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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.

An All-Too-Brief Look at Minneapolis Bike Culture

Last week, I was able to travel with my family to the great city of Minneapolis for a family obligation. I hadn’t been there since 1982, and since then a LOT of things have changed — including Minneapolis’s growing reputation as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the United States.

That reputation is well-earned…there are bicycles EVERYWHERE. Heck, I even saw bicycle parking at the airport! Cyclists of all shapes, sizes and disciplines were present pretty much everywhere I went around the city — from sleek fixies and hip young riders to kids to hardcore commuters, roadies and everyone in between. Ah, what a refreshing change from my own city, where I mostly see “guys on bikes” and myself.

Anyhow, we shot a bunch of pictures and stopped at some of the hotbeds of the Minneapolis bike “scene”…concentrating on the vibrant neighborhoods in the Lyn Lake/Uptown area.

First off, this is a typical street scene in south Minneapolis: bikes locked up everywhere. There were bikes on racks, bikes on poles, bikes on porch railings, in yards and every other conceivable location. My friend and tour guide Laura insists that “it’s like this all year-round”, not just when the weather is nice!

street scene

We stopped by Cars R Coffins Coffee Bar/Cykel Garage to see if we could meet Hurl Everstone, who had promised the Bikecommuters.com crew a few months back that he’d submit a commuter profile for us. No luck…he had the day off. Still, we checked the place out and got a cup of badass hot chocolate, too!

my crew

The tiny CRC Coffee Bar is packed to the gills with bike culture — bikes and parts for sale crammed everywhere they’d fit. One thing that caught my eye in particular were a pair of beautiful vintage cruisers hanging from the rafters:

cruise

Walking further down Lyndale Avenue and after eating a spectacular breakfast at The Egg & I, we spotted this bike rack…one of dozens we spotted peppering the community. It just so happened that this day was the day Minneapolis celebrated Bike to Work Day and was early enough that a lot of folks were still riding to work, so the racks weren’t full. But, they were everywhere — no worries about finding a suitable lockup point in this area!

lockup

My wife spotted this cute fixie locked up on the street — a springtimey slice of delicious watermelon:

watermelon

Strangely enough, I’m coveting some pink rims for a bike now!

Later on in the week, we stopped in at The Alt , a legendary bike shop and a great place to hang out. I told the employees that I wished they were MY local shop, and I meant it — friendly folks who are really passionate about bikes. The Alt was STUFFED with bikes, snowboards and goodies galore, and also serves as one of the primary dealers for the new Handsome Cycles brand. I wasn’t able to check out any Handsome Devils in person, though, because they were being featured in a display at another great Minneapolis shop called One on One Bicycle Studio. Next time I’m in town, I’ll make it down to the Warehouse District to check out One on One.

the alt

More bikes on the street, and the Minneapolis Re Cycle. I didn’t get a chance to go inside, but I heard good things about the place.

re cycle

And a parting shot of some fixed-gear riders heading down Nicollet Avenue in front of excellent German restaurant Black Forest Inn.

nicollet

We only got to spend a few days in the city, but what we saw blew us away — bike-friendly infrastructure galore and more importantly, people taking advantage of it. I spoke to many bike commuters while walking the streets Uptown, and they raved about the city’s efforts to encourage transportational cyclists.

Although I didn’t get a picture of it, it seemed like the must-have bicycle accessory in Minneapolis is a milk crate strapped on. I saw dozens of bikes rockin’ milk-crates (after all, America’s Dairyland is right next door)…so, if you want to channel some of the Minneapolis bike spirit, get your own and wear it proudly!

I’m looking forward already to my next visit — the Mini Apple is a fantastic place…diverse, friendly and very cosmopolitan. And they love bikes up there — can it get any better?!?

Setting George Will Straight…

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and syndicated conservative columnist George F. Will penned a column for Newsweek a few days ago that got cycling advocates into an uproar…in the column, Will sets out to bash U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and includes a glaring factual error:

Where to start? Does LaHood really think Americans were not avid drivers before a government highway program “promoted” driving? Does he think 0.01 percent of Americans will ever regularly bike to work? Intercity high-speed rail probably always will be the wave of the future, for cities more than 300 miles apart. And as for Portland …

Read Will’s full column by clicking here.

Perhaps Will used the “0.01 percent” figure as artistic embellishment, but a variety of outlets took him to task for it.

Treehugger beats him up with statistics

D.C.’s “The Wash Cycle” gives him some of the business

And, perhaps most eloquently, associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly Matthew Yglesias tries diligently to set Will straight

Shooting off at the hip without facts as backup has become a popular technique of late for many conservative writers and radio personalities — but what the above misguided statement really illustrates is that people who choose bicycling as a viable transportation mode have a LONG WAY to go to achieve understanding in the United States. There are thousands of us out there, but we’re still so easily marginalized by comments/wisecracks like Will’s.

What’s your take on these comments?

Hot Two-Wheeled Action Redux

Editor’s note: I wrote the following article for our sister site The Bike Geek — and a day later we experienced some technical difficulties with that site that are still being resolved. In the meantime, I wanted to share coverage of this exciting event that took place during Florida’s Bike Month — the very first criterium-style race ever held in downtown Tampa.

The City of Tampa played host to some exciting racing action last weekend…The Tampa Twilight Criterium. Sponsored by the Tampa Downtown Partnership, local bike shops and WAM Events, this day-long event was a blast!

Although I had to work on Saturday, I was lucky in that the race course was mere blocks from my workplace. I was able to catch the action before work, at lunch and for an hour or so after work. Come with me as I share photos of the races and the health and wellness festival that took place in Lykes Gaslight Square in the heart of the race course.

Race sponsor Carrollwood Bicycle Emporium brought their rolling full-service bike shop to the event:
rolling shop

The health and wellness festival was well-attended…massages, bicycle advocacy groups, the Tampa Bay Bicycle Co-op and food were on offer:
festival

The Tampa Downtown Partnership even had free bicycle valet parking for the event, a nice touch!
valet parking

For the womens’ race, we caught The Bike Geek/Bikecommuters.com friend Lily Richeson lining up for her event. She’s number 231, and she placed in the top 20 in her category:
lily
(photo by Lisa Hickman of the Seminole Heights Bicycle Club)

Here’s a pack of juniors and Cat. 5s blazing down the course:
juniors

Part of the technically-challenging course went down Franklin Street in the heart of downtown…those bricks were tough to keep traction on, and there were several wipeouts at the turns onto and off the bricks:
franklin

Some high-speed action:
corner

The Cat. 2/3s in pack formation:
pack

And another action shot as the Cat. 2/3s take a high-speed corner heading toward Ashley Drive (University of Tampa’s “Plant Hall” in the background:
plant hall

It was a great event…hundreds of racers and thousands of spectators throughout the day. Let’s hope this becomes an annual tradition during Florida’s Bike Month!

New NHTSA Study — Florida Most Dangerous for Cyclists

A couple of days ago, we discussed bicyclist fatality statistics in the comments section of this article.

Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just released the findings of a new study, ranking Florida as the most dangerous place in the nation to be a cyclist. Florida led the nation in bicycle fatalities, with 119 deaths in 2007, followed by California with 109, New York with 51, Texas with 48 and Louisiana with 22.

Statistically, the safest places to be a cyclist are the Dakotas, Wyoming, Vermont and Delaware — none of those five states reported a single fatality during the study period. Any of you Florida folks want to head for safer territory?

This study was covered by The Tampa Tribune, among others. Check out the complete article (including lots of blatantly anti-cyclist comments by Tribune readers) by clicking here.

And, click here to read the entire study summary.

Food for thought…