For the casual, recreational bicyclist, choosing the right bike can be confusing and even frustrating. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars, but you do want to make sure you get a bike of sufficient quality and comfort that you can ride it with pleasure for more than just a year or two. You are somewhere in between the consumer who goes into a discount store and buys the glitziest bicycle available for the wad of bills in his wallet and the bicyclist who strolls into the best bike shop in town, hails all the employees by name, spends the whole rest of the day talking components and races and leaves the store at closing, starry-eyed but empty-handed. Here are some helpful pointers to help you choose the right bike for your body and your purposes.
Before you even go near a bike shop, do some thinking. The most obvious choice you have to make in buying a new bike is deciding what kind of bike you want. Road bike or mountain bike may seem the question, but it’s really a little bigger a question than that. Depending on your age, health, and intended usage, you may want to consider cruiser bikes, recumbent bikes, and the increasingly popular bikes known as hybrid or commuter bikes.
You want a road bike if you are involved in road racing, certainly. If your love is riding on trails, you will definitely want a mountain bike. If your primary love on the trails is downhill racing, you will want a specialized mountain bike. If you have physical limitations, find bicycling painful, or just have money to burn and a yearning for something different, you should check out recumbents. If you just use a bike for pedalling around a basically flat town a few miles a day, perhaps you’d enjoy the fun of a single speed, fat tired cruiser bike. And very many of you will be attracted with good reason to the hybrid or commuter bicycles that give you some of the advantages of all these kinds of bikes.
These hybrid bikes give you the wide range of gears riders learned to love with the advent of mountain bikes in the eighties, combined with the lightness and grace of the road bike. They are usually ridden upright, like the cruiser bikes, but don’t carry the weight or the bulk of the shock absorbing features of mountain bikes. Their tires are somewhere between the skinny, lightly spoked wheels of a road racer’s model and the heavy knobbies of a genuine mountain bike. These bikes are light enough to be fast on roads and stable enough to ride off-road on gravel or good trails. They have a sufficient range of gears to get you up steep hills without walking and respond quickly enough to meet the demands of riding in urban traffic.
Once you know the kind of bike you seek, go into a few bike shops and talk to a knowledgeable bike seller. Amateur and casual riders often make the mistake of thinking the only size consideration on a bike is the rider’s height, but no good bike shop employee will let you out of the shop without paying attention to the unique aspects of your height. A 5’6″ rider with long arms and a short torso will need a much different bike frame symmetry than a 5’6″ rider with short arms and long legs! The length of the top bar on the bike, the adjustability of the seat post, the height of the stem that supports the handlebars, all these factors and more matter enormously to the fit of a bicycle and consequently to the pleasure or the pain you’ll find in riding it. Manufacturers have varying frame geometries and models have their own variations.
You cannot really buy a bike intelligently at a discount store without knowledgeable employees or policies that allow you to test ride a bike before purchase. The only way to buy intelligently from a big discount store is to identify the right bike elsewhere and then purchase the same bike from the discounter. Whether this is really fair to the bike shop that gave you the real service is something you have to decide for yourself. You should never buy a bike without test riding it, and if you’re buying it as a present, without making sure the recipient has the right to return it if it doesn’t suit their riding needs.
Once you have done all this, you get to consider what is really the plum of your decision making process in choosing the right bike: the way the bike looks. Bicycles are beautiful machines. You should love not only the way you feel on it, but the way it looks as you fly down the hill on it, a blur of shiny colors and silvers and speed.