shopping for a bicycle in nyc: what’s in store

With her budget set and a list of hybrid bikes for fitness and recreational riding in hand, Manhattan resident Genia Blaser, the subject of our 8-part series on city cycling for beginners, was ready to make a purchase. On a sunny Saturday morning in March, velojoy contributor Genevieve Walker and I set out on a shopping trip with Genia. Read on to discover her choice.

ABOVE: Genia was surprised at the weight of a city U lock that Alex (left) at Bicycle Habitat showed her.

Purchasing a bicycle locally is a good idea because shops service what they sell, and establishing a relationship  — especially with a good mechanic — can pay dividends in the long term. It’s true that entering a bike shop, especially for beginners or those returning to cycling, like Genia, can seem bewildering for a variety of reasons. City bike shops are often densely packed with merchandise, a “bike culture” aura can sometimes feel exclusionary, and let’s face it, the traditionally male-dominated bicycling industry doesn’t exactly have a sterling record of responsiveness to women.

Prior to her shopping trip, Genia expressed some not-uncommon concerns:

“As a woman, walking into a bike shop can feel intimidating,” she says. “Also, I don’t really feel that I have the vocabulary to communicate about bicycles.”

All this is to say that it’s worth the effort to seek out, and support, bicycle shops that help customers — all customers — feel at ease and that are genuinely committed to service. After visiting three Manhattan bike shops, Genia ultimately gave her business to Bicycle Habitat in SoHo. “My shopping experience was definitely enhanced by the helpful sales rep who seemed to really care that the bike be a good match,” she said later.

Test Riding Bike
In her search for a bike for fitness and recreation, Genia prepared to take a test-ride on Lafayette St.

Make the Most of Your Shopping Trip

So, where to begin? Genia asked around about the bike shops in her area (the cream rises to the top, as the saying goes) and also visited several different ones to compare her experiences.

When you’re ready to walk through the bike shop door:

  • Be prepared with a list of your needs and some online research. The latter will not only make shopping a more pleasant experience for you, but will also provide the salesperson who waits on you with valuable information on which to base advice.
  • Keep an open mind when listening to suggestions.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions; taking notes will help you keep information about your shop visits from getting scrambled when it’s decision time.
  • Finally, be up-front with the salesperson. If you’re doing some initial research, tell him or her. Ask for a business card, and make note on it of the models that interest you; then, if you plan to make a purchase, seek that salesperson out again.
Coffee Break
Genia and Genevieve (center) paused for a coffee break in between bike shop visits.

Zeroing in On A Bicycle for You

The bike shop is where the research you’ve done translates into “real-life” experience with bicycles and their features. The salesperson is your guide. Working with Genia’s budget and list, Bicycle Habitat salesperson Alex Modic helped Genia zero in on bikes best suited to her, by focusing on the following:

Checking price tag
Genia checks the price tag on a hybrid bike.

1. Size and fit – Your salesperson can help advise you on finding the right size and fit — considering frame size, reach to handlebar, seat height and other factors. These are crucial, because an uncomfortable bike is unlikely to get much love from its owner. Note that not all female riders need woman-specific models. In fact, the newest thinking about fit focuses more on the similarities than differences  between women’s and men’s bodies, according to an article in the March 2012 issue of  Bicycling Magazine. Translation: Individual comfort is what counts.

2. Components and specs –  For new cyclists or those who are returning to cycling, basic considerations such as internal versus external gearing and handle bar type, which your salesperson can help you compare, mostly outweigh the significance of specs for individual components. Notes the buyer’s guide in the April/May 2012 Bicycle Times magazine: “Since you’re looking for bikes for a particular riding style and within a small price window, all the models will offer similar parts packages. The specifics of each component are not worth worrying about. The cycling marketplace is highly competitive and the overall parts package at any price point will be comparable.”

3. Esthetic – Along with fit and features, you’ll probably want a bike that suits your personal style. Some buyers feel more strongly than others about the color of the frame and its detailing, as well as the design and finishes of the components. Many models come in multiple colors, so if the shop doesn’t have your color choice in stock, they can usually order it for you. They can also help you customize. Don’t like the stock handlebar grips? Buy an ergonomic design separately.

4. Gear – In New York, safety equipment that is required by law includes a bell, a white light on the front of the bike and a red light on the rear. But you’ll likely need additional gear, possibly including a helmet, a lock and some device for carrying your belongings. Your sales person can help you find accessories that fit your budget and needs.

5. Service plans – Be sure to ask each shop about its post-purchase service. Most dealers offer a free tune-up to adjust brake and gear cables after you’ve ridden the bike for a month or so. Some sell extended warranties. Others give a discount on gear when purchased with a bicycle.

Ride Before You Buy

Getting Ready for Test Ride
Genia walked her loaner bike into the street.

A critical factor in shopping for a bicycle is riding it. A bike that looks great, but that doesn’t fit your body or match your cycling needs is more likely to end up in storage or on eBay than rolling across city pavement with a happy rider on its saddle. Most reputable bicycle shops will encourage you to take a test spin before you buy. Just be prepared to leave a credit card at the register to secure your loaner.

At Bicycle Habitat, Alex adjusted the saddle height, had the mechanic pump up the tires, and fitted Genia with a loaner helmet before ushering her to the door for her test ride.

Although Genia says she had some trepidation about riding alongside cars, Genevieve and I wouldn’t have know it by watching her. She walked the bike to Spring Street, hopped on and soon disappeared around the block.

(At shops located on busy city thoroughfares, an alternative to riding outdoors is to ask the salesperson to put the bike on a trainer, so you can try out fit, pedaling and shifting.)

Tada! Here’s What Genia Bought

Genia’s choice, after narrowing her list to eight and then test-riding four, was the Trek FX 7.2, part of the company’s most popular line. Genia says she chose this model based on her comparative comfort on the test ride, and on the appearance and detailing of the frame. At a retail price of $549.99 it was within the budget range of $400 to $600 that she had established at the beginning of her search.

Trek 7.2 FX WSD
photo: Trek

Trek FX 7.2 WSD, aluminum frame, 8-speed trigger shifters, Shimano set, linear pull brakes, dusty blue, $549.99

To make her bike “street-legal” Genia purchased a white light for the front of her bicycle and a red light for the rear, plus a bell. Now that she’s got her bicycle, Genia is almost ready for the bike lanes. But first, she needs to learn how to keep her new purchase secure on the streets.

Next: Mechanic Susan Lindell demonstrates devices and locking techniques for city bicycles.

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