Bicycles are becoming increasingly popular. The high price of gasoline, a growing concern with physical fitness, and even the success of the movie Breaking Away have all combined to make the bicycle a very prevalent alternative means of transportation. However, popular reasons aside, if you’re a young person without a car, or a missionary in the field, a bike may be your only means of transportation.
There are a number of advantages to owning a bike. Besides being a lot of fun, a bicycle is the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. Bikes are an excellent form of exercise, they’re nonpolluting, and they can cost a lot less than a new car.
With so many models on the market, choosing the right bicycle can be a real challenge. Which is best for you will depend on what you plan to use it for, how much you plan to ride it, and how much you can afford to spend. For example, if you need a bike for a paper route and have only $75, you would not buy the same bicycle as your neighbor who commutes 40 miles daily and has $500 to spend. But regardless of how much you can spend, you should know some of the signs of quality so that you can get the most for your money.
The bike-buying process can be divided into three steps: (1) finding a good dealer, (2) evaluating the bike and its components, and (3) taking a test ride.
Look for a dealer with a large selection of bikes. When a dealer carries only one brand, there is usually one bike in each price range. Generally the more bikes you ride and compare, the better your final decision will be.
Don’t let the size of the shop be your only criterion, however. A lot of small, out-of-the-way shops carry a wide range of bikes but keep their extra sizes and colors in a warehouse.
Find a knowledgeable staff. The employees at a good bike shop are usually cyclists themselves and often have a wealth of firsthand information about the bikes the shop carries. In the next section of the article, I will talk a little about bicycle parts or components. However, there is so much variation that it helps to have someone around to answer your questions.
First, let’s take a look at components, starting with the two most important, the frame and the wheels.
Most bikes are assembled using components from five or six major manufacturers, which may mean the frame is the only component many manufacturers actually build. The frame is what distinguishes one bike from another. Good quality frames are usually made from steel or chrome molybdenum tubing. The type of tubing used is indicated by a small label on the seat tube. There are so many different brands of tubing that it’s best to forget the name and find out what materials are used. As a rule, double-butted tubing (thinner in the middle to save weight, but thicker at the ends where strength is needed) is better than straight-gauge (uniform thickness); straight-gauge chrome-moly is better than carbon steel; and anything is better than galvanized pipe.
The way the frame is assembled is as important as the tubing itself. Since the heat generated by welding tends to weaken the metal, most high-quality frames are brazed. Brazing, a form of soldering, joins metal together at lower temperatures than welding.
When making a frame, most good frame builders use lugs, or metal joints, where the tubes meet. Lugs serve two purposes: they strengthen the frame where it is weakest, and they add to the bike’s cosmetic value.
Because wheels spin so quickly, any excess weight seems especially heavy. Engineers call this “rotational inertia.” The general rule is one pound of excess weight in the wheels is equal to two pounds on the frame. Therefore, light yet strong alloy wheels contribute more to a bike’s performance than any other component.
Look for quick-release hubs, alloy rims, and high-pressure (90 to 100 psi) tires. Two types of tires are available: clinchers and tubulars. Clinchers, which use an innertube, are slightly heavier, slower, and harder to change. Tubulars, or “sew-ups” are lightweight and easy to change. The only problem is, they’re so fragile you end up changing them a lot. Very few bikes priced below $500 come with tubular tires as standard equipment, but unless you plan to race, don’t buy them as an option. The most popular size tire is 27 by 1 1/4 inches. 700-by-25-centimeter and 27-by-1-inch tires offer better performance but with less riding comfort.
While you’re looking at a bike, spin the wheels and watch for any noticeable wobble. Then, squeeze a few pairs of spokes together to check tension. (Make sure the wheels are off the ground for both of these tests). Wheel-wobble and uneven spoke tension are signs of a poorly built wheel.
The drivetrain consists of the crankset (front chainwheels and pedal arms), the derailleurs (mechanisms which move, or “derail,” the chain from one sprocket to another), the freewheel (rear sprocket), and the chain.
