How to buy a cheap (less than $100) bike in NYC to learn how to ride on?
November 6, 2007 12:38 PM   Subscribe

How to buy a cheap (less than $100) bike in NYC to learn how to ride on?

So I want to learn how to ride a bike as an adult. I suppose I should buy one; there are bikes on Craigslist for $100 or less.

So 1. what kind of bike would be best to learn on? Fat tires; mountain/road/etc., etc; girl (?!) bike (I'm a girl); speeds (?); flat pedals?

I've read a few of the posts already about how to learn biking as an adult, but there's a lot of bike vocabulary that is not accessible to me. So, please, explain any recommendations you have so that I know what they mean, as this is all a foreign world to me.

After I learn how to ride, ideally I'd ride all over the city.

And 2. how should I go about testing these bikes?

And 3. any other places besides Craigslist that I should consider?

posted by beautiful to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Walmart. I just recently picked up a beach cruiser for my wife there for ~$125. They had others in the sub $80 range.
posted by enobeet at 12:40 PM on November 6, 2007

There are no Wal-Marts in NYC.

K-Mart is an option, but your best bet is to buy from a local shop that refurbishes used bikes. The staff there will be knowledgeable and friendly, they'll be able to make specific recommendations for you, and the bike you buy will have been thoroughly vetted by a competent bicycle mechanic prior to your purchase. I've heard good things about BikeWorks NYC, for instance, but there are certainly others out there.
posted by saladin at 12:50 PM on November 6, 2007

Don't buy a bike from Walmart! They are deathtraps.

Find a local bike coop, and start there. You should be able to find something completely reliable (and safe!). Craigslist is also another way, but avoid Walmart/store brands (Stick with something like Trek, Canondale, etc).

That being said, fat tires are going to slow you down (more rolling resistance), but offer a better ability to hit nasty potholes, curbs, etc.

Road bike wheels will still take bumps and such, but your not going to want to jump it off a sidewalk onto the road. They are extremely strong (I am ~230lb and I actually DO jump off sidewalks with my roadbike, on 23c tires).

Speeds: It really doesn't matter. Speeds just give you a varying level of mechanical advantage. I have a 20 speed bike (10 gear in rear, two up front), a 24 speed bike (8 in rear, three up front), and honestly don't see a difference. It is more an issue of keeping cadence (big word for pedal speed), the thought being a certain range you are more efficient. If your not racing, who cares? Get an old 10 speed, or even a single speed.

Pedals: Go flat. They are easy to change later.

Testing: Make sure everything works. A coop should help size you, but "standover" height is irrelevant. A 'right size bike' isnt one you can touch the ground on. When you sit on the seat (which can be adjusted up and down) make sure your foot is on the pedal and your knee has a ~15 degree bend when the pedal is fully down. You should NEVER fully extend your knee while biking (srsly, youll destroy your knees).

Make sure the brakes work well and have good pads (!!! very important!!!).

Make sure it shifts well.

Make sure its pretty enough you will love it and ride it, but ugly enough that the bike next to it is more likely to be stolen.

You really don't need a kick stand.

Girl v. Boy bike isnt really an issue.

Feel free to email me directly with any questions.

Also; is a great resource!
posted by SirStan at 12:52 PM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

There's no reason not to just buy the bike that's best for you now and learn on that, unless you plan on it getting run over by a truck or don't want to spend more than $100, ever. I suggest going into a local bike shop, explaining what sorts of riding you plan on doing and letting them recommend something. They'll also be able to size and adjust one specifically for you, which makes a big difference in how comfortable you are on it. Most shops will also let you test-ride. Otherwise, I'd head to craigslist, after determining what size bike you need.

Be very careful with bikes from department stores, as they're usually assembled by teenagers with little or no mechanical skills who could care less if the brakes are properly adjusted or the seatpost is tight. Not to mention they're heavier and have cheapo components; you definitely get what you pay for.
posted by bizwank at 12:53 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also; if you go used... make sure it all seems to roll smoothly. Grab the cranks (what the pedals are attached to) and try to move them around (besides their standard circular motion). If they move at all, it probably needs a repacked bottom bracket, or a replaced bottom bracket.

Make sure the wheels are 'true' (ie, straight). The easiest way is to lift up one end, spin the wheel, and look for any variance between the rim and brake. Wheels should be almost 100% true, even on a used bike. If they seem to have a wobble to them, they might be able to be trued, or might be bent.

Make sure the cables are all reasonably rust free, and dont drag. That being said, they are $5/ea or less to replace.

Make sure it isnt horribly rusty, especially at the joints.

