Yet another bicycle question...
April 7, 2006 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Time to get rid of the Wal-Mart bike that got me to and from my grad school classes. I'd like to upgrade to something that will let me join in on local 15-20 mile group rides. What should I be looking for?

So my desire to ride has progressed beyond just needing to get to classes or the store. I'd like to start doing 5-10 mile rides in town on a regular basis and do some beginner rides with the local bike club that are 20 miles or so. I've read a few of the previous Metafilter bike questions, but they've just left me more confused. I've talked to my local bike shops, but I'd like some extra input too.

Local bike shop #1 recommended this Raleigh, but is that going to be suitable for the longer rides I want to take? I test-rode one and found it super-comfortable, but, then again, I was only on it for 10 minutes or so.

Local crazy bike-guy at shop #2 recommends a Bianchi. I can't remember which one, but something in the $300 range.

I liked the mention of the Trek WSD bikes in another thread, but don't know anything about them. (I'll be going to local shop #3 that carries Treks tomorrow.)

More info: I'm 5' 3" and I have about $300-$400 to spend. I know that's not much, but it should be enough to get something that will get me started. I just don't know what that something should be! I guess what I'm looking for is a hybrid bike (I'll still be doing lots of riding to the grocery store and leisurely rides with my boyfriend and such), but that won't be inadequate for the group rides on country roads.
posted by MsMolly to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would go with a road bike for that distance. Go to a good bike store, tell them your budget, and spend most of your energy finding a combination of frame, saddle and handlebars that fits you. Also an extra $100-200 can make a big difference in the components on the bike. And better components will last longer and feel good longer.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:38 PM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: I would recommend Treks. They do good lower-priced bikes, that don't use crappy parts, and the frames are ultra-durable. My girlfriend's just getting into cycling and she has the same goals as you; she got this one. It's a tad above your price range, but the 7.2 is right about in your range.

The main difference between the two is quality of parts - that's what sold my GF on the 7.3, because 10-20 miles a week on a regular basis will wear out the lesser parts on the 7.2 a lot faster than it will the better-quality ones on the 7.3.

Have fun!
posted by pdb at 5:40 PM on April 7, 2006

A hybrid should be fine. I've done plenty of 50+ mile rides on mine, on country road/tracks. Don't get persuaded into buying a full-on knobbly-tyred mountainbike. I'm not sure I'd bother getting a bike with a fork - it might make the bike a little comfier, but it's extra weight, and isn't necessary unless you're doing proper mountain-biking. It's also one more thing to go wrong.

Keep it oiled, make sure the saddle's high enough, enjoy.
posted by matthewr at 5:56 PM on April 7, 2006

Consider buying used. Your $300-400 budget is not much if you have to have this year's model -- but it might be enough to pick up a model that's a couple years old. Bikes is bikes. I've put together nice ones with a little thrift store luck and some help from the local bike shop for under $120. The one big upside to buying new, however, is the sales guy is gonna fit you on the bike, and for longer rides, that's real important. You don't want one too large for you, or you'll be hating life (or in my case -- too small. i have a couple of bikes that make my knees ache even with the seat post way past the minimum insertion point).
posted by fishfucker at 6:04 PM on April 7, 2006

I think you would be disappointed with the Raleigh. Group riding generally involves faster bikes--buy something that will keep up with them--and your own goals.

If you are comfortable riding a road bike, here's a San Francisco listing (not your size..but good for comparison). Not much listed on Chicago's Craigslist. In your price range I'd recommend used 1-2 years old. Make sure to check the serial number if you are to buy used, local police department should be able to confirm a legitimate sale.
posted by vaportrail at 6:21 PM on April 7, 2006

5-10 miles in town and 20+ with a bike club can be vastly different experiences. Is the club a touring/recreational club or are you expecting to do fairly serious biking with them ( 16-20 MPH plus). If your goal is easy going recreational biking on streets in a largely urban/suburban environments I would go with a hybrid or touring bike with good wheels and tires. If your real goal is to move on to road biking then bite the bullet, spend a bit more, and get a road bike. Personally, I don't think you can beat a good light weight mountain bike for urban environments--the extra weight and increased friction are more than off set by reliability and safety. What ever you pick have fun (and yes, spend $100 more than you want once you find an appropriate bike and bargain) But there is no need to spend more than $500 unless you are going to go for a first class road bike
posted by rmhsinc at 6:57 PM on April 7, 2006

