5 questions to ask before you shop for a bike

As our 8-part bicycling makeover series continues, Manhattan resident Genia Blaser (above) is ready to begin her search for a bicycle to ride for fitness and recreation. She has set aside a budget, but she’s not sure how or where to find the city bicycle that’s right for her.

Many people feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of bicycle types and features available on the market today, but the selection process needn’t be daunting. What you’re after in a city bicycle is one that is well suited  to pavement (and potholes), offers the necessary features for your personal needs, provides a safe and comfortable ride and appeals to your personal esthetic. You can help eliminate a lot of confusing excess and have a more positive and fruitful shopping experience if you think about the following five questions and do some research before setting foot in a bike shop for the first time. Through this process, here’s what Genia discovered:

5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Shop

1. What is your budget?
What you can afford to spend will quickly help narrow the scope of your search. When setting your budget, remember that you will need to buy essentials like a helmet, lock and lights. Genia set a budget of $400 – $600 for a new bicycle, plus $200 for accessories.

2. How will you use your bicycle?
This is key. Each of the following uses, for example, may suggest a different type of bike. So be realistic about your ride style. Will you be commuting to work over the Manhattan Bridge (hybrid)? Riding laps in Prospect Park on weekends (road bike)? Pedaling around the neighborhood in the West Village (cruiser)? Traveling frequently with your bicycle (folding bike)?  Genia wants a bicycle that she can ride for recreation and fitness on roads and bike paths and in city parks. We helped her narrow her options to two types: hybrids and upright city bikes. We eliminated cruisers and road bikes because Genia needs more versatility and features than a single-speed offers, and probably fewer than a road bike. She also prefers a flat bar and more upright posture, for road visibility and comfort, to the drop-bars of a road bike.

3. Where will you be riding?
Will you be riding on flat roads, or will you need to climb some hills, as well? Most people think of NYC as flat, but people who, for example commute from Inwood or ride regularly through certain sections of Harlem know better. Riding across NYC bridges? Some of the approaches can be pretty steep. If hills will be part of your ride, having some gearing options can make your ride more comfortable and efficient. Genia plans to ride the 40-mile 5 Boro Bike Tour and also will be crossing bridges on her regular outings, so we recommended that she look at bicycles with at least 7 speeds for versatility. (To delve deeply into gear theory, we recommend this article.)

4. What Do You Need to Carry?
When using a bicycle to get around the city, you’ll probably need to carry some belongings with you. The extent of that load may influence your choice of a bicycle or its set-up (which also affects the budget for accessories). If you commute to work, your daily cargo may include a briefcase and laptop, and perhaps a change of clothing or shoes; that may call for a sturdy rack with panniers. For many women who simply travel around town with a purse, a front basket may fit the bill. Genia generally doesn’t foresee toting more than a pocketbook, outerwear and small purchases, all of which can fit into a basket, backpack or shoulder bag.

5. What are your future cycling ambitions?
When purchasing a bicycle, it may be wise to consider your future needs. For example, if you think you might evolve from entry-level road cycling to tackling some endurance rides or races, spending a bit more now on higher-quality gearing might be a good choice. While Genia’s current plans are limited to recreation, she says she may consider commuting in the future, so we took that into consideration in her bike search.

Researching What Type of Bike is Right for You

Thoughtful consideration of the questions above helped Genia narrow the scope of her needs to this:

Hybrids and city bicycles with at least 7 speeds in the range of $400 to $600. To the essentials that she had budgeted for Genia would need to add funds for a front basket, a rear rack with a basket, or a bike bag, probably pushing her accessories budget beyond the original $200.

To further refine the search, we sent Genia to a bike shop in her neighborhood to look at the basic differences between the two types of bicycles that seem best suited to her needs: hybrids and city bicycles. View the differences in two of the examples from Genia’s list:

Giant Escape 1W
Giant Escape 1W- Hybrids are a cross between road and mountain bikes. Made of steel or aluminum, they have a flat handlebar which places riders in a position to generate more speed than a city bike, but still enjoy a better view of the road ahead than drop-bar road bike. With derailleur gearing, they provide a wide choice of speeds. Photo: Giant
Linus Dutchie 3 City Bicycle
Linus Dutchie 3 - City bikes give riders an upright posture for more easy-going riding. Constructed of steel or aluminum, city bikes usually have easy-to-maintain internal hub gearing and often come with fenders, chain guards and racks. Photo: Linus

This initial “just browsing” visit, along with a chat with a friendly sales person, helped Genia decide that she preferred the relative sportiness, forward position and gearing options of a hybrid over the more upright posture and easy-going ride of a city bicycle.

Learn About Models and Features Online

Now, it was time to further refine Genia’s search with some online research. We helped her to create a list of 8 hybrids to view online in preparation for her shopping trip, using websites of local bike shops for brands and models in stock. For detailed specs, or to find additional offerings in Genia’s price range, we consulted manufacturers’ websites. Genia also sought advice from friends and family members who had recently purchased bicycles.

Sources of Pre-Shopping Research:

  • Bicycle shops’ and manufacturers’ websites
  • Buying guides and reviews in bicycling periodicals
  • Online forums, such as bikeforums.net
  • Online comments and ratings on web pages for specific bike models
  • Recommendations from family and friends

Remember, the choice of a bicycle is highly personal, so there is no single right answer. A lot comes down to how you feel on the bike, and that means test-riding as many as you need to on city streets.

Next: Genia visits Manhattan bike shops to test-ride hybrids.

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