Make sure the handlebars dont have any play in them (besides the normal motion).

Learn how to patch a tire, and get a patch kit. You'll need it some day. Its a basic skill.

Don't buy a used helmet! There is no way to tell if it is still good or not, and your life is worth $30.
posted by SirStan at 12:56 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's no reason not to just buy the bike that's best for you now and learn on that

I would caution against that. You may find that you buy a mountain bike, and really love road bikes. You might buy a road bike and decide you need a cruiser. You might want a recumbent. I would let yourself get into biking on a cheaper, used bike and move from there. After a year on a cheap bike you will likely know alot more about biking, and what you want out of a bike.

A shop is going to 'size you' based on what they have in stock. Its like going to a car dealer, they aren't going to push the car with the cd player if they don't have it on the lot. Same with a bike, if they have a 54cm and a 58cm (roughly what a person 5'2" to 5'10" might need), and your perfect size is a 56, your going to end up with a bike too small (which is manageable), or a bike which is too big (which is a really bad thing).
posted by SirStan at 1:00 PM on November 6, 2007

In your situation I would go with a cruiser, because (and this is extremely simplified and based on my experiences, YMMV):

-Cruisers typically use coaster brakes, while road and mountain bikes use cable brakes with hand controls. Coaster brakes are engaged when you pedal backwards; on a road/mountain bike, the brakes engage when you squeeze the levers on the handlebars. While cabled/disc give you a more control, I thought that coaster brakes were easier to learn on. definitely lower maintenance.

-Cruisers are "fixed gear" bikes, meaning there's no shifters, derailleur, related cables, and you don't have to mess with the chain as much. You have one speed. Once again, you have less control and you might regret it when ascending a steep hill, but overall is much easier to learn on and less hassle overall.

-Cruisers have a smoother ride. MAybe not when compared to a mountain bike with full shocks, but you're not looking in that price range. If you've never ridden a bike before and are planning on doing it quite a bit from this point on, the cruiser will be least jarring to your glutes as they typically have big springy seats.

the downside of the cruisers are that they are slow, heavy, and a bit harder to control. But they're more stable, comfortable, less hassle with maintenance, and typically cheaper. And they have fewer things for people to *ahem* "fuck with" when you park it on the street. Especially in NYC.

As for testing? A big empty parking lot.
posted by Challahtronix at 1:33 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll second the recommendations that you don't buy a crappy bike from Walmart, et al. Its just a bad idea for the reasons that have been listed above and more. Also, craigslist, in my experience, is way over priced and dubious at best, especially for the uninitiated.

Go to a local bike store, or a co-op. Chicago has "Working Bikes", I'm sure NYC has something similar. A quick google search for bike co-op reveals some possibilities. I would say that for your first bike buy something like an older roadbike in good working condition and don't buy from anyone that won't work with you on it. I think sometimes service can be a little, how should i say, intimidating at bike shops, but just go somewhere else.
posted by tev at 1:34 PM on November 6, 2007

Challahtronix: you are confusing the terms "fixed gear" and "single speed" fixed gear bikes do not coast, hence the name. A fixed gear bicycle is a horrible bike to relearn biking on. Make sure you know your terminology before you start giving advice.

Also, buying a bike with a coaster brake (backpeddling to brake) can be dangerous and should be avoided.
posted by tev at 1:50 PM on November 6, 2007

oh, i forgot, when you buy that bike, buy a decent quality u-lock, do not use a cable, you might as well not even lock it up if you use just a cable.
posted by tev at 2:01 PM on November 6, 2007

What this particular poster really needs is not the old "road vs. mountain" debate of the suburban cyclist - what she needs is a cruiser and/or city bike. And I say this quite respectfully, as a professional cycling coach, former courier, Cat II / Expert racer, etcetera, for over 2 decades now.

To the OP: Challahtronix has it. Buy a cruiser, or a "city-bike". Get it from your local co-op, as they'll have knowledgeable, friendly folks to assist you. I would avoid the craigslist angle for the simple fact that you really need to know what you're looking for to shop there. I also agree with the poster who says DO NOT cheap out on a helmet.

I also would not recommend that you buy from a local bike shop. I've worked for bike shops, and you have to be well-armed with information to avoid getting a push deal from most of them.

Whether or not you get a women's or men's frame is secondary to the utility and comfort of the bike, and the overall good repair the thing is in.