Agreed with above.. If you only can spend $300ish, go used. You'll get more bang for the buck. Any locally store bought bike will be _heaaaavy_ and when you start riding up a hill you'll know it. :)

i've heard people having pretty good experiences on ebay, if you know what size you are looking for.
posted by joshgray at 6:59 PM on April 7, 2006

I prefer a road bike for the road - they are lighter, faster, and have more hand positions so end up being more comfortable over long rides (although 15 to 20 miles really isn't that long of a ride if you ride regularly). Mountain and hybrid bikes offer a little more comfort over rough roads. Don't get knobby tires unless you are going off road; they will just slow you down. More important than the type of bike is making sure it fits you. Make sure the bike shop gives you a proper fitting including frame size, frame geometry, seat height, seat fore-aft adjustment, stem height, and stem length, etc. Here is a good guide to bike fitting. Used bikes are a better buy, but I would stick with buying one from a reputable bike shop (with fitting). A few scrimped pennies can quickly turn into overuse injuries.
posted by caddis at 7:02 PM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

You need slick tires, but that is a very easy thing to change on any bike. If the store is nice they might even change the tires for you at no cost, since the ones coming off are still new.. (That said, used is a very good idea, replacement tires will only cost $10-20 each)

To me, suspension just adds weight and expense (and subtracts energy). Get something without suspension of any kind. I wouldn't get a road bike though, because of the gear shifters.. Twist or trigger shifters (same as grip shifters and rapidfire shifters respectively) are cheap, but the equivalent system for road bikes is still pretty pricey. You definitely don't want to be stuck with shift levers..

Finally, weight is important, but for reasons that are unheard of to the average bike store salesman. You are pretty small, but you still need to be able to manhandle the bike so, all else being equal, the smallest lightest bike you can get is a very good idea.
posted by Chuckles at 7:17 PM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: What I mean by manhandle.. Carrying it in and out of your home, carrying it up stairs, or even walking beside it. If it is heavy compared to your arm strength, you will think of it as something big and inconvenient, if you can pick it up and haul it around with you, you will be much happier with it.
posted by Chuckles at 7:22 PM on April 7, 2006

I'll echo what others have said: Buy used--you'll get a lot more bang for your buck. I wouldn't be particular about the brand, as the average quality of bikes is pretty uniform at any given price-point and pretty high in general. Getting a good fit is more important, and will cost more money (if buying used). If you find a bike you really like, but the stem is the wrong length or you don't like the seat, well, that's another $20-50 you'll need to spend. And you'll need a frame and floor pump, and some basic tools, and eventually you'll want cleats...

You can often find especially good deals right after major events like triathlons, from people who geared up for the event, and then decided "that's not for me."
posted by adamrice at 8:37 PM on April 7, 2006

Oh yeah, and get a road bike. You can ride a hybrid for 20 miles, but if you ride regularly, it'll be more efficient and more comfortable on a road bike.
posted by adamrice at 8:38 PM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: If you're you're making a transition from short to longer rides, I'd recommend picking the bike that is the most pleasurable to ride; that is, the one that makes you want to get out and ride it. The bike could be new or used but if it isn't fun to ride today it's going to sit in the garage. As you put more miles on you'll find your criteria of what constitutes a "fun" bike will change, but don't fall into the trap of trying to predict what you'll be looking for later -- get what suits you now.

A derail on choosing a bike shop: There are three kinds of bike stores; There's the slick store selling mostly entry-level bikes staffed with high-school kids (these places sell you what they want to sell you rather than what you need), the one catering to triathletes and performance fiends (these places intimidate insecure people into dropping large bank by insinuating the best solution is the priciest one) and finally the one run by an owner you always see riding around town who sells a wide selection of new and used bikes, and has a respected (but somewhat ancient) service department.

Store three will be interested in meeting your immediate needs because they know if they sell you the bike that gets you hooked, you'll be a loyal customer forever (and if you become a regular rider you will be spending lots of time in bike shops.) They won't be afraid to recommend a used bike if that's what's best for you now (and don't be afraid to ask.) Don't waste your time at the first two.

Questions to think about before you go to store number three (if the staff is good they'll help you answer them):

1) What's the pace of the club rides you're planning on participating in? At least in my area, there are easy-going group rides and sick racer-wannabe group rides, and all at different mileages. The best bike for each will differ. Once you get to the stage where you want to do the sicko rides your needs will be vastly different than they are today.

