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1951 Western Flyer ad
Bike shopping was fun — even in 1951
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How to Buy a Bike (1)
Road racers. Loaded tourers. Recumbents. Hardtails. Dualies. Hybrids. Cyclocross bikes. Sport tourers. Commuters. Cruisers. Comfort bikes. Tandems. These are just the more common bicycle types available today. There are also folders, singlespeeds, freeriders, downhillers, jumping bikes, track machines, travel bikes and more. With such a dizzying array to choose from, it’s a small miracle any new buyer wondering how to buy a bicycle leaves a shop with the right model. Sadly, it’s common for people to buy the wrong bike, such as getting a model built for abusive off-road use, when the MTB will be ridden primarily on pavement.

To prevent such mistakes, if you’re in the market for a new bike, especially if it’s the first new machine in a while, start the shopping process by answering the key questions that follow. When you’re sure about these things, you’ll stand the best chance of leaving the shop with a bicycle you’ll love and not outgrow too quickly.

After you’ve nailed these questions, check my chart which explains the five basic bike types to help decide which is most suited to you and your riding plans.

Why do you want a new bike?
Plenty of people buy the wrong bike because they only know they want one. For example, maybe your friend bought a bike so you want one just like it. That’s okay — if you plan to ride just like your friend. It’d be better to list what you want out of the purchase. Is it riding for fitness? Is it for pedaling around town? For off-road excursions? For travel? To take up bike racing? To commute? Write down as many reasons as you can come up with and think carefully about which ones are realistic.

What kind of person are you?
Some types want the best of everything; others are frugal and consider affordability first. A serious athlete will have different goals than someone mostly interested in recreation. Tech heads prefer the latest and most advanced engineering in frames and components. Many cyclists want a unique machine that sets them apart from the masses. One way to determine where you fit is by thinking about other big purchases you made recently and the decisions you made in the process. The better you know yourself, the easier it’ll be to get a bike you’re happy with.

What kind of riding do you want to do?We always stop for ice cream
Before answering, consider what type of riding is available in your area. For example, it might be questionable to purchase a downhill racing mountain bike if you live in Flatsville, Wisconsin (where I took this photo). And, if you’re in Vertical, Vermont and plan to pedal over hill and dale you probably don’t want a one-speed model. So think about where you’ll bike.

If you’re not sure because you’re new to cycling or the area, visit a local bicycle shop and ask the riders there where the great cycling is to help decide which model will be the most fun for you. And keep in mind, that if you like variety, the answer may be two bikes, one for road use and the other for off road use.

How much do you want to spend?
Hit the shops with a good idea of what you’d be comfortable spending. Every bike type is available in a wide range of prices based on the frame material, the design and the components it’s equipped with. If you can determine your price comfort level, the dealer can steer you toward bikes of the type you like in that general range and it’ll save searching the aisles. It’s worth looking at slightly more expensive models to get a feel for what a little extra cash buys. Often, for 15% more money, you can get parts that would cost much more to purchase individually. If you’ve got the bucks it might make sense to get the better bike. But keep in mind also that there are essential accessories such as a helmet and flat-tire repair kit that you may need and that these will add to the total cost of the bike.

Bicycle Types

Type Description Pros Cons Ideal Use
Road racer Traditional lightweight bike with skinny tires, dropped handlebars. Made to be as efficient as possible for speed, quick handling and high-performance climbing, descending and sprinting. A scream to ride fast. Most efficient all-around performance. Excellent for racing and training. Ultralight for easy climbing. Stiff frame excellent for sprinting, climbing and jamming. Quick handling. Gorgeous to behold — a study in minimalism. Ride can be harsh. Flat tires are common (though it depends a lot on equipment, how and where you ride and how much you weigh). Position is often low and best suited to a very flexible person. If you're scared of speed, the ride may be more excitement than you like. May not accept fenders. Training and racing on the road or century riding. Also can be used for credit-card touring (carrying minimal gear and staying in hotels).
Road sport Almost identical to the road racer in appearance, this bike usually sports a slightly more comfortable and slower-handling frame. The gearing is usually a little lower to help in the hills. It’s possible to easily install a rack and accessories such as fenders; not always the case on a true racing bike. Longer wheelbase absorbs road shock for more comfort than the racing bike. Low gears mean less effort on the hills. Easier to carry bags and accessories. Often comes with more padded seat and less extreme rider position, which also increases comfort. More stable on descents. Slightly heavier. Climbs and handles more slowly than the road racer. Fitness rides, centuries, commuting, distance touring.
Mountain bike
(within this category, there are full-suspension, dirt jumper, all-mountain/freeride, downhill and hardtails (bikes with suspension forks).
Designed like a Jeep for excellent performance on rugged terrain. Equipped with a reliable sturdy frame, tough wheels with knobby tires, upright handlebars, powerful brakes and a dependable drivetrain with super low gearing. Available with and without suspension though the former is most popular today. Escape traffic! Bulletproof design means excellent durability (provided you don't abuse the bike). Greatly reduced chance of flat tires and bent rims. Incredible braking power. Very comfortable due to wide tires and upright seating position. Total blast to ride off-road. Can be ridden on the road but isn’t efficient for long distances without changing equipment. Hot property for thieves. You may be tempted to take dangerous chances and crash a lot more than you would on any other bike type. Trail riding for fun, fitness and racing. And around-town use if you’re not going far and aren’t in a hurry (just bring a lock!).
(within this category, there are town/urban/commuter/city bikes and comfort bikes).
A bike designed primarily for road use but capable of fireroad riding as well. A sturdy frame of mountain-bike pedigree equipped with wheels and tires made for road use and upright (sometimes backswept) handlebars. Sometimes equipped with suspension seatpost and stem to absorb road shock. Comfortable rider position especially when equipped with shocks to absorb bumps. More resistant to flats than road racers or road sport bikes. Lighter than a mountain bike. Easy to carry stuff and mount accessories. Not great on the road or off the road. Not as fast or efficient as a road racer or road sport, so not ideal for distance riding, though better suited for it than an MTB. Fitness riding on and off road, running errands and commuting. Okay for touring though upright position not the most efficient.
Recumbent A long and low road bike designed around an ergonomic seating position where the rider sits in lawn-chair–like comfort and pushes pedals located ahead of his body. Available with and without suspension. No butt, neck, back, hand, shoulder or arm pain! The most comfortable rider position of all bikes. Some are much faster downhill and on the flats than other road bikes. Due to a long wheelbase, can have very wide gear range meaning excellent lows for climbing hills. Gets noticed everywhere you go. Takes time to develop the muscles to ride a recumbent with complete comfort (only if you’re used to upright bikes). Most are slower on climbs. You get noticed everywhere you go. Fitness riding, centuries, touring, training and racing in recumbent races.

Go on to part 2


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