North by Northeast

So You Want to Buy a Nice Bike… part 3.1 – Mountain Bikes
15 June, 2007, 5:32 pm
Filed under: buyer’s guide to bikes

If you were to take a quick poll of people and ask what type of bike they own, most would answer “a mountain bike.” There are so many out there now a days – they’re almost like seeing SUVs driving down the street. Do all these people need a mountain bike?

Luckily, the trouble of a bicyclist choosing to ride a mountain bike on the road is not nearly as bad as someone driving a Hummer as their commuting vehicle. When you ride a mountain bike on the road all you’re doing is pushing more weight, with more rolling resistance from knobby tires. It’s not the end of the world.

That said, I think you’ll be a happier cyclist if you choose the right type of bike for your type of riding.

Let’s talk about mountain bikes. They’re the most popular style of bike in America. Why? They’re comfortable. The geometry has you in a more natural position than a road racing bike, and they trace their heritage back to the old Schwinn cruisers. The first mountain bikes were customized cruisers, blue-collar style, designed to race down a hill called “Repack” on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. It was called repack because after each ride, they’d have to repack the bearings in their wheels. The good news is you’re not likely to have to ever do that to your bike. A few years later, Specialized began selling the first mass produced mountain bike, the Stumpjumper. You can still buy one today. No really, they’ve remade the original to celebrate the 25th anniversary.

Today’s mountain bikes (from here out, MTB) bear little resemblance to the custom cruisers. Even the original Stumpjumper made some really smart changes to the original cruisers. The parts that make them popular are straight bars and fat tires. Thanks to its popularity, you can buy a decent mountain bike for less money than you can buy a decent road bike, which has in turn increased their popularity some more.

Why would you want a MTB? If you want to ride on dirt trails, you’re probably looking for a mountain bike. That said, if you only want to ride hard packed dirt (like a dirt road) you could ride a hybrid bike or a cyclocross (CX) bike. Both of these would be better if you also want to ride at least 50% of the time on pavement. Both hybrids and CXs have fatter tires than road bikes, and sometimes they have knobs for traction when the dirt is less hard packed. Some cruiser/comfort bikes are also OK for hard packed dirt, but you probably wouldn’t want to ride anywhere with hills, where their weight, gearing, and geometry would make climbing strenuous. We’ll talk about all these types of bikes in later entries.

One of the things that really ticks me off when people think of mountain biking is that it is an extreme sport. Yeah, you can jump off stuff, or ride the ski lift to the top of the mountain and ride a double-diamond slope at 50 mph, but most people don’t. For some perspective, on one of the very first group rides I took with NEMBA this year, two of the people on my ride were over 50 years old. They weren’t jumping off things.

When you go to the bike shop, you’ll see this extreme image manifesting itself in the design of some of the bikes. You’ll see bikes with large coils for rear suspension, and motorcycle-style “double-crown” front suspension… with up to 7 inches of movement on each end. That’s probably more than your car has. Look at the frames, they’ll have all sorts of extra pieces of metal, called gussets, welded on at points to aid strength. These bikes are heavy-duty, have graphics that reinforce that, oh, and they’re just plain heavy.

You don’t need these bikes. Don’t be sold these bikes. Stay away.

There are people who do need those bikes, and they’re great for that. A good deal of the people who buy those bikes will never really need all that suspension, or those gussets. They’ll curse their weight when they have to go up hill – which will be at least as much as you go down hill. Actually, more so, since you can’t go up as fast as you can go down. And that suspension will suck up some of your energy that would otherwise go into turning your wheels.

That said, this is not an indictment of suspension. But it’s important to have the right kind and amount for what you plan on doing. If you want to jump off things with your bike, check out these “hucking” style bikes. Otherwise, we’ll assume someone entering mountain biking from scratch will want to start with riding “cross-country” style. This means that you want to ride on unpaved trails and roads. You want to go up hills and down them. You’re probably not jumping off boulders.

There are three styles of suspension for XC riding to consider. Rigid means the only shock absorption you’ll have will come from your tires, whatever is inherent in your frame, and your arms and legs. People who ride fully-rigid MTBs are few and far between. They tend to be a little more hardcore than the rest of us. Some of these people ride bikes with larger-than-standard, 29″ wheels, saying the larger diameter, greater momentum allow their wheels to roll over bumps and obstacles without additional suspension. We’ll talk more about wheel size in a future post. You’ll find very few fully rigid mountain bikes in stores. I don’t know if that’s marketing or demand, but likely a little of both.

The next type of bike is called “Front Suspension” (self-explanatory) or a “hardtail.” Shocks up front. This type of bike has dominated the sales XC bikes for the last 10 years.

