Once upon a bicycle so they say
May 29, 2023 5:37 AM   Subscribe

I want a bike! I have not had a bike since I was a kid. I'm going to go to my local bike co-op for advice, but I process info best by reading things on my own time, so I'd like to do some reading ahead of time. Hit me up with "how to choose a bike for dummies" resources, please and thank you.

I know I can google but there is a lot of information out there on the subject of bikes, so hoping y'all might have some places to point me.

I am a short woman (5'2"), so I know that I need a proportionate bike, but not sure how that is measured.

My primary use case for this bike is a 3ish mile each way commute that I can do either entirely on city streets (mostly but not entirely bike lane equipped) or partially via a trail. There are some hills on this commute, but not anything crazy.

I would like a bike I can easily lift onto the bike rack at the front of a city bus.

I am not necessarily opposed to some sort of e assist, but also don't think I need it for my intended use. Lighter weight definitely trumps e assist.

For reference, this is the inventory page of the coop I'm likely to use, though I'm not on a timeline for this purchase and I assume I'll likely end up having to order something.

I am fine with a used bike if I can find one that will work for me, but I'm not joining Facebook to look for used bikes.

Relatedly, I am cheap and will always want something cheaper if I can get it, but I understand bikes are more expensive than a person whose last bike was a teen bike from Walmart in the 90s is going to think a bike should cost. I can spend a couple grand on this purchase if there is reason to do so.

I know I will need accessories as well - rack and panniers, other things I'm not considering - but first things first is figuring out my bicycle basics.

(Reference for post title. I am not a postman, alas, though I do try my best to be jolly.)
posted by the primroses were over to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a short cyclist and one of the more important measurements is stand-over height- i.e., the distance from the ground to the top of the top tube. When it comes to bike fit, you don't necessarily need to be able to touch the ground while sitting on the saddle (some would say you shouldn't ever), but you should be able to stand over the top tube with both feet flat on the ground. If you buy a step-through frame that's less of an issue, but for a regular frame it's a good first indicator of size. Measure your inseam to the floor (not your pants inseam) to give yourself an idea of what size you might need. You can usually find the specs for most bikes online so you can even do a little pre-research about which models come in a size small enough for you.

There are two main wheel sizes for adult non-specialty bikes - 700c and 26", the latter being a smaller diameter. As a general rule of thumb, 700c are most typical for urban use and 26" are usually on mountain bikes. But some manufacturers will put their smallest size on 26" wheels to help with the geometry of small frames. (I have a Bianchi Volpe in the smallest size and it has 700c wheels and I can't quite stand over the top tube even with shoes on, and there is toe overlap - when taking a sharp turn if my foot is in a certain position on the pedals my toes will clip the back of my front tire. Over the years I've built up the muscle memory that it's not an issue for me when riding but it did take some time to get used to.)

There are other measurements that determine fit, but getting on some bikes and trying them out is best - everyone's proportions and preferences are different. In the past I've run into issues with shops not having the smaller sizes in stock to try out and refusing to order them without me committing to buying, but hopefully your co-op will be more helpful. I believe shops and manufacturers have made strides in offering a wider range of sizes since the last time I was shopping for a new bike 18 years ago.

If you want to eventually get a rack or fenders, make sure you tell the staff so they can steer you to bikes that best accommodate adding them. I think you're right that you wouldn't want e-assist. I think I'd be able to muscle my e-bike onto a bus rack but it wouldn't be fun.
posted by misskaz at 6:08 AM on May 29 [4 favorites]

Others will hopefully weigh in with more detailed info, but from my own experience, one small thing - it's easy to overlook how having small hands affects what bike you need.

