Chicago Bike Stores/Bike Recommendations
March 19, 2007 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Chicago Bike Questions: It looks like winter is finally receding and it's time for me to buy a new bike. Looking for advice on stores in Chicagoland and potential models for a relatively novice biker on a short, flat commute.

I have a multi-part question about bikes, bike shops and bike routes in Chicago. Winter is petering out and it's time for me to think about replacing my adorable by entirely impractical (mostly because it's so heavy that it's a workout just to get it out of the garage) antique Schwinn.

I'm looking for a bike store in the Chicagoland area (bonus points for in or near Wicker Park/Bucktown) where I can get some advice on a good bike for a short woman (5'2" on a 'tall' day) with short legs. I'm pretty much only going to use this bike for commuting to and from work on flat, paved streets. Any suggestions for a store and/or models I should look at would be very much appreciated. I'm looking to spend no more than $500 and I'm a pretty novice rider so I don't need a lot of bells and whistles - especially considering that my ride last year didn't even have gears.

Relatedly, I'm also trying to plot a new route from my house to my new office. I live in Wicker Park (vicinity of Milwaukee and Wood) and I work downtown (Michigan and Lake-ish). The thought of riding on those narrow, crowded Loop streets at rush hour seriously intimidates me. Does anyone have any suggestions for how I can get from point A to point B in a less terrifying manner?
posted by fancypants to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was in Rapid Transit (1900 W North Ave.) late last fall and was thrilled to see a woman working there. I was only looking for a bag, but overheard her with a customer and she was really listening and working with him to find what he needed. That's always a double plus for me.

I have no thoughts on models or routes though. Enjoy.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:04 AM on March 19, 2007

Best answer: One of the top commuter bike shops in the world is in your neighborhood: Rapid Transit Cycles, at North and Wolcott. I've bought a couple bikes there in the past, and their sales and service are top-notch. The staff there are totally helpful and friendly, and many are urban-cycling activists. They'll have a bunch of those great Chicago cycling maps, and probably some helpful advice.
posted by tew at 8:04 AM on March 19, 2007

The Bianchi San Jose has one gear (low cost, low maintenance, better workout) and a somewhat compact geometry (may fit shorter folks more appropriately). I wouldn't spend less than $800-1000 on a new bike with gears - you won't like riding a cheap bike and then it's just money wasted.

You might also try Craigslist for a used bike given your price range, especially if you have a friend that can help pick out the good ones.
posted by kcm at 8:06 AM on March 19, 2007

I also would second the Bianchi San Jose (what I currently ride). It fits your price range and would work great for that style of commute.

Check out an earlier post I made about the San Jose.
posted by dead_ at 8:11 AM on March 19, 2007

I've had a good experience with Johnny Sprockets. They offered lots of good advice when I was buying and include two free tune ups on your new ride. I don't have the addresses on hand, but they've a location in Lincoln Park on Broadway and another up north on Bryn Mawr (near the Red Line station).
posted by aladfar at 8:28 AM on March 19, 2007

You could also head up to Urban Bike for something used
posted by FlamingBore at 8:28 AM on March 19, 2007

I think the Bianchi San Jose is a strange recommendation for a relatively novice biker. It's an excellent bike - but you should pick something that has a few gears in it, with thicker tires. I think if you're looking for something that will get you to work, something that you can take down to lake michigan or up on a trail over the weekend, go with a modest mountain bike.

I agree with the "avoid cheap bikes" approach. At the very least, you're better off with a bike with metal parts, given the sometimes rough conditions (rain, snow) in Chicago.

I've had other Biancis and really enjoyed them (all stolen). My last bike was a univega, and my current one is called a "Da Vinci" made from a small boutique company somewhere in Canada, that sports a really nice frame. That came in around $500.
posted by phaedon at 8:36 AM on March 19, 2007

Rapid Transit is a great shop! I've gone their for years for parts and repairs. I took my brother there when he needed a bike, and he was really impressed by the low-pressure sales and tons of advice. Absolutely the place to go for a new commuter bike.

I gotta disagree with kcm. $800 is way too much for a commuting bike, especially if you're going to be locking it up outside during the day. If you're used to riding an antique Schwinn, even a $300 bike will be an absolute joy.

