Choosing a bicycle


Where will you be riding?

When you decide to starting bike riding, you first need to decide where you will be doing most of your riding. Here are some commonly used areas; there are other places to ride but these are the ones most used by ordinary bikers.

Open road. People bike on open roads for commuting or fitness, either because that is all that is available or because they like to bike on roads. The problem is that they have to compete with motorized vehicles for lane space and, when cars and bikes fight for space, cars always win.

City streets. People ride city streets for commuting, fitness, or for errands, either because that is all that is available or because they like to bike on streets. Some streets have bike lanes but, in most lanes, you still have to compete with large vehicles. Riding on sidewalks gets you off the streets, but remember that pedestrians always have the right-of-away. Check your city’s laws regarding biking on sidewalks; some permit it, some have limitations, and some do not permit it.

Single-track off-road trails. Single-track off-road trails may be fun to ride and may be a way to get into nature, but you need an off road capable bike. Even an easy trail rating may be too difficult for some people to handle.

Boardwalk, hard beach, or sand. These shore rides are for fun, not so much for fitness. For riding in loose sand, you need specialized bikes.

Paved or prepared surface trails intended for bike riding. These trails are for fun or fitness and are usually the safest places to ride. Rails to Trails rides are fun since they usually run through valleys, and the hills have low grades due to the freight trains that once used the rails. Many city trails have under and over passes at streets so you never have to worry about cars.

Find best bike for you

There are many type of bikes for specialized uses but the below types are the ones most riders will use.

Road bikes. Road bikes have frames designed for speed and safety on pavement. Once you leave pavement they become more difficult, or even dangerous, to ride. They are light and have dropped handlebars that keep you bent forward to lower wind resistance, which puts pressure on your shoulder arms and wrists and causes you to have to lift you head to see forward. This riding position may make it harder to breathe if you are overweight. Road bikes have small, thin, hard seats made for efficient riding, not for comfort. They have narrow, highly inflated, hard tires that have little rolling resistance, but make for a rough ride and the tire will cut down into any soft surface like a knife, which may cause loss of control. The tires are also more difficult to remove and replace in case of a flat. There are no front, rear, or seat stem shock absorbers, so the ride is rough. To help smooth out the ride, the frame is made to flex in certain places, which may make the bike feel squirrely. If you have any type of joint or spine problems, this type of bike will probably not be for you.

City bikes. City bikes are similar road bikes but are more comfortable and have features to that help you deal with common city street hazards, such as storm grates, curbs, potholes, and manhole covers. The handlebars are flatter so you do not have to lean forward as much and the tires are a little wider and allow lower air pressures for smoother riding. The frames are less flexible than road bikes and feel more solid to ride. They may have front or rear suspensions and may have fenders, bags, or racks.

Mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are a little heavier and stronger to withstand the rigors of trail riding. They have flat handlebars, brakes that help shed mud, fatter tires with more aggressive tread, and may have heavy-duty front and rear suspensions to help handle obstacles such as rock, roots, and ruts. The frames are make very strong and are reinforced to help them withstand the forces of mountain trail riding. Many have large 29-inch tires that offer more stability off road but less agility on the road, and because of their frame design, you may feel as though you are sitting in the bike instead of on the bike. Mountain bikes are suitable for paved or prepared trail riding but tend to be slower.

Hybrid bikes. Hybrid bikes look similar to mountain bikes but are less rugged. They are similar to a jeep; they do okay off-road and okay on road but are not great at either. They let you ride most anywhere if you are careful.

Comfort hybrid bikes. These are less expensive hybrid bikes with many comfort features. They have semi fat tires with semi aggressive tread that give you good traction on any surface while still allowing you some speed on pavement. They have wide seats with foam, inner springs, springs under the seat, and a shock absorber in the stem. The handle bars are flat or raised, slightly pulled back, and have comfort grips with flared ends that allow you rest your palms on then to take stress off the wrists. The handlebar stem has an adjustable neck that allows you to change its angle, which along with adjustment of the height of the stem and the rotation of the handlebar itself, allows you to adjust for anything from a forward lean to an upright riding position. The frame is light, flexible, and designed for comfort.

The comfort hybrid may be adjusted to fit most any physical problem you may have and it is easy to ride on any surface. For those who want to push things a little more, it is capable of maintaining riding speeds above 20 miles per hour if so desired, but that is beginning to push its limits since it is not designed for speed.

Cruisers. Cruisers are similar to the bikes of the 1950’s. They are heavy, have fat tires, one or three gears, pull back handlebars, and big seats. They are for casual rides and may be ridded on beaches in the sand.