My bike's fine in many ways, but elements of it are clearly made for men's hands - the reach it takes to pull the brake levers, and especially the huge reach needed to reach the gear levers with my thumb and then the pressure needed to change gear. I get very sore, tired thumbs and hands relatively quickly from riding it, but after 10-15 minutes, so I didn't notice that or think about it when I test rode the bike.
posted by penguin pie at 6:12 AM on May 29 [6 favorites]

I would go for a commuter bike with straight handlebars. Generally the lighter the frame, the more expensive the bike, which is a bummer. I spent about $500 on a decent commuter bike but it's heavy. My partner spent about $1000 for a lighter frame bike.
Wondering if you could get a large kids/teen bike of good quality which might save you a lot of money.
posted by emd3737 at 6:33 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

If you have access to one or two good bike shops, I'd suggest going in (ideally at a less busy time) and getting someone to show you the options -- bikes that are in stock in your size ideally, but also bikes that can be ordered in your size. Try out any that fit, because even a really short test ride will tell you a lot about how things fit (like the comment above noting how hand size can impact fit).

Then, assuming you don't find one of those so good that you buy it on the spot, you can use what you've learned to guide your further research. The world of online bike reviews and articles and opinions is so vast that you can end up just going in circles unless you have already found ways to focus what you are looking at.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:39 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

I am a short woman (5'2"), so I know that I need a proportionate bike, but not sure how that is measured.

Bike frames at the entry-to-mid level come in sizes like pants, you'll probably want small or extra small. I think the upthread "you want to be able to stand over the top bar" advice is sound.

Of the list of bikes you linked to, one thing that jumped out at me was the Cannondale Treadwell 2, because that very-adjustable stem thing to consider is getting a bike fitting. A nice-enough bike plus a bike fitting is the difference between "this is OK for getting around, I guess" and "it is a joy to travel this way".

I can spend a couple grand on this purchase if there is reason to do so.

I don't think you'd need to do that, particularly just starting back out after a long time off. Bike nerds refer to the cheapest bikes as BSOs - "Bike Shaped Objects" - fundamentally because of how little the experience riding one conveys the freedom and speed that a good ride offers, and I think that's generally correct.

My experience has been that once you're around the $800 level, you're at the point where it doesn't feel like you're fighting the bike all the time, and that can be a real revelation if you haven't been there before. Once you're in to the $1000-$1200 range, "the bike is helping me go" is the next level of that feeling, and it's great. Maybe spend some money on a replacement seat that feels right? They can seem spendy, but the right seat can make a big difference in the quality of your experience as well.

Once you're at that price point, please spend a few dollars to replace any "quick-release" bolts on your bike with regular bolts and store your bike indoors whenever possible. Having part or all of a bike stolen isn't a great feeling.
posted by mhoye at 6:43 AM on May 29 [7 favorites]

Also, please get a nice helmet and wear it all the time.
posted by mhoye at 6:46 AM on May 29 [12 favorites]

I had a bike with a mixte frame, a bit sturdier than the typical girl's bike, but I could ride it in a skirt, and as a short person, it was nicer to get on or off. It was stolen years ago, and I'm still salty. You can get a not-so-expensive bike from a good shop and have them carefully adjust it for you; it will make a big difference. You want to be able to reach the brakes comfortable, the seat needs to be just right, etc.
posted by theora55 at 7:34 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]

Another shop in Baltimore that, at least on their website, sounds great. Never been. But finding a good bike shop is a great place to start and bike people LOVE getting someone a bike that is a joy for them.


Agreed with the recommendation for straight "mountain bike" style bars vs curved "drop bars" like on a road or gravel bike. A more upright riding position, more comfortable and stable for a new/returning rider, especially for a commute.

Look for disc brakes - the stopping power is great and their reliable in all conditions.

Drivetrains have changed a lot and a lot of modern bikes come with a "one by" setup that has a single front chainring paired with a wide range cassette in the back. It's simpler mechanically and lighter. Not at all required though - less expensive bikes will still have "two by" that have two front chainrings paired with a 7-9 speed cassette in the back. Both work great as long as they're well tuned.

Get a good helmet, same some money for a good lock and never leave your bike alone outside if you can avoid it.

Biking is fun! Let's go ride bikes!
posted by Pantengliopoli at 7:50 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

I have not had bike in a long time, but just because no one else has mentioned it, have a talk with the bike shop guys about tires, especially width and pressure.

