Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Opinions About Bicycles: "What Should I Ride?"

Over the last couple of months, I've received more than the usual number of e-mails asking for suggestions about bikes (either for the individual who is writing, or for a family member). I suspect it has to do with the warmer weather months hitting most of the country, but it could simply be coincidental as well. I should also say that I love getting these e-mails, so I wouldn't want anyone to think that s/he shouldn't send them, but, quite frankly I am often a bit unsure how to answer these inquiries. Ultimately, I tend to reply with ridiculously long responses that I often fear aren't at all helpful to the individual looking for a bicycle, or I think I am simply overwhelming the person inquiring with too much information. I've surprised myself more than once at the length of a reply because I'm trying to eek out any/every possibility I can think of for the person.
*Image source here
I have stated this in the past, but it has been some time, so I just want to reiterate that taking one persons (or even several people's) opinion about what type of bicycle to purchase and ride should be a path taken with great care and consideration. There are many who point this out in various spots online, but I thought I would mention it specifically here because of the sudden rush that seems to be happening. After all, the type of bicycle I find easy to ride may not be the same for the next person. There are other factors to consider as well, such as price point, ability to build/repair a bicycle, need/want for positioning, size of the rider (both height and weight), how far the bike will be ridden regularly, geography/terrain, etc. With that said, I'm offering my thoughts - and it is nothing more than that - my opinion, so please take anything I offer as it is intended - to try to be helpful, but knowing that the individual will do their own homework.

One of the major factors that seems to influence the decision of the individual seeking a bicycle is price. Let's face it, when times are tough (and even when they aren't), spending a ton of money on a bike doesn't seem realistic, especially if the individual hasn't been on a bike for years and isn't sure if s/he will ride. I have owned bicycles from the inexpensive ($70 - thank you Craigslist!) to those that were not what I would call "cheap." Am I made of money?  Absolutely not. I see the value in both finding a great deal, and in getting what the rider truly needs. If you've been reading here for awhile, you may recall the "hooptie" bicycle Sam found for me on Craigslist because I wanted to try out road bikes. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to master this type of bicycle, and didn't want to spend tons of money on something that would sit unused. I ended up starting to understand what worked and didn't from this bike, and honestly, had the bike not been too large for me, I would've kept it, cleaned it up/painted it, and continued to enjoy it. Just because something is inexpensive doesn't mean it won't work - however, it does need to properly fit the cyclist.

That said, there is something to be said for, under the right circumstances, spending a bit more and getting a bicycle that really works for the individual. If it isn't something that can be found in the various second-hand spots, maybe saving for a bit to get the correct bike is worth it? That is, of course, something the individual buyer must determine. The problem for many of us across the U.S. is that the bicycle we think we want may not be available for test riding prior to purchase. This creates a dilemma. Do we spend our hard earned/saved money on what we think will work and hope for the best? A bicycle is always sellable later on if it doesn't work, but I can nearly guarantee that there will be a 25-60% (or more) loss on the price paid. I always ask myself if this potential loss is worth the ability to try out something that could work extremely well. Sometimes it is worth it - other times, it just isn't.

When price point is important (and when is it not?), looking for second hand deals can be a godsend, as well as taking advantage of friends or friends of friends who may already own something we have interest in trying. It can be difficult if the riders are different heights, but sometimes it's easier to get a feel for a bike, even if it's a bit large or small. There are plenty of us in the world who have purchased something that was perfectly great and usable - for the right person - but it just didn't work for the individual who originally bought it. Taking advantage of these situations as well can definitely be a great way to get what you're looking for at a more reasonable price.

I also think it's important to not immediately give up on a bicycle. Sometimes a small change can make a huge difference. A saddle substitution or adjustment, moving handlebar height/tilt, or even changing to a different handlebar or stem are just a few things that have made a huge difference for me personally on bikes. Although I tend to be a person who wants instant gratification, it doesn't always work that way and there are situations when I've had to be patient and wait out the trials of a new bike. If it doesn't work though, I have had to be ready and willing to let it go, count my losses as a lesson learned, and move on to the next.

