Bike newbie (ish) - what should I look for?
July 16, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Late-30s chick, short, and fat. Would love to pick up a bike and start riding for commute and pleasure, but have no idea where to start. Snowflakes inside.

This post has me pondering picking up a bike again. I haven't ridden since I was a teenager - I loved my glorious 80's Huffy, but hated it when I was "upgraded" to a wobbly, too-big-for-me 10-speed. That was 20 years and 100 pounds ago, though. While I'm pretty confident with the "how" of biking, I'm not sure what I should be riding.

1. I'm short (5'1" on a tall day) and fat (~225 lbs).
2. After some obvious practice runs, I'd like to ride to work (6 miles one way, relatively flat with one medium-sized hill) when the weather's decent, and would like the option to ride for pleasure, either around the city or on paved park trails.
3. I'd love the option of a basket or some other carrying mechanism for light cargo that doesn't involve bungees.
4. I don't care about speed - I like leisurely walks and hikes, so leisurely bike rides will be right up my alley. Along the same lines, while I'm aware of the health benefits of biking, I'm interested in this much more for the fun of it than the health of it.
5. There are spots outside my office where I could theoretically chain a bike, but there's the potential that I'd need to/want to bring it into the office, which is up a single flight of stairs. I'd also need to carry it down a flight of stairs at home into the basement for winter storage. (I'm in western New York state - I don't expect to ride in the winter.)
6. If it matters, I drive a Chevy Sonic hatchback, so I'll probably be investing in a bike rack for the car.

The complicating factor is that I have fibromyalgia, which can leave me considerably stiff (so easy on/off is ideal, which I imagine will be difficult at my height).

I've been looking at Craiglist, but I don't know exactly what I'm looking for. (There's a bike shop a few blocks from my office, but I'm not sure I feel right soliciting their advice when I know I'm likely to buy used.) A cruiser or comfort bike seems right at first glance, but possibly heavy and hard to find in a smaller size. Does the size really matter? Should I be looking at any old bike just to get started? Bike me, MeFi!
posted by okayokayigive to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You probably won't need a bike rack! If you fold down your rear seats you can easily fit your bike in the trunk. Especially with the hatchback. You probably won't even need to take off the front wheel since your bike will be on the smaller side.
posted by blueberrypuffin at 12:36 PM on July 16, 2015

I'm a huge fan of folding bikes. My bicycle is a Dahon Ciao P8--they've long been discontinued, but the current successor is the Dahon Ciao D5. (You might be able to find other Ciaos online secondhand, if that's too pricey.) Dahon sells bags that you can put your bike in, sling over your shoulder, and carry up steps if necessary. I store mine behind my office door and it fits easily into the back of our hatchback, no rack necessary. There's a rack already installed on the back, and I just clip a pannier to it.

I had a herniated disc a few years ago and had no pain or stiffness while riding. It's a great, smooth ride--probably the best bicycle I've ever had, and in my opinion it's beautiful. I highly recommend the Ciao line.
posted by tully_monster at 12:36 PM on July 16, 2015

I wouldn't buy used. I've never seen a used bike that didn't need a lot of little repairs, and finding a bike your size on Craigslist will be another complicating factor. I think you should go to your friendly neighborhood bike shop and spend some time with the salespeople to find a bike that fits you and your needs. This should involve lots of test riding.
posted by chrchr at 12:37 PM on July 16, 2015

What's your price range? You can find a pretty decent city-style bike in the $500 range; Specialized make the Globe line of bikes which are supposed to be good (and ubiquitous, since any Specialized dealer should have them). Many city bikes come with loop or step-through frames - easy to get on and off, no swinging your leg over a high top tube - and either have "braze ons" to attach racks and accessories or more likely will just have those things pre-installed.

A folding bike might also be a good option, but to be honest I find them harder to get them up and down stairs than my regular bike. Bromptons have special links that lock when you fold the bike up so it doesn't flop around while you carry it, but you're looking at a couple grand for one of those. Bike Fridays are great - I've ridden most of their models and the Tikit might be a good option for you (you can't even tell it's a clown bike, it feels like a full size machine) - but you're looking at even more money for those, and you have to order straight from the manufacturer.

However, even if you do decide to go the used route I would still go to the bike shop and ask for their advice. They may have a used selection, but even if they don't they're going to be the ones getting your business for spare tubes, tune ups, and other bits and bobs so it's in their best interest to treat you well for the future.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:47 PM on July 16, 2015

So I have this bike, which would suit all of your needs except for maybe the bit about being light enough to bring up and down stairs easily. It's a step-through frame, keeps your body fairly upright and comfortable, available in a relatively small size (I'm a smidge taller than you and have plenty of room. I sometimes have a basket on the front, and have the hardware for panniers on the back, though I don't have them on at the moment because I'm usually hauling a kid trailer. It's not a speed demon but gets me up hills, and is pleasant, reliable, and comfortable. I haven't put it in a car bike rack, but one wheel removes easily for in-car transport. It's way into the inexpensive end of things, even new.

(I would have liked to get a bike from a local shop, but they were kind of dickish about me needing the "road warrior" types of bikes. They are great about fixing it now that I have it, though. YMMV.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:51 PM on July 16, 2015

I think weight is going to be the hardest criteria to satisfy. I have the Liv Alight 3, which is a women's hybrid bike with a step-through frame (rare for hybrids), and it's hard for me to carry up stairs. The weight is just awkwardly distributed enough that I have difficulty, although my upper arms are reasonably fit. I'm 5'2" with short legs and purchased the size S, but I also fit the XS which would probably suit you (and the smaller frame would be easier to carry). This is all for a hybrid bike, which as a category will be lighter than a comfort/cruiser bike.
posted by serelliya at 1:16 PM on July 16, 2015

Don't buy used. Go to a decent store, ask for a bike that fits and take it for a test ride.

