Bicycle for teen girl?
April 3, 2014 6:26 AM   Subscribe

My niece would like a bicycle to get around - I have some old ones, but they would need tune-ups. What does she need, and am I better off having an old one worked on, or just getting a new one?

I have an old Schwinn in my grandparent's basement that I used when I was her age, so it's 20+ years old. She is in a small-ish town, and would like something to get around - she'd likely be going to the store sometimes, so I'd like for her to have a safe way to carry things (basket?).

What's a good brand? (I see bikes on target for under $175 - am I better off buying new instead of trying to get an old one repaired?)

I know nothing about bikes! (Yes, she's 14, and in a small town. I'm sort of appalled at her being out on her own, but she's currently walking, so maybe biking is better?)

Looking at other questions, she will also need a helmet, and front and back lights for the bike. Anything else you'd recommend?
posted by needlegrrl to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can get away with almost any bike if her typical rides are 5 miles or less and the terrain is Midwest flat. If she lives in, say, Ithaca NY, she'll need mountain bike gearing.
posted by mr vino at 6:32 AM on April 3, 2014

She may have a very specific thing in mind. While an old Schwinn might be nifty, I can't help but think that like cars, bikes have come a very long way in terms of safety in the past 20 years.

It might help to ask her what she had in mind. Is it a mountain bike, racing bike, bmx, cute little bike with a banana seat and a white wicker basket with plastic daisies on the handle bars? These are all very different things.

So discuss with her first and her parents. This may be a teachable moment where they may want her to earn a portion of the money for the bike.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:32 AM on April 3, 2014

I'm a fan of getting used bikes and then learning how to fix them. Maybe that's not the sort of thing your niece is into, but I think I've learned a lot doing basic bike maintenance, and had a lot of fun doing it.

A lot of the cheaper new bikes are heavy and have lousy plastic parts. I'm not sure about your schwinn, but older bikes are sturdier in my experience.
posted by Violet Femme at 6:36 AM on April 3, 2014

We need more details generally, especially about the terrain, but do try to avoid getting her a Target bike. They have very cheap parts and in addition to being expensive for repairs, they can be frustrating to ride. If you want to save money, you'd be much better off buying a used bike for that price, perhaps off craigslist. Ideally you would visit a bike shop first to check her sizing. A few common quality brands (retail prices start around $400-500): Giant, Trek, Cannondale, Specialized, Scott.

The Schwinn frame might indeed work fine for her needs, but you'd need to get an estimate with a bike shop about repair costs, which can be steep if they need to order specialty deadstock parts. Many 80s frames are wonderful (especially if they are old road bikes), but it really depends -- especially on how well you maintained it.

The bikeshop staff may also be able to build you a bike using used parts, or know someone who can. If you happen to have a bike coop in your area, definitely check in with them too.
posted by susanvance at 6:52 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with ruthless bunny. She might love the old Schwinn if she is in to older/retro stuff and has a hipster streak. It is, however, much more fun to have a fast light bike with components that works well than a slow heavy bike that breaks down a lot. Sounds obvious, I know, but cheap bikes will almost always be heavy and slow. You will probably have to spend $600-700 full price to get a great bike that she'll enjoy for a long time. Also, try to find a local bike store and talk to them- they can help you to find the right model and she will have a place to have the bike fixed when it breaks.

One really good place, even if not a "true" local bike store, is REI. They have decent bikes to really good prices and do all necessary maintenance in house.

Finally, I have to say that your 20 year old schwinn sounds like a great bike, depending on condition and model. I know plenty of people that would love a bike like that! You will definitely do better by fixing up that bike than buying a cheap crappy new bike.

Other things she might need are a floor pump and some kind of bag/basket. A good local bike store should be able to help you with all of this.
posted by brorfred at 6:56 AM on April 3, 2014

A 20-year-old Schwinn is a much better bike than anything from Target. Don't buy a bike from a big box retailer. They are cheaply made and assembled by people who don't know bikes. Some bike shops refuse to work on them because they are such low quality that they can't make their customers happy.

