Sunday, July 20, 2014

Buying a New Bike: Do, Don't Do, and FAQ

So you are thinking of getting a new bike...
One of the things that my friends and colleagues often ask me about is buying a new bike. Usually, they haven't been on a bike since they were young. They might never have set foot in a bike shop. Given the way the bike market has diversified - with lots of different models and brands available - it can all be quite intimidating.

I can't tell you in words just how much I LOVE giving this kind of advice! See, I can only buy so many bikes for myself before a) my sanity is questioned, b) my marriage begins to crumble (though since Leslie rides too, we are delightfully co-dependent). So helping others select a new bike is a great way for me to get the vicarious thrill. Also, it fills me with joy to think about the feeling my friends have when rediscovering the bike.

If you are thinking of getting a new bike, here are some things to do, things to not do (or not worry too much about, and then answers to some common questions!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO...

...go to a local bike shop (LBS). Bike shops sell bikes that are better quality than those offered in retail stores. The frames, the components, and perhaps most importantly the assembly/setup is worth the extra cost.

...visit several shops in your area. Bike shops have personalities, and they carry different brands and models to serve different kinds of riding. They do this to be competitive with one another, but also because the people that run these shops usually do so out of love (it's a VERY low-margin business and a tough way to make money) and out of dedication to a vision of one sort or another to provide something needed in the community (e.g. a woman-friendly shop, or a shop that caters to recumbent riders). a relationship with the LBS that fits you. Your bike will need service and you'll need a reliable place to get supplies like tubes, tools, etc. As your riding changes, you may also need other gear like a bike rack or bib shorts. Buying these from your LBS will help them out (the margin on these items is often better than on bikes, which is super low).

 ...think ahead about the kind of riding you want to do. This should be the first question you are asked when you are looking at bikes. How often do you plan to ride? How long will your typical ride be? Where will it be? On bike paths? on dirt trails? on the road, perhaps to work or to the farmer's market? maybe a little of all of these? Why are you interested in a bike? for exercise? for a source of green transportation? for long-distance bike tours? Answers to these questions will help narrow down what bike *categories* are best suited for you.

...think about your budget. Entry level bikes at bike shops will run from about $400 to $1000 depending on the category. You may also need a few accessories right away which can add some cost, namely a helmet, water bottles, bike shorts or other clothing, pedals and shoes (for road bikes, especially), etc.

...ride several different models that fit your riding needs and your price point. The good news about bike shop bikes is that they are very, very similar in overall quality and - because competition is very tight - all the major manufacturers (Specialized, Trek, and Giant are the big three) offer similar models at similar price points. You may need to go to more than one shop to try all of the ones that appeal to you. But riding them - outside - is essential. a bike that fits you. You can only do this by riding them. So go do it. You'll feel the difference.  How can they differ so much if the quality is all similar? The simple answer is that they have different frame geometry (the shapes/sizes of the main triangles that form the bike) and even small differences in geometry can make a surprising difference in how the bike feels depending on your own body. A good shop will help dial a bike in to your comfort zone, but even after all the adjustments are made to the seat, bars, etc., the fit will be better on some bikes than others. Just like a pair of pants. a bike that you LOVE. I mean it. Buy the one that is so gorgeous it quickens your pulse. The one you can't take your eyes off of. The one that makes you want to get on and go! I hereby grant you permission to care about the colors, the leather seat, the lug details where the seat tube joins the bottom bracket, the sparkly streamers that come out of the bar ends... A bike you love is a bike you will ride. And for all the expense, there is no bike more expensive than one that you do not ride.

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO NOT...

...settle for shabby treatment by an LBS. If you can't get your questions answered when you are actively interested in a bike, or if you get attitude because you are looking at one kind of bike that the salesperson doesn't happen to like, this is not OK. I recommend that you  wrap up your visit and walk out. Go to another shop. The experience in the shop matters. a bike without riding it. It's like buying pants off the rack without trying them on. They might look good and they might be the right waist and inseam numbers. But they could be tight through the hips. Or they could pinch when you sit down. And they will just hang in the closet unworn, mocking you.

