok). If they kinda hesitate when in line with the bike (pointing forward), then your headset is shot and needs to be replaced.

Look at the cables. They should be shiny, not dull. You shouldn't see any rust. Look at the housing. It should look new, not cracked. No rust at the ends. No gunk. Cables should slide through the housing with no detectable grittiness. All cable ends should be capped (no frayed wires). These are signs that the owner is paying attention to details.

Check the chain for wear with a tool. You want it less than 0.75% stretched. No rust. No gunk. Light coating of lube should be there. The chain shouldn't be dry.

Look at the bike's tubes. No dents. Scratches are ok, I mean, come on, it's used. If it's a steel bike, scratches can lead to rust. If they've covered scratches with nail polish that's ok. Is the bike covered in stickers? Are those stickers covering dents? NO CRACKS. NO CRACKS. NO CRACKS. "Oh, that's minor, you can weld that." FUCK YOU NO CRACKS.

Check out the fork. Both "arms" of the fork should swoop down to the hub absolutely symmetrically. If one arm is pushed back a little more than the other this bike hit something head on. Abort.

Remove the front wheel. It should slide in/out of the dropouts without a problem. Any trouble means the fork is bent or the dropouts are not aligned. Ditto for the rear wheel.

When I go into bike stores and look at ads on craigslist, I'd like to better understand some basics about what to weed out or consider, so any other specific things I should be thinking about?

I personally like people to tell me their budget. It helps me get a feel for what I can recommend, and I'll tell them what another $200 will get them and let them decide on their own. If you get a bad vibe from one shop, try another. I feel they should have absolutely no problem letting you test ride multiple bikes, even if you tell them straight up "I'm not going to buy a bike today". I get people in my shop all the time who just came from another shop and want a recommendation on a bike similar to what they just rode, and leave my shop and hit their 3rd shop for the day and repeat the process. No bad feelings. Inform yourself and test ride as much as possible.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:21 AM on November 12, 2013 [16 favorites]

As an anectode, I worked on a guy's bike on Sunday who bought it for $250 on Craigslist and rode it, without tuning it up, from Texas to Minnesota and back. Never even got a flat. Guy was on 23c tires even. Everything on his bike was completely worn out, to the point where I tried 4 different chain measurement tools just for fun, but they wouldn't even register this chain. I gave him an estimate and he declined and said he's going to donate the bike instead. Dude got his money's worth for sure.

I definitely would not recommend this course of action. I don't know how long the bike had been in the condition it was in when he brought it to me, but riding it must have been miserable. But shit, Texas to Minnesota and back. No maintenance. At all. He made it. $250.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:34 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

A brief followup: spike...mints has some great advice.

I might have recommended a 26" touring bike like the Surly Long Haul Trucker, except that you want a light bike. Touring bikes are built to carry a rider and anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds of gear. For that reason, they're heavy. But 26" wheels would give you a better chance of getting a good fit for someone your height.

Finally, not so much for now, but if you get into cycling seriously and want a road bike that fits you well, Terry makes production and custom bikes that are designed for women's proportions. The smaller sizes use smaller wheels, which can make finding tires somewhat more challenging (at worst, you order by mail and pay more), but provide a better fit.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:02 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would think seriously about how much touring and camping and century-riding you are actually going to do, and how soon. If you really only want one bike then a touring bike is the way to go (as others have mentioned) but if you think that realistically you're going to be using your bike 99% for commuting and around-town riding and only occasionally doing longer trips (and maybe not for a few months, when you're in better physical condition from all that commuting) then I would strongly suggest getting a nice comfy commuting bike (like this Torker T800 I've got my eye on, or maybe something cheaper and/or used) for your normal riding and a purpose-built tourer for your longer trips.

There are two advantages to this. One, a touring bike will do everything that you wan tit to do, but it won't do it optimally. They are a bit on the heavy and unmaneuverable side for city riding, since as others have mentioned they have frames and geometries set up for carrying lots of heavy loads and for tracking straight and true on long back roads. None of this is going to help you out in the stop-and-start, nip-and-tuck riding that you will be doing on your commutes in the city. Something with a lighter frame and a more moderate wheelbase (though nothing too racy) will do better here. And as others have said, normal commuters/road bikes are not really suitable for touring (you can make any bike work in a pinch, my Dad has a story about bike touring from Chicago to Newfoundland alongside a dude who was riding a child-sized Huffy, but they make touring bikes for a reason). Right bike for the right job. If 99% of the "job" is getting you to and from work in the city, a touring bike is never going to be quite perfect.