I'd bet that for less than $175 you could get that Schwinn tuned up and running better than a Target bike ever would. If your niece's town is flat, you could even get it converted to singlespeed. It'd be lighter, easier to maintain, and more in line with what the kids are riding these days. (Or you could do fixed gear, but that would be something she would have to want, because it's a different riding style.) Of course, this all depends on if the Schwinn fits and it's the kind of bike she wants.

BikesDirect sells inexpensive, quality bikes, but without much help in selecting styles or sizes. Some assembly required.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:58 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was a teenage girl, I would have loved an old Schwinn!

I would warn you away from big box store bikes. They never last and tend to fall apart in dangerous ways.

If you do get something new, check your local sporting goods store if there isn't a dedicated bike shop in your town. They tend to carry a slightly better bikes. Brands to look for, either at a sporting goods store or a bike shop, for entry level bikes would be Electra or Torker. Both will probably be over $175, though.

You also might want to look out for other gently used bikes at garage sales and thrift stores, if a new bike is out of the question and the Schwinn won't do for whatever reason. One thing that comes to mind is that she might be better off with a road bike rather than a cruiser, depending on the distances she'll be covering.
posted by Sara C. at 7:07 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote to take the Schwinn and the niece to a bike shop and make sure the frame'll fit her. If the frame fits and the components are in good shape, it'll probably suite her for along time. She might even paint it?

I got a bike from REI (a steel Novara roadbike for here in Colorado) on sale when I was 14 or 15 and I had it for 15 years. Thousands of happy miles.
posted by mochapickle at 7:12 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bike lock. Even if she's in a small town there's no reason to be the low-hanging fruit if someone's out looking for a bike.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:20 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't help but think that like cars, bikes have come a very long way in terms of safety in the past 20 years.

This is really not the case. Helmets, yes. But bikes aren't somehow more safe today than they were 20 years ago. Aside from some changes to materials and componentry, bicycles haven't fundamentally changed in a while. Throw some blinky lights on an old bike and it's as safe as a new one.

The only issue with an old Schwinn is that it may be really heavy compared to an aluminum one. It really depends on what kind of Schwinn it is; some of them were made with thicker tubing than others. Plus if it has fenders, baskets, etc. that could add weight but might also be useful — it really depends on what the terrain is like and what kind of riding she wants to do.

I'd float the idea of getting the Schwinn retuned and see what she thinks about it. I'd have thought that riding a cool old bike that had been restored was awesome, but not all kids might. It might be that she wants "her own" bike and not something that looks like a hand-me-down, for various social reasons. You just have to ask and be sensitive to her response I think. And of course, that assumes that the Schwinn fits her and it's too big or the wrong geometry. (There's more to the fit of a bike than just the frame height. The seat-to-handlebar distance also matters, since not everyone's arms and torso are the same length.)

But yeah, if for whatever reason the Schwinn doesn't work out, don't buy one of the sub-$200 department store specials, they're crappy. If she's done growing, it might make sense to think about a nice bike (modern, lightweight) but that'll be a reasonably serious investment. There are great deals to be had on gently used bikes though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:23 AM on April 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

One other note: if the Schwinn has old-school downtube shifters, and she's not already familiar with shifting on a geared bike, that could be challenging. It's something she'd have to be up for learning, at any rate.

Downtube shifters can be replaced with modern ones, but it requires replacing not just the shifter but generally the derailleurs as well, and it's not a cheap upgrade. So if she's not up for it, I'd probably start looking at used bikes. There are a ton of 90s hardtail MTBs on the used market that make great getting-around bikes with a new set of hybrid tires and some very minor maintenance.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 AM on April 3, 2014

When I was 14 I was going anywhere I could get to on my bike or my own two feet on my own. :) It was a safe little town and I had plenty of common sense, and I'd been walking a couple miles to the library or the five-and-dime since I was in third grade. (And my parents were pretty strict!) I usually just used my backpack for biking home with shopping, but baskets and panniers and things are nice if she does a lot of bike-errands. :)

If she's going to get into maintenance/repair herself, you could get her the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair. There are lots of tool kits, both complete and portable, that bicyclists like to assemble and carry, those can be good stocking stuffers. You can get little underseat tool kits & patch kits that mount in a little bag that velcros under the seat. (I never went so far that it was more than an annoyance to walk home, so I didn't bother, but people who go long distance or rely on the bike to commute often like to have patch kits.)

