Buying a Bike
March 20, 2004 3:14 PM   Subscribe

In keeping up with trying to get back into shape and the coming of warmer times here in the midwest, I am looking to purchase a bike. Haven't bought one in decades and I am getting a bit bewildered by the vast selection out there. Any suggestions on a mid-priced bike for riding on city streets with the occasional foray into state park trails? I'm also fairly poor in the "upkeep" department, so some kind of rugged workhorse would be preferable.
posted by sharksandwich to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe some help here.
posted by anathema at 4:19 PM on March 20, 2004

I would strongly suggest you get something more road-oriented (road bike, touring bike), for several reasons. First, the drop handlebars give you a number of arm/wrist positions, which prevents constant strain in one position, and which are generally more comfortable for any ride longer than a mile or two. Second, they're great for cities, because you can go faster and can keep up (to a point) with traffic. Third, they're EXCELLENT for country roads (and roads in state parks), where you can ride long distances without constant hassle from cars and pedestrians. The bent-forward posture on such bikes, once you get used to it, is much more comfortable than any upright-posture bike. Riding on such country roads is one of my biggest joys in life. It really is that great, and it will get you into very good shape. A mountain bike can't really be used for that. Fourth, well, they're pretty rugged. Mountain bikes/hybrids have bigger tires, but that's about it... they're usually not more rugged than a road bike unless you're talking about high-end models. And the best way to make your bike last is to give it TLC. A little grease and knowledge, and some cheap tools, will make ANY bike last a whole lot longer. Fifth, road bikes just look cool.

That said, some good low-end (but more than enough for your needs) road bikes:
Specialized Allez
Trek 1000
Fuji League

I have a Specialized Allez Sport, and I love it. I had a hybrid before, but I immediately (after purchase) realized I had made a mistake and wanted a straight road bike instead. The best advice you can get is this: DO NOT BUY FROM A DEPARTMENT STORE. Go to a bike shop and talk to the employees. If they're pushy and not answering your questions, then go somewhere else, because you don't want to be pushed into a sale, and usually bike shop employees know this, because they're bikers themselves. Take some time, test ride any bike you can, and don't make a fast decision. Make sure it fits your body! Any of the bikes mentioned above, and most others, come in a variety of sizes, usually five or seven. One will be right for you. And once you have your bike, enjoy!
posted by The Michael The at 7:25 PM on March 20, 2004

I'm a big man. I bought a hybrid Miyata. I've been very happy. The bike shop recommended the hybrid because of my size. Lightweight street bikes don't really like big people. I ride no-handed whenever possible as this helps my back. Nothing else makes me sit so straight, and after a few minutes of that and bit of stretching, the back really is better. I also use a jelly seat.
posted by Goofyy at 9:45 PM on March 20, 2004

If you're getting an upright bike, spend the time to make sure it fits perfectly.

I like recumbents. Pain-free writing and you can look at the scenery instead of the street.
posted by mecran01 at 6:15 AM on March 21, 2004

Given the criteria you've posted, about the only type of bike you should write off are mountain bikes. Their fat tires provide too much resistance if all you plan to do is ride on paved streets and paths.

Go to a quality bike shop, give them your criteria, and ask to test-ride a road bike and a hybrid. (Whatever you do, do not buy a bike online, or through a big Wal-Mart type outfit; if you live in the U.S., go to the National Bicycle Dealers Association's site and find a dealer who lives nearest to your home).

Road bikes are what "serious" bikers choose, because they are built for speed and are the lightest. But hybrids usually sit you in a more comfortable position, and that can make the difference for some people between whether they decide to ride their new bike at all. (Take a look at the Trek 7300). Hybrids also sometimes feature things like shock absorbers, which can make your ride that much smoother. Their wider tires get flat less often (or so I'm told). And while it's never a good idea to ignore bike maintenance altogether, if you aren't planning on doing much maintenance you will probably be better off with a hybrid than you would a bike built for racing. Also, you tend to see a lot more inexpensive (less than $700) hybrids than you do road bikes.

Good brands? Trek has the largest U.S. market share. They have a huge catalog of bikes, ranging from $5000+ racing bikes to $200 kid bikes. Trek also makes and sells bikes under the Klein and Lemond names. Specialized, Cannondale and Giant are three other market leaders.
posted by profwhat at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2004

If you're doing a lot of urban ridin, I suggest going with the hybrid option, as road and touring bikes (in my experience) are a lot trickier to handle in a think-fast situation, which are a huge consideration in urban areas. If you're someplace with a lot of snow and ice, the wider tires will do you well. (As I learned well during the New Year's ice storm.)

If you want to do trail riding, a road bike will not be your friend, as the smaller tires react unhappily to constant jolts. But country road riding kicks ass, though I don't know how the roads are in your part of the country. All of these things point towards the hybrid, for the increased flexibility.

Also, you should get some cheap and ugly paint and throw it all over the pretty logos to prevent theft.

I personally have two bikes (though one is back home in St. Louis), a grimy mountain bike covered with stickers and fitted for the commute (picture!: ), and a touring bike for distance riding. As a person who doesn't even bother with cars, I find this arrangement to be ideal. (And a hell of a lot cheaper than one of the gas-guzzling beasts.)

Good luck.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2004

Road bikes are what "serious" bikers choose, because they are built for speed and are the lightest. But hybrids usually sit you in a more comfortable position, and that can make the difference for some people between whether they decide to ride their new bike at all. (Take a look at the Trek 7300). Hybrids also sometimes feature things like shock absorbers, which can make your ride that much smoother. Their wider tires get flat less often (or so I'm told). And while it's never a good idea to ignore bike maintenance altogether, if you aren't planning on doing much maintenance you will probably be better off with a hybrid than you would a bike built for racing.

