Just Ask Jack — What Bike Do I Buy?

We get a lot of “which bike do I buy?� questions submitted to us…a LOT. While we absolutely love to help guide bike purchasers toward suitable commuting bikes, this is an incredibly difficult question to answer without relying on a bunch of generalities…with dozens of great commuter bikes and literally hundreds of other bike models on dealer floors at any given time, there’s a lot to wade through, especially for the novice bike enthusiast.

bike mountain
(image borrowed from jugsi.com)

So, I thought it would be a good idea to distill some of those generalities down into a handy “starter guide� for folks to use. I won’t be naming any specific brands or models – that’s not the point of this exercise. Rather, this is intended to get bike shoppers thinking about what they need and expect out of a new bicycle.

Many people go into the bike purchasing experience with only one thing in mind: price. Price is important, of course, but it is only one of many aspects to be considered when selecting a new bicycle; different needs require different features.

Generally, when asked “what bike do I buy?�, I answer the question with a series of my own questions. In no particular order, they are:

–What is my price ceiling?

–Do I plan to use the bike for recreation purposes as well as commuting?

–How long is my commute?

–Is my area flat or hilly?

–Do I plan on hauling books, groceries or other cargo every now and then?

–How comfortable am I with the various gearing and braking systems on modern bicycles?

As you can see, the answers to those questions help narrow the field down – a sleek fixed-gear or singlespeed road bike might be great for a fast, flat long-distance commute but terrible at hauling groceries and children around town, while a sturdy, clunky “grocery getter� would be great for around-town utility purposes but might not be suitable for some recreational uses. Complicated gearing and braking systems might be daunting for the novice bicyclist and utterly unnecessary for someone in a flattish urban environment.

Concerning the price ceiling – be flexible with this. A little more money can mean a lot better of a bike. If this means putting off your purchase for a few more weeks to save up some extra dollars, do it…but don’t forget that a more expensive bike does not mean a more suitable bike for you, merely that it probably has better-quality parts and accessories than a lesser-priced model.

One of the best pieces of advice we can give folks shopping for a new bike is to check out their local bike shops. Walking in and saying, “I’ve got X dollars to spend…what do you have?â€? is an exercise in futility. But, prepared with the answers to the above questions, you and your local shops can help pinpoint something that’s actually suitable for your needs. Still, any old local shop won’t do – they must understand your needs and be receptive to letting you try different models at different price ranges. No one likes the “hard sellâ€? – if a dealer is trying to push you toward a specific model that doesn’t do EVERYTHING you need a bike to do, you’re probably in the wrong shop and should exit gracefully! Visit as many shops as you can…this gives you the opportunity to test and evaluate a whole range of different bikes (and find a trustworthy shop in the process).

The other critical piece of advice we like to share is this: buy the bike that you look forward to riding…comfortable, pretty, feature-packed, whatever. Being excited to ride your new machine is half the battle…and you’re far less likely to be excited by something that doesn’t feel good or doesn’t do what you need it to do.

Buying a new bike is a daunting process; there’s no doubt about that. Arming yourself with some answers and a bit of personal research under your belt can make the whole thing a lot easier to stomach.

Perhaps our readers have some additional considerations for the new bike shopper they’d like to share? If so, have at it in the comments section.

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.


19 Comments

  1. lorenzo from france May 25, 2009 5:02 am 

    Before I’ve got an old MTB.
    I use a Scott Sub 30 (classic with 28″) since 2 weeks.
    I ride my bike4 days per week (33 Km) in PARIS and it’s a very good URBAN bike.
    The cost is not expensive.

  2. Charlie May 25, 2009 6:43 am 

    Another set of questions–range of weather you plan to ride in an level of maintenance you are willing to commit to. All weather + low maintenance = hub gears, chain cases, and hub brakes.

    By the way, google chrome gives me a malware warning about this site, because it contains “elements from bikegeek.com” which they think has malware. Would be worth checking out and either severing that tie, getting bikegeek to clean it up, or, if the warning isn’t valid, explaining it and giving us some assurance that this site is safe.

  3. Chris Keam May 25, 2009 7:59 am 

    Hello:

    I created a bike shoppers’ checklist for people considering a commuter bike purchase, or upgrading their current bike for every day, utilitarian purposes. You can find it on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/ppxkak or email me for a printer-friendly pdf version.

