Buying (and riding) a new bicycle: things to consider if you're a n00b

I recently sent some bike-buying questions to Jennifer, who wrote this awesome for Bodies a while back. Her answers were so fantastically helpful, I’m publishing the whole thing here so you guys can take advantage. For the record, I ended up buying a Trek 7.3 Fx WSD, and so far I am in LOVE! Thanks for the great advice, Jennifer.

I’m thinking of getting a bike. You should know I have not ridden an actual, non-stationary bicycle in at least 15 years, and I have no idea whether biking is something I’ll get really into or will let fall by the wayside or will do every now and then or WHAT. I don’t want to spend a fortune on a piece of equipment I don’t know if I’ll commit to, so what kind of price range should I be considering? I’m hoping to spend around $500 or so.

I think to seriously give cycling a chance (but spend as little as possible in case you decide to chuck it), your best bet on a price range is between $350-$600. You want to get a bike that’s nice enough so you don’t get turned off on cycling because your equipment is getting in your way – so you want something that fits your body size, feels good to ride, and won’t become difficult to ride due to getting out of adjustment. Obviously, you can spend a LOT of money on a bike, and for that higher price tag you end up getting a lighter and faster bike, and/or a bike with lighter and smoother components. But to get started you can definitely get a good reliable bike for a reasonable price.

You will certainly see bicycles at Target or WalMart for less than $200 even, but spare yourself the torment – don’t go there. The real cheap bikes will be super-heavy and will have components that will fail you (e.g. after putting 100 miles on the bike, you’ll be shifting gears and the chain will fall off, or your brakes will start rubbing the tires, or your wheels will “go out of true” which means they’ll lose their roundness and start hitting the frame… believe me I’ve seen it all on crappy bikes.)

If you can find a good used bike – either from a store or from Craigslist – that’s a way to save more money. If you do go this way, it will be a good idea to establish a relationship with your local bike shop so you can get your used bike “tuned up” by the mechanics there, and have older components replaced etc. (More on bike shops in a minute… but I’m a big fan of the local bike shop, it is the boon of the bicycling community!)

Last weekend I talked briefly with a bike specialist at REI who recommended I consider either a “comfort” bike (specifically, the Novara Flirt) or an “urban” bike (like the Buzz).  What do you think? I imagine I’d mostly be riding my bike on roads around my neighborhood, not flying down the sides of mountains or anything. I want to do this for exercise, but I’m such a beginner I know I’ll have to work my way up with regards to speed and competence—is there a particular bike that can grow with me?

Good suggestions from Mr. REI. I also would have suggested those 2 choices on first meeting you. However I have the extra bit of knowledge about you that is your fitness story of the last couple years. And this is why I asked the question about whether you can balance on a bike and if you already know how to ride. So with this extra “Linda knowledge” I would steer you away from the comfort bike and toward the urban/commuter bike. Check out the attached image to illustrate the differences – it’s from the Electra Bicycles web page (Electra is a company that makes BEAUTIFUL comfort bikes – they’re also called “Townies”). This shows the difference between the more upright “urban” and a “comfort.”

The first image shows the guy on a more Urban geometry – this is a traditional riding position. Racing bikes, mountain bikes etc. will all put you in this basic “sitting up high over the pedals, leaning forward toward the handlebars.” (Of course within this traditional position, there are plenty of variations… a drop-handlebar racing bike will lean you WAY down low, while a commuter bike with higher handlebars and a shorter wheelbase will let you sit up higher. But in all cases, your butt is up over the top of the pedals.)

