One outcome of the changes I'm seeing from COVID and social unrest is that more people are finding bikes are a viable method of transportation. I would also guess that a lot of people aren't sure where to start when looking to buy a bicycle. I remember the huge amount of information I digested when I first started looking into finding a bicycle that fit my needs.
I will try to demystify some aspects of bicycles in two parts - this is part one. With the current bicycle demand, I also want to share the wonderful world of used bicycles, which will be discussed further in part two.
Parts of a bicycle and how they affect your ride
This guide is intended to familiarize you with some bike jargon; you may notice words in bold or in quotes throughout this guide, which I will try to define in context. Feel free to send me mail with questions, I'll likely be revising this guide frequently. I will discuss the following topics:
- The frame and picking the right size of a bicycle
- Handlebars and stems
Bicycle Magazine has written a fairly thorough, up-to-date article on the different types of bikes. I would highly recommend anyone new to buying a bicycle to read or skim this article for a first introduction.
Also, Sheldon Brown's pages for beginners are also very useful.
The frame and sizing
A first step in buying a bicycle is considering how tall you are and what size frame (the main "triangle" of tubes that determine the shape of your bicycle) fits you. This chart from Bicycling Magazine is a good place to start, though ignore the chart heading
Size (Inches). Bike frames and parts are usually measured with the metric system and even that chart from Bicycling Magazine lists frame sizes in centimeters. Most bike frames are measured by the top tube length (the tube of the frame that is roughly parallel to the ground that runs between the seat and the handlebars) and are listed in centimeters. However, as we'll see - the size of wheels are confusingly measured in inches though tires are measured in millimeters or centimeters.
tl;dr: everything you need to care about as a beginner is measured with the metric system.
However, keep in mind the best way to figure out if a frame fits you is to ride it! I am somewhere between 5'8" and 5'9" and after riding mostly 54-55cm size bikes for years, I'm thinking now I may be better suited on a 52cm frame. Bike sizing and fit can take trial, error, and input from professionals to really dial in. However, as a beginner, you can get "in the ballpark" pretty quickly. A bike that fits you will fit like a good pair of running shoes. You will know if it's uncomfortable almost immediately. If it feels scary to steer a bike around a parking lot, it probably doesn't fit you. A bike that's too big will not feel "responsive," or will feel like you're trying to turn a stubborn shopping cart. A bike that fits you right will "listen" to you. You won't feel like you're straining or stretching to pedal (given the seat height is roughly okay) and it should feel stable to lift yourself off your seat to pedal standing up.
If you really want to nerd out on how bicycles fit, I would recommend poking around BikeInsights.com. The folks that put together this data are great people and you can go down a serious rabbit hole investigating how certain bicycles fit and compare. Talking to a professional in person is your best bet! Find a local shop near you and ask lots of questions!
Also it's worth noting that while you usually can't make a bike that's too big for you smaller, you can usually make a slightly smaller bike fit a little bigger. If you want to know more now - jump to the section on "Cockpits."
A note on "contact points"
When you ride a bicycle, you have three contact points with the machine. You sit on a saddle (1), your feet move the pedals (2), and your hands rest on the handlebars (3). Your comfort on the bike is a factor of these three things. However, the bicycle is also in contact with the road - the bicycle's contact points with the road are its tires. Therefore, your contact points with your bicycle and the bicycle's contact with the road dictates how comfortable and enjoyable your ride will be.
The first thing you should consider when customizing a bicycle is a good set of tires. The bicycle's contact point with the road, in my opinion, takes priority over your own contact points with the bicycle. If your bicycle fits you properly, it should be comfortable without changing the saddle or handlebars. These things are great to customize but first let's talk tires.
I'm surprised when I discover people do not know a bicycle wheel is composed of the wheel itself (a rim "laced" to a hub with spokes), a tire, and an inner tube. The tire fits on the wheel and an inner tube with a valve is put inside the tire. When you inflate your bicycle tires, you are really inflating an inner tube. There are infinite videos on the internet about fixing a flat tire on a bicycle but the biggest barrier for people new to riding bicycles is understanding that not all bike wheels, tires, and inner tubes are the same.
Whether it's a commute through debris-littered city streets, riding through the countryside, hitting a dirt trail near your house to avoid an intersection, or some combination of all three, the right wheels and tires make all the difference. Fancy suspension is great for fancy trails. If you're new to bicycles and you want to just get to work or to the grocery store, you most likely want to ignore all bikes with suspension for now and move on to considering your wheels and tires.
