How to buy the right bike for you
Because it's unsafe not to socially distance when you're getting around on two wheels
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Call it a return to a bygone era or a fad brought on by COVID social distancing recommendations, but the classic two-wheel bicycle—along with roller skates, inflatable pools, and sprinklers—is trending in a big way.
There are many reasons to get into biking now: Maybe you’re trying to avoid public transportation, maybe you want a new way to exercise, or maybe you simply want to zip around in the sunshine this summer. But if it’s been a while since you tooled around on two wheels—or the last time you hopped on a bike, it was a stationary one of the Peloton variety—here’s what you need to know about shopping for your new (or new-to-you) ride.
What kind of bike should you get?
A quick online search for “what bike should I buy” will show you that there are a lot of options to choose from, among four main types:
- Road bikes or lightweight bikes with dropped handles and narrow tires that are aerodynamically designed for riding long distances at fast speeds over pavement
- Mountain bikes, which have heavy, sturdy frames, wide, treaded tires, and shock-absorbing suspension features like springs that are best for technical trail riding
- Hybrid bikes, which blend the features of a road and mountain bike by having upright handlebars (like a mountain bike) and middle-width, lightly-treaded tires that perform on pavement and well-traveled trails
- Electric bikes, which can be any style of bike that has a battery-powered motor to assist the rider up hills or for bursts of speed, like when starting from a stop
Before you opt for one, it’s important to consider what you’re going to use the bike for—the bike you buy should fit your needs, not the other way around.
A good bike for most biking newbies is a hybrid, according to Joe Goodwill, who runs the biking blog Average Joe Cyclist. Road bikes are speedy but don’t absorb much shock and the leaned-forward riding position takes some getting used to. And mountain bikes, with their upright seating position, are comfortable to ride but can be quite heavy, with tires that aren’t well-suited for rolling along pavement. A hybrid is a nice compromise, sacrificing some speed in favor of an upright perch and wider (read: slower) tires that are less prone to flats, but trimming down the heft of a heavy-duty mountain bike frame. E-bikes may be a good option, too, especially for riders who aren’t crazy about the idea of pedaling up a steep hill on their own, but they are expensive and require more maintenance, starting with remembering to charge the batteries.
“[A hybrid bike] has efficiency but more of a capability to absorb those shocks from the road and thus less pressure on your arms, shoulders, and hips,” says Goodwill. Some hybrid bikes have springs in the saddle and other forms of suspension, which will add a bit to their weight but can make riding over bumps, potholes, and gravel feel smoother. But comfort is essential when you’re first starting out on the bike. “If you have a lot of aches and pains after riding, that could put you off forever,” says Goodwill. “ So the hybrid is probably best for a beginner.”
Where should you get your bike?
The best place to buy a bike is in person at your local bike shop or a sporting goods store with a dedicated biking section, like REI. (You can find a local shop by doing a quick map search, or by using the store locator function on a reputable bicycle brand’s site.) Like (almost) anything else, you can buy bikes online, but getting one in person helps ensure it’s the right size for you (frames come in different sizes for different-height humans), does what you want it to, and minimizes the assembly you have to do on your own. “If you can, I always recommend going to a bike store,” says Goodwill. “They’ll give you a proper fitting, make sure you get a bike that’s right for your lifestyle, and talk you through the options.”
This costs money—you can expect bikes in a shop to start at around $400 and get into the thousands-of-dollars range. But bikes are most definitely a category where you get what you pay for—and while a cheapie from a big box store may be appealing for the budget, it isn’t going to be reliable long term, as those cheap components that keep the price down are prone to wearing out or breaking much faster than quality ones from reputable brands. This is a nuisance at best and could be a safety risk at worst.
Still, you don’t need to spend the peak price at a specialty shop to get a decent bike. “I would never tell anyone who says ‘I think I want to start biking’ that they should go and buy that $1,500 Trek,” says Goodwill. “Get the cheaper bike that’s still from a good brand, and you’ll be fine. The ones that come to mind are Trek, Specialized, and Giant, but pretty much all of them have a good entry-level.”
Goodwill says to go to the shop with a good idea of how you plan to use the bike—for recreation, for commuting, for racing, for off-roading. Also ask if it needs to be modified in any way to suit your needs (such as adding a kickstand, a back rack, or a water bottle cage) or your body proportions (perhaps you’ll need a longer or shorter handlebar or a different seat shape or cushioning level). “Try and get everything done at the same time,” he says. “Almost every bike shop will professionally fit [and install] everything for you for free because you’re buying more than one item. If you buy [accessories] later, you may have to pay for installation as well.”
