A brief break from the "Unsettling Advent" series: a word about buying bicycles
More bicycles are purchased and given/received at Christmas than at any other time of year. My first two bikes were birthday gifts, but my latest was a Christmas present (okay, so I bid for it on eBay, still, I purchased it with money given by loved ones at Christmas). Making an informed purchase will bring some lasting satisfaction, functionality and value. So, take a little time and research before you buy.
Most folks who buy bikes for children really don't know much about bikes. They mostly go for something that looks cool, has a few distinguishing features and gadgets and is within their price range. Adults who purchase bikes for a spouse, older child, or significant other tend to be a little more informed about the importance of the weight of a bike, the material it is made of, the nature of its components, its size, and, certainly, the kind of riding it will primarily be used for.
Here are a few guidelines I offer about selecting and purchasing a bicycle:
1. Don't buy a bike for someone as a surprise. You imagination of a "nice bike" and their imagination of the same can be significantly different. Besides, bikes need to be fitted to a specific size and style of rider. Buying a bike is a big enough investment to make it a considered gift that the recipient participates in as fully in as possible.
2. Consider the kind of riding you will be doing. Want to ride off-road trails? Look at mountain bikes (MTB). Want to ride fast on the road? Look at road bikes. Want to ride to home or work or school or around town? Look at commuter bikes or hybrid bikes. Want to ride the beach or only occasionally on mostly flat terrain? Look at cruisers. Want to do tricks (jumps, spins, wheelies, etc)? Look at BMX bikes. Want to ride on a track or take the challenge of a single-speed direct-drive bike? Look at a track bike or "fixie." There are the major categories. There are others that are appealing and fun: tandems, tricycles, recumbents, quads, etc. An online search on eBay will reveal a wide range of styles.
3. If you plan to ride a lot, ride in hilly terrain or ride with groups, consider getting a lighter-frame bike. The lighter the better. What a bike frame and components are made of matters. Steel is heavy and virtually indestructible. Chro-molly and other alloys are strong and lighter. Aluminum is lighter still and quite comfortable. Carbon fiber is the lightest, but it is a stiffer ride. Whatever the material, most bike frames are strong enough to withstand the activity most of us put them through. The lighter the material the more it costs, usually.
4. Frame weight and wheel weight matter most. This matters a lot in hilly terrain, as you are literally pulling not only the weight of your own body, but that of the bike up hills. I shoot for total bike weight under 20 lbs for my road bike and under 25 for my mountain bike. You can get a bike down to about 15 lbs, but the price is ridiculous. Unless you are professional rider or planning to ride competitively as an amateur, ultra-light bikes make little sense.
5. Lots of folks who haven't bought a bike in many years experience sticker shock when they go to a bike shop for a bike brand like Trek, Cannondale, Raleigh, Felt, or Specialized. Looking for a lower price or bargain, they find cheaper bikes at retail store like WalMart or Target. To an untrained, undiscerning eye, the bikes look the same. But they are not. You may be paying a bit for the brand, but mostly you're paying for quality of components. You'll also get good service at most bike shops. On the other hand, many bike shops won't even work on KMart-quality bikes. A mountain bike at a local bike shop (LBS) starts at about $500. A road bike at an LBS starts at about $700.
6. The two bikes I currently ride--a road bike and a mountain bike--I purchased used. I purchased my Raleigh chro-molly frame mountain bike used at a local bike shop. I purchased my Orbea road bike on eBay last Christmas. I rode an aluminum-frame Cannondale road bike for over 15 years that I purchased new at a local bike shop. It was light, durable and lots of fun. Buying used is much cheaper than buying new, but you'll have to be ready and willing to deal with worn parts, scratches, and replacing some components. Before I purchased the Orbea (a high-end Spanish-made carbon fiber frame), I did lots of looking and checking around. Even when I won the bid for it (a steal, I think), I was nervous until it arrived. I've put quite a bit of work into it, but I love it. It's the lightest bike I've ever ridden, it's the right size, feels great, and looks sharp, too.
7. Pay attention to size of the frame. There are online guides to sizing. Also, if you have back problems, there is a more upright style of road frame available. Essentially, you have to feel comfortable on a bike and feel completely in control of it. For men/boys, you should be able to put both feet flat on the ground straddling the bike with about 1.5 inches remaining to your crotch. Believe me, this matters! Also, your seat should be adjusted so that when you are sitting on it with your feet on the pedals, your leg is only ever-so-slightly bent when one pedal is completely down. Most people have their seat too low or too high. Again, believe me, this makes a big difference in comfort and ability to ride well.
8. Getting a good-feeling saddle makes a big difference. Don't settle for the saddle that comes on your bike--new or used. Try different saddles. Most local bike shops will let you try out different saddles. They can also offer some helpful advice about adjustments that will make your ride more enjoyable. I rode on what is called an "Easy Seat" the 2000 miles through India, and plan to use it again on the ride in Vietnam. Google it, if you are interested. It's a radical departure from the traditional saddle, but I experienced no saddle soreness on the India ride--and we were in the saddle 7-8 hours a day.