The last type of bike is “Full Suspension” or a “softtail.” Shocks at both ends. This type of bike has shot up in popularity as the the quality of the rear suspension systems have improved, prices have dropped and competition has increased. This is (if not already, probably soon will be) the most popular type of cross-country bike.

What’s the right one for you? Suspension has its pluses and minuses. Plus sides should be obvious: comfort, which leads to more endurance, and its easier on your body, since it would have to absorb less abuse from the trail. However, suspension adds cost, weight, increases the complexity of the bike (more parts to fail), increases maintenance (you won’t be servicing it yourself), and by its very nature, absorbs energy. Some of your pedaling power is lost to your suspension reacting to the movements of your body on the bike. When you have suspension on the back wheel, where your pedaling energy is directed, you lose a lot more energy than with front suspension alone. However, there are certain situations (especially downhill, but occasionally uphill as well) where suspension will help you maintain traction, which will aid in the safety of riding off-road. Certain kinds of suspensions can actually push the wheel down into a hill so you can continue cranking away, when an unsuspended wheel would still be bouncing over an obstacle. Comfort and traction are the two biggest reasons to ride with full-suspension.

If you’re going to ride in the cross-country style, you’ll want to be sure to get a full-suspension bike that’s Cross-country specific. These are the ones that can help climbing and weigh the least. There’s another style to consider called “All-mountain” which is cross country with more of a nod to downhills and drop-offs, so the suspension has longer travel (how much it can move to absorb shock) but at the cost of weight and some additional efficiency. But they are tougher systems. All-mountain will most likely be the majority of full-suspension bikes you’ll see on the showroom floor, because they blend the style more people ride (cross country) with the style everyone wants to pretend to be (downhill, big hit, hucking). Bike marketing at its best. But if you ever want to ride something truly scary, these bikes (and the downhill and jumping specifics after them) are the right tools for the job.

I used to think that to become a skilled mountain bike rider, everyone should start riding a rigid bike. You’d really learn to handle the bike and avoid obstacles, plus you don’t have to carry the added weight along for the ride. However, since decent suspension can now be had at every price point, the comfort for you will probably aid in your enjoyment of the sport. If you ride on any sort of trail or rutted dirt road, some suspension is probably a good idea.

The big question then is should you start with just Front Suspension, or go all out and get comfy with full suspension? Tough one. I’d decide based on two major factors, and one minor one. Major factors: cost and weight. Minor factor: maintenance. The added complexity of rear suspension means greater maintenance costs. You most likely won’t be tweaking it yourself.

Personally, I ride a hardtail. I’ve been riding for 15 years (on and off) and my first bike was rigid, then my second and now my third and current bike both had front suspension. The reason I don’t ride fully-suspended to have a lighter bike with less complexity. However, I am seriously considering a softail to compliment my hardtail. Of course, I’m one of those people who aspires to own many bikes.

Recently, my wife began riding with me. She had zero experience with mountain biking. I thought long and hard about the best bike for her, because selfishly, I wanted her to enjoy herself. You can see how that would be good for me 🙂 I got her a woman’s-specific cross-country bike with front suspension. This has allowed her to try out the sport at minimal cost, but with some added comfort. Now that she’s ridden for a year and a half, I can see that she’s at a point where she’s going to stick with the sport, but sometimes she’s uncomfortable because she’s more into riding along than conquering all the bumps and obstacles that are found on much of New England’s trails. This leads me to believe that when we can afford it, that we’ll upgrade her to a full-suspension bike. Since we’ll be buying her a more expensive bike, the weight for the next one will probably be similar to her current, less expensive bike, but with the added benefit extra comfort, control and confidence. She won’t notice the weight penalty since she never rode an extra light hardtail. For reference, my moderated expensive hardtail (about double the cost of her current bike) is about 25lbs, hers is about 30lbs. For about triple the cost of her current bike, we should be able to find a competent cross-country bike with full suspension for a similar weight. It should last her a good long time (and I’ll convert her current bike into essentially a “hybrid,” road-going bike).

This is a route I think many people take. Buy a decent hardtail, go out and ride, see what you think of the sport. You’ll decide one of three things: one – it’s not for you. Possible, but not likely 🙂 Two – what you have is just right and you’re happy. Or, three – you like it, but would enjoy a little more cush beneath your toush. In which case you trade up to a plusher ride.

That’s the basics, along with my personal strategy for buying a starter mountain bike.

The next section will cover what to do if you don’t want to ride on dirt the majority of the time.


