Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bike Buying Basics

By: Pharmie

This past month represents my 7 year anniversary of buying my first “real” bike. Although there was that time in 7th grade when I used the money I earned from processing chickens with my Grandma all summer to buy a purple Huffy 10 speed, that bike wasn’t sufficient to race on 10 plus years later. I believe that’s a story for later.

I had signed up for my first triathlon – Minneapolis Lifetime Fitness Olympic distance. (I’m so excited that this is our official team race this year!) I knew I’d need a decent bike, but I was also in my second year of grad school, newly married to another grad student, and living off of student loans and 15 hours of work a week. Funds were pretty tight. When I first stepped foot into my local bike shop, I had no clue what I was doing. I knew what my budget was but had to really sift through what I needed to leave the store with versus what I could save up for at a later date. As I’ve gotten newcomers into the sport over the years, the following list has really come in handy. If you or your newest triathlon initiate are looking at buying a bike, I’d like to offer these tips:

1. Find a good local bike shop (LBS). Even if you decide to scrounge Craigslist or find a steal on EBay, you cannot underestimate the value of establishing a good relationship with your LBS. First of all, in order to even consider looking somewhere else, you need to know what size you are which requires that someone take your measurements. Sizes often vary by manufacturer and individual model, so having your measurements will help to ensure you buy a bike that fits you properly. That being said, I’m a huge proponent of buying your first bike through your local bike shop. It’s a great way to establish a relationship with people you can ask questions later on. I had a ton of questions after I bought my first bike, and my LBS never treated me like I was stupid.

The first time I flatted, I had to take my wheel in so they could show me how to change a tube, and they were great about it. Many bike shops offer free tune-ups, can help you with a basic fit to make sure that your bike is comfortable and you are efficient on it, and can perform tweaks on it if you find things loosening up or rubbing as you break it in a little. You’ll know when you step in the door if a bike shop is for you. You should feel comfortable asking them questions and should feel like they have your best interests in mind. Beware of the salesperson that refuses to take your budget into account when helping you make your choice.

They should be able to explain differences in models and what you are upgrading or downgrading to with each of them. My favorite local bike shop isn’t actually the closest one to my house. Although I have been in the close shop numerous times, I have been snubbed every time I’ve been in there (so have a lot of my friends and neighbors). I prefer the bike shop that’s a bit of a drive but where people know me, the staff has low turnover, and they don’t nickel and dime me for every service.

2. Set a budget before you go in. Know what your max is, and keep in mind that the bike will only be a percentage of this cost. You will need to factor in tax in most states in addition to all of the essential extras. I usually tell people to expect to spend around $1000 for a bike that is of decent quality that will last you several years and that you can upgrade in a couple of years if you fall in love with the sport. If you can spend more than that for your first bike, great. You can definitely buy a better bike with more cash, even a few hundred dollars more, but not everybody has this kind of budget.

3. Consider buying a road bike over a tri bike as your initial purchase. Yes, tri bikes look faster, and there are definite advantages to using a tri bike, but most beginners won’t honestly notice a difference. Tri bikes tend to be a bit more expensive and aren’t as forgiving with respect to gear ratios as road bikes – an important fact to consider since most beginners don’t have powerhouse legs. You can always buy a pair of clip-on aero bars (usually around $50-100) down the road.

My first bike was a Specialized Dolce Sport road bike, and I paid around $550 for it. I still have it. In fact, I’ve been riding it exclusively as my trainer bike since my current 7 ½ months pregnant belly no longer fits into aero position on my tri bike. My Dolce has gotten me through two Ironmans and thousands of miles. I now use it as a commuter bike to get to work on sunny days, and after Baby comes, it’ll be pulling a buggy on family rides.

4. Take a look at last year’s model. This time of year, many bike shops have a few models left over from the previous year and are looking to clear them out of inventory. You can usually save several hundred dollars by buying the previous year’s model new. Your salesperson should be able to tell you the difference between the years. While occasionally there’s a major upgrade, often the differences are minor, such as color or decal changes.

5. Know which accessories are essential. You’ll need at least one water bottle cage (maybe 2), a portable bike pump or CO2 pump, a spare tube, tire levers, a patch kit, a helmet, a floor pump, a small pack to hold your emergency supplies, a multitool, and the knowledge of how to change a flat. At least one pair of bike shorts are probably a must – trust me on this one. I would also argue that toe cages are a must if you aren’t buying bike shoes and clipless pedals right off the bat. Some bikes come with them, but if the one you are eyeing doesn’t, your LBS may be willing to add them for free. I used toe cages with my running shoes for the first few months I had my bike. Although they aren’t as efficient as bike shoes, they allow you to take advantage of the full pedal stroke. Keep in mind that you don’t have to buy all of these accessories from your LBS. You can often find great deals on these small items online.

6. Know which accessories can wait a few months if your budget is really tight. You can get by for a little while without a bike computer, especially if you already have a Garmin. Websites like can at least show you the distance you’ve traveled. Bike shoes and clipless pedals are something to look at soon after getting your bike, but as mentioned above, you can get by pretty easily with just toe cages (unless you have really big feet). I actually liked getting to know the handling of my bike before locking my feet into position and having to learn clipping in and out.

7. Know which accessories you can save up for after your credit card cools off. Aero bars are definitely nice. They offer improved aerodynamics and comfort, but they can wait a little while. If you do buy a tri bike, you’re already covered here. Bike jerseys are great. You can often find them on clearance, and the pockets are really helpful for longer rides. However, you can get by with an athletic shirt that doesn’t flap in the wind if you need to.

After you’ve been with your bike for a while, you’ll either love or hate your seat. You may want to consider a new one if you fall into the latter group. If your hands are getting uncomfortable after longer rides but you aren’t ready for aero bars, a pair of bike gloves can help take some of the pressure off the nerves in your hands and prevent hot spots.

Although any pair of sunglasses should be able to get you by for a while, a pair that wraps around your face and has interchangeable lenses for different weather and times of day is an investment I'd recommend. Clear lenses are great for keeping bugs, dust, and branches out of your eyes! Finally, a trainer will keep you in great biking shape all year round. I love the Cycelops Fluid 2 that I got several years ago during a fall sale.

Good luck on your search for your new bike or in helping a friend find one!