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).
...build 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.
...buy 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.
...buy 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.
...buy 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!
...be 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.
...discount 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): FAQ1. 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.
...got another one? fire away! use the comments or tweet @billhd