So You Want to Buy a Nice Bike… part 2.5 – More Fit
30 May, 2007, 10:49 pm
Filed under: bike, buyer’s guide to bikes

Let me start by saying there’s much more to fit that what I’m discussing here, though, I’m writing this because I think the information I’m presenting here is a good start to educating yourself on bicycle fit, good enough to help you purchase a bike. This information should never take the place of that from trained professionals like Doctors, physical therapists, sports trainers, etc.

A little more fit detail is available here, at Sheldon Brown’s bicycling cornucopia.

Today will pick up where we left off yesterday – at stem length. The stem is what holds the handlebar to the bike.

Stem length by itself is useless. I could tell you “You need a 75mm stem” and that would be useless advice. The idea of having a certain stem length is in direct response to how far you want to reach forward from your saddle. Once you’ve set your saddle to position you properly over the pedals (see the previous post) then you need to lean forward to reach those handlebars. The biggest determining factor of how far you’ll stretch is “effective top tube length” which is the fully-level horizontal distance from the headset (where the stem attaches to the bike) to the seat post. In the old days, top tubes where actually in this position, but now a days, it’s more likely – especially with mountain bikes and comfort bikes – that the top tube itself will slope. In reality, it doesn’t matter for this discussion where the tube is, all we care about is the distance between the seat tube and the headset.

This distance should be relative to your torso length. There’s no formula, it’s more what you’re comfortable with. If you want an aggressive, stretched out cockpit with fast steering mostly by leaning the bike, then you’d want a bike with a long effective top tube length. If you want to sit more casually, very straight up, steer more with your hands, and your head up, then a shorter effective length is better. On stock bikes, you won’t have a choice of this length, but it will help you find a model or manufacturer that suits your style. It’s a way that bike designers can change the way the bike handles. Also, this length also contributes to the overall wheelbase of the bike (horizontal distance between wheel axles). Short wheelbases handle tighter, longer are a little more comfortable. A short wheelbase brings the possibility of toe overlap with the front wheel, when your front pedal is at the 3 o’clock position. If you’re buying a mountain bike, this is a big no-no. You won’t be able to maneuver around obstacles in slow speed situations. Toe overlap is less of a concern on road bike (my own has some). Consult your bike shop professional.

Finding the reach that’s best for you is very important to your continued comfort. Not for two mile rides, but for 10 and up, comfort is really important. For example, if you’re too stretched out, your upper body will tire prematurely, since it’ll be supporting more of your weight. You can also experience numbness in your hands and back problems (especially if you wear a bag) if you’re too stretched out. If you’re too upright, you’ll have trouble climbing well (your front end will lift up and the steering will get squirrelly), and your bottom could get sore from supporting too much of your weight on that little stretch of your crotch the seat interfaces with. If your knees come very close to your wrists when pedaling, you really need to get bike with a longer top tube.

Once you’ve found a bike with the right reach, you then can fine tune by selecting a longer or shorter stem, if necessary. Stems also come at different angles. If you want to be just a little more upright, select a stem with more rise. If you want to be more aggressive, get a stem with less rise, no rise, or even negative rise. The last is really only something you’d want if you had a bike with a really high front end, like a mountain bike with a lot of front suspension travel.

Next part in this chain is the handlebar. Mountain bikes and comfort bikes tend to have straight or flat bars, whereas your speedier road bikes tend to have what are called “drop bars” which are the curly style with lots of hand positions.

On flat bars (I’ll use this term for all styles of bars that aren’t racing-style drop bars), some are not flat at all. Very popular on comfort and hybrid bikes are “riser bars” which angle up and back a little, not unlike a mustache (these aren’t mustache bars, though. See below). If you need just a little more height, a riser might be ideal. Often a saddle height and bar height that are very close to even will prove the most comfortable. Your milage may very. A totally flat bar will steer faster, as will shorter bars. Bars that are too wide will feel squirrelly, or like you’re trying to steer a longhorn. Also, they may catch on trail foliage, or cars if you’re bravely weaving through traffic. So pick a bar that fits your style, but it shouldn’t be much wider (if any) than your shoulders. The angle of the bar is how much the bar is swept back at the ends, to give your handles a more natural grip. Ignore “bar ends” until you’ve become comfortable with your bike, then decide if they would benefit you.

There are variations on drop bars, but less than flat bars. Mostly width, again, pick one compatible with your shoulder width. To confuse things, you could also consider “mustache bars” which look as if a set of drop bars where run over and flattened by a truck.

Most people just take whatever comes on the bike for stem and handlebar. Really good shops will make sure yours fit you, and allow you to swap them if they do not. Many will do this at no charge, which is to be lauded.

