Out on the street where you live, it’s finally summer. Maybe this means that the world outside your door is as hot as the surface of the sun or the trees have conspired to drown you in allergens, but regardless, winter has finally gone and died and guess what; it’s time to ride your bicycle.
“But,” you, ever the whiner, say, “I don’t have time,” or, “It’s too hard,” or, “I don’t even have a bicycle.” Nonsense! None of these problems should impede you in the least. Riding a bike is among the best ways to spend your time, and you don’t have to be a spandex-clad asshole to enjoy it or get good at it. Cycling can be whatever you want it to be—a way to get in shape, a competitive pursuit, a way to get around your city, or simply something to do. It’s for everyone.
Which bike is the bike for me?
Unlike its cheaper, lesser cousin (running), cycling requires specialized equipment—a bicycle, at the least. There is no one-size-fits-all butts bicycle that will fulfill every person’s needs, because everyone uses their bike for something different. You have to be honest with yourself and figure out what you are going to use your machine for. If you are going to transport kids and/or groceries, maybe look for something with the capacity to transport cargo. If you want a bike that you can take out for 80-mile rides over mountain passes, you absolutely do not want a cargo bike unless you are currently training for the cargo bike world championships, in which case, this is not the blog for you. Fat bikes look cool and are indisputably awesome; you probably don’t need a fat bike.
The bicycle industry—faced with the realities that one or two bikes are more than enough for nearly all people and that a bike will last a really long time if well-maintained, and, for that matter, even if it isn’t—spends enormous amounts of time and money defining niches of cycling and niches of those niches and niches of niches of those niches, and then convincing people that they need, say, a carbon fiber time-trial bike with hyper-light foam grips and an ovoid chain ring that costs as much as a new car. For our purposes, there are really three types of bike worth considering: city bikes, mountain bikes, and road bikes. (Spoiler: You should probably get a road bike.)
A city bike, broadly, is any kind of bike with swept-back handlebars that has you sitting upright. Go ahead, put a cargo rack on the front handlebars. You want some fenders and maybe one of those inexplicably expensive thingies that let you ride home with a six-pack? All you. These are very fun bikes to ride for about five miles at a time on flat terrain. After that, their increased weight overshadows their sleek profile and burns the legs.
A mountain bike is a, well, mountain bike: Flat handlebars, big tires, low gearing. Mountain bikes are excellent for riding around in the woods and on actual mountains; they make great around-town bikes because they’re comfortable and you can ride them through or over giant potholes and bad pavement; and you can get old ones without fancy features that you probably don’t want anyway for pretty much nothing. The significant downside is that for various reasons they’re not fun to ride on the road for long periods of time.
A road bike is, generally, any kind of bike with curved handlebars that puts you in a leaned-over position. This covers a ridiculous range of bikes, from track bikes with one gear and tires the width of floss to touring bikes built like tanks. In the middle you have a lot of bikes that will do anything you could reasonably ask of them.
If you want to put in a serious amount of miles, or even think you might want to, you will want a decent road bike. It will get you over the five miles between you and the office just as comfortably as a city bike, and if you pick the right kind—a cyclocross bike with low gearing and room for big tires, say—it will do just fine in the woods or on a mountain; meanwhile it will allow you to ride as far as you want as fast as you want.
Whatever kind of bike you want, you don’t need to spend four figures, or close, for a bike you’ll use for commuting or bopping around the city.
Say you want to do any kind of dirt riding but would not like to pedal around a big-ass mountain bike (understandable); a cyclocross bike is a great idea. They tend to be metal-framed, on the light side, and built like road bikes only with wider forks so as to accommodate thicker tires. I wish I had one.
If you’re not as experienced, consider the aggressive positioning and thinner tires of the road bike before you put down money one one. An eight-pound road bike with feather-light components and a seat the size of an iPhone isn’t the friendliest starter bike. Also, the nicer the bike looks, the more likely it is that it will get targeted by thieves.