The narrower the tire, the higher the pressure, and the less air they hold. My last bike had 70lb tires, IIRC, and losing the tiniest whiff of air made a tire noticeably soft. I had to deal with it just about every time I rode.

Also consider how you are going to put air in the tires if you need to. These days, electric pumps are pretty cheap.

The bike guys will have good answers to these issues.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:18 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

Without question the smartest thing I did when getting a new bike was to get a single speed bike. Gears are a pain in the ass under the best circumstance, but in the city they're pointless.

Don't listen to people who say single speeds aren't good for hills or distance or to go fast. It's utter nonsense — most people use 1 gear on their multi-speed bikes and flip into a second or third (at most). I live in Toronto, which is moderately flat with plenty of hills and I have no problems going 1000KM per month and can maintain the car speed limit if I wish.

Single speed bikes are lighter, quieter, easier to repair (pretty much maintenance free), and a joy to ride.
posted by dobbs at 8:56 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]

I am a similar height to you and always need the smallest size in adult frames. Definitely test a few different styles out. Trust yourself for what feels comfortable, don't assume your body will adjust to a noticeable strain.

In my experience, most bike shop dudes do not grasp the fit challenge of this height. And since there are usually not a ton of options in my size, I've come close to purchasing bikes that don't quite feel right.

My current bike is an All City Space Horse (carried by your local bike shop), which is nice for longer commutes and carrying stuff (for me via rear rack and handlebar bag). I was talking to another short Space Horse owner who called it her jackknife bike. It is comfortable on pavement, gravel/fire roads and non-technical mountain bike trails. It can carry a lot if you need to. It's not a light bike (steel frame) but I can lift it onto a city bus rack.

If you truly only want to ride 3 miles, it's more bike than you need. But maybe once you start riding you are going to want to try more?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:56 AM on May 29 [5 favorites]

Go to a good bike shop that has new and used bikes for sale - a good shop will fit you. And a good shop will let you do test rides - test a handful.

Don't get a steel bike (so heavy) - aluminum is the cheapest lightweight material, and that will probably be fine for you. The difference between aluminum and steel is huge.

Try out different handlebar options. Like someone else mentioned, you may prefer straight handlebars. A good bike shop should have used parts and should be able to swap out one style of handle bar for another.

I wouldn't get a single speed, but you definitely don't need a lot of speeds - the more gears, the heavier, and more expensive. But I'd at least get a 3-speed.

Tires: invest in quality tires. Quality tires = less flat tires. And unless you are racing, which you aren't, get somewhat thicker ones - not mountain bike tires or anything, but avoid the really narrow racing tires - not great for urban streets.
posted by coffeecat at 9:19 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]

I very much appreciate my "Dutch-style", or "city bike" or omafiets. I sit very comfortably upright, looking straight ahead. I have fantastic visibility; this is a bike style very much built for comfort and convenience, rather than speed. I couldn't get what I wanted at a price I wanted locally, so I bought this one from Amazon. It has a 3-speed internal hub, and because my ride home from downtown is entirely up a slight but steady hill, I replaced the rear chain sprocket with a slightly larger one (and resized the chain to fit), to gear it down slightly for an easier uphill climb. I trade a little top speed for an easier uphill pedal, but again, I'm not racing, I'm leisurely cruising to the grocery store and back, 2.5 miles each way. I got a step-thru style because I'm old and busted and it's just easier than swinging my leg over while trying not to kick my groceries off the bike. It's not a great bike, but I love it. I also love that it's kind of a piece of shit, as bikes go, because it's not a desirable target for theft. ;)
posted by xedrik at 9:23 AM on May 29 [9 favorites]

I went through this very same journey a few years ago and one thing I wish I'd appreciated more fully was the fact that bikes from recognizable, reputable companies hold their resale value quite well, and the more "average" the bike is, even better. With that in mind, in your shoes I would get a decent, boring, entry-level hybrid (something like the Quick or the Coda on page you linked, whatever fits better and you like the color of) with the intent of riding for a year and reassessing then, at which point you're likely to have formed your own opinions about frame material, number of gears, whether you want to try drop bars, etc. Then once you have a good idea of what you'd like to upgrade to IF you want to upgrade, you can sell your starter bike to someone else just starting out (or who just wants something simple to ride on weekends or whatever) and recoup most of your costs.
posted by btfreek at 9:37 AM on May 29 [6 favorites]

