Buying a bike is a lot like buying a pair of jeans: When you find a pair that fits, you know even before seeing your reflection that they look awesome. The Baron was the fourth of five bikes I tried that day, and the minute I started pedaling, I knew he was it.
The only way to find a good pair of jeans is to try them on for size, and the same goes for bikes. But walking into a cycling store can be a little intimidating if you are new to the sport, as evidenced by the numerous guides on how to purchase a bike available online. But if you’re like me, detailed research can sometimes feel overwhelming; my take on this seemingly perennial topic comes from the perspective of remembering what it was like to be wandering the stores as a beginner.
Road Bike or Hybrid?
The most common types of bikes on the market are road bikes, hybrids, and mountain bikes. In the interest of full disclosure The Baron converted me into a lover of road bikes, so my advice below is most definitely biased. I also have zero experience with mountain bikes, so will focus on some of the differences between road bikes and hybrids; If you’re interested in a mountain bike, REI has some decent tips.
That said, here’s my take on the Road versus Hybrid debate:
A lot of people go for hybrids because, as I once did, people think: 1) they’re cheaper, 2) that road bikes require you to stay on streets and pavement and 3) the dropped handlebars look intimidating, and can be uncomfortable. Here’s what I’ve learned:
While hybrids are generally cheaper, they are generally significantly heavier and use lower-end components (more on components later) than road bikes. The extra money you put towards a road bike is ultimately saving on weight and ease of shifting, both of which are very important towards keeping your ride comfortable for longer distances. Some argue (like I did) that the extra weight will matter less when they’re in better shape, and/or can’t conceive of themselves ever wanting to go for longer than a few miles at a time. But the fact is, the easier your bike is to use, the more likely it will be that you will use it, and perhaps even surprise yourself with how far you actually enjoy going.
Pavement versus Trails
Road bikes were designed for the road, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay there. In the DC area you literally have 100s of miles of trails – the Arlington loop, the W&OD, Mt. Vernon Trail, Rock Creek Park, etc. – that have paved paths. Even unpaved dirt and crushed gravel trails like the Capital Crescent are perfectly fine for a road bike. The only trail that is not entirely accessible for a road bike is the C&O to Great Falls due to the loose gravel – but if you decide you want to ride that trail, a simple tire swap will allow you to do so. My Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires have allowed me to take my road bike on that trail all the way to West Virginia with no issue.
Dropped Handlebar Angst
If your bike is sized correctly, most discomfort from the dropped handlebars should dissipate within the first few rides. And even if you use drop bars, you don’t have to be fully dropped a-la Tour de France. I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve used the fully dropped position, and The Baron and I have biked over 3000 miles together. If pre-existing back or arm issues make the drop-style positioning difficult, you can always opt for a flat-bar road bike, or talk to a shop about swapping out your handlebars for a straight bar. This will allow you to access the benefits of a road bike while also being kind to your posture.
Hopefully, I’ve been able to make road bikes sound more appealing… But now we need to move onto how to find YOUR bike.
Finding Your Bike
Different bike stores cater to different types of customers. In the DC area, Spokes etc., Revolution Cycles, and FreshBikes target competitive (and competitive-hopeful) cyclists in addition to beginners, so you can expect their general stock to focus more on higher end bikes. Meanwhile, shops like REI and Performance Bicycle generally cater to more casual cyclists and have a larger stock of mid-range models. I recommend checking out at least one store in each range, to get a feel for the models and prices that are available. Small, independent bike shops can also be a great resource, but can also vary widely in terms of their staff knowledge, so it’s a good idea to run through the script at some of the larger stores first.
At the store, talk to a salesperson to find your size. This will take approximately three minutes per visit, but it is an important three minutes to take. Bike sizes generally run in centimeters for road bikes, and inches for hybrids and mountain bikes. A properly sized bike will provide both improved comfort and pedaling efficiency – again, making the bike easier to use. Once you know your size, you should also try out a different couple brands, as each company has slightly different geometry that will fit a little differently based on body size (e.g. long torso versus long legs). Note that getting sized is different than getting a bike fitted, which is a much more in-depth process sought by more competitive cyclists.
In addition to paying attention to which brands feel best, you should also pay attention to the component groupset on your bike. This is one of the more confusing parts about buying an adult bike, but it’s fairly important in terms of finding a high quality, high comfort ride you will enjoy for the longer term. Component groupsets are the mechanical parts that make the bike move – brakes and gears, cranks, and derailleurs. Entry-level groupsets generally have a lower number of gears and rougher shifting feel, while the higher end groupsets boast things like electronic shifting, which won’t likely make a difference unless you’re attempting to shave seconds off your time trial. Although it’s technically possible to upgrade groupsets, they generally cost several hundred dollars on their own, so you’ll want to make sure you have a groupset you can “grow into”. Shimano 105s are well-known for being a high-quality, versatile, and relatively affordable set, and I’d recommend trying a bike with that specific groupset out first, so you can feel the difference with other brands and levels. If presented with a different brand for your components, ask sales rep how they compare to 105s.
Once you know your size, preferred brands, and general groupset quality you’re interested in, you’re ready to buy your bike! I purchased The Baron directly from Spokes the day I walked in, so I can’t fully advise on how to buy a used bike, but to purchase used bikes you have a couple options:
- Contact local, independently owned bike stores and co-ops to see if they carry used bikes.
- Check out craigslist and eBay to see if a bike in your size/brand/groupset pops up. As with any person-to-person transaction, be wary of scams, or unwittingly purchasing a stolen bike.
- Find Bike Rental and Tourism companies that carry your preferred brand to see if they are unloading their stock at the end of the season.
