It’s a perfect day. You’re pedaling along between La Rochepot and Baubigny in France’s Côte de Beaune region, a wheel of epoisses and a baguette ancienne tucked in the front basket. A little tight on good wine. Sun warm on a crisp day. Your girlfriend rides alongside and looks at you affectionately. You do that thing where you reach out and touch fingertips. Then you hit a little bump in the dirt road: You don’t even know how to ride a bike, and now there’s spittle on your Macbook Pro trackpad. Fortunately, that’s all about to change, because you’re about to buy your first bike.
This is not an article about component groups, frame geometry or the benefits of different carbon layup schedules for achieving optimal stiffness-to-weight ratios. It’s an article for people who get a headache from that type of talk, for those who have never worked in a bike shop and who simply want to do some recreational riding, commute to work, enter a charity ride, or just see what it’s like to wear padded spandex shorts. Let’s get started.
Your Chariot Awaits: Road, Mountain or Hybrid?
Buying a bike is a challenge, the good kind, like trying to pick out a cut of beef at the butcher shop. That’s because the bike market is an option-rich environment for beginners. In practical terms, there are three genres of bikes — road, mountain and hybrid — which overlap this way and that, eventually splitting and splintering into sub-categories ad infinitum. If you happen to inherit a bike or barter for one with a neighbor, consider it a blessing; otherwise, the best bet is to drop in at a handful of local bike shops armed with some basic knowledge about the kinds of bikes available and type of riding you intend to do. Pay attention, lest you find yourself rolling up to the office on a tandem.
Road Bikes: Light, fast and really swell-looking with spandex, road bikes are characterized by skinny tires juiced to high pressure, “drop” handlebars that allow the rider to tuck into an aerodynamic position, and a drivetrain that uses two front chainrings and a 10- or 11-gear rear cassette for a total of 20 (or 22) “speeds”. These bikes are meant for pavement, though a handful of famous professional races like the Paris-Roubaix let riders shred cobblestone. There are sub-genres of road bikes that include everything from touring bikes for traveling long distances with a bit of luggage on board to bikes built exclusively for triathlons.
Mountain Bikes: As the name suggests, mountain bikes are built for going off-road. They generally fall into two categories: hardtails, with suspension built into the front fork; and dual- or full-suspension bikes, which have suspension in the rear as well, providing more cushion on rough trails. Whatever the suspension, most mountain bikes use two or three front chainrings and 8, 9 or 10 gears on the rear cassette (though other options are starting to emerge), which offer the rider a greater range of options for how hard and fast he has to pedal to maintain speed over various terrain. With beefy tires and a more upright seating position than a road bike, mountain bikes offer a comfortable ride and can tackle any terrain you throw at them.
Everything Else: Unless you’re taking up mountain or road biking specifically for the sport of it, chances are the right bike falls somewhere in-between — and it’s here that a good bike shop and lots of test rides will come into play. Looking to ride along the boardwalk with a lemonade in one hand and a doobie on your lip? Try a cruiser. Live in a tiny hobbit home? Consider a folding bike. Want to pack up the bikes and for a weekend in the country and ride with your kids? A hybrid bike combines the “take anything you throw at it” of a mountain bike with the nimbleness of a road bike. Live in a city and want to commute with the hardcore masses? Look for a single-speed bike with handy features like a cargo mount and fenders to keep the grime off your trousers.
What Are Your Goals?
If knowledge of your bike options is important before hitting the shops, it’s just as important to do some soul searching about your own cycling aspirations. You wouldn’t get a cruiser and expect to train for Ironman any more than you would eat sushi at 7-11 and expect to live past 40. “First-time bike buyers need to define the intended use first, then try to find a machine that addresses that use,” Andrew Crooks says. Crooks is the owner of NYC Velo, a popular bike shop in the East Village of New York City. “Do they need to get from home to work and back, improve their aerobic capacity [exercise], ride local trails, take their kids to school or pack up and ride to Key West?” Brand, price, color and components can each be sorted out in turn after addressing these goals.
For example, if a gentleman — let’s call him Cyclist A, or just Doyle — knows that he wants to commute from his apartment in Brooklyn to the pet shop where he works on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and also that he wants to log miles for exercise and eventually do a 100-mile charity ride, he should probably get a road bike of good quality that also has potential for component upgrades in the future. Doyle will have to forego the basket in which to transport puppies to and fro, but you can’t very well have it all. Cyclist A’s college friend, Cyclist B, or Perry, on the other hand, who also lives in Brooklyn, just wants to commute from his apartment to nearby Wall Street. He definitely needs a basket to carry his Margiela duffel filled with cash and wants his feet close to the ground so he doesn’t scuff his John Lobbs, so he’ll do nicely with a flat-foot cruiser.
