The Chainlink

Top 10 Tips for Buying a New Bike

With spring here, many of us have cycling on the brain!

For a lot of seasoned riders, that means it's time to pull the bike out of the garage (or off the stationary trainer), inflate the tires, lube the chain and head out the door. But for people who are either new to cycling or have been away from cycling for awhile, it's time to think about buying a bike. Nowadays we have a lot of styles of bikes to choose from. While this is definitely a good thing, it can make the purchase of a bike intimidating.

Fortunately, if you leverage your resources, getting the right bike is easy.

In an effort to assist with the selection process, we here at The Chainlink have assembled our top tips for buying a new bike. We hope this will help get you on the road and pedaling in no time!

Heritage Bicycles

1. Work with a reputable local bike shop.

Sure, it may be tempting to hop on your computer and order a bike online, or head to a big box store. But trust us when we say you're not doing yourself any favors, especially if you're an inexperienced cyclist.

In addition to the fact you can't test ride it, you might not "know what you don't know" about a lot of things. This is particularly true with regard to sizing, as well as the type of bike that will truly best suit your needs. To put it another way, even if you get the "best deal ever" on a bike you buy online or at a big box, it's a total waste of money if it doesn't fit right, pedal efficiently on the type of surfaces you typically ride, or ultimately do what you need it to do.

On top of that, new bikes require a lot of setup, inspection, and adjustment. Riding a bike that wan't set up correctly by a professional mechanic can be dangerous.

And besides, wouldn't you rather support local businesses?

Best of all, bike shops are starting to specialize in really cool and unique ways. For example, here in Chicago, we have shops with specific expertise in cargo and commuter bikes, Dutch bikes, race bikes, triathlon bikes, adventure bikes, fixed gear bikes, electric bikes, even a shop that makes its own bikes (as well as its own coffee). As such, your first step in choosing a shop should be envisioning the type of riding you want to do, and then finding a shop that caters to your desired type of riding.

2. Be realistic about budget.

Having worked in a bike shop, I'm more than familiar with the customer who shuffles in muttering "what's your cheapest bike?"

No one is going to suggest you drop $10,000 on a full-carbon time trial bike with electronic shifting. But on the other hand, I think you'd be doing yourself a disservice by using cost as your only criteria.

Boulevard Bikes

The criteria really should be a mix of comfort, fit, function, durability, and how fun it is to ride. A bike that's no fun to ride will sit in the garage or basement untouched, and that's a waste of money no matter how cheap it was. The right bike may cost a few hundred more, but if you ride it often, you'll recoup that cost in no time in terms of money not spent on gasoline, car maintenance, parking tickets, and even gym memberships.

On a side note, if you can spend $60 going out to dinner, $2,500 on a sectional couch, and $40,000 on a car, stop thinking that $500 or more for a bike is excessive. Today's bikes are high-quality, precision-crafted machines, and unless you want crap, there's a cost involved. In our view, $500 MSRP is the absolute least you should spend on a new bike, and new bikes you're going to love riding may start at around $1,000. Would you rather waste $350...or spend $1,000 and not regret a penny of it?

 

Tailwind Cycles

3. Envision the type of riding you want to do (but clear your mind of preconceived notions).

Once you've zeroed in on a shop, having an idea of what you want to accomplish on a bike will help the salesperson match you with the right one.

Before going in, ask yourself if you want to:

  • Ride it to work?
  • Go on long weekend adventures?
  • Run errands on it, like to the grocery store?
  • Do centuries and supported rides?
  • Possibly try fast group rides, or even racing?
  • Take it on trails?
  • Etc.

Bianchi at On The Route

The key here, in our opinion, is empowering the salesperson to lead you to the right bike. Resist the urge to steer the conversation because you see something in a color you like, because a bike they're recommending lacks front shocks or knobby tires, or if the seat has less padding than what "looks comfortable" in your mind.