They also make some very cute little handlebar-mount cases now that hold your cell phone and usually can take your keys and cards. These are very convenient for just carrying a few things as you run errands or ride over to friends' houses or work or whatever. And then there's no fumbling around for a phone to see who's calling; she can glance down, see it's mom, and pull over to take the call. (They also make it easier to use your phone for things like GPS directions or workout tracking while on the bike.)

Another safety thing you can get her, if you're worried about her riding around on her own, is a RoadID which lets you put contact/emergency information on a sport-friendly bracelet or shoe clip or whatever so if she is in an accident, all that info will be handy. $20 for peace of mind. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:01 AM on April 3, 2014

Response by poster: She'll be riding in a small Georgia town - there are some hills, but it seems to be mostly flat. Some dirt roads, possibly, but mainly pavement, as far as I could tell.

Oh, Eyebrows McGee - I love the RoadID. Not sure if she would wear it, but I may get it for her anyway!

There are several local bike shops - I'll take another look at the Schwinn and maybe take her to see if it would work with her. I don't think she's particular about it, she just wants a way to get around. I wanted to get an idea of cost before I talked to her about it, though.

I do not remember it having downtube shifters - I think it may have had gears on the handlebars?
posted by needlegrrl at 8:08 AM on April 3, 2014

FWIW I rode a bike with downtube shifters for years. You figure it out. If she lives in a flat area she's not going to need a bunch of gear shifting, anyway, so she can ease into it as she becomes more comfortable with the bike. It's about confidence and balance more than anything else.
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 AM on April 3, 2014

Any bike that's in working order will do. Like, seriously, any, unless she's going more than 30 miles round trip. A heavier bike may need more gears. Maybe.

So just make sure the bike fits her (a bike shop will help with this), make sure the position (upright or more aggressive) is something she's comfortable with. Add fenders if she'll ever encounter a puddle. Add a rack, period, and surprise her with a set of panniers to carry things. Basket optional! Get a very bright light--spend $70 at least. I am jealous of my friends with brighter lights, and they're much safer (less able to outrun their lights at night and wind up in trouble).

Try to make her wear her helmet. I know two people who have cracked their helmets and not their skulls.

Lots of people think old bikes are cool. There's no reason not to use the Schwinn, particularly if she thinks it might have any cachet for her. Used bikes are often much better than new bikes, particularly when spending the same amount of money. Don't think new = nice.

Talk with a bike shop about the tires and make sure they're appropriate for the worst road she may ride on.
posted by jsturgill at 9:02 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

As long as the old bike will be a good fit, you have nothing to lose by bringing it to your bike shop and asking an estimate for a fix-up. Stress that you're not looking to restore it to mint condition - you just want it safe and reliable. Alternately, they might have some used bikes for sale.

Failing that, here are some bikes under $500 that are good for riding around town on errands. What's nice is that the price includes useful accessories like racks and fenders.
posted by mikepop at 10:42 AM on April 3, 2014

Seconding the advice to ask what she thinks about the Schwinn, find out whether the bike fits her, and if she likes it and it's the right size, visit a bike store to ask about getting it in working order.

For carrying stuff, I would recommend getting something like the Wald rear carrier basket, or if she wants more flexibility, a rear rack and then either panniers, a couple of Wald folding baskets, or one folding basket and one pannier. (Wald baskets come with mounting hardware; the tubing on my rear rack was too big for it, but a combination of hose clamps and outdoor UV-resistant zip ties did a fine job attaching it.) Waterproof panniers are nice if she's carrying papers or electronics. But grocery bag panniers are also practical, and you can always put electronics in a waterproof bag that then goes in the basket or grocery pannier.