I recommend getting a cruiser with a women's frame (called 'step-through'), with fenders and a coaster brake, and a maximum of 3 'speeds'. Ask for bikes with 'internal hub' gearing systems, NOT derailleurs (exposed gears). Trust me on this. Internal hubs are reliable and bombproof, derailleurs are finicky and a giant pain in the ass, especially for neophytes. There absolutely is NO reason to worry about road vs. mountain, because you simply need a good utilitarian city-bike. This is a stellar example of a proper city-bike. Although this brand will be well outside your budget range, you should look for similar qualities in rehabbed citybikes at your co-op.

Be prepared to spend a little more than your budget, if possible, because you need to buy accessories like a helmet and a lock if you will indeed be riding all over town.

The reason I vote step-through, is that, as a woman, there are times that *gasp* I really would like to ride a bike in a skirt / work clothes, and my current lack of step-thru fendery goodness, alas, precludes this.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:10 PM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

tev, semantics aside, a roadbike is a horrible idea for someone who has never learned how to ride a bike as an adult.

you think coaster brakes are unsafe, eh? What about a poorly-adjusted rimbrake pad or bent calipre that throws the pad into the spokes?

you can argue any of these scenarios yea or nay, but for a true neophyte, a cruiser (with forgiving, rideable, COMFORTABLE) geometry is by far the best recommendation for someone who is just learning how to ride.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:15 PM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: Hi helpful people,

Thank you so much for this information, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus.

I was quite enchanted by Challahtronix's definitive answer on cruiser bikes, but Tev responds that coaster brakes are dangerous.

Bike coops seem to get a few votes, but SirStan warns me away from them...

Also, how can I test if I can't RIDE the thing?!

posted by beautiful at 2:21 PM on November 6, 2007

If you want to eventually learn to go fast, you might as well start learning on gears and cable breaks now - so mountain/hybrid or road bike. Get a cruiser if your only interest is cruising. Don't get any suspension. Suspension isn't really a good thing for road riding anyway (this is debatable), but at your price point any possible suspension will be crap (this is not debatable).

Mountain bike tires are very forgiving. That is, around cities you often come upon level shifts, like curb cuts, patched asphalt, and streetcar tracks. Sometimes, depending on speed and angle, your tires will fail to climb that kind of obstacle, which often leads to minor falls. Softer, fatter, and knobbier tires climb those obstacles more easily. Of course forgiving isn't necessarily good, because you can learn bad habits, but I think on balance you may as well start on fat tires. Once you're comfortable, fat soft tires have to go, because they are a huge energy suck.

Here is my checklist for mechanical fitness.

Finally, light bikes aren't just for going fast. In the city, there will be many occasions when you want to be able to pick your bike up and move it (up and down curbs, into and out of lanes of traffic while stopped, up and down stairs). If at all possible, you want something you can manhandle, at least a little. There won't be much you can do about that in your price range, but it is at least something to remember - a bike doesn't need to be a physical burden while getting around dismounted.
posted by Chuckles at 2:26 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

The problem, beautiful, is that there are as many different 'flavours' of cyclist as there are styles of bikes, and every 'flavour' of cyclist will argue vehemently for their 'brand'.

coaster brakes are no more 'dangerous' than rim brakes or any other sorts of brakes. not to mention that most 3-speed, 'cruiser' type city bikes also run a front rimbrake as well, for added security.

SirStan, with all due respect, seems to be arguing from the point of the 'suburban' road cycling enthusiast/gearhead, which isn't as helpful to your needs as it could be. I doubt he honestly understands the usefulness of co-ops as they relate to big metropolitan areas. Co-ops no longer represent just a bunch of dangerous anarchists getting stoned and building fixed-gears, SirStan. Really.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:28 PM on November 6, 2007

You aren't going to get a consensus :P

coaster brakes are dangerous.

Front brakes have far more stopping power than rear brakes. Whether rear brakes alone are enough will depend on your top speed. I don't have a good feel for an appropriate coaster brake speed limit, but certainly if you ever get to 15mph (25km/h), rear brakes alone aren't enough.
posted by Chuckles at 2:34 PM on November 6, 2007

Hey, I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was 18, so I know where you're coming from!

My recommendation: if you know anyone who has a bike, ask to practice with their bike for a while. When I learned to ride, my friends took me out to a parking lot and let me practice riding for a couple hours until I got the hang of it.

Whatever type of bike you end up buying is up to you, although if you have friends with different types of bikes, try giving them all a ride and see which kind you like best.
posted by pravit at 5:20 PM on November 6, 2007

Challahtronix and lonefrontranger have it.

It seems like most everybody else is missing the point that this is a bike to learn on. Of course you don't want tons of gears or fancy pedals. All other things being equal (are they ever?) larger-diameter wheels mean a longer period of oscillation, that is, easier to balance. So IMO a traditional "town" bike (27" wheels or thereabouts) will theoretically be easier to learn on than a bike with smaller wheels like a mountain bike or cruiser. That's probably splitting hairs, though.