- Contact some local cycling groups to see if anyone knows of a bike they’d like to sell, or if they know of any regional meets like the East Coast Bike Swap.
The tradeoff between used versus new is ultimately going to be time versus price. If it’s the end of the season, and your region experiences winter weather that’s not entirely friendly to cyclists, you can score some pretty good deals while biding your time for your preferred bike setup to show up in any of the above channels. If it’s primo riding weather, you may want to just pull the trigger on a new bike and get to riding.
Cycling Accessories: The Basics
In addition to the bike, there are a few more things you will need to pick up before wheeling your bike out of the door and onto the trails. These items are all available at your standard issue bike shop, but if you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, you can get all these things (and likely have a wider selection to choose from) online:
Given that helmets have to meet specific standards of head-protection to be sold in a cycling or sporting goods store, your noggin will be comparatively protected no matter which brand you purchase, or how much you spend. You’ll want to focus on size (it needs to fit), weight (lighter the better), and ventilation (more airflow, the better). Like the high-end component groupsets, the nuanced benefits provided by the professional grade helmets will only really be identifiable by professional grade riders. The rest of us mortals can likely yoink any helmet off the shelf and be perfectly happy with it. My only regret with my $30 helmet is that its colors clash with The Baron, but it’s a cross I’ll bear.
Seat Bag and Tools
As much as I’d like to say that nothing ever goes wrong while cycling, sometimes things do go awry; More often than not, those things are flats. You will need a small tool bag to help you repair a flat and make with minor adjustments to your bike as necessary. There are a number of cycling tool bag styles, and I’ve tried several of them; I personally prefer seat bags, as they offer enough carrying capacity for all the items you need while not interfering with your movement or cluttering up your frame. With any luck, you will use them infrequently, so there is no need to clutter up your rack with these items. Within your bag you should have the following:
- A multitool, for minor adjustments to your seat/handlebars/brakes
- Tire levers, to get your tire on and off your wheel in the event of a flat
- An extra tube in the event that the damage to your tube can’t be repaired in the moment.
- A patch kit, in case you’re having a thoroughly terrible day and manage to get a second flat after swapping out your tube.
- I also like to carry a sunscreen stick and SPF Lip Balm in the toolkit as well. There little worse than feeling your lips get progressively wind burned over the course of a ride.
- Some people carry mini first aid kits and the like, but given that I don’t use them off-bike, carrying them around for bike rides seems silly.
You will need two mechanisms for getting air into your tires: a floor pump to inflate your tires prior to leaving your house, and a portable pump to inflate your tubes if you get a flat. Floor pumps are generally straight forward, and you just need to make sure you have the appropriate adapter for your tube valve (most road bikes use presta valves). Road bikes require surprisingly high pressure to be considered inflated. Ask your salesperson to show you where to read the tire pressure on your tires, and how to read that on the pump’s pressure gauge while you’re pumping the tires.
Portable pumps offer you the insurance of being able to get home with your bike in the event that you get a flat. Most people purchase hand pumps for use in this scenario, but I don’t recommend them for road bikes. As I mentioned earlier, road bikes require a lot of air pressure – generally in the neighborhood of 80 – 125 psi for the tire to be considered road worthy. PSI stands for pounds per square inch – which means that at the upper limit of a tire being inflated, you need to be pressing about 80 lbs. of pressure into your almost inflated tire, with a rinky dink hand pump. Good luck with that.
Instead, I recommend getting a CO2 Inflator and cartridges. As long as you get an inflator with a valve stop (versus the cheaper ones that force you to use or lose an entire cartridge), they’re smaller than a hand pump, will fit in your toolkit, and will let you save the energy of 20 minutes of futile pumping for the bedroom. Whoops, did I say that? Just checking to see if you’re still paying attention.
Get a U-Lock, and learn to lock your bike through its frame. It’s hands down the best way to make sure your bike is still there when you return to the stand. Just remember to take all your other accessories with you, especially your…
When purchasing lights, the important thing to remember is most lights are designed to ensure a cyclist is seen by others, versus providing enough light for navigation. I initially got the Cygolite Metro 400 Hot Shot USB Combo Light when I purchased my bike, and it served me well for my first year of cycling, where I generally stuck to relatively well-lit, urban and suburban roads, and biking at dusk and early evening.
But as I branched out into longer, later rides, I found the set did not offer enough illumination to see my way in the dark. If you anticipate riding past sundown regularly, you’ll want something with a minimum of 750 Lumens; when time came for me to purchase my night riding set, I opted for the Vision II 860 Lumen USB Rechargeable Light.
I really like this particular headlight. It’s much brighter than my previous light, and provides ample visibility even when there are no streetlights. It also has the ability to provide diffused light with a shorter distance ahead or sharpen the light to provide light for further distance. This has been extremely helpful during group rides, as it allows me to shift the type of light that I can provide to complement the other lights that are available. It also comes with two batteries (so you can charge them both up and keep the second in your bike bag as backup) and two small tail lights. The tail lights are surprisingly visible for their size, which is small enough to easily tuck in your pocket when you lock your bike up. That said, they don’t have the most secure fastening system – I lost them both in under a year — so I’d recommend them more as a helmet light than a tail light.
These days, I use the Cyglolite tail light and the VisionII headlight as my standard light set, and it serves most of my riding purposes.
And that about wraps up what you need to grab relating to the bike. There is a whole other story about clothing that you should definitely take a look at (spoiler: spandex makes an appearance!), but this should be enough to make that walk into the bike store much less intimidating.
Welcome to the world of two wheels!