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How to buy a bike: A guide for the first-timers, second-go-rounds, and the bike-curious at all levels
In the Twin Cities, there are three types of two-wheeled travelers: There are the competitive cyclists, who wear spandex and sniff at a 20-mile ride as “a good start.” There are the bike enthusiasts, who might commute to work or school by bike (even in the winter), who integrate cycling into every aspect of their lives and talk a lot about “bike culture.” And then there’s everybody else—people who ride bikes, who enjoy the thrill of getting around without a car, who don’t list “bicycling” under a list of hobbies but love a spin around the lakes in the summer and maybe even know how to change a tire.
We probably don’t have any advice for those in the first two categories, and they probably don’t need it. But we do know something about people who ride bikes casually—and, more importantly, people who aspire to.
Biking is cool for all the right reasons: it’s simultaneously functional and fashionable, and everyone looks good on a bicycle. Is there a better way to exercise and save the earth at the same time? That sounds a little vapid, but the the pleasure of biking lies in its simplicity: Your body’s kinetic energy transformed to locomotion by an elegant machine engineered with minimal complexity. Bicyclists feel a fundamental connection to their vehicle that motorists and public-transit passengers don’t—which sounds a bit supercilious, until you get on a bike and experience it. And, really, what’s stopping you?
The world of people who ride bikes can be a little intimidating. Everyone on a bike already looks like she knows exactly what she is doing, and if you haven’t sat your butt on a cycle since you got your driver’s license, a glance at Midtown Greenway can be daunting. If you’re not immersed in the world of bikers and cyclists on a daily basis, a trip to a bike shop can seem a bit like you just arrived at the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally in a Volkswagen Beetle.
But the truly fantastic thing about bike culture is that it’s extraordinarily inclusive: everyone who rides a bike wants you to ride a bike, too. Some cyclists may not be able to express this to you in the most articulate fashion, and some may even seem like jerks about it, but 99 percent of bike people want to convert you to a regular bike rider, whether or not you aspire to the highest echelon of riders, whatever that is. If you ride a bike at all, for recreation or transportation, you’re part of the culture. And with enough people riding, bike culture will move from the fringe to the mainstream, and just become culture.
So: let’s get you on a bike! There’s no shortage of resources for those looking to purchase a bike, and the options can be pretty daunting. Twin Cities Runoff is here to break it down for the first- or second- or third-time bike buyer.
“I Can See Myself on That One”: Getting Basically Familiar with Bikes
Chances are you have at least one friend who knows something about bikes. Talk to him or her. Ask what works and what doesn’t. Look at bikes online. You’ll figure out that you probably already have opinions—what bikes look cool, what features you might want, or even just your color preference. There are plenty of local online communities like Minneapolis Bike Love and Cycling Twin Cities where riders from all levels of experience ask questions and share their knowledge. Search the forums, or write a new post explaining what you need from a bike and what your budget is; it’s worth the minor nuisance of creating a new account. Sit back and watch the hive mind of bike geeks rush to your aid.
Go to some bike shops. Look at some bikes. Talk to a couple of different people who work at the shop. If you’re so inclined, take a few bikes for test rides. Try not to worry about looking stupid or being embarrassed; remember that there’s probably no question so naive that a veteran bike shop employee hasn’t heard it before.
Learn what you like, so that when the clerk asks you, “Do you want a road bike?” you understand that generally means you’ll be riding a fast, lightweight bicycle with drop handlebars—but that at the same time you probably don’t need an $8000 titanium frame with $400 hubs designed by NASA. Many novices buy mountain bikes because they’re cheap and durable, but do you really need all-terrain tires and 21 speeds if you’re only going to be commuting along city streets and bike paths? There’s a reason the classic Schwinn 10-speed has stood the test of time with commuters and casual riders—it combines solid engineering and durability with ease of use in almost any context.
Consider test-riding bikes that are out of your price range. You can get a feel for what you are paying for and decide where it’s worthwhile to spend the extra cash. It’s fun to take out an expensive racing bike and see how effortlessly the gears shift, but in the process you might realize you don’t need to pay an extra grand for that.
