How To Buy A Bike If You Don't Usually Buy Bikes

Been thinking about this and figured it’d be worth writing up. In this guide I assume:
- you want to buy a bike to get around town, a couple miles at a time, nothing big
- you maybe don’t have a bike now, or just have something now that you don’t really like for whatever reason
- you don’t know from bikes
- you’re not currently interested in learning how to repair stuff
- maybe you’re a little intimidated by bike shops, maybe not

1. Look at your budget. This may fall into ~4 categories:
- nothing or like $50: find your local build-a-bike workshop (Free Ride in Pittsburgh, Bike Kitchen in SF maybe) and learn to put a bike together or repair one. It’ll likely be kind of a junker, but you’ll learn a lot and it might be fun. Or else scour craigslist, buy whatever you can get, ride it, pitch it when it falls apart. (this is obviously not ideal, but maybe this is where you are. you can still ride a bike! don’t listen to judgey assholes.)

- $200 or $300: you can get something decent and used. Scour Craigslist for a bike that even kind of fits you. A hybrid or commuter bike is ideal, as it will be both sorta-fast and sorta-comfortable, but you can’t be too picky. Or, if you have a shop nearby that sells used bikes, check it out. Thick Bikes in Pittsburgh is good I hear. Or Bicycle Heaven. Do not buy a bike from Walmart or Target or Dick’s; every part on those is terrible and it will probably fall apart faster than a used bike.

Above this range, look at the money you have available, and then subtract at least $150 because you need to buy extras (explained more later).

- $500: this is when it starts getting good, as you’re in the new-bike range. Go to a local bike shop (again, not Walmart or Target or Dick’s; REI is ok but an actual local bike shop is better, I’ll explain why). Check the few shops near you, and ideally look for somewhere that specializes in people like you, that is, people who just want to ride around town (Iron City Bikes is my favorite here, or Pedal Revolution or Valencia Cycles in SF). If it’s full of super-fancy pro bikes, that’s not awesome, but may still work (Top Gear is my example here. But they’re friendly and I like them too; they’re just a little higher-end). If the people are friendly, that’s good too. Ask them for a hybrid bike. Buy the cheapest one that you like.

- $1000: now you can consider fancier stuff. Same strategy as the $500 tier but you can just consider more bikes. Up until the $1000 level, whatever upgrades you pay for are probably worth it.

- above that: don’t spend that much on your first bike. Buy a $400 hybrid or an $800 cross, make sure it’s worth it to you, and then upgrade from there.

2. What kind of bike? I present to you, the Dan Tasse Bike Scale:

(click for bigger)

Probably a “fitness hybrid” (middle of this scale). Not super heavy, but not uncomfortable. Good range of gears for going up and down hill. Pretty cheap. For the second bike, you can decide if you want something lighter (then go up to a #1 or #2) or cushier (go to a #4 or #5) but start with a #3, Fitness Hybrid. Some examples are Trek 7.2, Specialized Sirrus, Norco Indie 4, Kona Dew; other good brands include Cannondale, Giant, Jamis… basically, whatever your bike store has is probably good. (incidentally, here’s a good article about buying hybrid bikes.)

If you’re a little more fit or want something that you can occasionally take for long rides, go up to a cyclocross or touring bike. (this will also cost a few hundred extra dollars, but you’ll get better stuff; there’s just not much available for $400-500 in cross bikes.) If you are a little unsure about biking, don’t have to carry your bike up stairs, and live in a flat place, you might try a comfort hybrid. Or a “city” or “Dutch” bike - the kind you’d see in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. These are more comfortable, you sit upright almost like a chair. Downside is that they’re heavy, which sucks if you need to carry them ever or go uphill a lot. Plus, the “comfort hybrids” are ugly. (city/dutch bikes, OTOH, tend to look cool.)

Get one that fits you. Try it out. Ask the bike shop worker if it fits you. Trust them.

3. This is a good time to talk about dealing with your local bike shop.

Why even buy from them? Why not just get a cheap one at walmart or online? A few reasons, and that article I linked to above deals with them well.

- You want to make sure your bike is good quality (walmart’s will not be)

- You want to be sure it’s safe every time you leave the place (and if you assemble it yourself for the first time, it likely will not be)

- You’ll need repairs and maintenance every few months, so it’s good to start building a relationship.

And because there are people recommending stuff you don’t know much about, there are two ways you can go about this: always trusting them, or never trusting them. The one you should pick is “always trust them.” Bike repair is not a lucrative career; they’re not in it for the money. 99% of them (at a local bike shop) are in it because they like bikes. They are not trying to screw you. If they recommend something, it’s probably worth it.

4. Buy extra stuff too.


- standing pump ($40-60)

- helmet ($40-60) - the cheapest one is fine; make sure it fits

- chain lube ($10) - just ask

- front (white) and rear (red) lights (probably $30 total; get the cheapest set that uses AA or AAA batteries because they’re easier to replace. don’t splurge, because someone will steal them.)

- lock: $30-60 - just make sure it’s a U-lock. Cable locks are easier to cut. If your bike is $500, you probably don’t need to go real heavy duty (esp if you don’t live in NY or SF) but it’s up to you. I find it convenient to store this in the lock bracket that comes with the lock; if you ask the bike shop folks, they’ll probably attach this for free, it’s pretty simple.

Really really recommended:

- fenders + installation ($40?) this is only not necessary if you only ride when it’s dry, or live in a very dry place. They are so worth it, both for your clothes and for the bike’s maintenance (grime spraying all over your bike is not great). Let the bike shop folks install them; they’re a pain.

5. Maintain it.

Pump it up about once a week.

Lube the chain about once every couple weeks. (ask the bike shop worker if you are not sure how.)

When you feel the brakes getting less powerful, and you’ve already tweaked the barrel adjusters by your brake levers, or approx every 4 months of constant riding, bring it in to the bike shop for a brake pad replacement (probably $30). And then ask them too if anything else looks like it’s worth fixing; wheel truing is common (esp if you hit a lot of potholes) but probably just do whatever else they recommend too.


smoothcoffee -

awesome post cuz! love your style of thinking and writing. always look forward to a snail shell writeup. hoping to pick something hot up in cleveland when i’m back. mike

Julia -

I love the idea of Free Ride, but the volunteer time commitment they were looking for when I was looking into was just not compatible with med school life :-(

Dan -

Julia, I agree. Like 10 years ago I bought an old bike from them for $35 and then used their shop to fix it up. Instead of paying, I could have worked for 7 hours, but right, I don’t have that kind of time.

And thanks, Mike!

Julia -

Yeah! I would have totally paid them money to buy the bike and use the shop, but at the time (maybe 3 years ago?) they wouldn’t let you do that, you had to commit to a something like 5 hours a week of volunteer work instead. Either that, or I could try to find someone with access to the shop who had extra time, who I could pay hourly to restore a bike I picked out.

So instead, I just stayed bikeless until my parents sent me my bike from when I was a teenager, and now that bike sits in my basement and I feel guilty about not using it :-P

Dan -

Blah. Yeah, they seemed (even then) to be in favor of working for it rather than paying for it… which, sure, it’s better if you’ve got the time, but you should be allowed to pay for it too! I say, get more people biking, however you can.

Oh wait, 5 hours a *week*? Geez. 5 hours total, maybe, but forget 5 hours a week.

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