Generally speaking, a bike is more stable if the weight is carried low; a front basket isn't ideal because the weight is up higher, and because the basket is attached to the handlebars, it can mess with steering. A small front basket is fine if she carries a light purse and wants it in front of her, but if she carries enough stuff to be ready for a backwoods expedition, the weight is better off in a rear basket (or a front lowrider pannier, but now we're talking serious bike geekery).
posted by brianogilvie at 12:04 PM on April 3, 2014

If the Schwinn fits her, and if she'd be cool with that bike, your best bet in terms of value would be to take it to a good local bike shop and ask for it to be thoroughly overhauled. This will cost between $100 and $200 and will involve having everything cleaned and adjusted, all the consumable parts changed if necessary (brake pads, bearings, tires, cable housings), and any other bits and pieces that are worn out or nearly so replaced.

A good overhaul performed by a competent shop will leave the bike in nearly new condition and will yield a much better machine than could be bought new at comparable cost. A decent bike can be maintained more or less indefinitely given proper care, and a 1994 Schwinn in good condition will be little different from a comparable modern bike in any important ways. Bicycles haven't changed much since 1994, except for high-end racing bikes. I ride a 1982 Fuji, and despite being the subject of my own fumble-fingered backyard maintenance for the last 12 of those years it still works great. I ride it at least 12 miles a day and rely on it as my primary transportation. Nothin' wrong with an old bike.

As far as accessories, she's going to want a rear rack if she's going to be carrying any cargo. Much more useful than a front basket; anything more than a bottle of water is annoying in an open basket, but I can put a week's worth of groceries (in panniers) on my bike's rack with no problems. Baskets are decorative and romantic; racks are practical.

She'll also probably want a kickstand and a bell, and definitely a good lock (a U-lock, not a cable) and a set of front and rear lights and a helmet. Another thing I would strongly recommend is a set of puncture-resistant tires as they will dramatically reduce the frequency with which she gets flats. She'll need a tire pump too as the tires need to be topped off every couple of weeks even if they aren't punctured since bike tires, being inner-tube-based, slowly lose pressure over time. If she's to have only one pump then a hand pump is best; they're annoying, but unlike a floor pump you can take them with you when you ride.

If you want to go crazy, some basic tools might not go amiss. You could at least set her up with enough stuff to patch a flat, clean and relube the chain, and adjust the brakes without spending too much. Offhand you'd want a patch kit, a set of tire levers, an adjustable wrench, a set of allen keys, some chain lube, and a toothbrush at a minimum (maybe around $30 worth of tools, the bike shop could help you here too). That would let her take care of the bike's most common maintenance needs herself, which would be educational and save her having to go to the bike shop every time her chain got gunky or her brakes started to go soft, which will happen regularly if she rides a lot.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Hope she likes her new bike!
posted by Scientist at 3:13 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your bike doesn't work out, you might also want to find out if there is a Bike Co-op around.

In addition, she might like having a bike mirror, and a water bottle cage.
posted by oceano at 8:59 PM on April 3, 2014

Regarding the pump, I'd agree that if she had to choose only one you'd want a hand pump you can take with you in case of any roadside urgent needs, however in my experience it is impossible to get a bike tire up to proper pressure with just a hand pump, a big standing pump or electric pump is required for the amount of pressure required to roll right (this may be due to my weighing much more than a 15 year old girl however).

Mostly, I just want to emphasize not to be overwhelmed with the advice and options presented to you here and elsewhere. Yes, don't get a cheapo Target/Walmart junk bike, but ultimately any bike is a bike and once she is out on it she will experience the baseline awesome that is casual bike riding, and every other modification can come secondarily with need. I agree something to carry gear with, be it a basket or panniers is extremely helpful, as are mud flaps and a basic light (I don't think $70 on a light is necessary, but then safety and visibility must always come first). The most important thing is the fit of the frame and the level of maintenance of the mechanical parts. If she's comfortable, she will be happy and the rest will come naturally. Best of luck!
posted by kaspen at 9:21 AM on April 4, 2014

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