An old steel frame is a perfectly fine way to cruise around the park or make the odd run to the store. Your neighborhood’s physical geography should inform the sort of bike you choose. The shorter distance you plan to ride every day, the more wiggle room you have in selecting a bike. If there are hills, consider something on the lighter side, but if you’re just bopping around in the park or riding a few miles here and there, you have wiggle room. I live in an area with above-ground train tracks all over the street, so I’ve fallen ass-over-teakettle often enough to know that I need something with thicker tires to navigate in peace.
A word on racks: Rigging up your bike to be able to carry cargo is simple and (obviously) useful. I’d shy away from buying a basket, because those are not durable and they look dumb. For most city or road bikes, a front rack makes more sense than a rear rack, since it requires fewer changes to the structure and weight distribution of the bike. A simple metal guy will do the trick, and bundling up your crap with bungee cords or a thin rope is the lightest way to carry a small load. Keep in mind that a loaded front will change how much weight you have to shift to make turns, so don’t overdo it. However, if you are commuting with more than you can comfortably carry on a front rack, over-the-tire or around-the-tire racks will work. The smaller the better, since a bike is a small craft that can be destabilized by small left-right shifts in weight.
What kind of frame?
As noble as your mom’s old steel horse from the 1970s is, you need to consider weight when purchasing a rig designed to go for long distances. You don’t necessarily need a high-end, carbon-fiber, Tour de France caliber bike, but an aluminum, carbon, or light steel frame will save you a ton of grief if you have hills in front of you.
Steel gets a rap as an ancient material for cavemen to ride on, but it’s a perfectly fine metal to build a bike frame with. Steel frames made this decade are an entirely different species from the Hulked-out Centurions and Treks you’ll see on any college campus, and they weigh only marginally more than a carbon-frame bike of equal cost. The pound or so you give up in weight is made up for in an increased durability and (probably) a cheaper bike. Steel also absorbs more shock than carbon, which makes it the top choice for touring bikes, which are cargo-laden rigs built for long rides day after day.
Carbon fiber does make for an easier ride, especially if you’re going to be doing any climbing. You get better power transfer but also feel every notch in the road thanks to the stiffness of carbon. It’s more fragile than steel or aluminum, and if you are unlucky as my friend Curtis, one wrong fall and that $900 frame is going to have go in for some $300 repairs, because carbon fiber is much harder to repair. Metal dents; carbon cracks. Aluminum is somewhere between the two in terms of weight, durability, and comfort.
So just, like, get a bike that looks right, or what?
An obvious piece of advice: Get a bike that fits you. The listed size of a bike frame corresponds to the length of the seat tube (the vertical tube that runs up to the seatpost) and it’ll probably be somewhere between 44 and 64 centimeters. You can consult a sizing chart and find out roughly what size bike is right for someone of your height.
However, for a more precise measurement, you’ll want to use a chart that takes into account your height and inseam length. You should not just use the inseam length from your Levi’s since it’ll be a few inches short. Start by putting a book or some other object that approximates the shape of a bike tube between your legs where you want the top tube to rest (pretty close! about 1-2 inches for a road bike!) and measure the distance to the floor. You may need to get a longer or shorter stem (the gizmo that connects the handlebars to the frame) depending on how long your torso and arms are, but the frame size is the most critical here. Seat positioning and angle should be fine-tuned with a bike-shop person or a helpful friend so that you feel comfortable and your leg reaches full extension on each pedal stroke.
Most road bikes will have two chainrings in the front with 53 and 39 teeth on them, and between nine and 11 on the rear-wheel side of the chain. You can get extremely out into the weeds on cassette properties and gear ratios, but the quick and dirty way to conceive of gearing is to focus on the front ring (attached to the crank) and know that the more the teeth of the front ring go around, the more work you’ll be doing per pedal stroke. Shifting the chain on to the smallest ring in the rear and the biggest ring in the front would make the chain pass over the front teeth relatively slowly, while the opposite setup would require moving a lot more weight.
It might sound overcomplicated on the page, but it’s pretty intuitive once you start riding. If you are going to do some extreme climbing, there are all sorts of ways to get lower gears on, ranging from replacing the entire drive train to swapping out a $20 part, and your local bike shop or co-op can get you straight.
Where do I buy this bike from?
