What kind of bike do you need? The short answer is: Any kind. It doesn't matter, so long as you can ride it.
The longer answer is: You need a bike that fits you, that can be kept in good repair, that is suited to your life and the terrain you'll be bicycling over, and that is fun to ride.
Within those parameters, you'll find multiple options, sometimes too many. Keep in mind that there is no single ideal bicycle. Choosing a bike is a matter of figuring out your needs and then finding a bike that will suit them reasonably well.
Don't assume you need to go out and buy a new bike before you start riding. There's nothing wrong with doing this, of course; but it isn't a requirement. Deciding that you need to find the perfect bike before you can start riding is a great recipe for never beginning.
If you're totally new to riding, one way to get started is to borrow a bike from a friend or family member who is about your height. Even just renting a bike for an afternoon, or test riding a different style of bike at your local bike shop every weekend will help you get a sense of what you like—and, just as important, what you don't like.
Then again, if you know you want to ride, there's something to be said for just jumping into the deep end and getting yourself a bike, any bike. Why wait? Bikes have good resale value, and the bike that frustrates you daily is likely someone else's dream ride. If your shiny new ride doesn't work out, you can sell it and get something else.
You don't have to marry your bike. If your first bike ends up not being right for you, there is no shame in that. Sell it and move on. For most everyday riders, life is a never ending quest for the perfect bike. There's joy to be found in that.
Think about the following questions. It might help to write down any conclusions or questions that come up and bring the list to the bike shop with you.
- Do you want to ride fast or slowly?
- How far will you be riding, and how often?
- Are there a lot of hills where you will be riding?
- What kinds of roads will you be riding on — smooth asphalt, rutted streets, or gravel/dirt roads? Will you need to spend a lot of time on busy streets?
- Do you need to carry stuff on racks on your bike? Will you use a trailer with it? Will you carry children?
- Will you need to bring your bike up and down stairs?
- Do you have a lot of space to park your bike, or does it need to fit into a small apartment or office? Will your bike spend a lot of time parked outside?
- Do you have any medical issues that might affect your bike fit?
- How much do you want to spend?
- What do you want the bike to look like? It's okay to care about color!
Even if you do not have answers to all of these questions, considering them will help you find a bike that meets your needs.
You can save a little money by buying a new bike online or at a department store, but if you'll be riding regularly, it's worth spending a little extra in order to develop a relationship with your local bike shop. That way, when your new bike hurts your wrists or develops a rattle in the first week, you'll have ready help adjusting it to work. You'll always have a place to go with questions, fit help, and repair needs. When you're ready to buy another bike you'll have the advantage of a guide to the process who is already familiar with your needs.
If there are multiple bike shops in your area, shop around. You'll want a place you feel comfortable and where they have the things and services you need in your price range. If you have a good interaction with an employee, it's fine to ask for them specifically when you go back.
For a positive bike shop experience, here are some rules of thumb:
- Be prepared. Go in with as clear an idea as possible of what you need, whether this is the exact part and model number or "something is squeaking near the rear wheel and it's been doing that since the bike fell over last week." Even if you don't know where to begin with researching your needs, think them through as thoroughly as you can.
- Ask a lot of questions. If the salesperson or mechanic says something you don't understand, ask them to define the term or put it a different way. If they aren't willing to answer your questions or don't listen, find another employee to work with or go to a different shop.
- Test ride, test ride, test ride. Never purchase a bicycle that you have not first taken for a spin and found to be comfortable.
Illustrations by Joe Biel
Elly Blue is an author and publisher with a focus on feminist nonfiction about bicycling. She publishes the quarterly zine Taking the Lane. This essay was excerpted with permission from her book Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle). Follow her at @ellyblue.
Elly will be joining us tomorrow, May 21 for a web chat at 12pm EST. See you then!