Menu Close

When buying a bike you can get lost in the weeds pretty quickly but the two primary considerations are the frame and the fit, and between these two the fit is the most important. Yes, color is also very important (pink for me) but we all make enough tradeoffs for looks over comfort in other parts of our lives, so let’s make sure comfort wins on this one.
But even before we dig in you should think about the kind of riding you’ll be doing. Riding just on the road or some dirt roads, mostly dirt roads, dirt trails, lots of climbing, not much climbing? These days there are a lot of choices. If you are going to stick to the roads, bike paths and some limited dirt road riding a road or hybrid bike may be best for you. If you are doing to ride more than 1/3 of the time on dirt roads you may want to consider a gravel bike (which is a road bike with some changes to make it more comfortable and stable on dirt), and if you want to stay off the roads a mountain bike is for you.
While the following applies to all bikes, we’ll focus mostly on road and gravel bikes below.
Bike frames these days come in one of four options. Steel, titanium, carbon and aluminum. Steel is the traditional material for bike frames and while it usually the heaviest of the four, it is often the most comfortable and the best value. It is also the least techie, but it is making a pretty strong comeback due to its comfort and retro appeal. And steel is not what you may be thinking it is. Steel bikes refer to a mix of different metals designed for stiffness, handling and ride comfort.
Titanium is probably the most expensive since it combines the comfort of steel and the lightness of carbon or aluminum. It also makes for the best all-around ride if you can afford the price tag.
Aluminum is popular for less expensive bikes and is lightweight. The challenge with aluminum is it is very stiff and not all that comfortable. This may be fine if you are planning on riding and hour or so but if you are planning on, or would someday like to ride longer rides, aluminum is tough since it just doesn’t absorb much of the road bumps and can tire you out.
Carbon is very popular these days and can be light, however, carbon bikes on the less expensive end of the spectrum can be almost as heavy as steel bikes and will likely cost more without providing any additional benefits. On the other end of the cost spectrum, carbon bikes can be very lightweight, high performance and still be comfortable. Most high end bikes today are carbon.
As I mentioned earlier this is the most important element. Bike fit is a combination of a number of elements including the size of the bike, the dimensions of the angles where the tubes come together and the final bike fit you do to adjust your stem (the part that connects your handlebars to the bike) and your seat (height and forward / backward).
More expensive bikes are sized in centimeters while less expensive bikes are often sized in small, medium and large. There are many good bikes in S, M and L sizing but bikes in centimeters offer finer steps in between sizes and may provide a better fit. A shop can help you find the right size.
To figure out what feels best you’ll need to ride some bikes. The more the better. Bike shops are always happy to have you test ride their bikes. And since most bike shops only carry a few brands you’ll do best to go to a few shops that carry different brands.
You’ll see pretty quickly that there are big differences in how bikes feel and how they fit you. The one thing you will probably notice most is the length of the top tube (that’s the one that goes from the seat to the handlebars) but you’ll also feel differences in the angles of where the tubes meet one another and the length of the tubes that connect the rear wheel to the rest of the frame. Don’t get lost in the minutia and over think it. Just think about what feels best to you. That’s your best guide.
Women’s Specific. Many bike companies today have women’s specific bikes. These are usually a great way to go. We’re just not built like men so we often need a bike with a shorter top tube and breaks that fit our hands. Make sure you add in several women’s bikes when you start test riding bikes.
The last part about fit is getting the bike you buy precisely fitted to your body. This involves making sure you seat height is spot on as well as the forward / backward adjustment and the length of your stem. These fits can run up to $300 but they are worth it if you are going to ride over an hour at a time. Think about trying to walk an hour in a pair of shoes that are either too big or too small for you. Riding a bike that doesn’t fit is kinda like that.
Ok, here’s where you can really get lost in the weeds. But is can be pretty important. To make bikes affordable, bike manufacturers get everyone to focus on the frame and often skimp on the quality of the components to get the price down. The components (gears, wheels, etc.) can feel pretty good when you first buy a bike but you’ll see the quality 6 months or a year later in how everything is working. Lower quality components can make a bike heavy and start to not work so well over time. Often times the less flashy frame (steel over carbon) with better components will provide a better ride over the long run.
Where to Buy Your Bike
Since you’re going to be riding a number of bikes from bikes shops around you your local shop is the logical place to buy your bike. Plus, many shops will give you free tune ups of bikes you buy from them. You can also buy bikes from Craigslist, eBay and other online sources. You can often pay less and or get more bike for your money with a used bike online, however, if you are going to consider a used bike online there are two musts: (1) You must have the bike checked out by a very good bike mechanic you trust before you buy; and, (2) You must buy a bike with good components since better components will last longer and give you a great ride for years to come.
Other Important Stuff
Bike shorts – Get them. The padding will make sure you get back on your new bike and the lycra fabric will reduce chafing. Bright clothing is cool looking and it helps people and drivers see you sooner.
Bike light – A lot of people are buying lights these days to put on the front and or back of their bikes when riding on roads. These are not so much to help you see but more to help drivers see you sooner. Blackburn, Specialized and other all make them but our fav is Lezyne since they are super lightweight and can be super bright.
Helmet – It’s your brain so protect it with a really good helmet and always wear it. Giro, Bell and POC pretty much own the market these days and each fits a little difference so find the one that fits your head best. And if you’re going to be out there a few hours, getting a lightweight one makes a big difference. Some people put an id tag on their helmet just in case.
Pedals and Shoes – You don’t need them, we all grew up riding our bikes with flat pedals and tennies, but once you get used to them they are really worth it. Cycling shoes are designed to make sure all of the effort you put into riding makes it into the pedals. And clip in pedals allow you to get more from every pedal stroke with some pulling up with one leg while the other is pushing down. The best pedal to learn how to use clip ins are Shimano mountain bike pedals since they have clips on both sides of the pedals. And make sure to get Shimano Multi Release Cleats for your shoes. These are the easiest cleats to get out of and allow you to pull your foot out of the pedals from many different directions and angels. They are the best and safest way to learn.
Sunscreen – Like any outdoor activity sunscreen is a must. We like MyChelle since it’s super clean and stays put.
Fixing a Flat – Spend some time to learn how to do this. Your shop can teach you or may have some suggestions for a local class to help you take care of your bike. It’s really not difficult once you learn how. You’ll need to carry a spare tube and a pump with you, even if you’re riding with others who can change your flat, you should carry your own things to make sure you’ve got a spare when you need it.
The Checklist
1. Ride as many different bikes as you can to get a feel for how different bikes feel
2. See if you can stretch your budget a bit to upgrade some of the components
3. Find a bike you absolutely love. Even if it costs a little more than you’d like, if you love it, you’ll ride it, which is what we’re all after.
4. Ride with a local group and or your friends. Most local groups have rides for all levels of riders.
5. Have fun. Riding is a great sport, gets you outside, is a great way to make new friends and a super form of exercise.