The Chainlink

An Open Letter to New Bicycle Riders Shopping for their First Bike

By Brett Ratner

Like many avid cyclists, I have unwittingly assumed the role of "resident bicycle expert" at my workplace, amongst my family members, non-cycling peers, etc.

While flattering, I personally find it to be a frustrating, thankless and ultimately futile job (like the guy at the BMW factory who installs turn signals).

The absolute worst part of being the resident bike expert (RBE) is when a non rider (or new rider) asks me to recommend a new bike for him or her to buy. It's gotten to the point where I die a little on the inside whenever I'm approached with this question. This is because I know that regardless what I say, the person is most likely going to ignore my recommendation, and in doing so, needlessly waste money, learn a few lessons the hard way, ultimately wind up with a bike that collects dust, not discover the joys of cycling, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.

I've thought about this a bit and while I don't remotely have a solution, I feel like I've at least narrowed down the causes. Here's my theory:

Perception vs. Reality

I feel like the main reason new riders have a tough time purchasing a bike is that lots of things about bicycles are counter-intuitive. For example, in some instances running a lower tire pressure can actually make you go faster. Spending a season riding a single speed might make you better at using your gears.

The bulk of counter-intuitive things on a the bike, however, seem to do with the topic of comfort. The most obvious example pertains to what makes for a comfortable saddle.

Anyway, after 10 years of serious cycling, I've come to believe that if you're going to ride frequently and/or ride long distances, a comfortable bike possesses the following qualities:

  • The bike fits well.
  • It's reasonably light, fast and nimble.
  • It has tires that strike a good balance between low rolling resistance and cushion.
  • The frame strikes a nice balance between stiffness and shock absorption.
  • It offers a variety of hand positions on the bars.
  • The bike let's you get somewhat aero when you need to push though a stiff headwind, or sit somewhat upright when you're navigating traffic.
  • It ultimately puts the cyclist in a riding position that evenly distributes body weight between the saddle, pedals and handlebars.

But perception says otherwise. To a new rider (or a rider who hasn't ridden since childhood), perception says one needs a gel saddle big enough to land an airplane on (bonus points if you have a gel cover over it). Equally vital is one of those pogo stick seat posts and a mountain bike-style suspension fork. Extra crucial are knobby tires ("for potholes" and "for jumping curbs") and a riding position so upright, the cyclist is practically leaning backward.

Ok, before anyone gets riled up, let me just stop and say this: If a rider is elderly or legitimately has an injury or a physical condition which dictates the need for (what the bicycle industry calls) a "comfort bike," and that bike enables that person to ride comfortably and enjoy cycling, then absolutely that is the bike that person should choose.

But my personal theory is that the bike industry offers comfort bikes not because they want to, but because the market dictates their existence based on the "perception" of what makes a bike comfortable.

"Comfort" saddle

So, for anyone tempted by the allure of supposed, perceived plushness, Let me clear up what I believe to be myths.

  • For starters, a big fat gel saddle will just chafe the insides of your legs after a few miles. Your "sit bones" are actually quite close together, which is why saddles on high-end bikes are narrow. They "look" uncomfortable, but they are actually quite comfortable.
  • Knobby tires offer zero advantage on pavement and little to no advantage on limestone paths. But they definitely slow you down. Besides, you should be avoiding potholes, not hitting them.
  • Suspension forks are not only heavy and maintenance intensive, but completely unnecessary on anything that's not a mountain bike. And even a lot of mountain bikers are running rigid forks these days.
  • Sitting bolt upright on the bike just makes you a big sail...especially in a headwind.

All in all, the cushy stuff they put on comfort bikes adds weight and complexity to the bike, while reducing pedaling efficiency. It also adds cost, meaning that the bike company has to compensate by putting cheaper, heavier components elsewhere on the bike in order to meet the price point.