2) Are you in a hilly area? A classic road bike might not be geared low enough to get you easily over steep sections. Touring and hybrid bikes tend to have lower gearing, and this will make climbing easier. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that choosing lower gearing makes you a wimp; this fat old man consistently spins merrily uphill in low, low gears, passing lycra troopers trying to force their way up on the chainring marked "macho." They get really pissed off when I do this, which makes me smile.

3) What is your preferred riding position, right now? As you become a stronger rider this answer will change, but the transition to the classic "on the drops" position that road bikes encourage can be difficult to make. Once you become a strong rider you will appreciate it much more; but you also will find that performance can come at the expense of comfort. Touring and hybrid bikes will likely be more comfortable for the mileage you're planning on doing, and will serve better for rides where you will be carrying stuff.

As you move into longer rides you'll find bike fit to be a much bigger issue than it is for errand runs. This is where hooking up with an experienced, knowledgable bike shop will help you most -- the salespeople should try to find a model that fits your build rather than force you into the bike they've been told to push.

As you become a stronger rider (after a few months) you'll have a better idea of what you want in your next bike (and the bike(s) after that -- not that you'll get rid of this one necessarily -- if you stick with riding you may find yourself with a harem of rides.)
posted by Opposite George at 8:38 PM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

You can ride a mountain bike (or a hybrid) on the road, but you can't ride a road bike on a trail made up of gravel and whatnot. So only get a road bike if you are planning on riding only on nice smooth roads. Trek makes fairly light low-end mountain bikes. (I'm sure other companies do, too. I just know Trek does cause I have one.) In 15-20 miles, I think you need to be more worried about fit and proper adjustment than anything else. You can always add a road bike later if you decide you want to seriously road race. I'm not an expert, but I'm using my spiffed-up mountain bike in a triathlon next month.
posted by Airhen at 9:50 PM on April 7, 2006

If you go for used, consider making your own hybrid.

I have a 12-year old Specialized hardtail. I replaced it with a new trail bike (same model Specialized, but 12 years newer). I then converted my old hardtail mountain bike into a hybrid road bike by investing in $40 worth of tires - some nice road tires, thin (1.5") and smooth but not totally slick. It handles pavement smoothly, and from what I've been told by an avid biker who did the same thing with his old bike, the tires handle suprisingly well off-road, if you have to take it off of the pavement anywhere.

I see older hardtails all the time around campus. You can probably get what was once a high-end bike, in good mechanical shape, and get it completely tuned up and outfitted as you like without going out of your budget. The advantage is that even though it is older, it is still a strong, light, durable frame. It's also not as big a target for bike thieves, because it is clearly an older model and shows some wear.

This also gets you into your sport without a huge investment. My new trail bike set me back about $750 with all components. The recommended entry-level road bikes I've seen are in the $1500 range (as in "if you spend less than this you will be uncompetitive and uncomfortable").

Keep in mind that if you are riding with a group, you will eventually want to have the same general level of equipment as the rest of them. It's not an envy thing (well, that's human nature, isn't it?) - it's that the better equipment costs more for a reason. My wife found this out when she got her new bike - she used to be way behind me on bike rides, and with the new bike suddenly she could keep up with me. Her old Schwinn was working against her. Once she test-rode a Specialized she kicked her old bike to the curb and never looked back.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:53 PM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

You didn't mention how fast these rides will be. Unless they will be ridden at a leisurely pace, the Raleigh will very quickly become your greatest enemy.

I'll assume that the pace will be higher, in which case you shouldn't forget to take into account all the other stuff you need: Helmet, pedals, shoes, shorts, jersey, gloves, and so on. You should be mindful about the shorts and saddles, these are typically designed for men and can be uncomfortable for most women.

I very much doubt you'll find a brand new good quality road bike for $300. I know prices are lower in the US compared to here but I doubt they are that much lower. Anyway, I would definitely look into getting a good quality 70's or 80's racer. I suspect they are plentiful and cheap on the second hand market, as they are here. They are typically very well built and often have a somewhat more relaxed geometry compared to the modern racers. They often even have fender holders, long fenders are very good when you do group rides in (or after) rain. If you go down this route, make sure the frame uses British (ISO) threading, it'll simplify maintenance. Also make sure the wheels are of clincher type, that is, the regular type that uses a separate inner tube.