Two, you sound like you don't really know exactly what you want out of a bike right now, or what to look for. If you try to get a cheap bike that does everything you're likely to end up with a dog that does nothing well and/or requires lots of expensive maintenance and repair before it's in good shape. If you buy a cheapo bike now (but try to find something decent, using the advice from this thread) you're more likely to succeed if you don't insist on getting a bike that does absolutely everything. Get a used city bike that seems like it will suit you, have some basic maintenance done to it (it's going to need something, even if that's just a chain regreasing and a brake adjustment) and then commute on it for a while. If it does what you want, great! If not, you're not out too much money and you know what to look out for next time. Then once you've had some time to figure out what you want in a bike, you can get a better commuter and/or a nice touring bike that does everything (mostly). Either way, you'll be a better-informed buyer for your next purchase.

That's the way I would go. Don't rush into this and try to buy a bike (especially a used bike) that does absolutely everything based only on advice from the internet, no matter how good that advice is. After you've been a regular rider for a while you'll have a much better idea of what you really want.
posted by Scientist at 7:27 PM on November 12, 2013

I am an Oakland female who uses a touring bike (steel frame Surly LHT) as a daily commuter (~4 miles./day) and have used the bike for both long (PCH) and short bike tours. I'm not going to lie, my bike is heavy (especially loaded) and I fall behind on hill climbs (but smoke on the downhills). However, the steel frame takes the potholes like a champ and if you plan to ever carry items like groceries it's wonderful having the extra stability. You will not win any races but who cares if you're just trying to get to work. Agree with poster above to not rush into buying anything and you should try out a bunch of bikes...eventually you'll find something you like and no advice on the internet can replace that test drive for fit and comfort.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 9:14 PM on November 12, 2013

Since you're in Oakland, I'll note: in Missing Link (in Berkeley) I trust. And their recurring free classes are a great way to learn about biking and bike repair.
posted by Zed at 2:43 PM on November 13, 2013

I agree with Zed that bike collectives are a good idea. I haven't been to any of the Bay Area ones, but I met a bunch of folks from Spokeland a few years back and they might be a useful resource. Bike Collectives are also often an excellent resource for buying refurbished used bikes.

If you're particularly looking for used bikes I'd recommend older (80-90s) steel frame mountain bikes. They're remarkably similar in design and construction to contemporary touring bikes, though often with a slightly shorter wheelbase. Some of the early Specialized Hard Rock and Stump Jumper models like what you're currently riding are good, as are many of the Trek, Univega, and other frames from that era. They're heavier than most "Road" bikes, but have a greater carrying capacity and are better built for mounting racks, fenders, and other accessories suitable for touring and commuting.

If I didn't ride recumbents almost exclusively, I would mostly use these old MTBs with 26x1" - 1.5" slick tires. As mentioned earlier, the Continental Gatorskin is an excellent option. I'm also partial to the CST Ciudad series as a low budget semi-slick.

If you want something designed for touring, I know Miyata's touring bikes are extremely well-regarded. Trek has also made some good touring bikes that might be available used. These are harder to find, though, and more expensive than the MTBs.

In my experience, the best thing for comfort is good fit, a variety of hand positions, and a sprung leather saddle. You don't need a "road bike" to get different hand positions: A mountain bike can be fit with drop bars (though they'll require different brakes and shifters) or something like Butterfly or North Road bars that will accept the same components as the original flat bars. In case you don't already know: Avoid anything with suspension - it adds weight and is useless unless your commute has lots of REALLY big potholes. Instead, expect to spend an extra $80-$150 on a sprung leather saddle. They're worth it if you plan to spend 50+ miles on your bike at a stretch.

I would also highly recommend looking into recumbents. They're in an entirely different class when it comes to comfort (forget about chafing, sore shoulders, numb hands, etc.), and they make excellent touring bikes. But that's an entirely different, and slightly more pricey, can of worms.