There’s nothing better than a new bike. All the gears move as they should and the bike stops when you tell it to. However, a bike straight off the shelves will run you a considerable amount more than a used bicycle. If you can afford it, the best and simplest solution to the problem of not having a bike is going and buying a new one. It will cost you too much. It will work.
For the rest of us, there’s Craigslist.
When trying to buy a used bike online, you will inevitably be beset with all sorts of dumb issues. There are scammers, broken-ass bikes, stolen bikes, entries without pictures, and an inventory that might not have what you’re looking for for weeks at a time. It’s frequently frustrating, but if you can sift through the garbage, you can find unrivaled deals. Police stations will occasionally advertise auctions of unclaimed bikes where there are always decent deals to be had.
I bought my current road bike for a quarter of its sticker price, but that took two weeks of fruitless emailing and getting owned by other bike hunters until I found a match. A good rule of thumb is to be very skeptical of any posting without multiple photos attached. These might very well be people trying to scam you. However, if you email the supposed owner with questions and request more pictures, you’ll quickly find out whether they are trying to grift you or are simply unaware of how the bike internet works, in which case, you might be the only one negotiating with them.
It’s a safe assumption that any bike you buy will have something that at least needs some checking up on. People often sell bikes because they don’t ride them anymore or because they are too lazy to fix them. Getting a non-functioning bike is no fun, but many can be fixed for relatively cheap. Always meet in person (in a well-lit public area etc.) and ride the bike around before you fork over the cash. You should be able to tell what’s wrong, if anything. Before you commit, be aware of how much things cost to repair. If you’re paying just $100 for a bike, but it needs a new crank and pedals, those will run you more than the bike is worth.
Which brands are good?
The dirty secret of cycling is that most top-end bikes are kind of the same. Many of the more respected manufacturers cook up their products in the same factory in Taiwan, and while this doesn’t exactly mean that a Giant and a Scott are the same thing, there isn’t a ton of difference in quality when you get to the higher ranges. The fanciest frames out there are made by Cervelo and Pinarello, while bikes by Cannondale, Specialized, Trek, Scott, Giant, BMC, Colnago, and Bianchi will cost about the same across the spectrum. Your local bike shop will not stock every brand, so shop around if you want to get an idea of how every brand fits. In general, if a WorldTour team rides them, they’ll be more expensive.
Depending where you are in the world, there are ample options apart from the biggest, most expensive brands. Diamondback makes fine bikes, for example. I haven’t ridden them all, but my Cannondale road bike is reliable and light as hell, and you cannot go wrong with anything off the CAAD line if you’re into aluminum.
Should I buy this fixie?
Do not buy that fixie.
What about this heavy-looking “hybrid”?
Maybe? The hybrid is a bike targeted at commuters that, in theory, offers the weight of a road bike with the easy stability of a mountain bike. In practice, it offers neither, and hybrids tend to cost too much.
However, the market is flooded with them, and if you can find a decent deal, they are easily customized into something either more aggressive or more laid-back.
Okay, what’s a good deal?
Short answer: It depends on the bike.
There is no hard and fast rule for how much a bike should cost on Craigslist. If you’re buying a bike that’s on the newer side, it’s fair to pay around half of the sticker price, and possibly less if it’s got some mechanical issues. You’ll be tempted by the gorgeous “vintage” steel-frame road bikes that cost like $900. This is not a good deal, since these bikes tend to weigh approximately 500 pounds and the quality of decades-old road bikes comes down to the durability of the parts rather than the sheen of the frame.
The market for a used bike will vary from town to town. In the Bay Area, for example, it’s hard to get anything with two wheels for less than $200, but this is on the high side because everything in the region also costs too much. If you want, say, a starter bike that you can trick out if you want or take on the odd 30 miler when you get an itch, be prepared to pay over $400 or so, depending on the bike. Like I said, it varies a lot.
Do I need to buy a helmet? I’m not a dork or anything.
Buy a goddamn helmet.
And while you’re at it, lights and reflective materials are just as likely to save you as a helmet. Bikes are silent to drivers and the more noticeable you are, the safer you are. You don’t need a neon safety vest, but consider how well you pop when illuminated by headlights.