Some new riders (or returning riders) seem to be drawn to city bikes. It makes sense to me that this happens because it's an upright option, the rider pedals slower, can see surroundings easily, and it simply seems less intimidating to many (including myself). However, if the rider intends to travel to long distance locations, a city bike may not be the right option, or if the terrain is extremely hilly, s/he may not want to be panting and sweating profusely when reaching the final destination. City bikes have their place and are wonderful for moderate length trips, but expecting that it will perform like a road bike is generally unreasonable. In my experience, I have tried to turn slower city bikes into faster rides, and vice versa...and honestly, it has yet to really work for me. There may be small benefits to these changes, but ultimately if a bike is made for a specific purpose, it seems to function best as it was intended (though there are always exceptions).

I've also had a few people contact me who are carrying some extra weight on their bodies who are looking for my thoughts on bikes. There are a few resources online that can answer some questions (check forums and/or Google search), and while I'm no expert, I am an overweight rider who has had my own experiences with bicycles, so I think these individuals are looking to see what I would do in their situation (though I may be way off on this assumption). I have personally been drawn to steel, however, this doesn't mean it's the only material that can be ridden by those carrying some extra meat on their body. I have owned aluminum bikes in the past and they worked just fine. The problem for me was the rattling that took place in my hands, and I just couldn't seem to make it work with my wrist/hand issues.  I know individuals who ride aluminum and carbon though, and are happy with that decision, so I don't think it's necessarily something to shy away from.  In most cases, steel has longevity and can be repaired if damaged (depending on the damage), whereas other materials probably won't be repairable.  If you're hard on a bike, perhaps steel is the way to go. I happen to like the ride quality of steel, but it tends to be a bit heavier (generally - though not necessarily always the case), so testing out many different styles and materials is going to be the best way to go for many - whether carrying extra pounds or not.

While I realize I haven't covered every topic here, I hope none of this is viewed as an attempt to keep folks from asking questions or sending along notes, but rather I just want to do my best to be clear that when I do respond to e-mails or comments, it should be viewed merely as my thoughts on the matter, and not the only possible conclusion. While this seems somewhat unnecessary to point out (since this is a blog, and by its very nature generally consists of opinion), I felt it was a good time to revisit the subject. Keep riding out there... and of course, sending along notes as well.


  1. Nicely put. I can't think of anything as varied as bike fit/preference. In short, it's all over the map. What works for one doesn't for another. Regarding the alum vs steel argument, all of my bikes except one are steel. Right now I have 8. My sole aluminum bike is a Daily 3 by Globe. It's a nice bike, with traditional geometry, and looks like the old bikes. But, I have to say, it rides very nice and not all that different from my Raleigh Tourist. Which do I prefer? The Raleigh of course, but, the Daily is a close 2nd.

    1. Sam actually had a Globe Daily that he enjoyed quite a bit too. It was a nice bike, but as I recall he opted to sell it to fund a road bike he was eyeing.

      Eight bikes! Wow... the next time someone tells me I have too many bikes, I'll remember that... I'll just say, "But I know someone who has 8." Maybe it won't seem quite so bad then? Of course, I seem to be catching up, despite my attempts to keep the bike fold to a minimum.

  2. Nice summary. I own four bikes. Each has a specific use, and I am happiest with them when I use them according to their specific talents. Years and years ago I heard a speaker answer the question "what is the BEST exercise?" with the response "the one that you will do regularly." I think that mindset has a place with bicycle selection. A bike, no matter how perfect in design and fit, that you don't ride a lot, isn't the best bike for you.

    1. Couldn't agree more - whatever gets a person out riding is definitely the best choice. Sometimes it's overwhelming to make the choice, but it can definitely be done.

      My mom recently decided to get a bicycle after 30 or so years of not riding. She got a single speed cruiser because it felt good to her and she has some balance issues. She absolutely loves it and rides it up and down the beaches. Occasionally, she'll make a comment like, "Well, I don't ride like you," meaning she thinks that because she rides a cruiser it's somehow inferior, but the reality is, she's out riding and enjoying, and that's all that matters in my mind.


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