I'd say if you find an old 3-speeder in good shape with internal hub gearing that's probably what you want. It'll probably have a chain guard, which is good because that keeps grease off of you, especially if you have to jump off in a hurry.

You're almost certainly looking at a used bike, but that's fine. It doesn't have to be aesthetically perfect, but get it from somebody who can vouch for its mechanical integrity.

For this first bike, whether to get hand brakes or coaster brakes is really a question of personal preference. Many older bikes came with a front hand brake and rear coaster brake and that might just be perfect for learning. The front brake really does almost all of the stopping work. Don't rely on the coaster brake to slow you down or stop you on really long downhills but as long as you keep it mellow really there shouldn't be a no problem. When you get your next bike chances are it'll have hand brakes for both wheels.

I like the idea of a mixte frame or girl's frame because you'll want to make it as easy as possible to stand over the bike while you're learning. No need for training wheels as an adult, but start out with the seat low enough so you can put your feet flat when you start to teeter. Work your way up from there.

Please buy a new helmet and wear it all the time while you're learning. I don't want to get into the argument of whether helmets make sense for experienced riders but until you get really good at balancing, turning and stopping the odds of your taking a tumble are pretty good and you want your noggin covered for that.

That's really all I've got. Others will disagree but I feel pretty good about it. After you feel comfortable on the bike, don't be afraid to trade up -- part of the fun of riding bikes is trying different rides until you find one you like.

And oh, yeah -- browse around Sheldon Brown's excellent web site. Lots of good articles about all aspects of riding bikes in there.

Have fun!
posted by Opposite George at 5:35 PM on November 6, 2007

Recycle a Bicycle is an organization with several locations in NYC that collects used bikes and teaches kids how to rebuild them. They sell the resulting rehabbed bikes at prices within your range. I'll bet they'd loan you a kid to teach you how to ride it, too.
posted by gum at 5:41 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

3. Other places to try besides Craigslist:

Go to the Target in the Atlantic Center (Brooklyn), and you can try the bikes out (within reason) in the store. No one minded when I rode around a bit.

A new bike will be between $70-140 (the Schwinn Cruiser I got there was $100 even) and are decidedly "upmarket" of the Astor Place KMart (where bikes start at $40)
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, duh -- let me correct that statement about the wheels. A old "town bike" will probably have nominally 26" wheels, which is about the same size as those on a mountain bike (though the tires aren't interchangable.) What you really want to avoid, though, is those bikes with little wheels, like BMX bikes, low-rider cruisers or those old banana-seat jobs that you still see kids riding in the street.

And of course, since I'm not Super Mario you can get rid of the "a" in "there shouldn't be a no problem."
posted by Opposite George at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2007

uh, get rid of the "no." Sorry, first day with the new language.
posted by Opposite George at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2007

Also: I recently looked for a bike in the "specialty" bike shops around the city. Literally no adult bikes for less than $250 and less service than the Target. If you just want to bike to the park, avoid at all costs.
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:59 PM on November 6, 2007

Also: Bikes by George, 413 E 12th St, 212-533-0203. They sell used bikes starting well under $100.
posted by gum at 6:03 PM on November 6, 2007

I'm just getting back into riding (I learned how to ride a bicycle as a kid). I live in Morningside Heights but will be riding at very slow speeds around Central Park and would love a random partner occasionally. MeFi or email me if you'd like to take me up on that.
posted by onalark at 6:50 PM on November 6, 2007

When it came out that I was over 20 and couldn't ride a bike, I had people falling all over me to teach me to ride. Most of those offers included the use of a bike.

I learned at 26 and here's what I'd suggest.

1. Fat tires.

A cruiser, city bike, hybrid, or mountain bike will have big fat tires that are simply easier to learn on.

2. A seat that's low enough.

When you're learning, there's a huge comfort in knowing you can put your feet down flat on the ground while still sitting in the seat properly.

3. Don't worry about gears (yet)

If you have access to someone who can ride this bike, have them set a comfortable gear to start. Too high, you'll have to push harder than you'd be comfortable with. Too low, you won't feel any resistance and it's really hard to learn.

4. Wear a helmet

Enough said.

5. Practice somewhere wide.

It takes a while to be able to go as straight as a path. I like unused tennis courts. On a path, people will pass you with little room for you to spare, especially kids, they hardly leave you two inches of room!