Wheels can be confusing! There are usually two types of wheels, mountain bike wheels and road wheels. Mountain bike wheels come in three different diameters:
- 26" (twenty-six inch)
- 27.5" (twenty-seven-five inch), also known/seen as 650b
- 29" (twenty-nine inch) also called "29ers"
Road, gravel, and cyclocross bicycles usually use wheels referred to as 700c, which are about 29" in diameter. Some bikes in these categories can also run 650b wheels. Wheels will have varying rim widths, which means some wheels with wider rim widths can more comfortably fit wider tires.
This may seem pedantic to discuss but it's important for one main reason: tires. I don't ride mountain bikes very much and don't nerd out as hard about them. Most of this guide will be geared towards road, cyclocross, or entry-level mountain bikes (also sometimes marketed as "hybrids"). I mainly ride road bikes with 700c wheels. However, we'll revisit mountain bikes when we discuss finding a cheap used bike in part two.
The right set of tires, as I've mentioned, make all the difference when riding a bicycle. Finding tires that fit your bicycle can be a scavenger hunt but as prerequisites you need to know:
- What size wheel your bike uses (700c, 650b, 26", etc.)
- What type of valves your wheel fits ("shrader" vs. "presta")
- How big of tires your bicycle will fit (see width below)
- Common use of your bicycle (what sort of roads do you ride on?)
Once you know the answer to these four questions, you can start hunting for tires. I like to think of tires in terms of the following attributes:
- Width (how wide they measure from side to side when inflated)
- Durability (how long they last)
- Puncture resistance (how well they hold up against getting poked by stuff I ride over)
- Speed (how fast you feel)
- Aesthetics (look good, feel good, ride good)
Usually, attributes 1-4 will affect a tire and bike's overall grip. How well the bike grips the surface it's rolling on is the most important factor. This is why I say that tires make all the difference. If you feel comfortable, confident, and safe on your bike on the roads you usually ride, you will enjoy riding your bicycle.
In my opinion, a main consideration when buying a bicycle is tire clearance. A powerful question when searching for a bicycle is "how wide of tires does this bike fit?" The frame and fork of your bicycle will usually limit what kind of tires will fit without rubbing. You do not want very tight clearances between tires and bicycle frames, as debris or rocks may flick up into these spaces and cause damage to your tires.
Wider tires can be ridden at lower tire pressure, leading to more comfort and an easier time rolling over bumps and obstacles. Mountain bikes can fit very wide tires, leading to an ease of riding all sorts of trails.
When customizing tires, your options are almost limitless. Research how long a set of tires will last you. A good road tire can and should last about two years, less depending on how hard and often you ride.
Good tires should be tough enough to withstand running over some construction debris (within reason), sticks, rocks, sewer grates, manholes, etc. The tradeoff here will usually be what's called suppleness, or how soft it feels to ride the bike. Supple tires usually have a thinner tread and perhaps thinner sidewalls, leaving a slightly increased chance of punctures or tears.
Some tires are faster than others. You can really nerd out about "rolling resistance" but chances are you only need a cursory idea of how fast a tire can be. Tires with more intricate tread patterns are usually slower than those with smooth tread patterns.
Looks are arbitrary! Ride what you like but perhaps be wary of loud-colored tires. Sometimes these are meant for "trainers" or the systems you can use to ride your bike indoors.
Putting it all together
Read more about suppleness and a good take on tires here from a lovely bicycle company called Rivendell. Rivendell and Panaracer (a Japanese tire manufacturer) produced a now-discontinued tire called the Ruffy Tuffy, which in my opinion, is one of the best road bicycle tire ever made. Read a little about my experience with Ruffy Tuffys here on my own blog.
This post from Rene Herse Cycles offers some good perspective but take it as a grain of salt. Rene Herse is a major influencer in the trend of "wider supple tires run at lower tire pressures," but in my own experience I have seen suppleness lead to a lack of durability and puncture resistance.
Also you have to learn which tire pressures are right for your type of riding! Ask and Google! Depending on your tires, you may have to experiment with pressures from 50psi to 90psi.
