Help with bike decisions for a casual rider
April 5, 2021 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I could use some help dealing with my bike situation. Casual rider, crappy bike, frequent suffering. Do I buy a new one or try to fix the one I have?

Every time I ride my bike I get frustrated and say to myself “I really need to do something” and then do nothing. I could use some advice!

I currently have a hybrid bike with a step-through frame that I bought at a used bike shop about 10 years ago. I think it’s just a mishmash of parts based on what the guy had around at the time- the frame is branded “Diamond” but other than that I don’t know much about it. I’m an extremely casual/amateur/lazy bike rider and mostly just try to keep up with my partner and get from point A to point B. There‘s a park we like to go to that’s about a 45 minute ride away (at my pace anyway) - usually this is my absolute max distance that I can deal with and I am usually at my limit and miserable by the time we get there. I feel like I used to enjoy biking a lot more, and I did actually bike a lot more, especially when I lived in a more bike friendly city.

I guess I have a lot of anxiety around biking - I get tired and uncomfortable really fast. I get extremely stressed out and feel like I’m going too shittily and too slowly for other people to deal with. I tried to solve it like 8 years ago by dropping $$$ on an extremely swanky ebike hookup on it to improve my long commute. It was really fun but I got sick of lugging the heavy ass thing up and down my basement stairs, and my commute decreased, and I moved to a flatter city, and I figured I needed to work out more. So after a year or two I took out all the electric stuff and replaced the rear wheel with a normal one. Stairs still suck but it’s a bit lighter now.

When I actually have to do the work of riding the bike it becomes pretty uncomfortable after about 10-15 minutes - my hands and wrists start to feel a lot of pressure and then pain, followed by my shoulders and back. I did some internet searching and tried to adjust the handlebar height a bit to compensate but my attempts on that have been frustrating - I think it’s the kind of stem (?) that I don’t have the tools and expertise to adjust, and/or it’s as high as it will go already. I might not be getting enough leg extension either, but raising the seat any more makes it really hard to get onto. Plus my butt always hurts even after a seat upgrade, but I think that’s fairly standard.

It would be kinda nice to improve this bike because it’s not totally terrible - I like the hybrid style and it rides/shifts/brakes just fine. I took it to REI a couple years ago for a tune up and to replace a busted wheel, and when I asked for a general tune-up also, they said something similar to what i’ve heard from every bike shop I’ve ever taken a bike to, which is some variant of “it’s not even worth it to fix [potential minor issue] unless you really love the bike and want to spend a lot of money also replacing [other major thing] that is going to fail.”

I haven’t been to a bike shop since then but every time I ride it I think about the idea of getting a bike fitting, which sounds appealing as a step towards actually enjoying biking. So after yet another ride of suffering and frustration yesterday, I searched for some local shops I could potentially take it to. All their websites just make it sound like bike fittings are focused on pro cyclist spandex guys. Plus it feels kinda weird to spend $100 for a fitting on a bike that cost me maybe $160 tops. Also I’m assuming if I did find a place and took it in for a fitting/adjustment type thing, they either wouldn’t be able to do it because it’s old/busted/the height is maxed out, or maybe they wouldn’t want to, because it wouldn’t be worth it unless I love the bike enough to shell out $$$ to change [whatever thing].

So at this point in the loop I usually start thinking about whether I need to buy a whole new bike. I hate the idea of buying a brand new bike because it feels like buying a brand new car- buying used seems so much more economical and I guess environmentally friendly/socially responsible? But I don’t know any used bike shops in my area and with covid I no longer have the patience to scour craigslist and try one bike at a time while some stranger is chillin and then I have to bargain and I don’t even know if the bike size is right, or if the parts are any good, or if I’ll feel like crap riding it after more than a test ride down the street.

So maybe buying a new bike is the answer? In high school a zillion years ago my mom took me to a bike shop and they fitted me with a brand new Specialized Crossroads that eventually got stolen years later. I think it might have been kinda comfortable? but that might just be relative to my subsequent (used) bike ownership experiences?

Then when I start to think practically about buying a new bike, I always either talk myself out of it and put it off til the end of the nice biking weather and forget to do anything until the next spring, which is where I am now, and I am once again extremely aware that it is probably the Worst Possible Time to go to a bike shop, especially with the extra level of covid demand, and I’m wondering if I should put it off until winter, but I’d really like to try to enjoy some biking this year if I can, plus I have a bike already, and it’s not too bad I don’t think, so maybe I should just put up with it until winter...

Anyway, maybe this time I’ll actually do something about it. I could really use some advice to get me out of this cycle ! !

