Every year when the weather starts to turn from ‘eternal hibernation’ to ‘life is good again’, I seem to get more questions along the lines of “so I’m thinking about getting a bike… where do I start?”
This is the best question you could ask me, and given the chance I’ll definitely talk your face off about it, but I try to keep in mind how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone, and to channel my mindset from when I was bike-curious and exploring options without having any more than a very rudimentary understanding of what I was looking at. So with that in mind, I’ve tried to put this in layperson’s language so I can impart what I wish I knew years ago.
- You get what you pay for, so while you don’t necessarily need to go out and get all the bells and whistles, keep in mind that a bike from Walmart or other big box store will almost always be heavy, questionably assembled, and have low quality parts where it matters (resulting in a grindy, cumbersome, less fun ride). If you can stay flexible on price until you decide what you want to achieve with your bike purchase, you’re more likely to end up satisfied with your purchase in the end and less likely to have an unloved bike hanging out collecting dust in your garage.
- Ask yourself what kind of riding you want to do. Commuting to work or replacing some short distance car errands? Casual riding on paved trails or around the neighborhood? Do you want to be able to cut through dirt or gravel areas without wiping out? Are you looking to get a workout or would you prefer to sit upright and stay more comfortable? Do you want to be able to pull a trailer for bringing along a small riding companion or hauling large items? A good local bike shop should be able to steer you in the right direction and give some suggestions for specific models; bike shops carry different brands so you’ll want to visit several to get a full picture of what’s available. Or you can ask me and I’ll talk to you ad nauseam about the various pros/cons of different models.
- Local shops offer test rides on their floor models, much like buying a car; I recommend going to several, describing what kind of riding you want to do, and taking a few out and going at least a few blocks. A lot of people don’t take advantage of this, and I didn’t feel confident enough to when I started out, but no amount of specs on a page or advice from other people can tell you what a few different bike rides will about what that bike will feel like for you. Some larger shops even have demo bikes that they’ll let you take out for longer rides – it doesn’t hurt to ask!
- If you go the online route, you can have the bike built at a shop, usually for $60-100 depending on the type of bike and number of features. A bike mechanic knows what they are doing and can save you from a disaster resulting from an improperly assembled bike. A nice bike mechanic will also tell you the pros and cons of buying a bike that you’re eyeing online. I almost bought a vintage bike on Craigslist once and I’m still so grateful to the mechanic I called up who warned me that replacement parts for that particular bike would be really hard to source. Dodged a bullet!
Often, local shops will have a tune-up or maintenance policy when you buy from them, and it’s usually worth it to know what you’re getting vs. the headaches and impersonal nature of buying a bike online. Local bike shops will make riding your bike more fun by increasing ridership and advocating for bike friendly policies in your community, so if you can, support them!
- Once your bike is built and you’re rolling, check around for workshops and clinics at local stores (many are free) where you can learn some basics like how to change a tire or adjust your brakes, because it feels super empowering and badass when you’re able to fix something yourself.
- Ride your bike! Hopefully you’ve found something you love and enjoy riding. Down the line, you may change your mind or decide you want to try another type of riding (a single speed beach cruiser was just my gateway drug, after all). That’s totally normal, so stay open to new frontiers!