After you get the hang of things, try out a few different kinds of bikes. Now that I know how to ride, I've come to love a number of different bikes and currently own five. The one I ride least is the one I learned on, a brand new hybrid with 26' wheels.

Feel free to send me follow up questions. I'm seeing a bike nerd buddy from NYC tomorrow and I'll see if he's got any advice.
posted by advicepig at 7:12 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I actually live in NY, and am also an avid bike rider.

Chances are the bike you're looking for is something like This. They're cheap, basic, easy to fix and not hard to find. They also come in lots of different variations, speeds, brakes, etc. I base my recommendation on how many of them I see riding around town every day. Every woman in my building rides one, and probably 75% of the bike riding women I know. They're also heavy as hell, and not a great choice if you live in a 4th floor walkup. So you're gonna need One of these. I know a few ladies who ride BMX bikes. They're small, cheap, and fit in tiny NYC apartments. These are good for running to the store, or riding to the local bar. Not very good for actually commuting or riding around the city. But maybe good for learning on.

NYC is the bike theft capital of the world. No matter how crappy your bike is, someeone will steal it. In my experience the boroughs are not as bad as Manhattan, but if you're leaving your bike outside overnight, anything less than the Kryptonite "New York" locks, and a determined thief will have your bike in the time it takes you to wait in line and order a latte. Speaking from experience, you're gonna be bummed if it gets stolen, even if you get a cheap piece of junk. My new bike is pretty rare and expensive, and I simply don't leave it unattended.

As far as where to buy, I've found the local bike shops to be a bit overpriced, and not very helpful when it comes to inexperienced riders looking for cheap bikes. Bicycle Habitat and Bikes by George were mentioned upthread. I haven't dealt with them personally, but I've heard good things about both. Stick to your guns budget-wise. When I was bike shopping earlier this year, I heard every excuse under the sun as to why someone was charging $250 for a $100 bike. As with everything in this city, there's a lot of overpriced crap, and there's a lot of really good deals. I have a friend who got an awesome schwinn off craigslist for free. I also know a guy who works in an expensive bike shop during the day, and fixes up old bikes at home at night. Everyone in his building has awesome bikes that he hooked them up with cheap. Dude just likes bikes. I'm not sure if he wants me giving out his info, and he doesn't always have bikes available, but if you're interested, it never hurts to ask.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:22 AM on November 7, 2007

I didn't mean at all to warn against coops! I work for one where I live, and absolutely love it. I even said, "I work for a coop and love it!" in my first post!! :)
posted by SirStan at 5:17 AM on November 7, 2007


You have loads of wonderful advice here, and I would like to follow up and echo what everyone has said. Bigger tires, a simple used bike from a coop (a cruiser with limited gears, or an internal hub) and a helmet is what you are going to want to look for.

The people at the coop should be helpful, and offer to support you as you ride either on a trainer (if they have such a luxury), or simply hold you upright as you see if the bike fits you well. Whilist purchasing, feel free to ask the person you are buying from all the questions you can think of, even silly ones like, "what does this do".

Ride safe.

Good luck!
posted by SirStan at 5:24 AM on November 7, 2007

Sorry about my mistake regarding fixed gear vs. single gear in relation to coaster brakes; everything else I said still applies. I don't consider coaster brakes unsafe but they don't have the same stopping power as handbrakes. But if you're learning on a single-speed bike, you shouldn't need a lot of stopping power, especially in fairly flat NYC (and if you're just starting out you might have the opposite problem- applying too much to the front brakes and going over the handlebars).

The other problem with a cheap mountain/road bike is the components; if you get a bike with a cheap derailleur et. al. you will spend a good chunk of your time unjamming the chain, putting the chain back on, trying to get it to shift properly, rather than focusing on learning how to ride the thing. YMMV.
posted by Challahtronix at 11:52 AM on November 7, 2007

no worries Challahtronix, I'm sorry if i sounded nitpicky, its just a language thing, lots of catchphrases get thrown around alot, its easy to get confused.
posted by tev at 3:06 PM on November 8, 2007

Response by poster: Hi everyone,

Thank you so much the diversity of opinions.

Since most people tell me to go to a bike coop, I'm heading over to Recycle a Bike Saturday afternoon and printing out this thread to take with me.

Unfortunately, the weather has become much colder this past week, so I'm losing my resolve about mastering the bike...

I'll probably post back here the results of my trip to the shop on Sat, if anyone wants to know what happens.
posted by beautiful at 1:40 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Sadly,

nothing's available for $100. I may have to head to Target--sigh.
posted by beautiful at 2:17 PM on November 13, 2007

« Older Do Fedex Overnight packages have the location of...   |   Why cut the rug? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.