Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Such excellent questions lately...

A couple of people have approached me lately asking about bicycles or bicycle travel.  This made me think about how to approach the answers and what resources are out there for people interested in starting out in cycling.

Question: I am interested in touring.  What kind of bike do I need?
Answer: This depends on what you can afford and are willing to put up with.  I know several people who rode really old (but originally high quality) bikes across the US.  The disadvantage is that anything with 27" wheels and a 5 cog rear hub will be more difficult to buy parts for.  In addition, the parts it has will probably be older and more worn, and more prone to breakdown.  Also, someone younger or with really sound knees might not care about the gearing, but those of us who are older generally need to be gentler on our knees, so the gearing becomes more important.  Get the best bike you can afford.  Apart from a dry tent, it is the single most important piece of equipment you will need.
Racing bike
ScottSpeedster, CC Flickr user Zacke82

Question: Should I buy a bike online or from a bike shop?
Answer: If you know a great deal about bikes, their components and what you want, you can probably get what you want online.  But if you are reading this post, I would think you are more my type: I want to ride a bike that will last and be comfortable.  I have bought both of my new bikes (as well as my very first used touring bikes) from bike shops. Don't bother with a chain store, if you can avoid it.  A local bike shop should try to sell you the bike you need, not something more. A local bike shop will rely on you being happy and coming back for accessories and tune ups.  Make sure you can answer some basic questions before you walk in.  A friend asked me what she should get and this is the list of questions I posed her:

  • What will it be used for?  Commuting? Recreation? Going really, really fast? (this will help determine how heavy a bike you can accept- the material it is made up of...)
  • Do you only ride in sunny, warm weather? (no need to worry about fenders if the bike won't be out in the rain- fenders require a frame that is wide enough to accept them, i.e. not racing bikes)
  • Will you carry things on it?  Just a repair kit or water bottles or a rack/bags? (This will help determine if the frame needs attachment points for those things)
  • How far do you expect to go on the bike?  Just a few miles or 30 miles in one instance? (this helps determine whether you will want to be more upright or more stretched out)
  • touring bike
    Surly LongHaulTrucker Touring Bike,
    CC Wikimedia Commons by insidestory
  • How tough is your butt?  Do bumps annoy you? (this will determine if wide or skinny tires  and suspension/springs are appropriate)
There are 3 main categories of bikes: racing, touring, mountain.
Racing bikes are light, with skinny tires and are not meant to carry things
Touring bikes have beefier tires and you can attach fenders, racks and other stuff
Mountain bikes lessen the bumps with wide tires, sit you more straight up and can often carry stuff
mountain bike
Cale, CC Flickr user k.streudel

*all generalizations are false (quote courtesy of my daughter)

Hybrid bikes are a mix of touring and mountain.  They sit you up higher, but tend to not have all the shock absolution of a mountain bike.

Generally bike shops are licensed to carry only a few brands.  Most likely there will be something in one of those brand's lineups that will make you happy.  If you are dead set on a specific brand, find a bike shop which carries that brand.  I preferred to answer the above questions and then take the answers to the bike shop.  I told them what I needed, gave them my max spending limit and let them dwell on it.  They go to shows and flip through catalogs all the time.  They know the components.

Oh.  One more thing.  Support your local bike shops.  You want them there when you need them, right? The price difference is usually less than 2%.  And there is a big difference between a Walmart inner tube and one from a bike shop.  Walmart tubes are only good for one thing, getting you to a real bike shop.  Well, maybe not even that.  Depends how far it is.

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