So: it’s probably the worst possible time to take a bike to a shop or buy a new one, right? in terms of crowds and demand and having things in stock? how bad of an idea is it if i actually try to visit a bike shop this time of year? am i just going to be yet another punishing ignorant customer riding the seasonal wave? Do I try to take my existing bike in even though they’ll likely just try to sell me something else? is it even possible to get a bike fitting for casual riders on a crap old bike? or do i just go for it and buy something else? do I buy a brand new bike even though it goes against my vague nonspecific principles of avoiding buying brand new things? maybe a used one is fine? but I don’t have that kind of patience and I just want this solved! but will a new bike even help me enjoy biking? maybe my body just can’t handle it any more? how can I find a bike shop that will put up with me and my biking anxiety? I couldn’t find any local co-ops or used shops nearby (St. Louis).

ugh. can’t believe I’m hitting post on this. Thanks.
posted by ghostbikes to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You don't need a brand new bike, but you need a bike that fits you better. Something about the posture and size and geometry of your current getup is all wrong. A lot.

It's generally easiest for a casual/new rider to get a great geometry fit when buying new from a shop, but if you have the right help you can get a used bike that suits you much better than this one. If you sell your current bike, it could find a better rider for it too, and that will defray your costs.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:02 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have done your best with adjustments and the bike really doesn't fit you. If it hurts to ride, it doesn't fit.

Maybe check out St Louis Bicycleworks? It looks like you can buy or rent bikes from them.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 6:32 PM on April 5

I hear you about the sore wrists. I had a hybrid that was pretty upright but still required just enough leaning forward to really bug my wrists. I suppose one is meant to hold up most of one’s weight with the core and thus not put so much weight on the wrists, but I leaned... anyway, I went on vacation in Amsterdam and tried out some cruisers while there (which have you sitting very upright) and they were the bomb. I came home and bought an electra loft 7d. I’m sure I’m not making my best speed ever on such an upright bike but I easily do 20 mile (mostly flat but some hills) rides at least once a week with no soreness. Riding is now a pleasure. (The endurance took a little while to build up but that was not happening while I was uncomfortable on my hybrid). Ymmv but where I’m at bike shops have been open and visitable for a few months now. If it’s possible for you, I would call around and see if they have upright cruisers in stock that you could try out. I’m biased for the Electra loft (I even feel it is a bit overpriced for what you get but on the other hand, it was exactly what I wanted. In addition to the style, it is pretty light vs other cruisers). You don’t have to go inside to try them - even in normal times, I spent most of the bike buying experience in the parking lot. Anyway I would just suggest trying out this style of bike even new at a shop. They’ll make sure you have the right size. If you love it maybe it’ll be worth buying new or maybe you will have a better idea of what you’re looking for used. (And then if you can’t buy you used bike there, bring it for repairs to support them.)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:38 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]

I think you should definitely get a bike that fits better. FWIW step thru frames have a ton of flex and can feel very spongy. A traditional diamond frame will better help transfer your pedal stroke into momentum. Also a bike seat does not have to be painful or uncomfortable. There is a wide wide range of saddles that can make riding a more comfortable activity.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:45 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible that the handlebar position can be significantly modified with a different stem (shorter, more angled, etc) or a stem extender. If it's an easy swap with a standard part, it should be pretty cheap, though it could go up if there isn't enough slack in the brake/shifter lines, and they'd need to be re-cabled.

If there's a bike shop near you that's a little more commuter oriented than racing, I'd take it there an ask for an opinion. A decent shop isn't going to charge you for a fitting just to take a few minutes to look and see if there's any hope of swapping the stem out for something that fits you better; the worst that happens is that they tell you it isn't possible or not worth it, but there's every chance that it's doable.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:00 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

I liked maplewood bicycle name many years ago when I lived in St. Louis. My dad rides a very old vintage schwinn and doesn't like to spend much money and he still goes to maplewood bikes and they treat him well.
posted by sulaine at 7:05 PM on April 5

I'd say go to an independently owned shop and say you want to buy a reliable used bike. Most independent shops I've frequented (as a pretty casual rider) had some on hand and they were good values. I was honest with the folks I talked to and was like "I don't really know what I'm doing, I want your expertise" and the mechanics loved that. I spent more than I expected but honestly they were right... my lightweight road bike brings me so much joy even though I really just use it casually.

The other thing I'd consider is getting a bike computer that tracks your RPMs. I enjoyed biking but struggled with it until I got one and was able to use it to figure out when I should be changing gears and letting the bike do more of the work for me. I used to think that if my legs weren't pushing then I wasn't doing it right... turns out you generally want your legs moving fast, not pushing hard. When I got the computer I finally found the right cadence and learned how to use my gears correctly.
posted by adorap0621 at 7:10 PM on April 5

Here are two easy things that can make a big difference and make an existing bike go so much faster with the same rider:
1. oil the chain
2. don't use knobby tires.