Working Bikes Cooperative would love to have your old Schwinn. They distribute bikes in developing countries. Your bike might go to a nurse Zambia, who with her new bike will be able to visit five times as many patients per day. Their storefront is the top-selling bike ship in Chicago, which is pretty impressive considering they're only open three afternoons a week. They've got all sorts of used bikes for very cheap, but the stock is hit-or-miss (especially if you're 5'2") and the staff, while friendly, generally assumes you can pick out your own bike and decide if it fits. My girlfriend just picked up a bike that would've suited you, a small Specialized Hard Rock for $100--just add slick tires and it's a great commuter.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2007

Response by poster: Hydrophonic, Working Bikes is original source of my trusty Schwinn, actually and I'm excited to give it back to them now that I've decided to step up. They're a great org.
posted by fancypants at 9:01 AM on March 19, 2007

If you are going to commute with it you might want to consider getting some puncture and flat resistant tires. This can take the form of puncture resistant liners between the tube and tire and a self sealing gel inside the tube. The folks at the local bike store can recommend something in their inventory. Commuting often takes one through streets which are more glass strewn than you might pick for a training or fun ride, and it sucks to be late for work because you were fixing a flat on the way in.

As for a particular bike, for your gender and size I would recommend sticking with bikes specifically designed for women like the Georgena Terry line.
posted by caddis at 9:02 AM on March 19, 2007

Funny, I just spent Saturday shopping for bikes. I would highly recommend going through the Chicago Bike Shops Database, where you can get a list of shops with ratings.

For what it's worth, I hit Boulevard Bikes (Logan Square), On the Route (Lincoln & Belmont), Johnny Sprockets (3000 N. Broadway), and the Nearly New Bike Shop (Broadway and about Grace). I loved Boulevard Bikes, and as of right now, I'm planning to go back there for a Bianchi Boardwalk. On the Route was my second favorite, and they also had a lot more selection that Boulevard (but Boulevard has new and used, and is just a more personal shop).

Email is in my profile if you have any more bike shop questions. I'm a novice biker myself, looking at an 8 mile each way commute, so I can't offer much on the bike suggestion front.
posted by bibbit at 9:11 AM on March 19, 2007

Rapid Transit is friendly.
I had a really good bike buying experience last week at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.
I recommend Performance for reasonably priced accessories (they have the biggest selection of that kind of stuff).
posted by rbs at 9:14 AM on March 19, 2007

I think a Trek commuter bike (I think they've changed the model names) would be perfect for you, and it costs around $300. I have one and adore it -- in hydrophonic's words, it is an "absolute joy." I can't really imagine you'd need more that that for a short, flat commute.

I had a great experience buying and servicing it at Village Cycle on North Wells.
posted by walla at 9:16 AM on March 19, 2007

Also, FWIW, about a week and a half ago, I bought a Bianchi Castro Valley at Boulevard for $650. Love it.

It's my first time riding a bike without straight bars, and it does take some getting used to.
posted by rbs at 9:17 AM on March 19, 2007

FWIW, my model is a Trek 7200: Looks like they still do make it.
posted by walla at 9:20 AM on March 19, 2007

I went with the Trek 7.2/7200 last year after asking this question, and I've been really happy with it.
posted by MsMolly at 10:18 AM on March 19, 2007

I've always found biking downtown pretty easy, even during rush hour. Car traffic is slow, most streets are one way, and drivers are used to watching out for bike messengers. I try to avoid riding under the el tracks, where it gets a little crowded.