In other words, these components (installed in the name of "comfort") make it harder to pedal the bike. When a bike is hard to pedal, to me that's the very definition of uncomfortable. And when a bike is uncomfortable, you don't ride it as much.

Perceived Value:

I would conservatively say that 75% of the serious cyclists I know ride a variation of the same bike. To be clear, I'm not talking about their race bikes or bikes specifically for mountain biking or other special purposes. I'm talking about the bikes they ride to work every day, on long weekend trips, and in some instances across the entire country. These are the bikes they'd choose if they could only own bike.

That bike is often steel-framed and has drop-style handlebars and semi-slick tires of a moderate width (700x28 or 700x32, oftentimes). To the casual observer, it looks like a road bike but is actually derived from the sport of cyclocross. If you stand on a street in Seattle or Portland during rush hour, you'd see dozens upon dozens of commuters on these very same bikes, generally outfitted with full-length fenders and saddlebags. I own a variation of one of these bikes myself.

For many experienced riders, this is what a comfortable bike looks like.

Typical examples include the Surly Cross Check, Bianchi Volpe, All City Space HorseGunnar Crosshairs and the Soma Double Cross. The big manufacturers have caught on and recently added sensible offerings like the Trek CrossRip, Specialized Awol and the Giant Anyroad. You can run skinny or fat tires on them, strip them down or outfit them with racks and fenders. They are the Swiss army knives of the bike world and they are about the safest recommendation I could ever offer to a new rider.

The trouble is that these bikes generally retail for around $1250. To an avid cyclist that's a solid value. To a non cyclist, that's highway robbery. Also, new riders run for the hills when they spot the drop handlebars, skinny-ish tires, rigid fork and the minimally-padded saddle. Therefore, my suggestion gets brushed aside and talk returns to the such and such that's on sale at the big box retailer.

The funny thing is that a person can, without blinking, drop $40,000 on an SUV or $3,500 on a bedroom set...but balk at $1,250 for something that will bring you years of fitness, enjoyment and utility.

Not a gel saddle or suspension fork in site. Side note: That blue All City has been ridden from San Francisco to LA, then from Chicago to New Orleans.

Like everything else, you get what you pay for with bikes. I'm not saying you can't get a solid, functional bike for under $1,000. But if price is your primary criteria, and you'd rather save a few bucks than get the bike that best suits your needs, put your wallet away because either that bike will be collecting dust in your garage in a few months, or you're going to outgrow it and buy the bike you should have bought the first time around.

The Fitness Barrier:

Ever go for a jog after a long layoff from running? Remember going to a Yoga class for the first time? Jump into a pickup basketball game after not playing since high school? You felt like crap, right? That's because these sports require specific types of fitness that you don't focus on in everyday life. You get over that fitness barrier by doing that activity on a regular basis.

The same holds true for cycling. It's a sport, after all. A bike is not a chair. It's a machine that requires you to actively balance and propel yourself forward. So when a new rider perceives a bike to be uncomfortable, what's actually causing the discomfort is a lack of bike-specific fitness. It's not the bike.

Getting to the Point:

If you're going to appoint me "RBE" and ask me my recommendation, at least do me the honor of considering my advice. What is my advice? Glad you asked.

  • Visit a reputable, locally-owned bike shop. Better yet, visit a couple.
  • Explain to the salesperson what type of riding you hope to do, so the salesperson can try to match you up with the right bike.
  • Try to be open minded to the advice the salesperson has to offer.
  • Ask the salesperson what he/she rides (and why).
  • Test ride a variety of different bikes from different brands, from a full-on road race bike to a touring bike to a hybrid to a comfort bike.
  • If they'll let you, test a few bikes above your price range so you can feel the difference between an entry level bike and a higher-end model.
  • Buy the bike that best suits your needs. Or as I like to say, "buy the right bike, or wind up having to buy it twice."
  • Have someone who knows what he/she is doing adjust saddle height, saddle setback, handlebar height, etc. A local bicycle shop is a good place to start.