If you're getting a new bike, get a recumbent. For like a million reasons, including ergonomics. You can get a decent used recumbent for the price of a decent new upright.
posted by aniola at 7:32 PM on April 5

Some excellent advice in this thread, to which I don't have much to add, but I will say this as an additional thought point:

I am once again extremely aware that it is probably the Worst Possible Time to go to a bike shop, especially with the extra level of covid demand

You are 100% right. if you go through your decision process and land on "I want to get a new bike", there will almost certainly be a somewhat lengthy wait to actually buy one.

Chances are it will be a couple months (or more, for extremely popular models) until you can actually get your hands on a bike. The pandemic saw a massive surge in people wanting to buy bikes to get around and get exercise; combine that with the fact that most bicycle components come from China these days, and China shut down for months at the beginning of all this, the same way the rest of the world did, and you have a huge backlog of orders for bikes that is still a problem this many months later, as manufacturers scramble to catch up with pent-up demand.

Most shops will have a pretty good selection of models you can test ride, though, so you can try out different models and find one you like, but once you find one you want to order, be prepared to wait to get your own.

Used bikes, obviously, won't have that constraint, so if that's an option it might give you a quicker result.
posted by pdb at 8:07 PM on April 5

As I read what you wrote, a couple of things popped into my head.
"...and mostly just try to keep up with my partner and get from point A to point B."
Does your partner do a good job of adapting to your pace? Riding with someone who doesn't can be very discouraging no matter how happy you are with your bike. My brother and his wife make disparity a non-issue by always having her set the pace by riding in front.
I think your bike might be way too heavy. A heavy clunker can take a lot of fun out of riding a bike. Lots of bike shops sell both new and used bikes. Take a few different lighter-weight used bikes for a spin and see what you think.

p.s. I don't think you have to spend any $ on a fitting unless you plan to be in the Tour de France; the shop salesperson should be able to tell at a glance whether the bike fits you well enough. Also, watch a youtube video or two about how a bike should fit.

Another p.s. I have been a cyclist for decades, and I have found that almost always people who work in bike shops love cycling and they want others to experience the love, too, and so they are very helpful and supportive and are glad you are there!
posted by SageTrail at 8:29 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

1. oil the chain
2. don't use knobby tires.

In this vein, I would add: make sure your tire pressure is at least 65 psi or so (for a typical hybrid, but check the spec on the side of the tire). Get a good floor pump to make it easy, and check it at least every two weeks or so.

That said, this can make it (a lot) faster and easier, but it won't solve issues of fit. Although if it's easier you may not get to the point of fatigue, so that's nice.

I don't suppose you have any friends around your height who'd let you try their bikes?

One simple thing you can do at home, though, is to make sure you have the right size bike based on your inseam. That might give a big clue, if your current bike is significantly off.
posted by alexei at 8:36 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

The bike you have sounds like a dog. I lost too many years to a dog. Then I bought a used bike from a guy I knew, and it was night and day, I didn't have to true the wheels after every ride, it didn't squeak, it wasn't heavy, and I put on 1000 miles that first year. I don't think this is a case of you have a bike that just needs some TLC, I think this bike as you've described it is not sensible to spend any more resources on. It's ok to get another bike if this one isn't working for you. This isn't you have a car that works fine but it's old and scratched and you're bored with it, this is you have a car that doesn't start up reliably, burns oil, leaves you stranded.
posted by disconnect at 8:50 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]

1. Get a decent secondhand bike that fits you better.
2. Convert it to an ebike with a hub motor and a controller/screen that supports pedal assist levels.

You'll never look back.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:57 PM on April 5

Yeah, I think the thing to do is to go to your local independent bike shop and tell them what you like about your bike and how it hurts, and tell them the kind of bike rides you want to be able to do. There's a lot that can happen in this conversation that it's harder to do with us here on the internet. This might need to be a phone call depending on Covid restrictions in your area. Anyway! I completely agree that a new bike will serve you well. Whether you should have a new city bike or a road bike is something they can help you figure out. You have lots of options, even with the big boom in bike sales and increased demand.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:30 PM on April 5

I agree that working with knowledgable, helpful bike shop could really help you out, either by adjusting your current ride or getting you one that works way better for your body.

