Monday, January 23, 2012

bike buyer's guide for beginners

It's getting to be that time of year - in a few months, a lot of people will be in the market to buy a new bike. I just read this article, in which the author earnestly attempts to provide guidelines for the purchase of a good used bike from craigslist. While I agree with some of the points made here (don't waste money on el cheapo department store bikes), I have a number of disagreements, too. But picking apart these quibbles one by one would require a long, tiresome essay, and in the end some other knowledgeable person will say, "yeah, but..." And they'll be right!

Shopping for a first-time new or used bike can be daunting. To make an informed decision, a large volume of technical information must be sorted and distilled, and that winnowing process generally takes some level of expertise! The internet forums are full of "expert" opinions that reflect either ignorance or strong personal bias, and it can be difficult for a novice to figure out who in cyberspace knows his/her stuff and whether that info applies at all to one's personal needs. Maybe the prospective new bike person has an expert in his/her life - a coworker, a relative, a friend, etc - but again, as with the internet forums, it's not always easy to know if your personal guru, no matter how knowledgeable he/she seems, has biases that make any sense for you. A common example is a person will come in to a bike shop looking for a new bike for fitness, fair-weather recreation, and/or commuting, having been informed by a coworker who does triathlons and whose chief credential is having purchased a $3000 bike. If that person also wants to buy a $3000 bike for triathlons, then maybe the friend's advice is useful. Even then, one person's experience is a single data point.

I have my own recommendation: trial and error. Yes, in a world of highly technical knowledge and well-reasoned recommendations, a human has to ride the thing, and that's where it gets complicated. My bikes are all excellent, for me. Some other people might like them, too, but most cyclists would prefer something else. At least one local custom framebuilder, reportedly, will not build a bike for a customer unless that customer has enough experience to know what he or she actually wants. The framebuilder is highly regarded for his craftsmanship and technical knowledge, but he knows that his splendid machines will not be well-received if they are somehow inappropriate for the people who ride them.

This doesn't mean that an uninformed person should blindly take a stab at buying a random bike and hoping to learn a few things from it. It just means that it's not reasonable to expect that a first-time bike purchase will result in the perfect bike to last a lifetime (even if the buyer attempts to become informed about tech details). Get one that's good enough, ride it for awhile, and next time you buy, you'll know more. To get one that's good enough, I suggest finding a good bike shop, communicate your desires to them, and rely on their expertise. In the Twin Cities, we have several dozen shops, and certain shops will accommodate the needs of certain customers better than others. It pays to visit several big shops and several small shops and find one where you feel comfortable. If you feel like the 20-year-old salesperson in the funny hat doesn't understand your bike priorities, you're right! Try dealing with another salesperson or another shop. In any case, communication is huge. Clearly describe what you want, and ask lots of questions. By and large, bike shops are not like Target, where the customer is expected to locate and select merchandise from the shelves with little or no input from store staff. In the case of bike shops, good ones at least, talking to the staff will be the most important thing you can do to get a bike that fits your needs.

The next question is how much to spend. If you're rich, spend a lot, if that's what makes you happy. If you're normal and money is an issue, then make sure you inform the salesperson at the bike shop of your approximate price range. There's a high variance in price-tolerance here, so don't assume the salesperson is a mind-reader. Recently a guy told me he wanted a slightly fancier-than-stock Surly LHT, but that he was trying to keep it somewhat economical. When I started throwing out specifications and prices, he corrected me that he was actually looking to spend double what I was quoting! He apparently considered $3000+ to be an economical bike, while others feel that $300 is a princely sum for a bike, and others apparently think the good bikes start at around $8000. Luckily, an entry-level "hybrid" with decent parts, which would be an excellent choice for many first-time cyclists, is around $500 give or take. For those of us who want to ride more regularly, maybe it's worth spending a bit more to get a bike that can be more easily adapted to our needs as we advance our cycling skill and knowledge. The best bang for the buck, in my opinion, is in the range $1000-1500. Most Surly bike models fall into this range. With bigger brands like Trek or Specialized or whatever, this is the price where the road bikes start to be not blatantly cheap. Here's some wisdom:

You don’t need to spend a million dollars to have a great bike, but if you do spend a million dollars and know what you want you’ll probably also have a great bike.

