Advice on Purchasing a Bike
A bike is not a washing machine. It is not nearly as reliable. You can buy a washing machine, use it many times a day, and expect it to work flawlessly for twenty years. A bicycle has to be a compromise between reasonable weight, cost, and durability. The bike could be as reliable as the washing machine, but it would weigh as much - around 300 pounds.
What about weight?
Most bike enthusiasts are very concerned about weight. They'll pay $1,000 to get a 23-pound bike instead of a 24-pound bike. It is similar to getting a Hassleblad to take snapshots, or a Ferrari to pick the kids up from school and get the groceries. Even ten pounds difference in weight is insignificant compared to whether you are in good condition or not. And, once you start riding your new bike, your condition will naturally improve. You can feel the difference in handling characteristics with a bike that's three or four pounds lighter, but it's not terribly important. I saw one fellow win a sanctioned ten-mile time trial on a 38-pound 3-speed bicycle with toe clips screwed into the rubber pedals.
Something that surprises many people is how badly bikes shift gears. Although a good bike can often be tuned to shift flawlessly for a while, that is not the average state of bicycle shifting. The mechanism is pretty clunky when you think about it. Most bikes shift by shoving the chain into alignment with one of many sprockets. It can be noisy, inaccurate, and require some fiddling with the shift levers. Interestingly, even $3,000 bikes are not immune to this, although of course as you spend more money, you do get somewhat better shifting quality.
Buy Your Bike in a Bike Shop or a Discount Store?
I'd suggest the bike shop if you can afford it. The bikes arrive boxed at both kinds of stores, and have to be assembled and tuned. Generally, the discount store gives you the bike in a box, or pays someone who has little or no education in bicycles to assemble it for you. What generally happens is that some of the bearings are not adjusted properly. They are often shipped too tight from the factory, and will grind themselves up in a short time if not adjusted. In almost all cases, the discount store bikes are heavier, but considerably less expensive. However, when properly adjusted, even the most inexpensive bikes can give you many years of enjoyable service.
We have undergone a silent revolution in the past ten or twenty years. It is now possible to manufacture things with little or no human interaction. So, no matter how complex a bicycle is, it can be cloned for very little more than the cost of materials. Therefore, the discount bike can be fairly well-made and reliable, but the manufacturers will use lowest-cost, heaviest materials.
The one issue of quality that can make a huge difference between a discount store bike and one purchased in a bike store is in the brakes. Some of the least expensive bikes have brakes that barely work. It has amazed me how bad they can be, and yet the manufacturers don't seem to get sued over this issue. However, almost all bikes with bad brakes can be greatly improved by installing better quality brake pads, which you can purchase in any bike shop.
What about support?
Imagine asking a clerk in a discount store a technical question about your bike, or anything, for that matter! You'll get opinion, but probably not fact. If you ask the same question in a bike shop, you'll get a factual answer backed with experience and enthusiasm for the sport. You'll find a similar situation with warranty repair. Now remember, bikes are by their very nature, a compromise, so they often have some mechanical issues soon after purchase. If your discount bike store has a problem, their only possible response is to give you a refund or another bike. You may have already become accustomed to your bike, like it, and not want to give it up. Worse, if you accept another just like it, it may have the same or other problems! In bicycle shops, they have the facilities to fix almost anything. Of course the flip side of this is that it is easy for the discount store to give you a full refund. Many bike shops are shoestring operations, and the owners are sometimes hard-pressed to issue refunds.
I doubt you'll ever be able to test ride a bike offered at a discount store. On the other hand, most bike shops encourage test rides, so that you can be sure the bike fits, and has characteristics you like. In fact, most bike shops have to allow test rides to be competitive. Some have sample bikes that you can ride. Others let all display bikes be tested. So, when you buy a 'new' bike, it may have a couple of miles on it.
What to look for in a test ride.
Probably the greatest indication that you have the right bike is that you should feel confident and comfortable. You should test several bikes. Quite often, what feels strange about a bike will prove to be inherent in the type of bike, but in other cases, you can find a bike that feels noticeably better than similar ones. The handling, especially in turns, should be smooth and natural. The shifting should be reasonably quiet and clean. (If the bike you test shifts badly, ask that it be adjusted, since it may be only an adjustment problem, not something in the design.) The braking should be smooth, not jerky (sometimes indicating badly made wheel rims in the case of caliper brakes), and not squeaky. The brake levers should not feel spongy when you squeeze them. The handlebar position and grips should feel comfortable. The shifters should be easy to reach and operate.