...worry about the brand of bike. If you are buying from a reputable shop, all the brands will be good. In fact, if you are buying one of the major brands, odds are they are made in the same handful of factories overseas anyway. If you are buying from a more boutique maker, you'll be paying a little more but you may or may not get a better fit (unless you are going full custom, bespoke, crafted just for you...but that's another post). Buy the bike that fits you, suits your riding needs, and that you Love. Brand be damned! afraid to ask for an extended test or demo. Bike shops will usually let you take a bike you like for a weekend to see if it will work for you. Go for it.

...spend more than you are comfortable spending. Bike prices scale up mostly as a function of the components on the bike - the wheels, the drive train (e.g. crank, derailleurs, gears, shifters...collective known as "the group" or gruppo) and your all-important touch points: the saddle, the bars, and the pedals. Frame materials contribute to cost too, but not as much as you might think. So...don't feel bad about sticking to a lower price point at first if you need to. Why? you can always upgrade the components later as your riding changes.

...leave the shop without everything you need to actually ride the bike. Got a helmet? pedals? If you don't, you'll kick yourself. the health impact a bike can have, and factor that into your thinking about costs. I haven't spent a dime on health care costs apart from my health insurance contributions (out of my paycheck from work) in four years. A lot of that is due to my bike. Well worth it!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): FAQ

1. Should I wait for a sale? Probably not. Because bikes are already sold by shops at a very low profit margin, sales are not frequent and when they happen, they are usually only offered on models that shops need to clear out of the shop. If the model doesn't happen to fit you (either in terms of style, size, or look) you'll be out of luck anyway.

2. What about used bikes? Like on CraigsList.
I know this can be tempting. I've bought a bike on CL myself. But only after watching it for 2 YEARS until the bike I wanted came around... The main reason I don't recommend buying a used bike is the LOVE thing. It's hard to find a bike that you'll feel passionate about that way. And depending on the condition, etc., it may not even be a bargain.

3. Can I buy a bike online?
It is possible, though most brands sell only through authorized dealers/shops. There are business reasons for this, of course, but also a customer-service reason. See above all that stuff about riding a bike first and fitting, etc. Hard to do that online. So...I don't recommend online purchases for a first (or first in a long time) bike purchase. It's just too hard to get everything right. another one? fire away!  use the comments or tweet @billhd

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Riding a Bike: Why It Doesn't Get Old

Unlike my "it's complicated" relationship with running, I love cycling. And while I'm mostly a road cyclist, I enjoy all forms of riding a bike. Commuting to work, cruising on fat tires on a bike path, plowing along a gravel road or trail. I don't have much experience on singletrack or trails, generally, but I'm pretty sure I'd like that too.

Now, compared to running, there is really no contest. Riding is way better. And I don't want to make this all too complicated. So here's my simple test: is it enjoyable while I am actually doing it? Bike: yes! Run: not really.

