A (real) bike buyer’s guide

By Justin Steiner

Dreaming about a new bike now that spring is here? You aren’t alone. Buying a bicycle is extremely exciting, but can also be a little nerve-racking. With so many bicycles of varying designs and price points, how do you decide which bike best fits your needs? Bicycle Times is here to help you feel more confident about making a purchase. Think of this as a road map to the process of buying a bike.

With each issue of Bicycle Times, we review three or four interesting bikes to keep our experienced readers abreast of the performance and aptitude of the latest technology and trends. This article, however, is geared toward riders who are newer to our lovely sport, or re-entering the scene after a hiatus. If you know someone who’s hoping to buy a bike in the near future, pass this article along to help him or her make a more informed decision.

Needs

Buying a new bicycle is just like any other project—you first need to define your needs and the desired outcome. Start by realistically assessing your goals and ambitions for the next few seasons of riding, since this new bike will hopefully be with you for quite a while. Here is a list of questions to keep in mind; writing down the answers may help solidify your thoughts (again, be realistic):

  • How often, and for what duration, am I riding now, and what do I have in mind for the future?
  • What will be the main function of this bike?
  • Transportation and utility, fitness and recreation, looking good, racing?
  • What do I prioritize in this new bike?
  • Style, cargo capacity, all-weather capability, light weight, durability, or the ability to fold for storage or travel.
  • Where do I enjoy riding the most, and what do I enjoy about these locales?
  • Do I care about country of origin (where it’s made)?

Budget

With needs defined, it’s time to talk budget. In the bicycle world, as with most anything, you get what you pay for. Spending more will buy better performance—less weight, higher precision components, and increased durability—but not everyone really needs top-shelf stuff. Keep in mind that a new bike will set you back at least $300 regardless of its intended use. If you’d like to buy a bike made in the good ol’ U.S. of A., it will add to the cost as well, possibly by as much as an extra zero on the price tag.

So, what’s your budget? How much cash do you have to play with? Whatever number you come up with, subtract $200–$400 (even budget shoppers should set aside at least $150) to arrive at your target price point. Why? Because you now have a cushion to purchase clothing, comfort, and safety items that will enhance your riding experience. It can be argued that these clothing and comfort items are every bit as important as the bicycle itself. (More on this later.)

At the bike shop

OK, now you have a better idea of what your needs are, and you know how much money you’re comfortable spending. Time to start shopping. Make a list of all the bike shops in your area, and note the brands each store stocks, the store hours, and locations. Then devise a plan to visit all of them. Bonus points if you can shop on a weekday, as salespeople will likely have a great deal more time to spend with you. Sure, it’d be nice if the dealer you end up choosing is close to your home, but don’t place too much value on proximity. Finding a shop where you can form a trusting relationship, and maybe even a friendship, with the staff is far more important.

As you are shopping, pay attention to the vibe and feel of each store you visit. How do the employees treat you? Did someone offer you assistance, or did you have to seek help? When you’ve connected with a salesperson, relay your answers to the assessment questions. Armed with that information and your budget constraints, the salesperson will be able to recommend the bike, or bikes, that best fit your needs and budget. Be open-minded about the style of bike the salesperson might be suggesting—don’t let your preconceived notions get in the way of good advice. Do ask the salesperson to explain why he/she has recommended particular bikes. Be sure to take notes on manufacturer names, models, and pricing.

Take time to inquire about the fitting process at each store, as this will be a large part of the deciding factor for where you should make your purchase. First, how do they determine which size is best for you? And second, how do they fine-tune the fit of the chosen size? Hope- fully they will include the store’s policy, and rates, for swapping stems, saddles, and other parts as needed to personalize your fit. The answers to these questions will begin to shine light on the great stores—the people who truly care about your fit and comfort. I cannot emphasize enough how important fit is to cycling. Comfort on your bicycle will keep you riding, while pain and discomfort will likely stop you dead in your tracks.

As you shop down through your list of stores, the experiences you have will vary drastically. Some of the encounters will make you want to go back and others most certainly will not. Scratch the shops off the list where you had less than satisfactory experiences and make note of the shops where you felt comfortable and received sound advice. Now it’s time to go back for a test ride. These folks will set you up with a fitted bike for a spin. Be sure to take notes about your impressions of the bike(s) you are able to ride—it’s hard to keep track of all the subtleties of different bikes if you don’t.

Also inquire about the store’s service policies. All reputable dealers will include a post-break-in tune-up with the purchase of the bike. Additionally, some shops offer extended service and/or insurance plans that could save you money in the long run, but make sure you clearly understand the terms. Many stores will even offer a discount on gear purchased with the bike.

Thank the salesperson and explain that you’re doing some comparative shopping and will be making a decision soon. From here on the decision should be fairly easy. Most likely, one of the bikes you ride will feel markedly better than the others. Congratulations! You just found your new bike.

Shop where you can form a trusting relationship, and maybe even a friendship, with the staff is far more important.

Cross shopping

Why haven’t I even mentioned the importance of parts and specifications? I intentionally left out these details because, in my opinion, they are the least important aspect of buying a new bike. Since you’re looking at bikes made for a particular riding style and within a small price window, all of the models will offer similar parts packages. Sure, one bike will have widget X instead of widget Y, where the other has widget W instead of widget Y, but who cares? Of course, there are certain spec characteristics worth considering such as internal vs. external gearing, belt or chain drive, and handlebar type.

The salesperson you’re working with should be able to shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of each style of bike and why it might be well-suited or not to your specific needs. But the specifics of each component are not worth worrying about. The cycling marketplace is highly competitive and the overall package at any price point will be comparable. Staring cross-eyed at spec sheets will take your focus away from the overall fit and feel of the bicycle and which store has earned your money, both of which are far more important.

What about the extra $200–$400 you’ve stashed away? Now it’s time to invest in your comfort and safety. Pony up for a new helmet if you’ve had that old one for five years or lon- ger; helmet materials break down over time, rendering older helmets less effective. If you don’t have some form of protective eyewear, buy some stylin’ shades. Pick up some nice gloves to protect your hands for longer rides. If you will be riding in cold and/or wet weather, prepare yourself accordingly. Depending on your needs, a few nice pairs of cycling shorts may be in order, too. The guys and gals at the shop will be able to help you select clothing to fit your needs. (From my experience, you can’t go wrong with wool.)

You will also need a way to carry water, spare tubes, tire levers, a pump, multi tool, and patch kit. If you don’t know how to change a flat tire, ask a knowledgeable friend to show you how, offer to pay the shop to teach you, or find a local how-to class—community bike shops are a fabulous resource for knowledge. There are few things that kill the buzz of a nice ride quicker than having to call someone to pick you up, or worse yet, a 10-mile walk home, and a flat tire certainly won’t get you off the hook for being late to work.

So there you have it—bike buying made simple. Of course there are situations I simply can’t cover within the scope of this article. What I hope you take away is the general process and approach to purchasing a new bicycle. Trust yourself and your judgment; if things don’t make sense, ask questions—be analytical. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself; this might not be the last bicycle you ever buy, but rather the first step on the never-ending ladder toward cycling enlightenment. 

Key things to remember

  • Be honest about what you intend to do with your new bike.
  • Set a budget and make sure it includes $200-$400 for accessories.
  • Visit as many bike shops as you can and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.
  • Spend your money at the bike shop that you feel has earned your business.

 

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