As we've discussed in past articles, what a bike rides like in your mind can be vastly different than reality. In other words, that mile-wide gel saddle may look soft, but halfway to the Botanic gardens, it could turn into a weapon of ass destruction. Or those knobby tires appear sturdy for your city's pothole-riddled streets, but on pavement they'll probably just slow you down, and might actually be more prone to punctures. 

Instead, do this:

  • Tell the salesperson your riding goals
  • Mention any injuries or physical issues
  • Answer their questions honestly
  • Resist the urge to prove what you know

Most importantly, take advantage of the salesperson's knowledge and experience, and let him or her pair you with a couple of suggested bikes. Once your choices are narrowed down, take each bike (and your open mind) out for a test ride.

That's not to say if there's a bike that catches your eye and isn't on the salesman's list, you shouldn't test ride it too. At the end of the day, it's your bike and your choice, and you will ultimately know what will make you happy. 

Photo by Chainlinker Jenn_5.5 mi

4. Make sure you purchase your bike in the correct size.

This one is a little tough to get right if you're new to cycling, but really important in our opinion.

As with a shoe salesman, it's the shop's job to send you home with the right size bike. And, thankfully, most shops also have an exchange policy if you accidentally get the wrong size.

Still, we've seen a very small handful of people wind up with ill fitting bikes, and it's a bummer. To help avoid that, here are a couple of tips:

  • If the shop doesn't have your size in stock, it's OK to test ride the wrong size in a pinch. But once you make your selection, order the right size. Don't intentionally buy the wrong size because it happens to be in stock. (NOTE: No reputable shop will let you buy the wrong size, but still)
  • If possible, before making a final purchase, double check the size on the bike manufacturer's website. Most bike companies offer a rough sizing chart based on height, and all manufacturers will have a frame geometry chart. Even better would be to do some research on common bike sizing so that you can educate yourself on what sizes generally will fit. Here are some rough examples:
    • A person who is 5'8" could typically wind up on a road bike that is size "54" and a mountain bike that is either size "M" or "17.5".
    • A person who is 5'10" would probably get a "56", "L", or "18.5".
    • A person who is 5'6" would likely be looking at a "52", "S", or "15.5". 
  • Many bike manufacturers are offering "women's specific" models. If you are a female rider, ask to test ride one. From the shape of the saddles to the geometry of the frames to the way the ride quality is tuned, everything on these bikes is designed for female proportions, and may offer a level of fit not attainable on standard frames.
  • Have the salesperson put the bike on a stationary trainer and do a rough saddle adjustment for you. If he or she is needing to put the saddle way up high, or way down low, or pushed way back or jammed way forward, or you feel like your reach to the bars is uncomfortably long or short, that could be an indicator it's the wrong size. Most bikes, when properly sized and adjusted, will wind up with the saddle in a fairly neutral fore/aft position, and with the saddle height fairly even to the bar height. You'll generally see slightly lower bars on a road bike, and slightly higher bars on a mountain bike, but all in all, still within an inch or two of saddle height.

Chicago Bicycle Company North

5. Take a decent test ride.

A ride around the block isn't going to cut it. To really get a feel for how the bike is going to ride, spend a little time on it. Ride it in traffic, ride it up and down a steep hill, take it off road a little bit. Give your legs and lungs a chance to get a little tired so you can gauge how easy or hard it really rides.

Here, it also wouldn't hurt to ride a couple of different types of bikes. That way you can compare how, for example, a road bike rides to a hybrid. And you can get an actual feel for which one you might prefer. 

Roscoe Village Bikes

6. Don't overlook tires and accessories.

Always leave a little room in your budget for accessories. We recently wrote an article featuring a long list of things to keep on your bike. At the very least, we think you should roll out the door with a spare tube, tire levers, a mini pump, and a mini tool kit. Chain lube is important too. 

As you start riding more often, you'll probably want a bag of some sort to hold everything in. And if you're going out on longer rides, you'll want some water bottle cages. If you plan to ride it on not-so-sunny days and in the winter, a set of fenders is always a wise choice. If you plan on carrying groceries or larger items, consider a rack and a set of panniers.

Regarding tires, sometimes the right bike for you will come with the wrong tires.