It sounds like you're worried about being judged by the bike shop staff because of your funky bike. I say, the best way to get around that is to find your friendly local used bike shop. Look around for the one that has some sort of public service aspect, like sending bikes to other parts of the world (like Bikes Not Bombs in Boston) or helping kids build and repair bikes (like BikeWorks in Seattle). Folks in organizations like this are used to bikes in ALL conditions and configurations, they understand how important bikes are for transport, they are not about spending big bucks on elite gear, they will not judge you, and they are there to help folks get set up to ride.

Biking is too great to have it be miserable! It's worth taking a little bit of time and effort to get a better setup. Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 4:48 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a short term bike rental (or two)? A bike rental is a low pressure, low stakes way of experiencing what else is out there in bike land.

Oh it seems that St. Louis BWorks is a local bike coop.
posted by oceano at 6:13 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

I'll cast a voice for reconsidering the "it's not worth doing X unless you love the bike." 3-4 years ago, I was looking to make the too-small for me bike that my wife's ex husband left with her better, and was told it wasn't worth spending money on. 21" frame when I should be riding a 24". Basement price would have been $550+ CDN to get a bike appropriately sized and reasonable quality for me (probably would be ended up around $800), versus about $240 for a new post to support a ridiculous height + handle bar stem to raise that height, new shifters, cables+chain+brake cables+rear derailer. I also did this just when everyone was getting their bikes out, so I needed to wait about 3-4 weeks to get the work done at my happily swamped local independent bike shop.

The thing is I use the bike on an indoor trainer during the winter when I just can't stand another morning run in the cold; occasional rides with my son during the summer, and if I'm injured and can't run / coming back from injury/break. I.E. 50 times a year is a really safe upper number of days it gets ridden. And yes while the bike is adjusted about as well as it can be, it's 100% not ideal. But I still feel a few years past the event that I'm really happy going past the "this isn't the best investment" advice.

With that said, I *was* able to get reasonable leg extension and a comfortable position via the add on parts to the bike. That might not be possible with your current bike. I'm absolutely not recommending continuing to ride on a bike that's not a good fit for your body.

How often are you riding? If you're riding more than once / week, you should be able to work up to a few hours on a bike seat without discomfort. Even riding 2-3 times per week if I've gone a few months with no riding will find my sitbones back in shape by the end of week 3. If you're only doing one ride per week try even getting a 15-20 minute ride in the middle of the week. Alternately look at different styles of bike seats. Cushier does not always mean it will be more comfortable after a few hours.
posted by nobeagle at 6:41 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All right! I've really been through an emotional journey with this since I posted this question.

I went back and forth on whether to go new vs. used. I called or visited almost every single new bike shop in the area.

BWorks was great, highly recommended, they had a bunch of used bikes available in my size to try, but the ones they pulled out for me seemed really low (bent squished knees) and raising the seats was all they could do (fair enough). They were also a bit distracted (they also do computers) and couldn't really help me with fit issues other than going by my height. Good place to know about though, bikes were moving fast but they had a good used inventory in various sizes. I could have easily made another appointment in a week or two and tried a whole different selection. But also since it was an individual appointment I had a lot of anxiety about leaving without buying anything after having this guy bring out all these perfectly good bikes one by one for me to try.

I even found a Specialized store with a 2021 Crossroads (my old bike model!) available to try (!) near me (!) in my size (!!). It was pretty comfortable but low and the handlebars couldn't be raised so they had me try the more upright Roll which was just big and bulky and not pleasant.

After more strikeouts I realized I didn't want a brand new bike because I didn't want the features lots of brand new bikes seem to have (big bulky cruiser type frames, or super pro racing type frames, or disc brakes, or internal in-frame cabling) or to deal with a dealership-type single-brand-focused store.

I was super disappointed and ready to give up biking for a season, and then did exactly what I was trying to avoid and went on Craigslist... I started following postings from a guy who was listing a bunch of fixed up 70s and 80s bikes which looked really nice... I started obsessively searching for older bike model specs and sizes and catalogs... and I came home yesterday with a great early 70s Schwinn Le Tour mixte with upright handlebars, sold to me for a good price by a chill local bike-tinkering retired guy. It's not perfect (can't raise the handlebars any more) but it seems to be a good size and it's sleeker and easier to maneuver and it'll at least be different and give me some new information about what I like or don't like. Looking forward to trying a long ride this weekend!

Thanks for all the encouragement here, it kicked me into gear to go for a new bike experience and helped me weigh whether I wanted to adjust my current one. Bworks recommendation was helpful too because I had thought they didn't sell any and only did kids' bikes. Minor bummer that I couldn't find good local sizing/fitting help for my biking level but I think it worked out for now!
posted by ghostbikes at 11:11 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

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