The Right Feel
Photo by Jake Mohan
Ultimately, whatever bike you’re comfortable on is the right bike for you. You might instinctively know as soon as you take it for a test ride: Don’t feel like you have to “grow into” a bike or force yourself to be comfortable with a certain kind of bike. With so many options out there, you needn’t waste your time with bikes that feel wrong.
The first and most important step in bike shopping is finding the proper size. A knowledgeable bike shop employee will have you stand over the bike in various positions to determine the exact size you need. If your bike’s frame is too big or too small, even by a few centimeters, it can make for a very uncomfortable ride.
Technical specifications aside, you should like the look of your bike. Some might argue aesthetics should be the least of your concerns, but really, if you think your bike is ugly, you won’t want to ride it.
The Right Price
Don’t break the bank on your first bike. Even after some research, you probably aren’t quite sure what you want. Resist the urge to splurge on high-end bikes with tons of extra features before you’ve even gotten in the habit of regular riding.
Plenty of new bikes from reputed brands can be found for under $500. And most bike shops offer plenty of lightly used, well-maintained bikes. Some deals, however, are too good to be true: Beware of used bikes that cost under $100-150; they might need a lot of fixing up. Meanwhile, a brand-new bike that retails for less than $300-350 is probably not a reputable brand. (Again, these are generalizations—there is the occasional hidden gem.) If in doubt, have your bike-savvy buddy take a look at the bike and decide whether it’s worth the price, or suspiciously cheap.
A good time to shop for bikes is when winter is turning to spring—this is when a lot of shops hold sales to clear out the previous year’s stock and encourage more people to get on bikes.
The Right Shop
Big-box stores like Target and Walmart make a fortune selling cheap, shoddy bikes to unsuspecting customers. These bikes will work great … for about three months. Then they’ll start to fall apart and their owners might never buy another bike again, having decided that bikes are a waste of money. “Buying a bike from a big-box store will almost universally result in frustration,” says Mike Jones, a local writer and member of the Minneapolis Bike Love forum. “They are designed very poorly, and the cost of labor to fix them can exceed the value of the bike.” A sturdy, durable bike built to withstand years of use (and Minnesota’s extreme climates) is worth the extra money.
There’s no reason to waste your time at a big retailer like REI when the Twin Cities has a feast of independent bike shops, staffed by knowledgeable people who truly care about bikes and will take the time to help you find the right bike. “People do not open or work for bike shops to get rich,” says Jones. “They do it because they love bicycle culture and are all to happy to educate a new cyclist.” Jones adds that different shops cater to different clientele. For example, Flanders Brothers Cycles specializes in high-end racing bikes, while Sunrise Cyclery and Re-Cycle are ideal for used-bike shoppers and DIY bike builders rummaging for parts. There are also cool little shops like Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles and the Sibley Bike Depot, where volunteers fix up used or donated bikes for lower-income riders.
As with all professions, some clerks are aloof or condescending, but most are friendly and helpful. Some will try a little too hard to sell, sure, but they also don’t want you to buy something you don’t want. Remember: bike people want to convert you, not sell you something terrible and scare you off forever. There are enough bike shops in this town that if you ever feel uncomfortable with a particular shop or its employees, there’s no reason to stick around—take your business elsewhere. Once you have your bike, a lasting relationship with a shop you trust is invaluable for repairs, accessories, and advice.
Used Bikes: Everyone’s Had a Ride
If you decide to buy a used bike through Craigslist or other individual sellers, at least stop at a store and ride a couple of other bikes first for comparison. You could even print out the Craigslist ad and show it to a bike shop clerk or biking friends to ask their opinions and weed out the scams. “There are some scam artists who will sell you a piece of junk,” warns Jones. “Some [bikes] are stolen. Some are from people who don’t realize that in the majority of cases, a bike’s value depreciates over time—‘I bought this bike for $500 in 1976, and am offering it for $1000.’”
Used bikes are less expensive than new bikes and have that vintage charm, but they don’t always work perfectly. Before buying, make sure you’re comfortable with changing gears and that the bike isn’t running in any way other than smoothly. The amount of pre-sale refurbishing that shops will do on their used product varies widely, but a shop should at least ensure that their used bikes are safe to ride. Most shops will tune them up and install accessories for a little extra dough.