In contrast, the Townie images show the guy’s butt lower and behind the pedals – so rather than pushing down he’s pushing the pedals out forward. An advantage to this position is that your butt and feet are closer to the ground, so it’s easier to stop and touch the ground to keep your balance — you don’t have to even get off the saddle. Also, you’re sitting upright so you don’t have to lean forward and put weight on your hands, and you don’t have to lift your head up (you definitely will get a sore neck when you’re first getting started in a traditional position). I would recommend a Townie to someone who isn’t comfortable balancing, who’s just learning to ride, or to someone who wants a bike for a weekend ride to the grocery store or to tool around slowly on the bike path. And OF COURSE people can certainly ride the Townies for exercise – not trying to diss them at all. I have a friend who was very fearful of riding and falling and balancing, and she got a Townie and she loves it and commutes on it every day. But for your purposes of “growing with a bike,” I think you could go much further with an urban type setup.

An advantage to the urban/traditional riding position is that your entire body weight is behind your pedal stroke, so you’ll end up putting more power behind your legs and will ultimately “do more with less” ie “go faster due to more efficient effort.” The traditional position makes it easier to stand on the pedals, which REALLY puts weight behind each pedal stroke, and also you’re leaning toward the handlebars which distributes balance between front and back wheels, and (mentally at least) propels yourself forward.

In addition to the REI bikes you saw, there are many brands that have urban (or “bike path” or “commuter” bikes), here’s some suggestions:

Trek – has a very broad range of all sorts of bikes for good prices I think, and has many dealers in your area, the main one being Gregg’s Cyclery which has a Bellevue store (and they’re showing discounted prices on their webpage right now). Their “FX” line (under the “Bike Path” category) is a good one; my own commuter bike is an FX.

(Note that the “WSD” bikes that Trek offers are supposedly sized better for women – long legs and shorter upper body, which means the handlebars are closer in so you don’t have to stretch out as much. Once you start test-riding bikes, you can compare the “women’s sizes” with the regular ones. Lots of gals like the WSD fit; I don’t.)

Gary Fisher – the “Tiburon” is a decent path-bike, although I’m not too crazy about the front-fork shocks or the seatpost shocks. I like a stiff bike though – many people live by the extra springiness of shocks on a road bike. Test ride to compare!

Specialized – the Sirrus is a very nice bike if you can find a dealer having a sale.

Cannondale – good company with a long-standing reputation – the “Quick” street bikes are affordable.

In terms of growing with you, here’s what you can do to one of these kinds of bikes to “make it a faster fitness bike” once you’re comfortable:

Upgrade your pedals as you go. You’ll probably start with flat pedals with your feet sitting on top only, but eventually you can put “toe clips (cages)” on the pedals so you can get pedaling power BOTH from pushing down and from pulling up. Make sure your bike comes with pedals where you can attach cages later on. And even later than that, you can get hot-shot bike shoes with cleats that clip directly to the pedals.

Put thinner tires on it. Thinner tires are lighter and can be pumped up to higher tire pressure which will add to your speed. You’ll probably start out with 700×32 (700 is road wheel diameter – make sure you get at least this big, don’t let them sell you a smaller wheel just because you’re a girl!) 32 is the tire width. Skinny racing tires are 20′s, and you won’t want to go that skinny on an Urban bike, but make sure the wheels that come with the bike will let you decrease your tire size down to at least 28 and preferably to 25.

Finally, here are some things to consider when you’re talking to a bike shop and “making the sale.”

You’re not just buying a bike – you’re buying the shop. This is where you’ll come back for adjustments and repairs and maybe shoes and clothes someday. You need to feel good about the shop; if they’re trying to sell you stuff you don’t want, or bulldozing you into a more expensive bike by tossing out a bunch of terminology that you’re not familiar with, blow them off and go to another shop.

Test ride a couple bikes, just to compare how the different styles and sizes feel. Have the shop measure you so you get on a bike that’s not too big… people tend to buy bikes that don’t fit right.

Work on them for deals. Shops aren’t likely to go lower on the marked prices of the bikes, but they WILL swap out stuff. So if you ride a bike and don’t like the saddle, ask them to swap it out for a different “stock saddle” for free. If you want a kickstand, they should put one on for free as part of the sale. If you want thinner tires, same thing – they should swap out for what you want. If you want to sit up a little higher, ask them to swap out the handlebar stem (that will bring the handlebars closer in). If you want smaller pedals, or pedals with reflectors – same thing, it’s a swap-out.