A common example of this are cyclocross bikes. While intended for racing, they make excellent all-around bikes. However, the tires they come with are meant for racing on a grass and dirt courses. If your aim is to ride mostly on pavement, talk to the salesperson about swapping out for pavement-oriented tires at the time of purchase.

Sure, accessories can drive the price tag up, but you're going to want that stuff eventually anyway. And oftentimes the shop will cut you a deal on accessories when bought with the bike.

Johnny Sprockets

7. Leave with some pointers on basic maintenance.

That spare tube won't do you any good if you don't know how to change a tire. See if the shop is willing to run you through some basics. Better yet, see if they (or another shop) offers basic bike maintenance classes. Here's The Chainlink calendar for maintenance classes.

8. Bring the bike back for its 100 mile tuneup.

When a bike is new, cables stretch, bearings settle in, things get loose. Bring the bike in after the first several rides to have these adjustments made. In terms of safety and longevity of the parts, this is a very important step.

9. Ride it often. Ride it far.

Ride it to work, ride it to the coffee shop, ride it to area craft breweries, ride it to the store, even sign up for one of those "century" rides. The more you ride it, the more you're gonna want to ride it, and the more you're gonna love it.

10. If you got great service, recommend your local bike shop to friends.

Local bike shops can only provide top-notch service if we support them. This is especially true as online retailers continually grow in size. If you were treated well and are happy with your bike, let people know!

About the author:

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago TribuneThe Nashville TennesseanThe Nashville SceneGuitar Player and Musician. Brett 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 Irvin Steinert on May 5, 2017 at 8:39am

Shop around! Always remember YOU are the customer. If you are even the least bit skeptical at what a bike shop salesperson is telling you, move on. Listen to what they say then do some research and go back if what they said makes sense. Don't trust just because they are more knowledgeable. Beware of upgrade myths. Most modestly priced equipment will last years and work great. Pricey equipment gives moderate performance increases. Shaving a couple seconds off each mile is worth the money to a racer but how about you? Also remember that this is the busy time of year for bike shops so don't let them brush you aside for a seemingly "big dollar" customer!

Comment by Sarah D. on May 3, 2017 at 1:58pm

Hey bk, check the title - it's tips for buying a *new* bike. I am sure there have been hundreds of posts in the Chainlink about buying used, in fact, many used bikes are posted in the Marketplace here, too! 

Comment by bk (aka: Dr. Mambohead) on May 3, 2017 at 1:23pm
Wow! Stone cold. Not a single reference to West Town Bikes, Blackstone, The Recyclery, Dream Bikes or Working Bikes? These are bikes shops too!! I thought cyclists might value recycling?... 0r reducing their carbon footprint by re-using the many, many bikes that already exist?... No? Only a Corporate-Approved, Commercial Bike Shop can assist Chainlinkers? Is that the jist? How are we any different than the Automotive Industry if each year, only a brand new product will do? How sustainable is your bike? Cyclists are different?.... How?
Comment by OnlyCHICyclerWhoStopsAtStopSigns on April 27, 2017 at 2:13pm

Very good article here. Pretty much describes verbatim my experience a few years ago when I got my first bike in nearly thirty years.

Oh...as for #6...let me just say: Bontrager 550 tires SUCK. If you get a bike that has those things, replace 'em -- at least, replace the rear one. They're weak.

I'd also like to add to #6 -- seat matters, too! The seat can get...uncomfortable...after a fairly short time when riding. So consider that too. I got a gel saddle...niiiiiiiiiiice!

Comment by Will on March 17, 2016 at 5:58pm
Great tips. If you're inexperienced, I'd also suggest going to at least a couple of reputable shops and getting a second or third opinion about size and type of bike, you'll also probably see some different options. At least some people wind up with the wrong size because they got bad advice at a bike shop. A new bike is a big investment, and you owe it to yourself to get different opinions and see different options.
Comment by Sarah D. on March 17, 2016 at 2:06pm

Great article - and LOVE that you included #10. Yea, LBSes! 

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