I don't recommend used bikes for inexperienced cyclists, in general. There are simply too many ways to get ripped off, even if the seller is perfectly honest. Some old bikes require parts that are obsolete, and it's too easy to miss costly mechanical issues even for someone who has some experience with bikes. If you happen to be looking at a new bike, and find a used one just like it in nearly new condition, but at a fraction of the new price, it's probably a good deal (unless it's stolen). Otherwise, I'm of the opinion that there are few (if any) deals out there for used bikes. Anything that's a remotely good bike for a remotely good price is likely to be pounced on by those who make a lifestyle of trawling craigslist. For most of us, the extra cost of buying new is a worthwhile sacrifice for professional advice, some kind of warranty, and getting what you want instead of whatever happens to be available used.


KM said...

Great post.

Of course, there's always alcohol and Ebay.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim

I believe that 1000-1500 is a good starting point for the frame only. Layer onto that a selection of mid-range componentry (like Shimano's excellent Ultegra parts ensemble) and add a pair of lightweight hand built wheels shod with supple road tires and I believe that you will have an appealing bicycle suitable for long, thru the day rides. I would suggest spending an additional 3-500 dollars on technical riding clothing to complement the new steed.

Cheers - David

Anonymous said...

Are you seriously suggesting all of that for "beginners"? I'm sure someone who just wants to start commuting to work wants to hear about $300-500 of "technical" clothing on top of everything you suggest.

Jim Thill said...

"David" is a funny guy, my most prolific commenter. Unfortunately, with cyclists, it's real hard to tell who's engaging in satire and who's for real.

Anonymous said...

According to Jan Heine, it is impossible to get a proper fitting bike unless you get a handbuilt frame with integrated lighting, racks, and fenders. Just as you wouldn't buy a car without a body and seats, you must see your bicycle as an integrated unit, and the best way to do that is with a constructeur bicycle.


Jim Thill said...

I agree with Jan Heine about his bike buying suggestions. He's far too particular about the tiniest nuances of a bike to ever fully enjoy a stock machine with normal parts, etc. I disagree with Jan that the expensive bike will be more durable, and therefore less expensive in the long run. Inexpensive midrange parts are often quite durable, and can be replaced 5-10 times for the price of the boutique-level equivalent.

Jim Thill said...

Being up-front about price is important. It's amazingly difficult to get this info from some people. Commonly, somebody will walk in, perhaps in advanced middle age, not terribly fit-looking, clearly not an avid cyclist, and they'll say: "I'm looking for a new bike, but I'm not a racer or anything." I take this as code for: "don't try to sell me exotic, expensive bikes."

Bakari Kafele said...

Hey, thanks for the link.

I think I said much of what you said here - I certainly don't disagree with any of it.

I was writing for people explicitly looking for a used bike, and specifically a used bike for commuting and errands, because that's what someone had requested I write, so of course the part about buying used wouldn't apply.

I wouldn't mind hearing your thoughts on where you disagreed with me (maybe by email biodieselhauling @ gmail . com?)

Also, I'm curios - since I have done basically nothing to promote my blog, how did you happen to come across it?

Jim Thill said...

Hello Bakari. Thanks for writing. I came across your blog when someone on facebook linked to it. I think it was someone from QBP, if I recall accurately.

I agreed with most of your points, but disagreed about the following:

1. Fitting: the adjustable fit bike, or any proprietary fitting system is generally not necessary to get a decent fit, and most of the time, shops that have this equipment charge at least $100 for the service. As an experienced bike person, I can usually eyeball a person on a bike and make the necessary fit adjustments. Usually some subsequent trial-and-error will be required, but that's also the case for the expensive fitting systems.

2. Some of the older hi-ten steel bikes are ok, provided the parts are decent, the fit is good, and the bike meets the owner's needs. A "fancy" CrMo frame from yesteryear may be more race-oriented, and less commuter-oriented.

3. Clipless pedal efficiency: except for 110% sprinting efforts and storming up hills and highly technical offroad riding, I believe the alleged efficiency of clipless (or clips/straps) is mostly hype. If you use clipless for awhile, then try platforms, it feels like you can't keep your feet on the pedals. I believe this is where people get the idea that platform pedals are inefficient, but the inefficient part is the sloppy muscle memory that has been learned. I gave up on clipless years ago, and ride platforms exclusively. If I'm slow, the pedals are not the reason.