The crank should be cotterless (no cotter pin) and made of alloy. Steel is a good material for pedals since they tend to take a lot of abuse. But whether you get steel pedals or alloy, toe clips are a good investment: they keep your foot in the proper position which makes pedaling much easier and more efficient.
If you live in a very hilly area, you may want to replace the standard gearing with a lower range. Many bikes that are still called “ten-speeds” actually have 12, thanks to a six sprocket freewheel. The only advantage of a 12-speed over a 10-speed is the wider choice of gears, although most people never use a bicycle’s entire range. The best advice on gearing is to find what works for you and the type of riding you will be doing.
Several bikes feature the new anatomically designed seats as standard equipment. By placing more padding where you need it and less where you don’t, these saddles offer greater comfort. If the bike you want is perfect in every other respect but has an uncomfortable saddle, consider buying a seat separately.
Both the cheapest and most expensive brakes available are sidepull. Almost every medium-priced bike uses centerpull brakes. They’re rugged and easy to adjust, but they weigh more and don’t stop as well as more expensive sidepulls. Whatever brakes you get, stay away from the so-called safety levers. Safety experts call them death levers because they may slow the bike down but won’t stop it in an emergency. If they come with the bike you buy, have them removed.
Racing-style, dropped handlebars may look uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to them, they make riding a lot easier. You pedal more efficiently, wind resistance is less, and you have a greater choice of hand positions.
Once you have narrowed the number of possible bikes down to three or four, take test rides on each if possible. If you are making your purchase in a bike shop, ask the dealer to determine what size frame you need, adjust the bike to fit you, and pump the tires to the proper pressure.
When you first get on the bike, forget about individual components and get a general impression. How does the bike feel? Does it ride smoothly? Does it turn easily? Does the bike ride in a straight line without any tendency to pull to one side? Is it quiet?
If the bike passes this overall test, start focusing on individual components again. When you accelerate quickly, does the frame respond quickly, without feeling mushy or lifeless?
The drivetrain should be extremely quiet and efficient. Gear changes should be fast and easy, without a lot of grinding or chain skipping.
The brakes should stop the bike smoothly and quickly, without sticking or squeaking.
Finally, judge the saddle for comfort. If it’s not exactly what you want, say so. The seat is the easiest component to change, and you’ll be sorry (and sore) if you settle for less than you need.
The only absolute, must-have, can’t-do-without accessory is a cycling helmet. (Be sure to avoid the “leather hair net” track racing type helmet.) Ninety percent of all serious bicycle injuries involve the head, and most could be prevented if riders wore helmets. All helmets look strange, but you’ll look a lot stranger picking gravel out of your scalp.
Bicycle theft is a real problem. Unless you never leave your bike outside (mine is with me constantly), you’re going to need a lock. They won’t stop every thief, but at least you won’t be tempting anybody.
Bicycling is a great sport, great exercise, and a great way to get around. With an efficient, well-tuned bike, it’s even better. Now that you know a little more about how to buy one, start saving. It won’t take long.
If you plan to use a bike infrequently, or if your funds are severely limited, there are some inexpensive ways of going mobile.
For occasional trips to the store or Saturday rides in the park, a single or three-speed bike may be all you need. You can’t go as fast or as far on a three-speed, but you can still go. Follow the same three rules for buying a bike, but keep in mind that the components will be somewhat different, so a good dealer and test-riding become that much more important.
Used bikes are probably the cheapest alternative. Again, the same rules apply, with the exception of finding a good dealer. Place special importance, however, on the quietness of the bike. I can always tell when a bike has been neglected by listening to the squeaks, rattles, and grinding as I pass by. Top-quality bikes are practically silent.
Don’t forget the possibility of sharing a bike within a family. If you make an investment in a bike that will last, more than one member of the family can use it. A good bike, well-maintained, could easily make it through three missions and a paper route or two.
Whatever you do, look for quality. Don’t buy a low-quality bike and inherit someone else’s headaches. And why buy a new, bargain-brand 10-speed when you can have a good quality three-speed for the same price?