Shifting gears: Buying a new bike

Welcome to the first Shifting Gears column, a new Journal feature devoted to cycling in the metro. In this space we’ll discuss news, tips, and views on biking in our community, with a focus on sharing information for those considering biking more — for recreation, exercise, transportation, or merely the simple joy that accompanies the most efficient means of transportation yet devised.

To get the ball (wheel?) rolling, we begin with how to approach buying a new bike. While you could consider simply dusting off the old wreck hanging in your garage, if you have the means to purchase new, you’ll be amazed by the improvements made in all aspects of bike manufacturing since you were a kid. Along with these improvements, however, comes an almost dizzying array of choices. So, before you race out the door to your local bicycle shop, here’s a framework for helping you find the right bike for you.

Finding your style

Start by asking yourself what kind of riding you expect to do. Be realistic. If you won’t be barreling down a lane of single-track at 35 mph, you don’t need a full-suspension mountain bike. However, if most of your riding will occur on rough trails, the mountain bike category is your best bet. If you plan to bike primarily on paved roads or paths, a road bike will provide a smoother and more efficient ride. If, like most people re-discovering cycling, you don’t know, don’t care or want to keep your options open, the hybrid family is the place to start.

Winnowing the field

A road biker will next need to choose between touring and racing styles. Touring bikes are typically a bit more durable and thus heavier. A touring bike will also have “eyelets” for mounting racks (for carrying bags, packs, etc.) and its geometry will be less aggressive, more upright and elongated for comfort over long distances. A newer road cyclist who isn’t planning on competitive riding would do well to veer toward the touring end of the spectrum.

A mountain biker must decide on the type of suspension. Front suspension is achieved by adding shock absorbers to the front forks. There are several rear-suspension designs, but unless you’re planning on serious off-road riding, I’d avoid them since they add quite a bit to the cost and require additional maintenance. Many experienced riders prefer the “hard tail” ride anyway.

The hybrid category includes bikes with a blend of road and mountain bike characteristics. Typically outfitted with narrower, smoother tires than mountain bikes, they’re more efficient on pavement yet have a durable build for light trail use. With a more upright posture, they’re designed for comfort on a variety of surfaces. A few popular varieties include comfort, city, commuters and cruisers.

Choosing a frame material

Bikes today are constructed from a wide range of materials (even bamboo!), but the four primary ones are steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.

Steel offers the classic ride. It’s more flexible and absorbs shocks well, producing a supple ride. Racers often seek out stiffer frame materials, though, since frame flex makes bikes less efficient during acceleration. Steel also tends to be a bit heavier. Aluminum is light, strong and stiff, but some riders find it harsh (jittery and unforgiving). Others enjoy its responsiveness. Titanium and carbon fiber can provide the best of both worlds: Light and strong with an ability to dissipate shocks and vibrations. As you probably guessed, frames made of these materials are the most expensive.

Where to buy

Unless you plan to hang it in the garage year-round you shouldn’t head to a department or sporting goods store for your bike (exceptions made for the kind with training wheels). We have many outstanding shops in the metro area, and buying locally for this purchase is important because good service and maintenance is invaluable. It’s also the best way to ensure you get a bike that fits you. The old “standover” technique for sizing (a couple of inches of clearance when straddling the top tube) is only helpful for ruling out frames that are far too large or small.

Testing 1, 2, 3

Don’t feel uncomfortable about asking a shop owner to let you test ride a few bikes. It’s the only way to find the one that feels right. However, don’t ask to take out the $7,000 Pinarello Prince (i.e., Lamborghini) unless you’re really in the market. Wear comfortable clothing to the shop so you can take a few laps around the block.

Basic price estimates

And now for the moment of truth. Let’s yank off the Band-Aid quickly, shall we?

• $300–$500 — steel or aluminum hybrid with low-end components (brakes, shifters, pedals, etc.)

• $500–$1,000 — steel or aluminum road or mountain bike with mid-level components

• $1,000–$1,500 — aluminum frame road or mountain bike with carbon fiber forks and mid-level to high-end components

• $1,500–$2,000+ — carbon fiber or titanium frame with high-end components.

Finally, make sure to budget for some essential accessories: helmet, gloves, saddle pack, water bottle, pump and tube repair kit.

In future columns, I’ll share tips for would-be bike commuters, joining local group rides and much more. Until then, check out my Shifting Gears blog at Happy riding!