Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bike Buying Guide - Part 1

There is a small bike boom that has been growing in the United States for several years.  Lots of influences are driving the increased awareness, increased ownership and increase in commuting.  Some of the credit probably goes to the now-disgraced Lance Armstrong, but even more should go to the people in communities who are just getting out and riding.  The more of them you see on the street, the more it looks like something "you" could do.

As a result, there are a lot more people interested in bikes and looking at buying a bike for the first time as an adult or stepping up from the department store style bike that has been in the garage for a decade or more.  And that, dear readers, is why I am going to provide some solid, down-to-earth advice on buying bikes.

First up, let's look at styles of bikes:
  • Road bikes, which typically have skinny tires, drop handlebars and many gears.  This is the category of bike that people use to do races "like" the Tour de France.
  • Mountain bikes, which typically have wider tires with knobbies or grip pattern, flat bars and also have many gears, often having three chainrings.
  • Hybrid or Fitness bikes, which are between these two styles, usually with tire widths in-between, an upright position and flat bar, and may have a lot of gears or as few as three-gears or even internal gears (so that the gears are in the rear hub and shift automatically - giving the rider the benefit of more gears but without the complexity).
In addition to these three broad categories, there are many variations.  For instance, the road bike category broadly includes "track" bikes or single speed bikes, fixed gear bikes, time trial bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes and variations aimed at commuters, cross-country riders or gravel road aficionados.

Mountain bikes include bikes with 26" wheels, 29" wheels, now 650 c or 27.5" wheels, and "fat" bikes with tires dramatically wider for riding on sand or snow.  Also, mountain bikes in most of these tire configurations can include rigid frame bikes, hardtail bikes with a front suspension fork, or full-suspension bikes with a front and rear shock system (rear suspension also comes in more than a dozen varieties).

And lastly, there are other variations including tandem bikes (for one person who likes to ride bikes and one person who doesn't but got dragged into it against their will), recumbent bikes (for people who like the idea of riding, but want a place to carry their conspiracy theory notes on their laps),  cruiser bikes (for people who like the idea of riding, but don't ride except on the boardwalk next to Venice beach), electric bikes (for people who like the idea of riding, but don't ride except back to the store to get the motor fixed that inexplicably never works).

So, with all of that in mind, the first thing to do is decide what kind of riding you "think" you would enjoy doing - road, trails, both, racing, leisurely, across the neighborhood, across the state or whatever.  And, after you have decided what category of bike, the next thing to do is decide on your bike budget. 

This is one of those things that is hard to answer.  It's a bit like deciding how much to spend on a "car".  You can spend $500 on a car, or $5,000 or $50,000 or $150,000 or more and you will get dramatically different results.  The same is true with bikes, but I am going to give you a handy reference guide to help determine how much to spend.  This assumes, however, that you have this sum to spend.  If you don't, buy what you can afford because it is more about the "engine" than the bike and you can have fun on a $25 bike (as long as it's not bought from a crack-addict in an alley - then the guilt of buying a stolen bike ruins the fun).  But, my rule of thumb would be that if you are going to ride less than once a week, spend less than $1,000.  If you are going to ride once a week up to seven times a week, feel free to spend $1,000 for each day per week you will be on it, so $1,000 - $7,000. 

"That's crazy!", you non-bike owners are thinking.  $7,000 for a bicycle!  Yes, well, welcome to the age of technological innovation in cycling and a growing group of middle age people spending freely on their hobby.  You can have the same discussion about golf clubs, running shoes, sports cars or wine.  There are choices at many price levels, there reasonable values and then as you go up the stuff that gets crazy good, depending on what you want to spend.  Does this mean "you" should spend $7,000 on a bike.  No, you should not.  On the other hand, if you are already wanting to spend seven large on a bike, then the prior paragraph is all you need to feel good about it.  You earned the money, you love the bike, so go spend in good conscience.  I won't tell your spouse that I came up with the rule of thumb just to justify spending the money on a bike.

Two other thoughts on the price of a bike.  I think Keith Bontrager was credited with saying that you could have bikes or components that were light, strong or inexpensive, but you only got to pick two.  And when he said that, light and strong were not cheap, but they aren't anything like the amount of light, strong and expensive you can buy now. 

And, here is the other reality of expensive bikes:
  • a $1,000 - $2,000 bike is at least 100% nicer than sub $500 bike.
  • a $3-5,000 bike is 50% nicer than sub $2,000 bike.
  • a $7,500 bike is 25% nicer than sub $5,000 bike.
  • a $10,000 bike is 10% nicer than sub $7,500 bike. 
  • a $15,000+ bike is 2-5% nicer than sub $10,000 bike
I think they call that the law of diminishing returns.  On the other hand, the beauty of a bike may not follow these progressions and this does not attempt to capture the coffee-shop envy generated in each category. 

So now you have an idea of what kind of bike and how much you want to spend, so what kind of frame material should you get for your bike?  Look for that in the next day or two.

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