Lots of good advice about bikes here already. But don't forget about safety! Always use a helmet, BELL, and lights front&rear. Its great that there are bike lanes for your commute but thats just paint on the road. Here's one site for safe cycling in traffic. You can google many more.
Claim your space on the road. Be assertive but not aggressive. Remember you are not blocking traffic, you are part of traffic!

...after years of cycle commuting my biggest peeve w/ cars is when I'm given the right-of-way but I don't have it. Like when I'm the last one to a 4-way stop and all the cars want me to go first, when that would NEVER happen if I was in a car. Its like they expect the cyclist to just blow through the intersection. It confuses everyone and is UNSAFE. Other drivers should treat cyclists like the fellow vehicles they are, and not expect the cyclist to be a scofflaw. /endofrant/
posted by TDIpod at 10:13 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]

My bike's fine in many ways, but elements of it are clearly made for men's hands - the reach it takes to pull the brake levers, and especially the huge reach needed to reach the gear levers with my thumb and then the pressure needed to change gear.

This is important- every damn time I get my bike tuned up it comes back with the brake levers adjusted for man hands. The good news is that you can have them adjusted so the reach is closer-in! And it’s fast and easy for someone who knows how to do it, you just need to ask for it to be done.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:42 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]

Look for bike rental shops. Rentals have to fit a wide variety of random people, so they invest in workhorse bikes that are very adjustable. Then, they sell them every few years and update the fleet. That is why I have a 2019 Trek Verve 2 in a size large despite being just under 5'4". It adjusts all the way down to fit perfectly and it was way cheap.

Your co-op may be able to help you build a frankenbike that fits perfectly, too-- and a benefit of that is thieves look at it and go "ew, no."

Agree that you don't need more than 3ish gears. More parts = more problems. I commute 5ish miles a day at most and basically never use more than 3 of the gears. I'm considering swapping the gears for fewer of them, eventually.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:04 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]

For a slightly different perspective, consider the Brompton A Line, which is an amazing commuter bike. Being able to fold it is a HUGE advantage if you sometimes need to take a bus or even a taxi, or you have a car and want to keep it in the trunk or want to keep it inside on bad weather days at work or home. You don’t need to hope the next bus has a working bike rack, or one that’s already full.

My wife and I both use ours for our daily commutes (as well as bike touring), and they have been much more life changing than our previous full sized bikes we ended up giving away. It has 3 speeds with a sealed hub, which is enough for moderate hills and it handles all weather surprisingly well (I’d definitely get snow tires for winter up there), we commute year round.

We’ve slowly upgraded our bikes over the years, it is a surprisingly easy bike to work on and maintain at home, something that my wife really didn’t expect! There’s a pretty decent community on Reddit, if you want to get a wider feel for the pros and cons…
posted by rambling wanderlust at 2:59 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

There are several Surly models at your link--the blue Preamble looks at a glance like their Cross-Check with a standard flat bar, which would make it a lot of bike for the price. Surly has a devoted fanbase--I ride one and people on multiple occasions have yelled "Surly!" to me as I rode by--and it's a deserved appreciation. You kinda never have to worry about the bike, you just get on and ride.

These bikes are steel, but you don't mention specific worries about weight. It might be worth test riding one and seeing how you feel mimicking the lift onto a bus rack. Aluminum and alloy bikes don't actually weigh all that much less than steel, and anecdotally a steel frame on city streets feels more "in control" than a less dense frame.

Really just wanted to get in a plug for taking a Surly for a spin to see if you like it.
posted by kensington314 at 10:38 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]

Bike co-op suggests something like Reno Bike Project or Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen which go through a huge number of donated used bicycles, stripping some for parts to refurbish others for sale. Your local equivalent, which might be Velocipede Bike Project, would be a great place to ask for advice because they understand the realities of commuting in your particular climate.