Flat footed bikes. These bikes are cruisers with an elongated frame that lets the seat be lower and allows you to put both feet on the ground while sitting on the seat.

Tandem bikes. These bikes allow two riders to ride on one bike with both riders contributing to the pedaling. It takes practice by both riders to learn to ride them safely.

Trikes. Trikes are three wheel bikes that practically eliminate the chance of a fall and allow you to carry cargo. They are slow, heavy, are to maneuver, and difficult to transport.

Recumbent bikes. These bikes may have two or three wheels and allow you to sit back and have the pedals in front of you rather than under you.

Some buying tips

Your get what you pay for. A cheap bike may look very similar to an expensive bike; the difference is in the composition and quality of the frame and its components. If you get a cheap bike ($50-$150, you will probably have quality problems and things will break. A low-end bike ($200 to $450) will probably suit the needs of the casual rider. If you get a high-end bike ($1,000-$10,000), you will have more bike than you are capable of using and you will be afraid to scratch it or let it out of your sight. If you get a midrange bike ($500-$950), you will feel safe, have few maintenance problems, and enjoy riding more. If you ride enough and hard enough that you exceed the capabilities of the bike you have chosen, you will have the knowledge and experience by then to know what your next bike needs to be.

Where to buy . Big box stores or online stores that sell bikes have one purpose in selling bikes—selling many bikes at a reduced price. The sales personnel know little about bikes and they do not do repairs or maintenance.

Local independent bike shops sell bikes, usually at retail prices. However, they are highly knowable, can help you choose the correct type and size bike for you, do custom fitting, do repairs and maintenance, and give you free advice because they want you to be a return customer and recommend their stores to your friends.

Frame size. Get a frame size that fits your body size and make proper adjustments. The overall frame size must fit your body, and then the seat height, seat position, handlebar height, handlebar position, and handlebar stem angle must be set for your body. If these things are not done correctly, you will not enjoy riding and will soon stop riding. Bike shops will do rough a basic fitting for you at purchase, but they can do custom fittings for a fee; I have hear people say it was money well spent.

Frame composition. Steel is cheapest but it is heavy, stiff, and rusts. Aluminum is lighter, less stiff, and does not rust. Carbon fiber is expensive, very light, strong, least stiff, and very expensive to repair. An aluminum frame will meet most rider’s needs.

Gears. Lever shifters are easier to use and make more precise shifts than grip shifters. Gears are classified by the number of chain rings at the pedals and the number of gears in the cassette on the rear axle. For example, 3 rings in front and 7 rings in back are noted as 3x7. Gears range from 1x1 to 3x11. 3x7 will meet most rider’s needs.

Seat. Seats many be thin, extra light, and hard, or they may be wide, heavy, and as comfortable a soft chair. The salesperson can help you find one that fit your needs and your butt.

Wheel size. Adult bicycle wheel sizes vary between 26” and 29” in diameter. Which size is best for you? In general, 26” bikes have quicker acceleration and are more agile and maneuverable than 29“ bikes; whereas, 29” bikes are more stable, smoother riding, and make it easier to maintain speed.
  • Angle of attack. When the wheel contacts a bump, say a two-inch block of wood, a line is formed from the point where the wheel contacts the trail to where the wheel first contacts the top edge of the block. The shorter this line, the steeper the angle the line will be, and the harder it will be to get the wheel up and over the block. The smaller the diameter of the wheel, the steeper this line becomes, until it reaches the point where the wheel is too small to get up and over the block and stops dead in its tracks. The difference between the strike angle of a 26” wheel and a 29-inch wheel is only about 5 percent, but the cumulative effect of rolling up and over 5-percent steeper bumps over thousands of times during ride adds up quickly. The larger diameter 29” wheel also has noticeably less rolling resistance over rougher ground. 
  • Bottom bracket location. Another benefit of a larger-diameter wheel is the relationship between the center of the bottom bracket (where the axle between the two pedals is supported) and the wheel axles. A lower bottom bracket lowers the center of gravity and makes you feel as though you are sitting lower in the bike; it also gives the chassis a more stable feel while cornering. The bottom bracket center of a 29’ wheel bike is lower than the other sizes, which puts much of the rider's weight below the axles for a greater stabilizing effect. 
  • Wheel mass. A 29” wheel has more rolling mass than a 26” wheel. Theoretically, a 26” wheel will spin up faster, but the 29” wheel will spin longer. Therefore, a 26” wheel will get up to speed faster, but a 29” wheel will make it easier to maintain speed. Some comfort bikes come with 28” wheels that takes the middle ground. 

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