Saturday, August 13, 2011

Looking for recommendations on a new bike?

People are sometimes overwhelmed by all of the options when shopping for a new bike.  Here is my short guide for new cyclists.
  • Suspension is wildly over rated.
  • Stick with steel and aluminum bikes. 
  • Get a "useful" bike with lots of braze-ons and tire clearance.
  • If you're handy, have a little time, and have little or no "fitting" issues, get a used bike.
  • Otherwise, purchasing your bike from a reputable bike shop is worthwhile.
Why?  In short ...

Unless a person has a real itch to ride single-tracks through the woods, hopping logs, and so on, almost all riding is done on much more sedate surfaces.  Consequently, a suspension does little for comfort while adding weight and complexity.  While people might care little about performance, a lighter bike is not only easier to ride uphill, but it is easier to store and transport.  And who needs even more stuff to maintain?

The typical bike materials one will find are chromoloy steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber. While carbon fiber frames and forks can be stronger than their steel or aluminum counterparts -- consider Grant Peterson's experience with a carbon fiber and steel fork in this cover story -- carbon fiber requires more maintenance.  My experience is that most new riders are better off with the simple bike that is easier to maintain relative to the benefit of a lighter bike. 

Recommending that one get a "useful" bike might sound strange since it implies that there are bikes that are not useful.  Some bicycles -- called an "all-rounder" -- are more easily used for a variety of purposes.  Many new or returning riders only have vague notions with respect to what they will eventually do with the bike.  Moreover, it is common to buy a "high-end" bike that fulfills some niche that one enjoys if one becomes an enthusiast.  The first bike will then can be used as a back-up, commuter, or utility bike.

Bicycles with good tire clearance -- the rear triangle and fork can fit wide tires with fenders -- and lots of braze-ons for water bottles, fenders, and racks can generally be used for a wide variety of activities and riding surfaces.  Not sure what a braze-on is?  See this video where the mechanic attaches the rack.  A tell-tale sign of a "useful" bike is one with mid-fork braze-ons for a low-rider rack.  While one may never actually carry a front load on a bike, roughly speaking, bikes manufactured with the foresight to include a mount are typically designed as an "all-rounder".     

If one can stand searching for one, picking up a used bike is typically a much better value than a new bike.  Besides the lower price, putting a few miles on an existing bike will give a person a much better idea of their perfect bike.  Mountain bikes built in the 1990s -- typically no suspension with lots of braze-ons and a more road-bike geometry -- are a good starting point for an average person.  Although this assumes that one is roughly normal in size and proportion and is moderately handy.  Otherwise picking up a bike at a reputable bike shop is recommended.  One, a good shop will carefully assemble the bike as well as check details -- for instance, are the wheels true? ... drop-outs aligned? -- that box stores will omit.  Moreover a good shop will almost always be willing to give a tutorial or two on basic maintenance.  Two, a good shop should spend more time fitting a rider as well as providing extended care.  For instance, decent shops should work with a rider after owning the bike for some period if something like a saddle fits poorly.  In a nutshell, a decent shop will work hard to make the bike a good long term purchase.

Here are examples that fit my idea of great beginning bikes for two prototypical riders.  First, let's consider a person looking for an upright flat-bar bike for casual riding.  I generally point people to something like the Jamis Coda pictured below.  A triple crank for wide and low gearing so rides with hills, pulling a child trailer, or hauling groceries in panniers/baskets are all possible with the stock bicycle.  Steel frame and fork with lots of braze-ons and tire clearance. People have taken the bike on tours like riding the silk road.

Now let's consider a person looking to do long road rides; perhaps with a local bike club.  Typically, people look to racing bikes with the thought that they need the most efficient machine possible.  However, a marginally heavier bike with capacity for bigger tires will be a bike that is much more comfortable on long rides and likely be better for the motor.  Remember, most roads out there are far from perfect.  Extra volume in the tires create a pneumatic suspension which is very efficient.  If the rider is heavier I would point them to a cyclecross bike such as the Bianchi Volpe.  For a road bike it is considered heavy; but it has all of the ingredients for an excellent all-rounder including much better gearing for ordinary people.  For lighter people who are interested in a road bike who can get away with 28 mm tires with a moderate load, I am sadly too far out of the loop to recommend a model with confidence.  Generally, it is hard to determine how much tire clearance a frame/fork have by just the specifications and I hardly look at new bikes anymore.  But if forced, I'd say look at a Kona Honky Tonk or a Surly Pacer.  Both models appear to deviate somewhat from my concept of a classic all-rounder, but might be appropriate for the right person. 

In large, most people ride little and will make do with what they have and be perfectly fine.  So if your interest is minimal and you just want to ride around the neighborhood a little bit, I would not worry much about the choice.  That is, the extra time you spend worrying about getting the perfect bike could be spent doing something much more productive or fun.  However, if you think that a few extended rides might be your future, a little extra effort in choosing a bike will result in a much better experience. 

P.S.  I wrote nothing about bike fit.  Here is an old post that is essentially a collection of links about bike fit.  A crappy bike that fits well is generally better than a great bike that fits poorly.   A shop will help out a lot in this area.