Lastly, use some common sense. If the serious cyclists you know all ride bikes with narrow saddles, slick tires and there's not a suspension fork or pogo stick seatpost in sight, think for a moment why that is...and then think why you're about to drop hard-earned money on something that bears no resemblance to what they're riding.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Sebastian Baptiste on July 12, 2015 at 2:47am

Thank you for writing this! You rightly point out the bizarre term "comfort" bike, and its many flaws that make cycling for any reason other than a quick trip in the forest preserve or on the LFP (of course after carrying the bike on a car in traffic first) uncomfortable at best, and make cycling as an alternative to driving tedious. However, there are other solutions than the ones you mention, such as George Tafelski's semi-recumbent bicycle (mentioned below). I'd add to that recumbent bicycles (with two or three wheels) or (for those who feel unsafe as a low-rider) Dutch/English style uprights. Although the latter are truly wind-catchers, the ride is very comfortable indeed, and with its mudguards, enclosed chains, lack of pressure points and huge load capacity these bikes are excellent to do the typical grocery trips (within a two to four mile radius). I own both a recumbent and a high class Dutch upright, and yes, they each were more expensive than what you'd find at Target. I couldn't agree more with your economic argument: The purchase price of each was well below what it costs to simply maintain a car for a single year.

Comment by Brett Ratner on June 29, 2015 at 12:29pm

Thank you for the great comments everyone! I knew this was a potentially touchy subject, but it seems everyone got the main point of the article. A lot of this stemmed from years and years being asked these types of questions, as well as a summer spent selling bikes in a shop.

In a nutshell, what I was trying to say was that before buying a bike, test ride as many different types of bikes as you can, so you know what the bike will actually feel like to ride...and not how you might perceive it to feel like. You might find that a comfort bike works perfectly for your needs (I know of a couple comfort bikes that have had the heck ridden out of them). Or, you might find that you like a bike that's nothing like what you thought you'd like (I can't tell you how many times customers' minds were blown after I talked them into test riding a popular steel-framed road bike we carried). The point is that you're making the choice based on an actual experience.

Also, working with a reputable local shop will help tremendously.

In George T's case (see comments below), he has an actual physical condition/injury which prevents him from putting weight on his hands. As such, a specialty bike is for certain necessary...and it's awesome such products are available to make it possible to continue riding.

Lisa C raises a good point that sometimes a progression is necessary. Maybe the comfort bike with the pogo seat and suspension fork serves a good purpose as a gateway. It works well in the beginning, and when the rider's fitness and abilities improve, they evolve to a different bike.

George S...I really appreciate the kind words. Glad to hear the article passes the test from someone who has been riding a very long time.

Comment by Pablo Martini on June 26, 2015 at 8:05pm

Thanks, George....my brother ordered frame and parts, put the right tools in my hands, and taught me how to build up a bike...there was some beer involved as well ;-)

Comment by Yasmeen on June 26, 2015 at 7:42pm

I agree with George, that Moots PsychoX is hot!

Comment by Pablo Martini on June 26, 2015 at 1:47pm

Test Riding:  A test ride should not be just a quick spin around the block.  Once you've narrowed it down, take a serious test ride, several miles at least....I've done 10-15 mile test rides, as that's the only way to see how the bike performs when ridden the way you'll be riding.

Comment by George Tafelski on June 26, 2015 at 12:29pm

Great article.

I am one of those unfortunates who came down with "handlebar palsy"- a compression of the ulnar nerves in the hands and a comfort bike has totally cured my condition. So I would like to add that use of a comfort bike as a first bike could possibly curtail cases of "handlebar palsy".

And here is a pic of my sweet ride...