You are overthinking this, all kinds of people ride bikes. I will add: Don't get "beach cruiser"... for some reason these have been marketed to women, but they are heavy and difficult to maneuver.

Get a normal, upright facing bike with a fender (which may cost an extra 20 bucks)
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:40 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Easy on and off to me says "step through" which are slightly more awkward to carry up and down stairs. Yet I have no difficulty carrying my Dutch-style bike up and down the flight of stairs to my basement, but I'm about 4 inches taller than you. I also end up taking most of the weight of the bike on my hip to go up and down the stairs.

I ride a Linus Dutchi all year on a flat 8-mile commute. The three speed sits comfortably in a 6-12 mph pace and only gets awkward when the wind at my back makes me want to go much faster than that. I test rode a number of bikes before buying this one--you really should do that. I had my heart set on the Pashley, but the Linus suited me better. It's definitely heavier than bikes built for speed, but it's only about 30 pounds.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:43 PM on July 16, 2015

Best answer: "There's a bike shop a few blocks from my office, but I'm not sure I feel right soliciting their advice when I know I'm likely to buy used."

If this is a bike shop that does maintenance/repair/tune-ups, go ask. Some of them maintain a used stock or know good local used sources, and you're going to go there to get your bike tuned up and serviced, and you're going to buy a helmet, and you're going to buy tires, and you're going to buy all kinds of other bike accessories. My local is happy to provide advice on buying used because they know people they help start riding bikes are going to spend a lot of money with them on the maintenance and accessories (and later the fancy new bikes). Go when it's not a busy time.

They may also tell you, we've got a big sale at the end of August when the summer season ends, you can get something fancy marked way down if you don't care about color. It's worth letting them know your price range and needs.

My husband is kind-of a bike dork and friends now often ask him to watch Craigslist for them; he creates alerts for the size and type of bike they're looking for and forwards them ones that look like they're in good condition in the right price range. If you have a local friend who bikes, they might be able to give you some direction in a similar way.

(Also, you can do hills like the Dutch do: Hop off and walk. Hop back on at the top. MAKES BEGINNING RIDING A LOT EASIER.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:45 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Go to a few bicycle shops and have a go. Even if you don't buy a bike from them, assuming they're decent humans, you'll probably need some accessories. (Don't feel bad about not buying anything from non-decent humans. If they make you feel bad, fuck 'em. Take your money elsewhere.)

Given you height/flexibility issues, and desire to be able to carry the bike, I'd look seriously at bikes with smaller wheels. So folding bikes, and even girls bikes.

Buying used can be risky, but if it's go everything you want, and it rides well, go for it. Do take it to a bike shop soon after you've bought it and ask them to check the chain for you. If it's been ridden a lot, the chain may have stretched. Ride a bike with a stretched chain for two long, and you'll have to replace the back cogs too. (The cog will start to look like sharks teeth - all pointy. Don't buy a bike with sharks teeth cogs).
posted by kjs4 at 4:51 PM on July 16, 2015

Best answer: Unless your joint stiffness dictates it, I'd be reluctant to buy a bike where you are sitting bolt-upright. It's not a question of speed (and from what you've written it sounds like you definitely don't want a bike where the handlebars are below the saddle, like racers ride), but a moderately inclined position just gives your legs a better angle to pedal. A position with your handlebars anywhere between an inch or two above the saddle to level with the saddle is a good compromise for city riding—you're upright enough to be comfortable and to easily see traffic around you, but leaned-over enough that it's easy to pedal. When I ride the very upright Divvy bike-share bikes here in Chicago, they're fine for a couple miles (not coincidentally this is roughly the length of the average commute in the compact Dutch cities where this style of bike is most popular), but I think I'd get tired of them quickly if I were trying to ride 12 miles a day on them.

Fit definitely matters—probably more than any other one factor. You want to be able to set the saddle height so that you get full leg extension at the bottom of the pedal stroke (but not so much extension that you feel like you are stretching or don't have solid contact with the pedal), and you want to make sure that with the saddle at that height, you can get the handlebars at a height and reach that you're comfortable with. (Older bikes will have a very limited range of handlebar height adjustment; on newer bikes, often you cannot adjust the handlebar height at all without buying replacement parts, though sometimes you can lower it by removing spacers.) On a frame that is too big, you may find that the handlebars are too far forward or too high, or that you can't lower the saddle enough to be comfortable. On a frame that is too small, it will be difficult to get the bars and/or seat high enough, and you may find the space between the saddle and the bars cramped, making it hard to steer and possibly not leaving enough room for your knees as you pedal.

It's true that smaller sizes are harder to find used. Depending on the market where you are, you may need to be patient and check Craigslist pretty regularly to get something that fits.
posted by enn at 8:01 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

It kind of depends on your budget. You can optimize, or you can find an old step-through bike getting dusty in you're neighbor's garage, try it out, and make do. Riding a little bit will help you decide what might be important to you or, like me, you might find that the random steel mountain bike you dug up is fine even though it's not ideal for my specific use.

As a short, not very strong woman, carrying my bike up stairs (I need to every day) is awkward regardless of the bike. But it's manageable. If you're strong enough to lift it to your shoulder that makes it less awkward, but I'm not.

My point: if you come across something free or cheap, give it a whirl. Bike optimization for shortish commutes is nice but not necessary.
posted by metasarah at 9:29 AM on July 17, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I'll head over to the bike shop tomorrow (they're closed on Mondays) and see what I can find. :)
posted by okayokayigive at 6:22 AM on July 20, 2015

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