What if you can’t go to a store?
Getting the in-person shopping experience depends on these shops being open—and actually having bikes in stock. The increased demand for bikes means they are sold out or backordered at most online retailers. Access to shops varies by state—a quick search of the bike shops in my Northern Virginia area showed that most are open under limited hours with test rides available by appointment only—and your comfort level with going shopping in the first place.
If you’re not sure you want to venture out to a store, call your local shop and see if you can get a virtual appointment. It won’t replace a real-life fitting, but they may still be able to talk you through the options and bike availability in real-time.
Because new bikes are in short supply, you may try your luck finding a used bike on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or eBay. Before you buy the bike, cross-reference its brand, model, and year with online reviews to make sure it’s something you think you want. If you’re buying in person, let the seller know that you want to check it out and take a ride before paying for it. (And, of course, take all the recommended precautions when buying something from a stranger online, like meeting in a public place and taking someone with you when you go and the recommended precautions of interacting with people in the age of COVID, like wearing a face mask and staying six feet apart.) If you buy a used bike on eBay, make sure it’s from a reputable seller that offers free returns. When considering any used bike purchase, ask when the bike was bought new, how many owners it has had, and how it’s been used or treated since including where it’s been stored, and what, if any, components have been replaced (and when).
How can you determine if a bike is the right size for you?
If you prefer to buy a used bike or order a new one online—and don’t mind doing some self-assembly and waiting a few weeks for it to arrive—you need to make sure it is the correct size for your body. “Having a properly-fitting bike is important for preventing neck pain and back pain after riding, so it’s another important thing to pay attention to if you want to ride long-term,” says Goodwill.
The size you need varies based on the kind bike you get, and most brands and retailers will have a size guide on their sites. To use the size guide, you’ll need to know your height and inseam measurements. (Your inseam is the interior length of pants measured from the crotch to the end of the pant leg—you can use a measuring tape on a pair of well-fitting pants to figure it out.) The inseam length helps determine the standover height, which is the distance between your crotch and the bike’s top bar when you stand over it. It should be about two to four inches, though the brand may specify a slightly different number.
When you get the bike, you'll probably need to adjust your seat, which you can do using a lever located somewhere behind the seat. Your ideal seat height should allow your leg to extend almost its full length—about 80 or 90 percent of it, according to REI’s size guide—at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Another factor is your hand position as it relates to your arm length, which also differs based on the kind of bike you get. But in most cases, you’ll want to ensure a slight bend in the elbows to allow your arms to absorb shock. According to REI's size guide, it should feel like you can “comfortably play piano keys” when you’re in the riding position—though, again, you’ll want to check with the bike’s manufacturer for more exact instructions and measurements.
What bike accessories do you need for a safe, comfortable ride?
Last but not least: accessories, which help keep riding safe, comfortable, and fun. The most vital one is a helmet to protect you from head injuries in the event of a fall. You can buy one from a bike shop or online, but a helmet is one item you should avoid buying used. An older helmet may not be approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to the latest standards, and even if it is, it may not show damage from a previous impact, even the most minor of hits can make the helmet less effective, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute When you buy a helmet, look for one with vents to keep your head cool, a visor to guard your eyes from the sun, and a clear size guide to ensure proper fit.
You may also want to get a bike bell to alert car traffic on the road or passerby on a trail of your presence, a bike lock if you’re planning on riding the bike places and leaving it temporarily outside, and bike lights to illuminate your way and ensure drivers see you if you’re riding at night.
Clothing-wise, you may want to invest in a few biking jerseys, which have handy pockets around the back to hold snacks and other gear, and padded shorts or shorts liners (that you wear under other pants), which protect your delicate bits from pressure and chafing. “Your shorts are probably the most important thing,” says Goodwill. “They should be comfortable, they should fit you well so they don’t move around and cause friction. You could get saddle sores otherwise, especially if you’re riding long distances.” Everything you wear should be lightweight and breathable so you stay cool(ish) during your rides.
One thing you probably don’t need are specially designed bike shoes—the kind that attach to the pedals and keep the feet rigid for better efficiency. These aren't needed on a hybrid bike for those planning to do recreational riding. If you decide you want to do longer-distance riding or racing, you may upgrade your whole situation, but for now, regular sneakers and pedals are fine.
This may seem like a lot—but as any casual-to-ardent cyclist will tell you, it’s all a part of making biking a seamless part of your life. “The way people start biking a lot is by fitting it into their lifestyle,” Goodwill says. “This is easier with good accessories.”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.