As tew said, you can get that nifty Chicago Bike Map at pretty much any bike shop, or check it out outline. For your ride downtown, Milwaukee/Kinzie/Wabash/Lake is only one block under the el. You could also go down Wood to Hubbard, and take Clinton to Washington. (I tend to navigate by landmarks instead of street names, so my appologies if that's a little off.) As for feeling less intimidated, the bike map/web site has tips for biking in traffic. The Chicago Bicycle Federation has more tips about traffic and commuting, and some workshops, as does West Town Bikes.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:57 PM on March 19, 2007

kozy's (there are several locations, the closet to you is at webster and clybourn - in with the movie theater and b&n) has some advantages over rapid transit. one is that it's simply larger, so they have a lot more bikes (and plenty in your price range). I have bought bikes at both stores, and find that the service, bike-fitting, telling you what you really need, etc. is better at kozy's. it is also locally owned, so you don't have to worry about supporting evil national corporations. i guess it's mostly a matter of consistancy. i've always had excellent service at kozy's, while at rapid transit i've gotten some bad attitude (more messenger/rat bike than thou), lazy employees who just don't seem to care, and one guy who was straight trying to hustle me. other times it's been really great. but why take a chance with your $600? I practically live next door, but go to kozys now.
posted by LizardOfDoom at 11:17 PM on March 19, 2007

DON'T FORGET CYCLING GEAR! You should budget at least $100-$150 for a helmet (all helmets protect equally), a quality bicycle u-lock and auxiliary cable (to secure your front wheel), and various bits of cycling clothing such as gloves, shorts, etc. Don't forget water bottles, racks, bags, lights and other stuff. It'll take you a while to figure out what works. In general I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you avoid buying bicycle accessories at local shops in Chicago. These are almost always absurdly marked up over what you pay online at places like Nashbar.

Gear is almost as a important as the bike itself. If you get chafed after a day of recreational riding you'll come to associate riding with discomfort and never do it. Also, any accessory which makes your commute easier and safer will encourage you to use your bike more. I'd almost say it's better to skimp on your first bike and invest in quality gear which you'll use from one bike to the next...

Where to buy: everybody "in the know" avoids volume chains like Village Cycle Center and Kozy's but there is something to be said for their selection and cut throat prices. I've seen the exact same bike sell for up to a $100 less at Village than at an independent shop. Sure, they don't let you test ride, but if you know what you want, and they have it, you'd be crazy not to go for it.

What to ride: I agree the Bianchi San Jose is a retarded recomendation for a beginner. Obviously we have some overzealous 1x1 riders here. I've ridden single speed for many years now, but I wouldn't recommend it for the novice commuter. It's really for people who are too lazy or broke to maintain a nice geared bike - hate to say it, but it's the truth. (I commute on a single speed, but all my other bikes are geared.)

There are tons of commuter specific bikes from name brand manufactures out there. I think they have generally gotten away from the "hybrid" or "comfort" label and now are marketing toward people just like you - beginner commuters. You'll want something with upright, flat bars - this will get up above cars and increase your visibility. A cushy seat will help minimize a sore beginners-butt. They almost always have 700c (standard road bike size) wheels with commuter specific tires. Avoid mountain bikes as their smaller knobby wheels will only slow you down on the street. Also, don't be over sold on a suspension fork - they really don't come in that handy on paved streets and just add weight. Ironically most entry level bikes include a suspension fork, but higher end commuter bikes will probably have either a steel or carbon fork.

Shop around, avoid the urge to commit to the first bike you try, and definitely comparison shop. Yeah, there is something to be said for supporting your local bike shop, but in the end go with the best deal you can find. You can worry about building a relationship with your LBS years from now when you're a veteran commuter.
posted by wfrgms at 1:18 PM on March 20, 2007

I agree the Bianchi San Jose is a retarded recomendation for a beginner.

Retarded? No. You know, most of us grew up on bikes quite similar to this, just without the drop handlebars. It's a single speed, not a fixie. Gears? They are for puss....., OK, they are for me, and for most people, but a light weight simple bike, that is good for lots of riders, both experienced and rookies. Also, this is for riding on the flats. Perfect for a single speed. You get a pretty good quality bike for not much money. I ain't trading in my tricked out Dura-Ace fitted Pinarello for one, but that is a prety cool bike.
posted by caddis at 6:25 PM on March 20, 2007

Response by poster: Just a quick update in case anyone is still reading. I went to Rapid Transit (where the employees were extremely nice and helpful) on Tuesday and tried out a lovely Marin Muirwoods that I think I'm going to buy. Thanks for all the great answers!
posted by fancypants at 7:50 AM on March 22, 2007

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