Once you’ve worked up the nerve to walk into a bike shop, you face your next challenge- actually making a decision. Some decisions are small- bike lights, saddle bags, gloves. Others are big- bikes, bike shorts, pedals, shoes. If you’re starting out from scratch, then you’re faced with the biggest decision of all- which bike to buy! First, it is important to understand that you can’t buy a bike online. I mean, you can, but I would imagine that only the most experienced cyclists can order a bike online and get exactly what they want. If you’re just starting out, you need to touch, feel, ride the bike. In my opinion, there’s not really even a reason to research bike brands online, because you don’t know what your bike shop is going to have. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do research on different bike brands, but it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the choices and varieties- and if you’re like me, all those choices will make you want to give up. Most bike shops only carry certain brands anyway, but if you know what brands your store carries, you can do some research on those. However, I suggest just going into the store and seeing what they have. Bike stores don’t carry bad bike brands. Any bike shop worth it’s salt is only going to have bikes it’s proud to sell, which means no matter what you buy, you’re getting a good bike. Hopefully the shop will have a few choices in your size for you to ride, because I do think you should ride more than one bike before you decide.
Before you go into the store, though, you do need to decide why you want a bike, so you can get the right style.
There are quite a few sub categories of bikes, but I think most of them can be put into 4 categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, and cruiser.
Best for: going fast, racing, paved roads, charity rides, fitness riding
If you want to go fast or race, if you plan on doing most of your riding on paved roads, if you want to do longer charity or century rides, if you’re riding for fitness, then a road bike is a good choice. It will go fast on smooth road, but it’s thin frame and thin tires aren’t ideal for anything less than a smooth road or path. They’re usually very light, which means faster riding and climbing, but that means they can’t really take a beating. A road bike can be too much bike for many people and the bent over, forward position can be uncomfortable and intimidating at first. These feelings quickly fad, however, and even road bikes come in simple designs and it’s easy to find one that is just enough bike for you. And, in my opinion, they look sexy as hell. One thing to keep in mind- there is very little reason for you to buy an all carbon bike unless you plan to race or if money is no object. An all carbon frame can offer more comfort on really long rides, as it absorbs road noise better than other materials, and it’s lighter weight might help you go a bit faster, but generally it is not worth the extra money for casual cyclists.
A subset of road bikes that is also very popular are touring bikes. They look very similar to a road bike, but usually have a less extreme position, wheels that are a bit wider and places to attach bags to the bike. They are designed to carry heavy loads, over long distances, with a slow and steady pace. They’re great if you want to do long, multi-day rides, and rides where you carry everything you need with you on your bike or for commuting.
Best for: off road riding, rugged terrain, really crappy street riding
Mountain bikes are pretty self explanatory. They have big, fat tires, so they’re awesome at helping you avoid flats and giving a cushier ride on rough terrain. But those fat tires really slow you down on smooth roads. In my opinion, unless you plan on doing some serious off roading, a mountain bike isn’t very practical for everyday life.
Best for: commuting, casual city riding, running errands, those who prefer a more upright riding position, light off roading
Hybrids offer a bit of both worlds- with fatter tires than road bikes, they’re better able handle unpaved trails and with skinner tires than mountain bikes, they allow for more speed on the roads. The fatter tires are better at avoiding flats than a road bike. They also have the more upright position of the mountain bike. A hybrid is another commuting alternative for those who prefer a more upright position to the touring/road bike forward position. However, because it’s a bit of both worlds, it’s not great at either. But it’s great for running errands, moderate trail riding, and commuting. If you plan to do long rides, train intensively, or get really serious about cycling, then a hybrid is probably not the best choice.
Best for: beach rides, flat trails, basic errands, cruisin’
With it’s oversized tires, totally upright position and single gear, a cruiser is perfect for those who just want to ride short distances in comfort. Because cruisers usually only have one gear, they’re best on flat, smooth roads (paved trails). They’re heavy bikes, but that means they’re durable and can handle a beating. Don’t expect to go fast or far on these bikes, but they make riding on the beach very fashionable.
So, that’s a very basic overview of the types of bikes out there. Once you can narrow down what type of riding you want to do, then you can narrow down what type of bike you’re looking for. If you just want a bike to run to the grocery store or take weekend picnics on the trails, a cruiser or a hybrid is probably the right choice. If you want to commute, a hybrid, touring or road bike is best. It’s important to think about the future as well. If you imagine yourself doing century rides, a road or touring bike is best, even if the drop handle bars and more forward position scare you. If you seriously want to loose weight, a road bike is also a better beat than a cruiser or hybrid. But if you don’t imagine yourself doing anything more strenuous that getting groceries or riding to work, a hybrid or mountain bike will work for you! Even though I was a beginner cyclist, I decided I wanted a road bike because I planned to do RAGBRAI and I was going to ride for fitness and fun. And I liked how road bikes looked ;)
Now you gotta get into that shop, talk to the sales person about what you want, ride a bunch of bikes and see what works for you. If you’re just getting back into cycling after an absence, don’t let the drop bars and more aggressive position of the road bikes scare you off- you quickly get over that and learn to love it.
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