Taking It to the Streets: Riding in the Company of Cars
Photo by Jake Mohan
Even once you find the right bike that feels good, if you’re a novice biker, you may not be entirely comfortable riding on the street. But if you begin by riding around the lakes and on bike paths, and work up to side streets, pretty soon you’ll be zooming confidently through downtown Minneapolis in no time. Many novice cyclists make the mistake of riding on sidewalks, which is actually very dangerous for you and the pedestrians in your way—and illegal in business districts.
Some motorists still don’t—or won’t—recognize that cyclists have just as much legal right to the streets as four-wheeled vehicles. You might get honked or yelled at—but you can’t let it discourage you. Switching to the sidewalks or abandoning biking altogether only proves to car-driving antagonists that they can win through intimidation. Remember that as long as you’re riding safely and legally, you belong on the road; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Pretty soon you’ll just smile and wave at your automotive aggressors, confident that you’re probably enjoying yourself way more than they are in their moment of annoyance.
Bells and Whistles: Staying in Tune with Your New Vehicle
As long as your bike works, you don’t need much equipment beyond a helmet and a blinking light. We recommend getting a bike wrench to keep all your nuts on tight; wrenches are usually under $10. Don’t feel tempted to sink your money into expensive accessories right away. After a year or so of steady riding you’ll figure out what you need—and don’t need. When it does come time to buy a pump, rack, messenger bag or cold-weather jacket, remember that cheap gear will only get you so far. You may balk at a $150 riding jacket, but you’ll be glad you spent a little extra when it keeps you warm and dry and lasts for years.
When considering any bike-related purchase, it’s helpful to imagine a triangle whose three points represent the desirable qualities of any item: lightweight, durable, and affordable. Any bike, accessory, or item of clothing should have at least two of those qualities, but none will have all three. Ideally, you can afford to make the first two points a priority; if you can’t, you might want to start saving. We’ve all bought enough pairs of cheap, insubstantial winter gloves to equal the price of one really nice pair—if we’d ponied up for that nice pair in the first place, we would’ve saved money in the long run and there’d be fewer worn-out gloves in the landfill.
Don’t underestimate the importance of maintenance—because bikes are such simple machines, it’s tempting to just ride yours until something breaks, then get it repaired. But regular cleaning and maintenance between rides will prolong the life of your bike and minimize heavy repair jobs.
If at all possible, store your bike inside. Not only is it at risk for theft outdoors, but it’s also exposed to the elements. Keep an old rag handy so you can wipe your chain down after every ride, especially when it’s snowy, rainy, or muddy. Lube your chain at least once a week, more often if you ride every day. A brand-new chain can be ruined within months if it isn’t cleaned and oiled regularly. Keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure, which is usually printed on the side of the tire.
Finally, take advantage of the ample resources in the Twin Cities for beginning cyclists. The Hub Bike Co-op and Freewheel Bike, among others, offer classes on changing flats and other maintenance. Advocacy groups like the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition offer tons of resources and events aimed at beginning and casual riders. Online resources like Minneapolis Bike Love and 30 Days of Biking are always holding casual group rides where you can make new friends while exploring the Cities by bike.
And until then, take pleasure in our stories of first bicycles bought and lost, one way or another. Glean wisdom from the lessons we’ve learned, or just laugh at us as you speed past because you mastered two-wheeled transportation from the get-go.
My First Bike: Deborah
My very first bike in the Cities was a decrepit bike from the early ’70s that I bought for $75 without testing out how the gears shifted. I had just moved to the Cities and was scared to ask any questions because I thought everyone else knew what they were doing with bicycles and I was the only one without a clue. The bike—posthumously named the Debacle—was completely unsafe and broke down on my very first long commuting ride. When I took it into Varsity Bike & Transit, they told me it was too dangerous to continue to ride without much work, so I bought another used bike shortly after that. Nowadays I prefer a vintage cruiser that I bought used. It’s bright green and has a granny seat, and it’s seen better days, but all the important parts work and I think it’s adorable. Because the derailleur was a royal pain and I only ever ride on one gear, I asked Behind Bars to convert my bike to a single-speed, which they did for $35 in about four hours. It suits me—old-fashioned and relatively low-maintenance—but I figured this out after making a lot of mistakes. What I didn’t realize was that in the biking world, it is completely okay to be a novice; even people who ride bikes will just see you as another convert.