Now, how do I get in shape?
If you want to ride to get in shape, find some hills to climb! Cycling is a less efficient way of burning calories than running, yet the edge dulls if you can find something steep to power up. Climbing should be hard, but it’s important to keep your pedaling cadence high so you’re not stuck getting a huge gear to turn over. That will fuck your knees up quickly. For most training rides, you want to keep up a cadence of around 85-100 RPM.
Better yet, try out some Tabata intervals. Interval training on a bike is much better than interval training on foot because you actually get to move around in the outside world instead of circling a track over and over.
A Tabata interval is a rather intense way to get the most out of your workout, and it requires you to go at maximum effort for 20 seconds, take a 10 second break, then lurch back into maximum effort. High-intensity interval training will kick your ass and make you hate your stupid bike and this stupid blog for recommending you buy that stupid bike, but it is the most efficient way to ride a bike to get in shape.
If you don’t feel like murdering your quads, ride it wherever you feel like. That is the point of having a bicycle.
I don’t wanna get squashed by a car!
A good rule of thumb when it comes to cars is that you should just assume that no cars will see you unless your ass is in their face. Most drivers are reasonably aware of cyclists on the road, and while having most drivers on your side makes for a generally pleasant riding experience, a single crash can seriously fuck you up. All the more reason not to chance anything, since you can’t fight a car and win. Stick to the right side of the road—just outside the “door zone,” i.e. the area where you’ll get hit by a door if someone throws it open—stop when you’re supposed to stop, and avoid sidewalks. Learn to read drivers’ eyes, because then you’ll know when they see you. This page has lots of good advice.
Oftentimes, the busiest thoroughfares have the shittiest pavement. This is one of the problems that bicycle boulevards aim to alleviate. Look up where bicycle boulevards are in your city and utilize them, because they’re often the best routes around town. I’ve lived on two different bicycle boulevards in two different cities, and from my experience, they truly are safer and easier alternatives to the main streets right beside them. Aren’t you glad I bought that helmet I told you to?
What other gear do I need?
Not much! If you’re simply commuting to and from work and won’t be riding in the dark or locking your bike up outside, you might only need a helmet and some bike-appropriate clothes. For the love of God, if you plan to lock your bike up outside, buy a good lock. I know those cable locks are so easy (no key!) and U-locks are so heavy, but don’t be a doofus. A good bike thief can crack a U-lock and a dingus bike thief can crack a cable lock. In college, my friend once forgot to lock his bike to a rack on campus and left class to find his machine gone. The next day, he found it in the same place, dinged by the thief’s apparently frustrated attempts to take the U-lock off.
A Kryptonite U-lock will run you between $20 and $120, depending on how serious you want to get. Most locks can come with a cable, and I recommend you grab one to secure your front wheel. Consult this handy chart if you’re unsure exactly how paranoid you should be.
Lights are a must for any after-dark riding. If you live in a poorly lit area and will need to provide your own lighting to see the pavement in front of you, you’ll need a LED light that can do at least 350 lumens. If you just want to be seen by cars, most basic pairs of white/red blinkers will do.
Clip-in pedals are more efficient at transferring power than flat pedals, and they are easier to pick up than one might imagine. Practice the motion while standing on one foot and it’s relatively simple. Anticipate when you’ll need to unclip and you will be fine. Be extra cautious when starting, because most newcomers will need a bit of forward momentum to clip in before falling ass-over-teakettle. For commuting and trawling around the city, I don’t think you need clip-ins. The constant stopping and starting increases the chances of falling, and you won’t be doing any sort of the unbroken straight-line riding where you’d feel the benefits of being clipped in.
Saddles are a whole complicated thing. There’s really just no way to tell which will work for you; happily most good shops will have loaner models you can try out. Assuming the saddle is properly adjusted, there shouldn’t be any discomfort or any pressure on your junk, and counterintuitively, for most people a narrow, rigid saddle will work best. The near-ubiquitous Brooks, WTB, and Specialized are good brands to try out, but even if nothing they make works for you, rest assured that somewhere there is a saddle that will fit your butt perfectly.
Go ride your damn bike!