  4. Trisha May 25, 2009 8:03 am 

    Great answer, though I agree with Charlie’s addition of a maintenance commitment one. My answer at the moment would be to tell everyone to buy a Batavus Entrada Spirit — I am in love with mine.

  5. Mike Myers May 25, 2009 9:19 am 

    When I get asked that question, my stock answer is “Buy a touring bike”. I believe if someone’s only going to own ONE bike, it should be multipurpose. A touring bike is comfortable on a half mile commute, and on a 25 mile commute—and gives the option to grow with the rider’s abilities.

  6. Ghost Rider May 25, 2009 10:54 am 

    The question about complexity of braking and shifting systems ties into that maintenance commitment issue…but good addition!

    Charlie — Thebikegeek is one of our sister sites. Our host was attacked and they’re still trying to fix whatever’s wrong with the servers.

  7. Ghost Rider May 25, 2009 10:55 am 

    I should add that there’s nothing wrong with this site…tell Google Chrome to temporarily “shove it”.

  8. BlackBear May 26, 2009 6:32 am 

    The only thing that I would stress in addition the above advise is to RIDE the bike(s) you’re thinking of! It is so easy to be seduced by pictures, reviews, and professional assessments that we forget that everyone is shaped differently and what rides well for one is a misery for another. If the LBS won’t let you take the bike out for a spin, then go somewhere else (though I’ve never heard of this happening).

  9. Chip Haynes May 26, 2009 7:34 am 

    I always tell people to buy the bike that makes them happy- the bike that makes them WANT to ride. That, to me, is more important than how many gears it has or the brand of equipment- or even the brand of bike. If they look at that bike and want to go for a ride, then that’s the right bike for them.

    But that’s just me.

  10. Ghost Rider May 26, 2009 8:01 am 

    Chip, I may have gotten that sentiment from you…it makes great sense.

  11. Tony Bullard May 26, 2009 8:09 am 

    Another good reason to encourage people to visit as many stores as possible is the way companies distribute their bikes.

    I learned this later on, but many bike shops will only carry a few brands, and the store on the other side of town will carry a few DIFFERENT brands. I’ve been told this is done so bike shops don’t have to play the price war game with each other. So not only should you find the right place that’s good for you, you should also be sure you’ve seen all the different brands out there.

    And the tip I’d say is most important: ride as many different bikes as you can. I bought a mountain bike a year ago because I was told it would do what I needed (and admittedly I said I’d be doing stuff I never do) I’ve been riding it for a year now, saving my money, and the middle of next month I’ll be buying a touring bike, as I’ve learned that I LOVE them. You never know what you might like until you ride it!

  12. Chip Haynes May 26, 2009 8:40 am 

    Of course, there is a bit of a drawback to that “buy the bike you like” : That might be why JoAnn and I have 34 bikes and trikes.

    Ah, well…

  13. David May 26, 2009 3:50 pm 

    I would add that if you think you might get into bike riding, buy the best bike you can reasonably afford.

    I made the mistake of buying a very inexpensive commuter bike (Schwinn World Avenue). I really dislike it, even more so now that I use it to commute (15 miles rnd trip) to work daily.

    I should have kept with my original plan and spent a couple hundred more to get the bike I had really wanted to get in the first place.

  14. Ghost Rider May 26, 2009 5:15 pm 

    David,

    thus my suggestion to be flexible about the “price ceiling” — buying the cheapest bike is not often the best solution, and saving up for a few extra weeks or months to get the ideal machine makes a lot of sense.

  15. TimK May 27, 2009 7:49 am 

    I’m like Trisha, except that my response would be, “Buy a Swobo Dixon.” :) I’ve been using mine to commute since I got it in January, and I absolutely love it. It’s a wonderful machine.

  16. Dean Peddle May 27, 2009 7:25 pm 

    My best advice is to point out that no bike can do “everything”. If you can do it then buy your bikes for the purpose you intend them to be for and own 5 or 6 for all those different purposes like most of us here :)

  17. Tom G July 19, 2012 2:04 pm 

    Buy the best bike you can reasonably afford. You’ll be riding the bike long after you’ve forgotten the price.

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