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How to: Buying a Bike
May 26, 2008 - 8:56pm — Don McManamy
Purchasing a bicycle these days can be quite a task, a daunting task. With so many manufacturers and styles to choose from, it can really make your head spin. I sell bikes at my part time job and see the bewilderment on people’s faces when they walk in and see our sales floor. The most asked question? “Hi, umm… can you help me?” People just don’t know where to start.
Scared? Well fear no more. Confused? Clear your mind. Getting angry? Well, just calm down. We are going to straighten it all out right now.
What kind of riding do you want to do? Why?
To get started, you need to ask yourself questions about the kind of riding you want to do. What made you want to buy a bike in the first place? Have you ever ridden before? What kind of riding did you do? Are you returning to cycling to compete, or did you just love to get around town? Do you want to ride with a group or alone? Do you like to travel long distance and bring a lot of gear or are you content to hit some trails after work or on the weekends? Maybe you are revolting against the high price of gas?
The answer to these questions may be as simple as “I want a good workout” or “I just want to cruise around.” It’s your responsibility to have some inkling of what you want, both to yourself and the salesperson. It’s okay to not have an exact idea, really it is. Just be sure not to walk in completely clueless as to what kind of riding you want to do.
Now it’s time to give you an idea of the bikes on the market these days. This may seem like a lot of different choices, but this means there really is something for everyone.
The first is a road bike. Theses bikes have the typical ram’s horn handle bars and thin tires. There are generally two kinds of road bikes, touring and racing. Touring bikes have a more relaxed geometry allowing a more comfortable upright riding position as well as a third small front chain providing extra low gears. This eases pedaling effort when going uphill. A racing bike has a more aggressive geometry that forces the riders back to be more parallel with the road for aerodynamics.
Next we have mountain bikes. These have large knobby tires and generally come in either full suspension (meaning they have both front and rear shocks) or hardtail (just front shocks). Hardtail bikes are generally used for racing and are less expensive.
Full suspension bikes are often more expensive because of the extra time, materials and componentry involved. These full suspension bikes are divided into subgroups by the amount of travel they have. Travel is a term that describes how far a fork (the part that holds the front wheel on) will compress when in use.
The first mountain bike is a cross country model. They generally have about three inches of travel in both the front and the rear and are often the lightest of full suspension bikes.
Downhill bikes tend to have 7-10 inches of travel to accommodate the tremendous impact experienced by these riders as they descend. The increased travel leads to tougher climbing or uphill riding as does the extra weight these bikes possess.
Sitting in between is the all-mountain bike. These bikes possess travel in the 4 to 6 inch range. It’s good at a little bit of everything, and is probably the best choice for someone looking to try all aspects of mountain biking.
I would say the second most asked question we hear is, "now this is a hybrid right?” This is usually uttered as customers stand among the bikes, pointing at a machine apparently built at cross purposes.
The term “hybrid” is over used. It simply encompasses too many types of bikes to be useful. That’s not to say it has no purpose in the cycling lexicon; it’s the similarity of that purpose to the term “shape” in the world of geometry. Squares, rectangles and octagons are all shapes. Flat bar bikes, cyclocross, commuters and comfort bikes are all hybrids. If you want to get technical, a mountain bike used to ride on the road is a hybrid.
The hybrids vary quite a bit. The original hybrid is the cyclocross bike. It looks much like a road bike mostly because of the typical “ram’s horn” handlebars. It differs as it has knobby thicker tires and altered geometry that gives the chain ring more clearance from the ground as well as a more upright riding position. This bike is used by road racers for a specific type of off-season, off-road racing. The characteristics of this bike make it a comfortable alternative to a road bike.
Comfort bikes tend to have larger tires and a ride that is much like a Harley Davidson. They have swooped back handlebars and large cushioned seats. Some have gears for easier riding and/or suspension to provide a very comfortable cycling. A well known comfort bike is a “beach cruiser”.