A shop where you’re buying a bike should offer at least one tune-up after you’ve ridden the bike for a while. Better shops will offer one free tune-up per year as part of a sale.

You can also deal on discounts on clothes and gear. Some shops will give you 15% off anything else in the store that you want to buy at the same time you’re buying the bike. So think ahead of time what else you might want… don’t wander like a kid in a candy store because retail items in bike shops are usually pretty expensive. But things you might want to add to a bike sale are:

• water bottle cages and a couple bottles to put in them (the shop ought to give you the bottles for free too – but don’t pay more than $4 for a bottle)
• a handlebar bell
• a little “saddlebag” tiny pack that snugs up right underneath the underside of the saddle… carry your keys, phone, a snack bar in.
• a “floor pump” – standing pump so you can pump up your bike tires at home. You may already have something, but check that it’ll work on your valve stems. Bike tires often have a “presta” stem that’s skinnier than the “shrader” car tire stem. You can get an adapter though so your bike tires will work with a shrader pump. TMI, yeah I know sorry about all the nitpicky details.
• helmet (more on that below)

Things NOT to buy right at first:

• fenders – don’t add them to the bike unless you know you’ll be riding in the rain. You can always add them later.
• rack – wait on that too. In the short term if you want to haul stuff around you can use a backpack.
• a frame pump, tools, etc. Unless you want to embrace the whole “be my own bike mechanic” right away, forget adding tools and use your iPhone for on-the-road mechanicals (in other words, call someone to come get you if you get a flat! You can learn to change your own flats later on, and can stop into your bike shop for them to clean and lube-up your chain periodically.)

What sort of helmet should I be looking at?

Any of the helmets for sale in a bike shop are fine. They’ll range in price from $30 to over $100. The more you pay, the more ventilation holes you get. Since it’s not so blistering hot in Seattle, you can get fewer ventilation holes and your head won’t overheat and explode. White is the most visible color. It needs to cover the whole front of your brain (your cranium?) so the front of the helmet should be right where the front of your hairline is, and can even sit a little lower on your forehead. Get one that fits well and doesn’t slide around but doesn’t fit so tight to give you a headache. Some helmets come with a removable visor on the front. You can keep the visor if you like the eye-shading it provides, or remove it if you want better peripheral vision. If you have a pea-sized head, you can even try on some kids sized helmets, which are REALLY cool because they have flowers and ladybugs and other fun designs on them.

What does a person wear when they’re biking, assuming they do not have a collection of skintight, corporate-sponsored Spandex outfits? Can I just wear regular workout clothes, or are there specific clothing items that you’d suggest?

Two things to consider when converting “regular person clothes” to cycling clothes: (1) you don’t want your pant leg or skirt to get caught in the chain, and (2) avoid a big heavy seam between your crotch and the bike saddle.

So basically that comes down to: (1) if you have loose pantlegs, either roll them up or put a rubber band or velcro strap around to keep them away from the chain. Better yet, wear yoga tights, or capri-length pants or shorts so nothing’s flopping around near the chain. (2) heavy inseams, such as those on jeans or hiking shorts or cargo shorts, are usually too thick and will cause you to feel like you’ve been douched with a broom handle (HA! — ed.) if you ride on them for a long time. So – best are knit shorts such as yoga or running shorts where there’s not a middle-of-the-crotch seam. Lighter weight pants and shorts, with a thinner inseam, are fine for shorter distances. If you ride for a while you’ll probably decide to invest in one pair of padded black lycra bike shorts, just for comfort. If you acquire a pair of padded shorts – they are your underwear – you wear the pad right against your skin. So your own pair of bike shorts is a very personal thing – never buy used padded bike shorts!!