How to test ride:
Ask to have the seat height set properly unless you can do it yourself. Stay within easy walking distance of the shop. You'd be amazed how often something goes wrong with a new bike. Yet, if at all possible, ride the bike up and down a hill as steep as you are likely to encounter on a regular basis. Going up, you're looking for how the bike handles at low speeds, how it shifts into low gears, and whether the gearing is low enough. Going down, you want to feel the brakes, handling, and mild cornering ability. If you are comfortable doing so, try riding with no hands. The bike should maintain a straight line without needing to lean to one side. It should respond to your leaning by steering as expected. At high speeds, there should be no wobble of the front wheel. Do a lot of shifting, making sure to shift into the highest and lowest gears several times. After gaining confidence, try some fairly sudden stops. If it is a road bike, make sure to raise an inch or so off the seat before hitting even the smallest of bumps and balance your weight on the pedals. If it is an off-road bike, unless you've been given a sample and told it is OK to get it dirty, do not go sloshing through muddy creeks, but you may want to try going carefully over some curbs to test out the suspension and handling in off-road situations.
How About Used Bikes?
Ah, glad you asked. By buying a used bike, you prevent all the pollution and waste that comes with manufacturing, packaging and shipping a new product. You can often get a very good deal by buying second-hand. Sometimes, people are willing to sell late-model bikes for less than half of what they cost. Look over a used bike for bent wheels, worn out tires, and test ride to make sure everything is running as you'd like. Before test riding, check the air pressure and the brakes. Make sure the pedals, cranks, handlebar fittings and wheels are all properly secured. It is also a good idea to look over the entire chain to make sure there are no defective links. You can do this fairly quickly by pedaling backward while watching the profile of the chain. A damaged link will usually stick out compared to the others. If you have the opportunity, take the used bike to a bicycle shop for an assessment of its mechanical condition and value. They will often do this for free, in hopes of gaining your business. Not only will possible problems be exposed, but you may manage to talk the seller into a lower price. You can sometimes come up with spectacular deals at garage sales.
But, what about stolen bikes?
When buying a used bike, that is something you must consider. Imagine that a 15-year-old kid saved all summer for a bike that was stolen. How would it make you feel to be a part of the supply chain that caused that? So, even if you don't swipe a bike, buying one that you know is stolen is pretty much the same thing. One of the best ways to make sure a bike is not stolen is to ask to see the original receipt. If you can't get that, and if you do trust the seller, ask the seller to write a receipt with serial number, date, description, along with complete and verifiable contact information.
Police auctions present an interesting opportunity, or do they? You can get some very nice bikes for great prices at police auctions. However, almost all of the bikes have a history of theft. Guess what? The police don't own those bikes - not really. They do have to sell them to make room for more bikes that are sure to accumulate. However, the person from whom a bike was stolen is still the legitimate owner. If you're riding along on your nice police auction bike, and someone recognizes it, you may have to give it back!
Your bike must fit properly to be safe and comfortable. In the case of road bikes, most people will agree that you should be able to stand over the middle of the toptube on a man's style frame, with your feet about twelve inches apart, and be able to lift the front wheel one or two inches. For bikes that will be used for off-road riding, you should be able to lift the front wheel 4 or 5 inches. The reasoning is not that you may hurt yourself by hitting the toptube in an accident, but that while you are trying to prevent an accident, you may have to put a foot down here and there. You should not have to be concerned about hitting the toptube, so you can focus on the problem at hand. Getting a bike that's too small means the handlebar may be too low relative to the seat for good comfort and control.
When you buy a bike at a bicycle shop, the salesperson will probably try to push accessories. The shop makes a fairly small percentage of profit on the bike, but a much larger percentage on accessories. In some cases, they make more on what you buy along with the bike than on the bike itself. Consider your needs and remember you can always get more gadgets later. If you ever plan to leave your bike anywhere farther away than you can reach, you should lock it. You can get a good solid bar lock, a less secure chain or cable, or a very minimal but lightweight lock. In some situations, a minimal lock is sufficient. Left overnight in a dark urban alley, there is no lock that is sufficient. In most cases, you should buy a lock as soon as you have a bike. If you think you will ever be caught out after dark, consider a good blinking light or two. A helmet is a very good idea. Remember that 70% of bike accidents don't involve cars, so your helmet can save you even if you are riding entirely off-road. I personally like a mirror for riding in traffic. I want to know what is going on behind me. If I see something crazy, I'll be able to get off the road until it passes. You can also buy carrying equipment, although a plain old backpack is the best way to carry a light load. There are many more things you can buy for your bike such as fenders, speedometer (cycle computer), different pedals, tires, handlebar grips, and so on. One thing you can do when buying a new bike is to bargain at the bike shop for free or reduced-price accessories plus free installation. Don't be afraid to ask. Most bicycle shops are in competition with other stores, and will be willing to consider some negotiation if they think you might buy somewhere else. The range is going to be less than 10% in most shops. They don't make a whole lot on the bike itself. And, they'd rather give you additional products instead of cash off, because it costs them less to give you a $20 tire pump that they bought wholesale than to give you a $20 reduction.
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