4. Nashbar and other online bargain places sometimes have good deals, but often they have artificially discounts on inflated "regular" prices, to make it look like something priced at MSRP is a closeout. Furthermore, it's VERY easy for an inexperienced bike person to buy things that aren't appropriate, or are incompatible with existing gear. Much better to buy from the local bike shop, where a knowledgeable person can generally offer real-world advice, and customer service after the sale. As often as not, if Nashbar is selling something at a discount, the LBS can sell it at a discount, too. It doesn't hurt to ask for a price-match, but like I said above, often Nashbar's "deals" aren't really deals. This assumes you have a LBS you can trust. If your LBS doesn't meet your needs in some way, that's another story.

Cycling Solutions said...

A first bike is always worth to invest in. And thanks to your tips, beginners will surely have one heck of a ride!

1989 Schwinn LeTour said...

In regards to the article about buying a used bike on Craiglist that linked me here, I enjoyed the fresh perspective of that author. This author didn't appreciate it because he's a bike salesman. The truth is not everyone is a high end bike snob or can afford to be. And why should everyone pay as much for their bike as a good used car. And why does this author make buying a bike sound like a complicated mystery. The truth is you don't have to be an ASE certified mechanic to work on a bike and anyone can take a little pride in making some simple repairs and adjustments. After all, when you blow a tire on the trail these bike shop guys won't be there to change it for you. You can have a great bike riding experience on a budget also. Take me and my wife's $230 Target Schwinn Trailway's for example. Once I swapped out the hybrid tires for road tires, they already had sweet aerodynamic rims, they ride like a dream. Absolutely comfortable for city commuting with their suspension seat and front suspension forks, yet they are still efficient cruisers for long distances. The only problem we've had is a click in my wife's freewheel which Erik's Bike Shop swapped out for $65 in 20 minutes. So high end bikes are not the only way to go, nor are used. Still the best ride I've had is accompanying my 3yr old to the playground on his department store Spiderman bike smiling from ear to ear. The fact is, we need to pull our heads out of our cycling shorts and let cycling be about cycling, and less about what we ride or where we bought it from. So don't be intimidated by these sales guys making you feel like you're doing something wrong because you didn't buy a new bike from them or can't afford to. Just enjoy cycling, the scenery, the freedom, the exercise, the comradary, and the fresh air that it provides. When you stop having fun, only then have you done something wrong.

Bakari Kafele said...

Re: 1989 Schwinn LeTour - If I understand your pronouns correctly, I think I am the author of the article you liked. Just wanted to defend this one a bit; and point out that I don't sell bikes, I have never sold bikes, I agree with you that you can spend less than Hiawatha suggests and get a reasonably decent bike... BUT I still strongly recommend against department store bikes, just as this article does.
Some people get lucky and have no problems, and some have relatively minor issues (like your "click" in the freewheel - which should never have happened; add the price of the bike and the price of the repair and you've already got $300 invested - why not use that $300 for a decent 5 or 10 year old bike that has a freewheel that won't break after a few hundred miles).

More importantly, as a mechanic I've seen a fair number of major issues and even catastrophic failures and accidents happen because of the low quality of department store bikes.

That is not just a "bike snob" issue. Its the equivalent of buying a car made to IKEA or Harbor Freight standards, with a big "made in China" sticker on the top and a warning not to take it on a highway.

Anonymous said...

Being a middle-aged, fat male and an avid rider, I smiled at the comment which implied that bike riders look athletic, rather than the reality that real bike riders can climb long steep hills and ride quite fast, and enjoy it all.

Buying a bike IS a complicated topic. I have done my own bike repairs since I was a kid, and in those days aluminium single-pivot side-pull brakes were the good item. Two of my bikes have these types of brakes. Two my bikes have steel wheels. My ten-year-old mongoose was bought from a bike shop and in 6 or 7000 miles of hilly commuting it has only needed a new back wheel and the bearings replaced in the bottom bracket. And disc brake pads.

Of my five bikes, the mongoose is the newest and cheapest when new, though the two 10-speeds, pleasant though they are, would be worth little were I foolish enough to try and sell them. The triathlon bike is the fastest and the least forgiving, and the older FSMTB was a high end bike when new.

In short, each bike is different, and each is great fun to ride in its own way.

And both Hiawatha's and Bakari's articles are full of useful knowledge and great advice for those who do not have bicycles in their blood, their brains and their pasts. Even old 10-speeds and roadies do not last forever (sadly) but they can be very nice. So for you beginners, read and remember, and perhaps on day you, too, will be sitting cross-legged on the garage floor rebuilding bearings.