North by Northeast

So You Want to Buy a Nice Bike… Part 1 – Where to Buy and Safety.
28 May, 2007, 9:28 pm
Filed under: bike, buyer’s guide to bikes

Over the last view months I’ve had a number of friends ask me about buying a bike. Much like with computers–especially Macs–my friends know that I’ve been riding for a long time and am a bit of a bike geek. There’s actually a fair amount to know about buying a bike that will greatly impact your comfort and safety – both big factors in actually keeping you riding.

As such, I’m going to start a little series here touching upon the basics everyone should know when considering buying a bike. This isn’t a guide to the best cross-country NORBA racing machine, touching upon hardtail versus softail, and what gear ratios and tire pressures you should be running. This guide will be for people who’ve decided it’s either time to get back on the bike or what to move from their current bike which isn’t making them happy to one that will better fit their needs. It will also discuss different types of bikes (on pavement, off pavement, other) for different needs or desires.

The topic I feel is most important about buying a bike is safety. There are several layers with this. First, where you buy a bike is actually really important in regards to how safe the bike is to ride! Do not, I repeat, do not buy your bike from a mass retailer. Wal-Mart, K-Mart, I would even include mass sporting goods retailers like Dick’s and Modell’s into this group.

This may sound silly, but here’s why: if you’re riding your bike at 15-25 miles an hour downhill in traffic on a street with potholes or on a bumpy, rocky decent in the woods… do you really want your bike assembled by some kid with no formal training, who’s chatting on his cell phone, waiting to get off of work? Hell no. That’s who works in the back room at a sporting goods store. The person who assembled your bike may not even have a good command of the language the instructions are written in – and the instructions are probably already in broken English. Do you think they know where all the important places to lube are?

There a number of law suits going on at any given time where people who have been injured on cheap bikes from mass retailers. Can you imagine what would happen to you if your handle bar or stem become disconnected, even if you weren’t going that fast? It has happened. Let’s hope they were wearing their helmet!

Where should you go? To your local, independent bike shop. They know bikes, they know your local riding area. They should be able to fit you to a bike that matches your needs. Note on bike shop bikes: don’t worry about them forcing you on to a too-expensive bike you don’t need. The margins are higher on the less expensive bikes. So don’t worry too much about the up-sell. There aren’t very many people on this planet getting rich selling bicycles.

Two side notes here, one – there is one manufacturer whose bikes appear in a few regular bike shops that also sells in the mass retail stores I just warned you away from. Mongoose used to be a really respected name in mountain biking and BMX. I know next to nothing about BMX now, but in MTB I can think of one time in the last five years that I saw someone on a Mongoose. Prior to that I saw them fairly frequently, they even had one of the best pros, Brian Lopes, riding their gear on the professional circuit. Don’t let this fool you. Don’t go into a mass retailer and buy a Mongoose, you’ll regret it, even if it doesn’t fall apart. The Mongooses you see here are just as awful as the other bikes they’re sold next to. That said, I wouldn’t buy a higher quality Mongoose (from a regular bike shop) either just to protest their mass retailer business, lowering their bike’s quality and their company’s standards and integrity for the all-mighty dollar. But you don’t have to follow my politics to ride a bike.

Two, with regards to the sporting goods resellers, there are two big chain shops, EMS and REI that sell bikes that are perfectly safe. EMS just started putting mini-bike shops in, they carry a couple respectable brands (actually, I really like one of their brands, Canadian-made Rocky Mountain, who also owns “!”) and employ actual bike professionals, just like a bike shop. A real bike shop would have some advantages over an EMS – mainly selection and possibly a bit more local knowledge due to experience- but over all if the bike you wind up wanting is at an EMS, don’t fear.

REI actually owns a bike company called Novara. REI is the only place you can find Novara bikes. They’re actually pretty decent, and they do have a couple really nice commuting bikes, like the Buzz, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. They also carry other major brands, as well, K2 and perhaps Marin. Plus, if you’re a member of REI (they’re a co-op) you’d get a nice dividend at the end of the year.

So I took a side road there for a moment, eschewing a great segue, which a good writer would never let be, so let’s bring that back… I said “Let’s hope they were wearing their helmet!”

Speaking of helmets (see, that was gold!), you really should have one. No really.

This helmet was run-over by a truck, and this guy has a lot to be thankful for… it was on his head at the time. Courtesy

A guy in Madison, WI got hit the other day and the truck ran over his head and he got up. He’s not dead. That’s why you should have one. There’s no reason not to have one: they’re cheap – you can get a perfectly safe and comfortable one for $30, maybe less on sale or clearance, and many bike shops offer discounts on accessories you buy along with your bike, or for a short window after purchasing your bike (and you will buy a helmet along with your bike, if you don’t already own one). If you ride and you don’t wear one, you’ll get dirty looks from other cyclists (hopefully).

Helmets today have advanced a lot since even when I started riding seriously at 15. They’re significantly lighter than you may expect. I honestly don’t notice I’m wearing a helmet while I’m riding, I often don’t take it off even, if I’m in a store running errands on my bike. They have a ton of air vents, many are even shaped to promote airflow and have pads that wick sweat from your head. And now a days they look cool. I have a Giro model that was cheaper than I expected (I think it was like $40) with a visor that’s great for riding on sunny days. Most helmets also have this little plastic ratcheting widget in back to keep the helmet from twisting or bouncing which works great. Make sure your helmet is ANSI or SNELL approved. No good bike shop would sell one that isn’t. But, there’s more to this: don’t wear a helmet designed for a different sport. If you have a hockey helmet, it may look similar to the helmets BMX riders use, but they’re not. Bike helmets make different assumptions about how you can fall than other sports. Plus I don’t know of any sports helmet that is as comfortable or as light weight as a bike helmet.

The next most important thing to riding a bike is how it fits you. You wouldn’t buy pants that didn’t fit right, that’s a no brainer, but if you buy a bike that doesn’t fit, then you can actually harm yourself. I’ll cover this in the next installment “So You Want to Buy a Bike…”

Please contribute your questions in the comments.


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