So after those pants/inseam considerations, regular workout clothes or street clothes are fine. If you have a lightweight windbreaker or rain jacket, that goes a long way toward cycling survival in WA. Some people like wearing gloves to add cushioning to the palms of their hands, but I expect your handlebars will have padded grips so you won’t need gloves right away either.

Don’t be lured by all the bike clothes and gear in a bike shop. Other than a helmet, you probably already have everything you need to get started. (And if you ride for a while, you’ll just accumulate the fancy shirts with logos on them… don’t ever pay full price for one of those!)

Lastly, I don’t know ANYTHING about bicycle road rules or safety. Can you recommend a good resource for learning about this stuff?

Here’s a general list from the WSDOT.

In general “pretend you are an invisible car.” Don’t assume cars can see you. Ride to the right side of the road, but not so far to the right that if you lose your balance you’ll fall off an embankment or something over there. You’re allowed to be in the car lane as long as you’re not obstructing traffic – cars have room to pass even if they have to wait a second to pull around you. Don’t ride side-by-side… even though it is legal to ride two-across, it pisses off drivers so just don’t do it when you’re on the road. Use hand signals so cars will know if you’re stopping or turning. DON’T RUN STOPSIGNS or STOP LIGHTS, oh my gosh so many cyclists do that, it makes me really angry because it reflects badly on all of us. If you’re on a bike path with pedestrians or you’re overtaking another bike, ding your handlebar bell or call out “passing on your left” so you don’t freak out some poor mom with a stroller as you stealthily ride up beside her.

Once you get your bike, ride around your neighborhood until you’re comfortable. Don’t go into “real live traffic” until you can (a) stop suddenly and put your foot down – in case a pedestrian steps in front of you, or a car pulls out of a driveway and doesn’t see you – you need to be able to stop; and (b) while riding, be able look over your left shoulder (to see if traffic is coming behind you) without your bike weaving around. Lots of people ride with a mirror – either attached to helmet, or to handlebars.

The bike shops have lists of traffic rules like this… read the WSDOT link above; as a car driver, you’ll know to do the good thing. Ask me if you have some specific questions, I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Riding in groups of other bike riders has its own set of protocols, so when you get to that point ask me again! :-)

18 Responses to “Buying (and riding) a new bicycle: things to consider if you're a n00b”

  1. samantha jo campen Says:

    Holy crap that was AWESOME. Jen is the best :-)

  2. rhaazz Says:

    I LOVED this post! It is WONDERFUL. It really makes the whole process of thinking about starting to ride a bike for exercise/transportation less intimidating. THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting this! You are BOTH awesome. :-)

  3. Jess Says:

    I love this post and it makes me want to run out and buy a bike right now. My husband and I have been thinking about getting bikes since we moved to Denver four months ago but since I just had lap-band surgery I’m thinking I’d like to wait until my ass has shrunk a little bit so I can make sure I find a bike seat that is comfortable for me long term. Or is the seat something that’s the same on most bikes and I shouldn’t even be worried about it?

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Jess – Denver is a great place to ride – jump on the South Platte River bike trail, it’s a great summer riding path!

    Your bike saddle fits your sit-bones, not the other parts of your ass. You’ll want the saddle such that both your sit-bones are centered on the the saddle, not perched on the outside edges. And no, saddles aren’t the same on all bikes – there are wider ones (for women who’ve had kids – Ha!) and skinnier ones for skinny guys whose sit-bones are about an inch apart. And everything in between. BUT the right saddle will likely fit your ass both now and after you lose weight, because your sit-bones aren’t likely to change their position.

    Don’t delay a bike purchase due to worrying about the saddle. Changing saddles is easier than changing your clothes. When you test ride your bike, if you feel like your ass is falling off the edges of the saddle, have the bike shop swap saddles before you buy. Then after riding for a while if you decide your butt doesn’t fit right, you can try different ones.