Which Bike Shop?
3 Great Bike Shops
RAPHA CYCLING CLUB
Like your cycling stylish, with a double shot of espresso? Check out Rapha Cycling Club in San Francisco. The maker of high-end cycling gear and sponsor of Britain’s Team Sky has an outpost in the Marina District complete with their apparel, a cafe and space to kick back and relax with friends before or after a ride in Marin County. Not in the Bay Area? Stop by locations in Sydney, London and Osaka.rapha.cc
New York City-based Signature Cycles is hands-down one of the best bike shops in the country, but don’t swing by expecting to find cruisers and hybrids. The studio, tucked away on the west side of Manhattan, specializes in custom fittings on high-end brands like Serotta, Guru and Seven. They take appointments. They have a bar.signaturecycles.com
If some bike shops can feel clubby and exclusive, Velo Cult is the exact opposite. The 10,000 square foot shop in Portland, OR, has a big communal table, a bar stocked with micro brews, a coffee selection fit for serious caffeine nerds and a stage for live music. The bike selection is equally robust, with a focus on bikes for “commuters, tourists, randonneur riders and other subcultures of the cycling community.” velocult.com
The point to be taken from Doyle and Perry is that these two guys with their different goals will need a shop that can help them find an appropriate first bike for their needs, not to mention a little counseling. A friendly shop like NYC Velo, which Crooks describes as a “wide-spectrum bike shop” would probably suit them both since their most popular bikes with customers are city/commuter and enthusiast-level road bikes.
On the other hand, if either of these guys walked into Brooklyn-based R&A Cycles, also what you might call a wide-spectrum bike shop, they could be overwhelmed because R&A carries a lot of very expensive racing machines and doesn’t cater as well to beginners. That doesn’t make it a bad shop — in fact, far from it. Buying a first bike is about getting a sense of what’s out there, and not every shop will be the right fit — just move on to one that is and don’t let ego get the best of you.
What Are Clipless Pedals, Anyway?
Anyone who begins cycling as an adult will inevitably be troubled by a few things, like why are “clipless” pedals the ones that clip in, and why doesn’t my new road bike come with pedals?
The clip that was subtracted was the toe-clip, or toe-cage, which became old goat when the step-in-style pedals were adopted en masse in the 1980s. The cleat snaps into the pedal and turns the cyclist and bicycle into a unified speed machine by allowing the rider to transfer power throughout the entire pedal stroke. But do you need them? The short answer is that most people who ride consistently, cover distances of more than a few miles and are concerned with either speed or conserving energy would enjoy a better ride with clipless pedals. They’re intimidating at first, but if you can learn to ride a bike then learning to clip in and out is a cinch — plus some pedals like the Shimano Click’R are designed to be especially easy for beginners. (It’s still very common to see commuters with toe-cages, but we think it’s safer and better, performance-wise, to go clipless.)
As for road bikes, there isn’t much point in riding a road bike with platform pedals since the bike is designed for going fast and far, efficiently. The rider is expected to pick out a pedal, of which there are many. Some reliable brands to consider are Look, Shimano and Speedplay.
How Much Will it Cost?
Having a budget restriction may be a blessing when buying a first bike because it forces you to think hard about what you really want out of the bike. For somebody getting a bike purely as a chariot for daily commutes, $500 is enough to buy a great single-speed bike or a hybrid. On the other hand, somebody who wants to take up road biking as a hobby will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 on a high-quality entry-level bike with an aluminum frame.
The costs can pile up from here. For commuters, Crooks suggests a sturdy locking system, front and rear lights and appropriate apparel (“comfortable, technical garments that fit properly when on a bike and wick moisture away from your body”). For enthusiasts, whether road or mountain, he suggests a clipless pedal system, padded cycling shorts and jersey, and a water bottle and cage. “Regardless of the type of bike or intended use”, he says, “we always recommend a properly-fitting helmet”. In all, expect to set aside $200-$500 on accessories and safety gear.
And Now, a Few Rules.
1. No headphones. Ever. If you want to zone out, ride a stationary bike.
2. Wear a helmet.
3. Try not to scream at dillweeds riding with their headphones on, without a helmet, when they run red lights and cut you off.
4. Try not to scream at cars. Once in a while, though, really let them have it.
5. No head-to-toe spandex unless you’re really pushing it — in which case, by all means.
6. Your demonstrated skill must rise in proportion to the amount you spend on extravagant gear. Aero helmets require an even steeper rise up the X axis.
7. Riding with no hands? On any straightaway where you can envision a finish line.
8. Riding with no shirt? Prohibited unless you used your shirt to staunch a wound.
9. Unless you’re racing, leave the ego behind. Lights, traffic laws and respect make us all safer. Bike accidents are grisly.
10. Also, read all of these other good rules.