Thus I was not expecting the focus on brand-new showroom bikes under the fold. Dealers like REI have reasonable guides on what sort of bike to buy, but they're really trying to upsell product. Of the impartial guides I looked at, mightybiker's buyers guide seemed most responsive to this question.

Almost every bike will be wrong for you in some way, so chasing Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace listings will mostly waste your time. If you do have a shop nearby with a large selection of used bikes, start there, because after a number of rides, you will better understand what sort of bike best suits your body and use case, and the experience of learning which direction to upgrade won't have been too costly.

Since you are not a hardcore cyclist, you will probably not have the specific musculature or technique to cruise up hills without shifting. If you can't downshift far enough, you'll have to mash the pedals like on a stair-climber, which will get sweaty in the Baltimore summer and may strain your knees. My first suggestion would have been a 2x7 1990s aluminum road bike, preferably with a quill stem and upright or flat bars for a comfortable riding position. After reviewing several guides, I might now lean toward a rigid hybrid like the Trek 7* FX WSD series. And I would insist on Deore components for a hybrid or 105/Ultegra for an older road bike so it responds reliably without needing frequent adjustments.

Regarding panniers, I use Wald 582 folding baskets with a Jandd rear rack pack. Most panniers interfere with other bicycles on my transit system's bike racks, and a front rack interferes with the support arm. You may want to add a handlebar bag so you don't have to carry anything on your back in the heat.

Bicycle geometry and bicycle fitting are quite complex, and there's not one single number that determines if a bike fits you as a rider or has some ergonomic flaw that makes you sore. The only reason I would mail-order a bike is if I had borrowed a friend's and knew the geometry was just right. Better to go sit on a lot of bikes and test-ride a few to see what you enjoy.

And book up first if you like. Hope this helps, and good luck.
posted by backwoods at 1:15 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]

+1 to the idea of checking out mixte frames. My wife has had a Linus mixte with a 3-speed shifter for 10 years and loves it. She rides it generally for short ~3 mile rides but occasional 15-20 miles. It is somewhat heavy and slow but she loves the upright posture and visibility. I think you pay a little more for the Linus name and styling, but, as a friend says, the best bike is the one you love to get on and therefore ride more.
posted by Mid at 6:19 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

There's a mix of great, good, and odd advice here (some old steel bikes are heavy, but some newer ones aren't much heavier than other bikes), but I'd say the next best step is to go visit your local bike shop or other large independent bike shop, and also check and see if there's a feminist or woman-focused bike shop in your area, which would be more likely to have smaller sizes. Then test ride a few bikes. You can learn an awful lot riding a bike for 10 minutes. Some will be more comfortable than others.

Of course, you can adjust saddle height and things like that, but some bikes will make you want to ride them more than others.

You definitely don't need to spend $2000, and you might not need to special order. The bike supply chain is still irregular, but some bike shops have too many bikes because they over ordered and demand has declined.

On the list you posted, I'd say to go to the co-op and ride all the bikes at the top under $1000 if they're in anything even close to your size, and see how they feel.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:37 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]

IMO, when I started riding as an adult, I appreciated having gears, as hills were pretty tough at first. Now I always ride in the same gear, so a single-speed might be alright.

But who cares because in the grand scheme of things, bike repairs are super cheap, compared to car repairs.

IMO, the height should be able to stay in the seat with a foot on the ground at regular stops like traffic lights. I also find the seat height the higher the better for comfort and generating pedal power, so that means tippy toes on the ground.

Weight never mattered too much, since I don't ride for maximum speed. As long as I can lift it, then any weight is fine.

But stuff like this is what you have to consider when you go look at them.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:27 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Lots of good info in here. Going to work up a list of questions and "want to have"s before an initial bike shop trip this weekend.

I'm expecting to have to visit/research/visit/research a couple times before deciding, so there may not be a further update before this closes.

Not marking best answers, because it would just be a wall of darker green by the time I'm done marking them all...

If anyone else sees this and has more to add, please do.
posted by the primroses were over at 4:13 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]

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