My First Bike: Jake
I went completely bikeless for years after college, until I moved to Minneapolis for grad school. I walked into Erik’s, a retail chain with multiple locations in the Cities, and told the first employee I saw that I needed a simple road bike for commuting. He told me that road bikes are extremely expensive—assuming I was talking about carbon-fiber frames and NASA hubs—and steered me toward the dreaded mountain bikes. I bought a perfectly decent 21-speed Raleigh and rode it to class on nice days, but I never felt truly at home on that bike. Whoever broke into my apartment a few months later agreed that it wasn’t the bike for me, and I was back to square one. I bought a tuned-up Schwinn 10-speed on Craigslist for $60, which was far more suitable and served me well for two years while I gradually became a serious daily bike commuter. By that point I was ready to make an informed purchase and graduated to a high-end Kona commuter bike from Behind Bars, a small shop in Northeast Minneapolis.
My First Bike, or Lack Thereof: Collin
I spent the first semester of college riding a red mountain bike my parents got me when I was 8. At the time, I was 6’1”, 190 pounds, and the bike was in bad shape. The gear would shift at will, for one, so although I rode it like a BMX bike, standing on the pedals. I couldn’t ride sitting down because my knees would get caught under the handlebars, or I would have to spread my legs out butterfly style. I had to be careful not to shift my weight too much to either side as this might cause the bike to shift into first gear, which would mean a quick flight over the handlebars—which is, in fact, what happened one day as I was riding back to campus from a short hike. I blacked out for half a second, then started rolling around on the concrete, trying not to freak out too obviously.
After a day in the ER and a CT scan, I decided it was time to get a new bike. I was going to school in the Massachusetts Berkshires, and there was one bike shop in town that was run by a professor’s son with an inviting beard. I ended up getting a 1970s three-speed (complete with frontal metal basket and classic bell) for a little over $100. All things considered it was in pretty good condition, previously owned by an eccentric professor who loved it like a daughter. I left the semester without it, leaving it, stupidly, locked to a sign outside of a Subway. Even if it is, somehow, still there when I return next semester, I imagine the Massachusetts winter has not been kind to its arthritic frame, in which case I will soon be back on the prowl.
My First Bike: Sara
I knew I wanted a bike, but I had just moved to Minneapolis and was new to biking, so I didn’t know where to go or what to look for. A friend offered to take me to the bike shop he has just bought a bike from, so together we rummaged through the sea of bikes in the small, dusty shop. I eventually found an old bright blue Schwinn road bike, only for it to break down two months later. When I went to take the bike back for repairs, the bike shop had mysteriously closed. Later that week, I went to a different bike shop and went through the whole bike shopping process again. This time, the bike lasted me an entire summer before breaking down.
My First Bike: Erica
My search for my first bike was plagued by desperation: I wanted a bike right away, and I didn’t want to pay a lot. I also had no idea what I was doing. I searched on Craigslist and found a man selling a bunch of bikes. (A friend, who bought a fabulous bike from him earlier, had warned me about his penchant for tiger shirts and a generally odd air.) I went to the bike man’s home and tried out many of his bikes around the blocks of Dayton’s Bluff. One was cute but undeniably too small, and one was just right, except the brakes seemed off. He fiddled with a few things, offered a lower price ($70) and I was so excited about the prospect of a bike that I took it. My dad soon informed me that the wheel was bent and I had gotten a bad deal. Curses! Still, I had a weird determination to make that bike work, including living with the bad wheel, having an entire crank arm break off once, and brakes that were so squeaky that I avoided braking in general. This was all an excellent primer for buying my second bike—a brand new bike. A new bike certainly costs more than an old charming one, but if you enjoy biking and have the cash, it is a most worthwhile investment. The best thing about your new bike is that it will likely be infinitely better than any storied used bicycle you’ve ever owned.
Have any first bike stories of your own? Or want to add your own advice? We have comments now, and we’d love to hear from you.
© 2011 TwinCitiesRunoff