But just in case you need a nudge, here's a list of things that, for me, never get old about riding a bike:
  1. Speed. It is fun to go fast. Feeling the wind in your face. You can go fast on a bike. Even if you aren't some kind of hard core racer, you can  still go fast downhill. It makes grownups smile just like kids every time.
  2. Getting to know the land. You really learn a lot about the roads and the terrain, the sights and the natural features, and yes the traffic and the people who live near you when you ride a lot. Every bump and pothole, every stretch of silky new tarmac, every wooded glade with a country lane winding through it become part of your consciousness, on a bike, in ways that they never do in a car. It's possible to get to know places this way on foot too, but you just can't cover anything like the same amount of area that way.
  3. People who ride bikes are pretty great people. The bike tends to create experiences that challenge riders, and for those that have shared the challenges, there is a bond. This bond makes us want to help each other - we've been there or, maybe, we'll one day be there - and, beyond the karma of paying one forward, we likely have a reason to pay one back. 
  4.  Riding is an activity where you can actually talk - we aren't hammering all the time - and get to know each other. 
  5. Riding with others builds trust. When you are riding close together in a group, it benefits everyone to get to know the others nearby. Not just names (or sometimes not even names) but habits, strengths, experience. It helps keep everybody safer when we are all able to trust the wheel ahead, especially when we are zipping along at 25mph.
  6. Recovery from a bike ride is easier. Easier than running, easier than most other hard workouts. I can almost always ride again the following day even after a long or hard ride. This means I can ride more often too. And get more out of each ride if I have some kind of health or fitness goals that I am working on.
  7. The bike will take whatever you give it. Some days, you can give it all and the bike will happily oblige, letting you empty the tank only to wobble home cross-eyed in desperate need of rest and calories. But the bike is also happy to spin along at 10 miles an hour while you laugh with your kids. 
  8. Bikes fix what is wrong with you. Emotionally and physically, there are few problems that a bike can't help with at least a little bit. Only if you ride them, though. I've seen them transform lives - mine included - and make a bad day into a good one countless times.
The other day, I was talking with a friend of mine bitten by the bike bug last year. He's in deep now. I was mentioning that I don't try to evangelize bikes, nor do I think of my own affinity as something like a religious conversion. But he convinced me that despite that, I did manage to spread the good word whether I meant to or not. By example, sometimes. And by recommendation (if not admonition) at others. I concede the point. But you needn't convert or do what I do or what he does. There are lots of ways to ride a bike and to experience all the things I listed here. Nobody even has to know.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Running, at 44: Why?

Last week I turned forty four. Today I ran five miles. And as one does when on a training run, I did some thinking about running. So here's my version of the listicle genre, all about why I'm still running thirty years after I first started.

1. I like to be able to run. And I like to have run. 
Even though I don't like running much anymore, really. Two out of three are enough to keep me going. The first sentiment is about being in good health and feeling like I can still do something that I used to do when I was young. The second thing is about feeling accomplished and feeling tired in a good way - something that solves another problem lots of people have but which I am blissfully free of: sleep issues. Plus, you never know...

2. I am an athlete. And running is a core ability for athletes.
There is an identity thing going on with me and running, even though I'm not a straightforward "runner." I once was that. Today I ride bicycles more than I run, but I still like to think of and conduct myself as an athlete. I like to train and prepare for things, even if I don't compete all that often. And running is important to lots of other sports, of course, so it's useful on the rare occasions where I do one of those.

3. When I do compete, I like to do well.
I still enter a race every now and then. At least two a year for the last several years, and sometimes a few more. And while I haven't gotten faster as I've gotten older, I have gotten relatively faster compared to the others my age. Most of that is due to the fact that fewer people my age run at all, and those that do enter races likely don't train. I do not do much running-specific training, but I ride a lot and that has been enough to keep me competitive in my age group.

4. I like to suffer.
Yeah, I know, it sounds sick to say it. But the truth is you can get to a place where you enjoy going to a place that most people avoid when it comes to engaging in intense physical activity. A lot of that is the thrill of exploring your own limits, mentally and physically. And some of it is being out of your head and in your body in a truly physical way. The ability to push hard and then a little harder is something you strive for, and the discomfort (not really pain) is feedback. How hard can I go? Can I do a little more? It is hard to beat running for a pure physical test of your ability to go and keep going. It is so simple that it takes very little skill to get to your limit. And with no mechanical advantage, just you and the road, it's go or no go.

5. A good workout doesn't take long, is portable, and is really effective. 
If I have the shoes and proper clothes, a run is something I can do just about anywhere I go. And unlike a bike ride, I can squeeze one into a half hour and feel like I've got a thorough workout in for the day. 

So there are five reasons I'm still running after all these years. I go a little slower than I used to, but I don't really miss the speed relative to the clock like you might guess. I don't suffer any less for going slower, and as I said in #3 above, I actually do a little better in races these days so I don't care about the time so much. I do miss being able to recover from running fast - like the next day - as I used to when I was young. And I miss the ability to thermoregulate so effectively so that it isn't quite so tough on a hot day. But I imagine that despite these things, I'll still be running in another thirty years if I'm able to. The age groups are really thinned out in the 70+ category!