  5. Adrien Says:

    This is all such good, solid advice! I’m an avid mountain biker and cannot say enough about how much cycling rules, but it’s pretty overwhelming for the noob. Good advice is hard to find, but I agree with everything Jennifer recommended.

  6. Cookie Says:

    What a great post. It really makes me want to get a bike. And actually ride it. There’s a really nice trail, not too far from our house. Also lots of sidewalks. But I still think I’m a few years a way from actually getting up the nerve to get one.

  7. Gleemonex Says:

    Awesome! I’ve bookmarked this, hoping to buy a bike soon …

    Could you maybe do a followup piece about riding with young kids? My daughter is 19 months old, so obviously can’t ride by herself, but I wonder if I could do a baby seat or trailer — I think she’d like the kind of gentle, bike-path riding we’d do that way, but I have not the first clue as to how to get started, what’s the safest, etc.

  8. Kate Says:

    Love this! I’ve been wanting a bike, but had NO IDEA what to be looking for- there are so many options. Thank you so much for narrowing it down!

  9. Jennifer Says:

    Gleemonex: I haven’t had young kids since being a bike rider, so others will have to contribute advice about trailers or babyseats or trail-a-bikes for older kids. But the biggest piece of safety advice is: make sure you ride your bike with a sack of dogfood or potatoes (or something similar to the child’s weight) in the trailer and get used to the feel of steering/stopping/turning before going with a real child! :-)

  10. Dutch Blitz » Wide Open Spaces Says:

    [...] bicycling and her tweets about it had piqued my interest. She interviewed a seasoned cyclist about buying and riding a bicycle over at Bodies in Motivation. Consider me [...]

  11. vague Says:

    Wow, thanks for this great post! I have been longing for a new bike after selling mine when I moved cross-country two years ago. I can’t believe I have put it off this long – I really miss cycling. This post has given me plenty of food for thought – plus the encouragement to just go out there and do it already! Thank you.

  12. Nicole Says:

    Excellent post! I bought a Trek FX 7.2 WSD in April and I love it! (http://www.trekbikes.com/us/en/bikes/bike_path/fx/72fxwsd/)

    I ride mostly on bike paths and around town, and this bike has been great.

    Thanks for the post- lots of great pointers here!

  13. Kathy Says:

    Thanks so much! This is a super post. My husband and I have been considering getting me a lighter bike so that I am more likely to be able to keep up with him on his speedy little road bike.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to ride again, but like the person asking for advice, I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it and was afraid to invest the $$. I had had the Target/K-Mart bikes before and agree with the writer – not worth the cheap price – get a good bike. I bought a Sun Drifter for around $325 (it is peddle forward like the Townie described above; with 3 gears and coaster brakes) and I LOVE it. I ride it nearly every single day and what’s more, I look forward to riding it. Well worth the $$$. One note – it took some fiddling with the seat height to get it right, so don’t give up if the first time you ride your knees hurt – just keep adjusting the seat until they don’t!

  15. Lenore Says:

    Most of this is really good advice, but I disagree a little on gloves. Padding for riding is only a secondary reason to wear them. I’ve been in my share of commuter bike falls, and gloves really do help protect your hands in a fall since our natural instinct is to put them up to protect ourselves. Not quite as important as a helmet, but important enough to be mentioned.

  16. EA Says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I really want to run out a buy a bike now but I’m going away for work for a few months and will definitely look this up when I get back.

  17. Lin Says:

    I too found this sooooo helpful. I went to a couple of local bike shops and bought one from the shop that I felt the most comfortable working with. They gave me lots of great advice and took their time fitting me (I am super short!). I ended up purchasing a Giant Tran Send and can not tell you how much I love it. It is a comfort bike with a step-through design so it is easy to get on and off which is important as I normally bike with my children. I also need to mention that it is so beautiful with a modern retro feel but a design that I know I will not tire of.

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