Your hands make contact with the bar via grips (most bikes) or bar tape (drop bars). Most grips that come on a bike are nothing to write home about, but there are some really nice after-market grips available if you don’t like yours. Padding comfort and circumference are the two main characteristics you’d be evaluating. But before you think you should toss your grips or tape, make sure you’re wearing a good pair of bike gloves.

Aside from making us all look a little silly, gloves are as near necessity as a bike component can get. Get a pair, here’s why. First, they add padding, helping to alleviate pain and numbness. They help assist your grip on the bar when your hands are sweaty (and they will be) and they help wick the sweat away. They prevent blisters and calluses on your hands, and they save your skin if you hit the deck. If you’re riding in the dirt, you will fall. Also, when you ride in the woods, prickers and other foliage will scrape over your hands, gloves will help prevent cuts. If you’re riding the road and you do fall, you’ll be very happy to not pick asphalt from your skin. I have a nice Specialized pair that have gel pads strategically placed to alleviate pressure on to major veins in your hands. So far, I like them very much.

Lastly tonight, we’ll touch upon saddles. Notice I haven’t called them seats. There’s a difference. Seats are in cars, on buses, even recumbent bicycles. Saddles for upright bikes and horses. Get it? I guess the difference is back support.

Support is key here. The saddle that will come on your new bike will likely suck. The good news is that there are advanced and comfortable saddles out there, and they don’t cost much. My bike shop actually allowed me to swap mine out for a very nice saddle for no up-charge. I bought a Specialized Avatar, and I think it’s fabulous.

How can you tell a saddle is fabulous? First, you can’t judge a seat by touch. A soft, comfy saddle on the show room floor will not be comfortable on the road or trail after two miles. You want a saddle with firmer padding that doesn’t compress a ton under your weight. That’s because compression leads to more pressure pushing back up on your soft and tender bits. This will make riding very unpleasant.

Commonly, bikes will either come with ultra-cushy saddles for people in showrooms to push in with their thumbs and think “ooh, cushy!” or they’ll come with some harsh, unpadded, light plastic thing that will help keep the overall weight of the bike down. Neither are so great for your bum.

Recently, there’s been a boon of ergonomically designed saddles for both men and women. You should find a saddle that properly supports your weight on your sit bones. Have a seat on the floor with your legs in front of you. Feel those two bones pressing into the hard floor? Those are the bones designed to support your body’s weight when seated. In between those bones are several soft bits that need to be respected. Besides your anatomical, gender specific needs, there are veins that flow through there, too. Sit poorly and things will go numb. Many new seats have gender-specific cut outs so alleviate pressure on those parts. But they’ll only work if the parts supporting your sit bones are the proper width. Too narrow, soft bits squished anyhow, too wide, not enough sit bone support, and possible chaffing. Good seats will come in a selection of widths. My aforementioned Specialized seat, which was designed with input from a urologist, came in three widths. I was a medium.

Once you have a seat that fits, I highly suggest buying a pair of bike-specific shorts to go with that seat. These shorts should have a cycling pad in them, often called a chamois (it’s French – say “SHAM-mee”). Yeah, you could go all Spandex and be aerodynamic. But most likely, you’ll want to wear more normal looking clothes. I do this too. What your do is buy a set of bike shorts that are designed to go under other shorts, or buy a pair of shorts that have a removable padded liner.

Bike shorts (or at least the padded liner) should be worn without underwear. The pad is the underwear: it’s designed to pull sweat off those parts (which will be sweating) to cool them and to help prevent chaffing in this sensitive area. Also, all seams are strategically placed and flat to also prevent chaffing. Add underwear and you’ll up the chance for chaffing and lower the cooling efficiency greatly. It’ll take some getting used to, there’s a slight diaper sensation at first, but you’ll realize this is a comfortable way to ride a bike. Sadly, these are not cheap. You’ll probably spend at least $50 here.

If you wear baggy shorts over your bike shorts, be sure not to wear anything that would impede your ability to move around on the saddle, and most importantly, get off the saddle. Function before fashion. Also, if you’re going to mountain bike, remember you’ll need to slide off the back of the saddle (with your but hanging over the rear wheel) when the going get steep downhill. You don’t want to get your shorts caught on the nose of the saddle.

Alright, unless I forgot something, you should be set with the basics of fit, comfort and safety for buying your new bike. If you’re still riding a bike you already have, you might be able to make some adjustments to make your last while a little more comfortable and efficient.

Next time we’ll talk about all he different kinds of bikes you’ll have to choose from, and where you can ride them.