The last of the hybrids we’ll touch on are the flat bar bikes. These bikes look like a mountain bike with road bike tires. They are most often used to commute as they are fast and the handlebars provide the rider with an upright head position that allows good range of vision.
Some Thoughts on Bicycle Tires
As for tires, thin road bike tires require high pressures and offer less rolling and wind resistance. This makes them very fast on the road, but very unstable on loose dirt and trails. It also makes them less comfortable because they transfer the bumps in the road to the bike and rider.
Fatter mountain bike tires have less tire pressure therefore more wind and rolling resistance. These traits allow them to absorb bumps in trails and offer stability in rougher situations. It also makes them extremely slow on the road causing the rider to work harder just to go slower.
Entry level price ranges vary from bike to bike. A good road bike is about $600 – $1000. Mountain bikes are about $500-$800. Cyclocrosses come in at about $1000, flat bars at about $500 and most comforts around $300. These prices are affected greatly by the “componentry” used on the bikes. Componentry refers to the brakes, shifters, cranks and gears. Essentially it’s everything that isn’t the frame and front forks.
Be wary of people that try to sell you a bike for more than these prices if you tell them you are a beginner with a beginner’s budget.
Generally speaking the cheapest thing you’ll find in a bike shop is about 300 hundred bucks.
If this sounds expensive to you, consider that the bikes are usually better quality then you would find in a department store. Shops will assemble and fit your bike for you as well as offer a free tune-up. Some shops offer a year’s worth of tune ups in the sales package. In contrast, most department stores will send you on your way with a smile and little else.
Working with a Bike Shop
Since we have gotten you up to speed it’s onto the retailer’s responsibilities. When you walk in to a shop you should see a varied display of bikes representing a fairly wide range of price points. There should be at least one bike for everybody, it might not be on the floor, but they should be able to get their hands on it. You should also check to see if there is an operational repair shop.
When you walk into a shop and ask for help, your experience should be like that of a road cyclist who has just come out to his first club ride. You are there to draft and learn how things work.
The shop’s sales team should do a lot of the labor for you by asking good questions, i.e. letting you draft off them. This is your chance to be completely honest and get the best bike for the buck. Think hard about what you’re asked and answer the best you can. A proper sales team will sell you the sport, not just the bike.
Keep in mind that you are on a team now. It’s the sales guys and the mechanics and you trying to get you where you need to be. Don’t be the one that asks questions and doesn’t listen to the answers.
I have witnessed sales people sell more than what is needed or just say “great, if there is something else just ask” and walk away as a reaction to difficult customers. I certainly wouldn’t take these approaches but I have seen it done. Why do sales people do this? To put it in cycling terms, it’s the idea of the pack.
In road bike riding the riders will draft off each other and therefore maintain pretty tremendous speeds by taking turns in the front, they’ll even shelter weaker riders by letting them take shorter turns or less turns at the front.
The idea is more people working together to make the going faster and easier. If a cyclist drops out of the pack to do it alone, his individual effort becomes much greater and the others must work harder to make up for his lost contribution. So stay with the sales team and listen to the answers you’ve asked for, it benefits everyone.
If you don’t get a good feeling, or feel like you’re being sold more than you need or are not getting answers to your reasonable questions you should probably go elsewhere.
Remember, it‘s all about finding a bike that meets your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they might be “stupid”. Good sales people want to help people, especially good customers, and have fun doing it. When you do a little homework you’ll find out that it is fun for you too.
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I’d also enjoy some feedback, questions and story ideas; covering topics by having a dialogue of sorts; hitting the points that will help you--the readers--the most. Email me.
About Don McManamy. Don is a sponsored cyclist who has been riding competitively for many years. He has a passion for the outdoors and fitness, and he’s always exploring new ways to have fun outside. He has traveled the world enjoying outdoor activities like surfing. Don is also a freelance copywriter, writing whitepapers and case studies as well as web site and advertising copy.