Comment by Elizabeth on June 26, 2015 at 12:06pm

I might as well -- here's my commuter bike, on the right in this photo: 

Comment by Elizabeth on June 26, 2015 at 12:01pm

I started a new job in February, bought a new bike, and started bike commuting longer distances at the same time.  I test rode a lot of bikes, and I ended up with a comfort bike.  I don't regret that decision.  I've ridden over 1000 miles on that bike so far this year.  Admittedly, it doesn't have any suspension, and it's not a super cushy seat.  But it doesn't have drop bars, and it's got an upright posture and it's a step through.  

I wanted a bike that would be easy for me to pick up and get riding on.  In the end of my bike hunting, I decided to go with a used comfort bike, and just figure that after some more riding experience, I might decide something a little different might suit me better.  And that's fine.  I can always sell my used bike on Craig's list and upgrade.

Picking out a bike is not like getting married.  It's fine to try one out for awhile, and trade it in later for something better.  Had I spent over a $1000 for a bike like the one described in the article, I might be afraid to leave it outside, or be too intimidated by the posture or drop handlebars to ride it much.

I do think it's important for people to know that if your bike makes your back or your seat hurt, that doesn't mean you're unfit to cycle, or that cycling is inherently uncomfortable.  It might just mean you need to change your saddle, or the entire bike.

Also, there are great local bike shops that sell used bikes -- like Blackstone Bikes, Working Bikes.  That's a good way to try out a better bike without shelling out as much initial investment, especially when you're just figuring out how well cycling works for you.  And they're generally very happy to swap tires or saddles or whatever, to make a bike work for you.

Comment by Marc-Paul Lee on June 26, 2015 at 11:28am

Although I like your advice for someone who wants to get into the *sport* of cycling I cannot endorse it for someone who wants to get into cycling for commuting or recreational purposes.  For those folks I recommend a hybrid bike, e.g., the Trek FX line.  These offer a reasonable blend of quality biking (relatively good components, higher pressure tires, smallish seat) while not frightening off a biking newbie with a high price tag or those uncomfortable looking drop handlebars.  If all they need/want is to ride a few miles (e.g., 5-10) then a hybrid may be their best option.  We can only hope that when they're ready to go faster or longer they'll turn to a road bike.  

Comment by Bob Hoel on June 26, 2015 at 8:47am

Great article.  I will definitely pass it along to folks who ask for my input on getting a bike.  May even toss in some personal knowledge.

For those who are irritated/offended that folks don't follow your advice, remember that advice is just that.  It is not to be confused with hard instructions that are to be followed.  And sometimes "failure to follow advice" can be a right of passage. 

Comment by Ruby Red on June 25, 2015 at 6:43pm

I agree about the saddle! I rode this old hard skinny inexpensive "uncomfortable" saddle for a few thousand miles. People were always tryna upsell me on some silly cushy thing that gets soaked in the rain. I replaced it with a similar style and shape and experience minimal chafing or sits-bone discomfort.

Comment by Pablo Martini on June 25, 2015 at 1:54pm

Great letter....next time I'm asked for advice I'll quote it.  I've had some luck with people taking my advice, but people are resistant to narrow seats and drop bars.  I built up a cyclocross commuter with flat bars (including bar ends for a second position), which resulted in carpal tunnel type pain, so I switched to drop bars and never looked back.

My Moots PsychoX YBB  shock and an Old Man rack.

Comment by Lisa Curcio on June 25, 2015 at 1:30pm

I am one of those who returned to cycling as a very middle-aged adult and I went to the bike shop to get a short bike with a fat seat.  They happily sold me just that.  I now know that it did not fit me at all, but at the time it was the right thing.  I started riding a bike on a regular basis, got some bike handling skills back, and learned a lot about what makes a bike comfortable.  

There was no way I was going to ride with drop bars, and it took me three years to get to the point where I bought a bike with drop bars and feel comfortable riding it.  There have been two other bikes in between, one of which is still my every day commuter and which I love.

All of this to some extent proves your point. But I think it also shows that sometimes people just have to go through the stages, especially older folks who might still remember how to ride a bike but don't remember how to do it well.

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