So You Want to Buy a Nice Bike… part 2 – Fit
29 May, 2007, 10:13 pm
Filed under: bike, buyer’s guide to bikes

Above all else, fit is the most important thing when buying a bike. If you have a $2,000 bike that’s too small and a $500 bike that fits right, you’d never ride the expensive one. It’s that important.

This is a major reason you want to go to a real bike shop. They’ll know how to size you properly. Some bike shop employees actually get certified in bike fitting. Some riders have certain issues with their individual bodies that making fitting a bike more challenging than for other people. My body is pretty average, so I’m fairly easy to fit on a small or medium bike. However, you might have a longer torso than other people, or perhaps a shorter torso and longer legs than other people your height. None of these are deal breakers, because bike fit is very adjustable.

The very first thing people think of when thinking bike fit is seat height. However, you can adjust seat height so much that you could easily hop on and ride bikes that are too big or too small for you, so if you throw a leg over and can sit down with your foot on the pedals, that really means nothing.

Since we’re talking about seat height, let’s go on a tangent for a moment. When you have a bike that fits, it’s so important that you figure out proper seat height. Sadly, though, seat posts slip, so you’ll need know what your proper height is, how to find that and how to re-secure your post at that height. Seat height is critically important to the health of your knees. Most people ride their bike with the seat too low. You won’t be riding for long before your knees start to ache.

If your knees hurt, you need to adjust your seat. The most common misconception about seat height is that you should be able to reach the ground with your feet when you’re seated. This is too low. Your knees should be 95% extended when your leg is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, with the ball of your foot directly over the spindle (center) of the pedal. This is not only the healthiest height, but the one that allows you to produce the most power with the least effort from your legs.

This height is usually a little uncomfortable for people who’ve had their seats too low. They feel they’re not as safe. But you’re fine, because whenever you’re in a position that would require you stopping or catching yourself, you shouldn’t be on your saddle anyway. Once you stand on your pedals, you can easily bend one knee, and put the other foot on the ground. No problem.

One more seat position thing, your seat can more fore and aft (and some seat posts allow seat angle adjustments, as well). You should move your seat to the position horizontally that allows you to have your knee directly over the pedal spindle when your crank is at the 3 o’clock position in the downstroke, while the ball of your foot is again centered on the pedal spindle. Again, maximum health, maximum power. In regards to seat angle, some people prefer a little tilt, but this is mostly personal preference, often based on if you have some saddle numbness.

Back to bike fit, the most basic requirement of a bike frame is called stand-over height. This is how tall the bike is at the “top-tube.” This is measured at the point where you would be standing, when on the bike, but not going anywhere. Many bikes now have sloped top-tubes (the tube that goes from the headset (above the front fork that holds your front wheel) to your seat tube (the tube that holds your seat post and seat). This measurement is usually from the center of that top tube. Obviously, this height has to be less than the height of your crotch. This measurement is slightly more important for men.

How much space is enough? There is a minimum amount, but after that, it’s personal preference, within reason. My inseam is 30″ and the stand-over height of my bike is 28″ on a Cannondale size small. Personally I’d like another inch there, but next size smaller was too small for my other dimensions. Such is what you live with when you can’t afford full-custom bike frames! Lucky for me, 2″ is enough for mountain biking. I don’t do crazy jumping or “trials” style riding – that would require much more space below your inseam so you can maneuver and contort.

If you’re riding on the road, 2″ is also a good minimum for comfort riding, but if you’re looking to get a racing-style bike (think Tour de France) there’s a good chance you’ll have less stand-over height, usually about an inch. This is less of a concern for this style riding, because unless you’re in stop and go traffic, you rarely have to get off the saddle, and rarely in a hurry to get off, as opposed to when you’re riding with obstacles.

A note for women: you may remember women’s bike frames looking very different than men’s, traditionally. Usually the “top-tube” we’ve been talking about here, was bent way, way low, down near the down-tube (the part from the headset to the bottom bracket, where the pedals’ cranks meet the frame). This wasn’t for clearance of the body, but so women could ride a bike while wearing a full length dress. Since it’s pretty rare to see a woman cycling in a dress today, this style has mostly gone away, and is totally unseen on any bike used for fitness. So now, the only really visible difference of a woman’s specific frame is the top tube is often a little lower due to the average woman’s height being less than that of your average man. Having the top tube up top like on a men’s bike is useful because it makes the frame stiffer so that you can transfer more energy to the wheel and steer with greater control.

Stem length is the next topic we’ll talk about, but it’s clear to me now that the topic of fit is going to take at least a couple of posts! Tune in tomorrow!

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.