In many ways the 80's quality racer represent the pinnacle of all-round bicycles. They often are fantastically beautiful as well. If it's equipped with nice retro Campagnolo gear, polish it up to a high shine, and if you have the attitude to match then you'll definitely be the envy of every ride. (Especially if you get authentic wool clothing.)

You shouldn't have to spend more than $200 for a very nice retro racer. Have it looked over and spend the rest of the money on the other gear I mentioned above.
posted by rycee at 12:13 AM on April 8, 2006

I can't offer much in the way of new advice other than what's already been offered as far as considering buying used if you want very good quality at a $300 price-point. I will offer the suggestion that if you don't buy from a bike store and you are considering purchasing a used bike, that you either have someone who knows bicycles quite well look it over first or you take it into a bicycle shop for a checkout before closing the deal. Bicycles are often hard-ridden and abused. I've had a friend slam a bike of mine into a rather immovable object and unless you looked closely, you'd never know that the impact permanently altered the frame and resulted in an ominously swollen join. (Although if you get the right price, abuse doesn't have to be a deal-killer either. I later sold the bicycle at a garage sale for $20 after making clear the damage -- it might last another fifty years, it might have had frame failure the following week). And then there was the cheapie steel frame which literally snapped in half going over railroad track, but you're dumping your cheap Wal-Mart brand, so no worries along those lines. I would recommend against buying a used bike sight-unseen, as from eBay.

However, as an ex-resident and native-born, I can give you a short historic perspective for the bicycle shops in the area you're at. Two bicycle shops there have been around for thirty plus years: Durst's and Champaign Cycle. Longevity in bicycle shops tends to be a good sign, and I've had good experiences at both shops, although admittedly it's been, geesh, 15-20 years since I've had the opportunity to use them. That isn't to say that there aren't nice newer shops in the area, or that perhaps management in the two could have gone to hell in intervening years, but it's offered as a data point you might find useful when deciding among bicycle stores.

Speaking of purchasing used 70's and 80's era bicycles, Durst's sold me my first quality road bike in the mid-70's. It was a Peugeot PRN 10 LE which served as my sole transportation for many years. A pretty nice bike and Durst supported it well. Actually, it's too bad you're so much shorter than I was, because I still own the bike and pass back through the area fairly often. I'd give it away free to a good home who would promise to use and properly cherish it. It's been sitting around unused for 15+ years, but one could probably replace all the rotted rubber, get bearings repacked, and new chain for a lot less than $300. But, unfortunately, I don't think the Peugeot would fit you well given our approximate 6" height and gender difference, so no help here.
posted by mdevore at 2:18 AM on April 8, 2006

Did I really write 6" difference? Tsk, should have been 8".
posted by mdevore at 2:21 AM on April 8, 2006

If you're going to use this bike for group rides, you really need drop bars; the Raleigh will not be an appropriate bike for this purpose. This is a safety issue as much as it is an aerodynamic issue, so, seriously, consider drops. Plus, the Raleigh is really not a bike meant for long group rides; it's for noodling along at the shore or one mile rides to the store.

Almost everybody who rides a racing/touring road bike for the first time finds it slightly uncomfortable and scary, but quickly realizes some of the benefit to such a setup. Most notably, it's more aerodynamic and offers many more hand positions than other kinds of handlebars. Also the typical racing position on the bike allows you better use of your core muscles than more upright positions. This translates to more power, better workouts, and less fatigue (since you're not relying so much on your legs to power the bike).

So what to get: If you had more to spend, I'd recommend a cyclocross bike. Much like hybrids, cross bikes kind of span the gap between road bikes and mountain bikes, but cross bikes are meant for racing, so you get a lot more of the benefits of a racing setup than you would with a hybrid. You can ride paved roads, dirt roads, smooth trails without any trouble, and with a little practice, you'll be able to ride on pretty much all but the gnarliest of terrain. And, just by switching the tires to slicks, you'll be ready for group riding. I know many people who use cross bikes for this purpose, especially in the winter when the roads are a real mess and nobody wants to take their expensive racing bikes outside. New cross bikes might be out of your price range, but a used one might be perfect. Cross is currently surging in popularity, so you'll have no trouble finding listings (craigslist, classifieds, etc.) for used cross bikes.