Ultimately... Ride lots of bikes. If you buy used, try to take along someone who knows a bit about maintenance and components, and/or find a shop you trust. Look for CroMoly steel Mountain and Touring bikes - "butted" tubing will save a bit more weight as well. Get good tires, better handlebars, and a really nice saddle. Try out lots of bikes. The ride bike is the one that makes you want to keep riding.
posted by sibilatorix at 12:59 AM on November 14, 2013

Response by poster: Hi all!

Well, this thread was very super helpful. Based on these suggestions, I visited a bunch of local bike shops where I talked to the staff and test rode several bikes. I was surprised to find folks did try to sell me bikes with suspension forks even though I wasn't looking for mountain bikes, and did try to make whatever stock they had available work for me which totally makes sense. Overall these folks were great and once I found the ability to say, "I have no idea what you're talking about", even the more gear heady guys were super nice and explained things to me even when I made clear I wasn't going to buy that day.

The explanation of the different levels of components within each brand was great. I used that when I was googling, researching, and perusing craigslist and it helped me narrow down to avoid the cheapest and also the unnecessary-for-my- needs most fancy components.

You all also helped me narrow my search to primarily search for cyclocross and light touring bikes. After doing some research on different brands and models of these, I started looking at craigslist and finally found what I believe is an ideal bike for me, used!

It is probably a bit more bike than I need, and only very lightly used, so I ended up spending beyond what I wanted to, but definitely a lot less than if I'd bought new. It is really fun to ride, lightweight (compared to the hybrid and mountain bikes I've been riding), tons of brazeons for racks when I start trying my hand at touring, and all around awesome. Here it is! For more info on the bike, it's: The All City Space Horse.

I have a lot of follow-up questions if anyone is still following along. Primarily I'm wondering about:

Strategies for avoiding theft: I know about locking through the back wheel triangle with my U lock and cabling or locking the front wheel to the bike. But I'm still anxious having such a nice looking item. I'm intersted in making it a bit uglier to be less of a target but am a bit loath to given how pretty it is! Any anti-theft tips would be appreciated.

Being visible on city streets: Already have a garish day-glow green/yellow helmet and some high quality front and rear lights. How else do you avoid getting run down?

Racks and saddle bags: Any reason I shouldn't just put on a cheap secondhand rack I find at the local community bike collective? Do most racks fit with most saddle bags? What are good all-around panniers? Can I use the same bags for carrying a few things to work and for going camping? What else should I think about?

Thanks again for all your help with this process!
posted by latkes at 1:59 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Congratulations! That's a nice bike. I hope it gives you many good miles.

Quick thought on your questions:

1. Theft avoidance. Best strategy is to park your bike in a secure place. Can you bring it inside at home or at work? If not, is there somewhere else lockable you can put it? Failing that, somewhere with a surveillance camera?

If you have a regular place at work to park, I'd suggest going to a motorcycle shop, getting a heavy covered chain (the biggest you can get through your wheels and frame), with a high-quality lock, that you could leave at work. Doesn't matter if it weighs 15 lbs. if you don't have to haul it back and forth.

Some people run a length of old bicycle chain covered in rubber through the saddle rails and the frame, so the saddle can't be stolen. That's a little much for me, but I have a crappy saddle on my commuter.

And don't leave it outside at night if you can avoid it.

2. Being seen. Best advice is not to ride in the gutter; keep far enough away from the curb or parked cars that you won't be doored (by cars) and anyone driving behind you sees you. At night, high-visibility clothing isn't much better than ordinary clothing unless it has reflective material. I would recommend a reflective vest covered with reflective material, or something like the Amphipod Xinglet reflective belt. Reflective material on your gloves can help when signaling turns.

Have a cheap backup set of lights, like some of the Knog bracketless ones, in case your main headlight or taillight fails.

3. Carrying stuff. Cheap racks are more prone to break with heavy loads or rough roads (which cause vibration). But you can start with one and then move up if necessary. As for panniers, touring cyclists can argue for hours about them. What I'd suggest is that you call up Wayne at The Touring Store and ask his advice. The Lone Peak panniers he sells are good value for money; the Ortliebs are top dollar but extremely durable. He could also give advice about racks. If you do call him, buy stuff from him too - his prices are competitive and his customer service second to none (as long as you remember you're dealing with one guy - he won't necessarily answer as fast as a call center does, but he knows what he's talking about!).

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to follow up - I just happened to be checking recent activity and saw your response.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:32 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

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