When shopping for a bike, the gears and how they shift are not really that important. All you need to make sure of when purchasing a bike is that the gears are not seized, or that you can shift between all the gears smoothly. A clean bike is a happy bike! A bike shop can professionally clean and degrease a drivetrain and replace any cables used for shifting. This is a cheap repair and can make way more of a difference than having a fancy drivetrain!
For a quick vocab review of a drivetrain consists of:
- (Usually) two derailleurs (pronounced like de-RAIL-yer) - a front and a rear
- A crankset refers to the crank arms and spindle that connects them through your bottom bracket
- Chainrings are the front gears that are connected to your crankset
- For geared bikes, a casette on the hub of your rear wheel that consists of multiple cogs
- A chain, which makes the whole system move
Saddles are what you sit on. Everyone is different and has different shaped bodies. Choosing a saddle can be a long process, but your best bet is to talk to some folks at a local bike shop. I would suggest avoiding Big Box bike stores if you can, find a smaller shop, and talk to them about the shape of your current saddle and what problems you are having.
I also want to note that if your saddle fits you then you should not need an extra bike seat padder. These are normally not necessary and can mess with the fit of your bike. They are a band aid to how your bike fits you. You can put a temporary fix on something but really you need to look a step deeper on why you are feeling discomfort. Your saddle may be too low or too high, your saddle might be too far forward or too far backward, or maybe you need a different shaped saddle.
Regardless of how long you plan to sit on your bike, a good pair of shorts with a chamois under them makes a world of difference. You do not wear underwear under them but you can certainly wear them as underwear. I wear a pair of Cannondale brand shorts with a chamois in them under shorts (or pants if it's cold) if I have to be out and about on my bike for an extended period of time.
The humble seatpost
Saddles attach to your seatpost, which then slots into the frame. The material of your seatpost actually can make a noticeable difference when riding on rough roads. They're not worth dumping a ton of investment into, especially not right away, but know that a decent seatpost/saddle combination set with the right fit can improve your comfort on a bike immediately.
"Cockpits" - handlebars and stems
Cockpit is a pretty masculine and annoyingly militaristic term but it describes where you control your bike. The stem attaches your handlebars to the steerer tube of your front fork. There are several different styles of steerer tubes that I won't detail. What may help to know is that older bikes tend to have 1" steerer tubes, newer bikes tend to have 1-1/8" steerer tubes. This is another annoyingly non-metric measured part of the bicycle.
Stems and handlebars, by contrast, are measured metrically. Stems vary in length from 80mm to a "very aggressive" 130mm length. As mentioned earlier, sometimes a longer stem can be used to make a smaller bike fit a little bigger. Handlebars vary in width and drop bars (bars usually seen on road bikes) can also "flair out" to create wider grips. Handlebars are one of the most fun parts of the bike to experiment with. Chat with a good person at a local shop or do some googling to find what handlebars fit your style of riding. However, it can be difficult to steer a bike with time trial bars so be wary and be safe. I see a lot of beginners use this style of handlebar and I think many of them would be better off without them. It's important to stay safe and learn good bike handling technique, which isn't really possible using this style of handlebar.
If you have a road bike, hoods are what cover the controls of your shifters/brakes. The angle of how they are attached to your bike can affect your ride comfort, especially if your wrists are having to strain to sit on them. Finally, road bike handlebars are topped off with bar tape. Peeling off your bar tape and finding a comfortable angle for the hoods/controls before re-taping them can also make a difference.
Racks and weight consideration
If you are considering a bicycle with racks, consider the fact that they may significantly increase the weight of your bike. Will you need a rack for carrying a bag to work? Can you get away with using a backpack? These are things to consider, as a heavier bicycle may be less comfortable. If you are planning on riding frequently to and from work, consider using a backpack or a messenger bag if it will take you under 30 minutes. If you plan on also using your bike to go camping, maybe racks are right for you. If you have to lug your bike up and down stairs, having a heavy bike equipped with racks you don't often use may dissuade you from choosing to go out the door.
If you want to use your bike as a grocery-getter, consider a front basket. A small front rack and something like a lightweight Wald basket will usually suffice for a bag of groceries. Loading the front rather than the back may take a little to get used to, but I'm convinced it's a very simple way to carry essentials. Using zip ties or Voile straps may also make it easy to take the basket on and off in the case you want to save weight.
Stay tuned for part two
Did this help? Have comments? Feel free to send me an email from the address on my About page. Stay tuned for the second part of this guide on the used bike market and hopefully I'll see you out there on the road.