I'd actually quibble with this. First, I had three flats in as many months with a hybrid, and no flats in eight months with a road bike. Road tires are usually completely smooth, which prevents little bits of glass from getting stuck in grooves. Second, not all road bikes are built for racing. Yes, they generally are as you pass the $1500 mark, but below that, they're simply as their name denotes: bikes for roads. Third, road bikes are much more comfortable, both in riding position and in lack of shock absorbers, which effectually do very little if you're not jumping logs and hills as one would on a mountain bike. But really, the professor and I agree on the most important point: TRY THE BIKES!
posted by The Michael The at 11:18 AM on March 21, 2004

I consider myself a serious cyclist, and love my road bike, but would not use one for street riding. I don't care for most hybrids either, which are really "comfort bikes" by another name, meaning they're not meant to be ridden seriously. Any bike that puts you in a sitting-up position, with high handlebars and a fat seat, is not meant to be ridden hard. The hunched position of a more functional bike, which puts more weight on your hands, can take some getting used to, but is more comfortable for longer rides, gives you better handling, and (I think) is safer in adverse conditions.

My own commuter is a mountain bike with slick tires and a number of other adaptations for urban riding (sawed-off handlebars, tight gearing, etc); these days you can go out and buy something very much like it under the general heading of "speed bike," which has mt bike bars and brakes, but road gearing and tires somewhere in between.

Tires: apart from a few "bulletproof" models, skinny tires are always more delicate than fat tires. Tread has nothing to do with it--I pick up glass shards in my road slicks all too often. For street riding, I prefer slicks that are about 1.5" wide, which is fatter than road-bike tires but skinnier than typical mt bike tires.

Often the best deals are on used bikes from hardcore cyclists; they usually maintain their bikes pretty well--check out the bulletin board at a good bike shop,, etc.
posted by adamrice at 7:38 AM on March 22, 2004

I have a bianchi boardwalk (hybrid) that I love. The local bike dealer had this one from about 5 years ago squirreled away in back. It is a little bit heavier steel frame, but I like it much more than the newer aluminium ones. Spend a few dollars on newer tires (adamrice has it right with the 1.5" slicks) and make sure you are comfortable on the thing. If you are just pleasure/commuter riding consider the big-ass grandma spring seat. It looks ridiculous, but it sure beats a hard pro seat lodged up in your business.
posted by jmgorman at 9:12 AM on March 22, 2004

You want a bike primarily for the road with some trail/fireroad capability. You can do that with just about any bike on the market, road, hybrid, tourer, or mountain.

The only way you'll know the bike you want is by trying a bunch. In your case, I'd suggest looking at both hybrids and tourers. Hybrids are more upright, which is ok for short use, but can cause hand and backside problems in the longer term. Tourers are rugged road bikes designed to be comfortable over long distances. The Trek 520 is a tourer. You probably won't be happy with "racing", "sport-touring" or "mountain" bikes.

When you've decided on a bike, insist on a professional fit. This makes a huge difference to comfort. Your bike store should do this as part of the sale, but make sure you get it done. As a side note, there's a regrettable tendancy for bike stores to put the handlebars way too low for most people. Racers have low bars, so everyone else should too, eh? Insist that the bars be level or even a little higher than the seat.

The most important things for your comfort are tires. Bikes on the road want smooth tires. Knobbies are more work on the road. Knobbies can cause nerve damage, in the hands and writs particularly, from vibration on pavement. Slicks are safer too; they have better road contact, even in the wet. It's true, bikes don't hydroplane. I like Avocet, but there are many brands of slicks: IRC and Ritchey both make very affordable tires. Be sure to ask for them when you buy. If you're going to do light trail riding, I'd stick with slicks. If you want to do more, and more adventurous stuff, you might consider getting a second set of wheels, but I'd leave that for the first step. When you decide on tires, get fatter ones: at least 32-35 mm for 700C tires or 1.5" for 26" rims.

The second most important thing is the seat. We all have different backsides and we all need different saddles. The cushy gel seats might seem nice in the store, but you will probably find that they chafe after 15 or 20 minutes on the bike. Consider a harder, narrower saddle. It will take some time to get used to, but ultimately will be more comfortable. Your bike store should be willing to allow you to trade saddles before finding one you like. Check before you buy.

Frame material doesn't make a whit of difference to ride, except for weight. Don't buy a bike because one has a "better" frame. The best frame is the one that fits you. Also, on road, don't worray about suspension. If you get nice fat tires, suspension just adds cost and weight to the bike. Suspension is really nice on "technical" off-road, but for trail and fireroad riding, you won't miss it.

Finally, be prepared to spend something on extras, not just the bike. A helmet is a very good idea. Fenders make riding much more pleasant. Lights, especially rear, are a really good idea, even if you don't plan on riding at night. A cyclecomputer is an inexpensive and really fun toy.

Fuck. This was way longer than I meant it to be. Sorry. Anyway, whatever you decide, enjoy your bike and just ride. That's the main thing.
posted by bonehead at 11:25 AM on March 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

From the Always-something-after-you-hit-post section, here and here are my two road bikes. The Eclipse is a touring bike that's been on a few trips. It's the most comfortable bike I've ever owned. The Univega is a too-ugly-to-steal city bike that's ok for short distances, but I cramp up if I'm on it for more than an hour. Also, note how high the handlebars are. Don't let let the store sell you on the 4"-below-the-seat racer speil!
posted by bonehead at 11:36 AM on March 22, 2004

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