Rycee also makes a very good suggestion. My first racing bike was a 1982 Pinarello that I bought in 2001 for $350. It was beautiful, rode beautifully, and, with some restoration work, sold for about $700 when I was done with it. The main drawback -- and the reason I ultimately upgraded to a newer bike -- is that you'll get downtube shifters instead of more modern STI shifters and fewer gears (say, 6 or 7 instead of 9 or 10). But older bikes are generally smooth, stable in handling, and, since they're usually steel, somewhat more durable and more compliant than newer aluminum bikes.

If you must buy a new bike, your movey will go further if you avoid well-know brands like Trek. You pay a big premium for a big brand name, smaller brands have to pack more actual value into their product in order to compete at the same price point.
posted by dseaton at 6:04 AM on April 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure exactly when but during the 80's, frames started to come with a 130mm wide rear fork. This is the same width as modern bikes so putting a brand new 9/10 gear drive train on these frames is typically no problem. Most of these bikes also come with British threading. Older and lower end bikes had a 120mm rear fork but I suspect that it's possible to squeeze in a modern 130mm hub in these (thanks to the magic of steel).

Putting STI shifters on the bike is no problem but, obviously, you'll have to replace the old derailers. Remove the old downtube shifters afterwards. If you're lucky then the downtube shifters are attached using a detachable ring instead of welded bosses leaving you a beautiful, clean, frame. A while back I saw images of a stunning vintage frame equipped with the latest high end Campagnolo gear. My keyboard must have been close to shorting due to all the drool.

If there are bike messengers around then it might be a good idea to ask a few of them about good bike shops.

My suggestion would be to get a nice vintage racer. Replace the old parts with modern ones as time goes on. Later on when you're able to spend a bit more money, get a nice modern frame and move the good stuff over from the old bike. Then convert the old one into a fixie and discover your love for cycling all over again! (don't forget to give me a shout-out when you put it on fixedgeargallery :-)
posted by rycee at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2006

Since you intend to use the bike grocery shopping and leisure riding, I'll mention that you should also make sure the frame and fork have eyelets for a rack and fenders.

Finally, based on your height I would estimate that you want a frame with a seat tube (c-t measurement) of about 48cm. This is just a very rough guide value though, it's impossible to say anything definite based on your height alone. The bike geometries also differ.
posted by rycee at 9:42 AM on April 8, 2006

Best answer: I can speak with experience on having owned a Raleigh hybrid:

Good: Durable. I rode mine about ~40 miles a week on city/country roads pleasure and ~14 mi commute to work for a couple of years and it didn't get any maintance (due to my ignorance) other than tightening up the cables every year. I never had a chain break (or even slip often) or any damage that affected the performance of the bike. Hell, it even took a couple of years of riding on backwaters country roads before I even had a flat.

Bad: Exactly what everyone here has said -- it was heavy and my performance suffered for it. Now granted I have a medical condition that affects my aerobic stamina, but I never could take hills and even at the end of summer when I should have been adjusted/in shape, I only managed to cruise at about ~15 mph. The fact that I had trouble with hills kind of defined where I rode and that might end up really bugging you. Also, knowing that the local club considered the hobbiest rides to have an average speed of 15-20 mph made me lust after a road bike every time I mounted up on that Raleigh. I really noticed the difference in output/speed when I tried my brother's halfway decent road bike .
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 10:57 AM on April 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for your help everyone! I definitely agree with all the suggestions to go used if I could, but C-U isn't a big enough town to have much of a used bike market, at least for short girls like me. Thanks especially for pdb's suggestion to look at the Trek FX bikes. Today I bought a Trek 7.2 FX at Champaign Cycle. (mdevore, both Durst and CC are still going strong and have a good reputation in town.) What eventually made me purchase at Champaign Cycle was the helpfulness of the salespeople. The guy I talked to at Durst (local shop #1, with the Raleigh) didn't spend much time with me and didn't really give the impression that he was thinking that hard about what would be best for me to ride. The guys at Champaign Cycle, on the other hand, first pointed me to Craigslist and eBay to look for used bikes, and then, when I was interested in the Trek, were very helpful and made sure it was the right fit. (For example, even though I was interested in the WSD frame, the guy looked at the way my body is proportioned and explained why he thought the regular frame would be better for me.) So I'll be taking it out for its first ride tomorrow. Right now I'm just enjoying it sitting here in my living room all clean and shiny with that new bike smell!
posted by MsMolly at 3:29 PM on April 12, 2006

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