Bike Buying Guide

December 03, 2019 • Transportation

Buying a bike is sort of like choosing a mate: It needs to line up with your goals, be just the right fit, and (ideally) bring you joy.

Henry Miller knew this. In My Bike and Other Friends, Miller professes a deep connection to his bicycle. When Miller’s mother sarcastically suggests to her son that he take the bike to bed with him, Miller bites back: “I would if I had a decent room and big enough bed.”

Miller is certainly on to something. Your bike should feel like an extension of your body; it should make you want to race out the door in the morning and ride, even if you haven’t had your coffee yet.

So how do you find your perfect match? We’ve outlined questions to ask yourself and factors to consider when choosing a bike.

Where and how do you ride?

First, ask yourself how you plan to use your bike. Commute to work or weekend warrior? Trails or paved streets? Plan to ride multiple times a week or just now and then?

Then purchase the right type of bike for how you roll.

Types of bikes

Once you get clear on your purpose, figure out which bike type is right for you. Here are options:

  • A commuter (aka street, city, or hybrid) will be good for rides up to 20 miles on city streets. The upright seating position and straight handlebars are excellent for dealing with city traffic, as you will look up more at intersections.
  • The best bike for long distance rides is a road bike. Its aerodynamic position isn’t as comfortable as upright bikes, but it’s the best position to go fast on a long ride.
  • If you are going mountain biking, get a mountain bike. Riding a mountain bike in the city is probably heavier than needed. Also, the extra tire tread will slow you down and make pedaling harder.
  • Folding bikes can compact for storing or taking on mass transit. They are great for apartment living where space is at a premium. Although folding bikes are better for shorter distances, some people ride them everywhere.
  • E-bikes or electric bicycles are for riders who already feel comfortable on a bike and would like to be assisted in their journey. These bikes can go pretty fast (usually up to 20 mph) and help make long and/or hilly trips much easier. E-bikes need charging, so they require a bit more maintenance than pedal bikes.
  • A cargo bike or an electric cargo bike is best for parents or people who need to drop kids at school, go grocery shopping, or generally have lots of stuff to haul.

Side note: If you plan on taking your bike on public transit, you’ll want one that isn't heavy, as you may need to carry it up steps to board or stow it on a raised rack. Almost any bike will do, but remember the heavier it is, the harder it will be to maneuver in this case. Consider doing without heavier components like shock absorbers. You’ll be glad you did every time you pick up your bike.

Less than 10 miles on paved roads

Ride + train or bus

Long distance

Paved trails- recreational

Off-road, muddy, stump jumping

Commuter

x

x

x

Road

x

x

x

x

Mountain

x

x

x

Folding

x

x

Cargo

x

x

How much do you want to spend?

It’s likely you will need to spend at least $400 to get a good bike. There’s no limit to how much you can spend, just know that quality commuters start at $400, road bikes at $1000, folding bikes at $800, and mountain bikes start at around $400.

What to do when you visit a bike shop

So now that you know what kind of ride you’d like, it’s time to test ride ALL the bikes. Seriously, the more bikes you try, the better you’ll know which geometry, style, and weight feels the best. Bike shops can feel intimidating for new riders, so you may be tempted to order a bike online, sight unseen, but don’t. Here are some tips for your trip to the bike shop.

Tell the salesperson what type of riding you will be doing (commute, mountain biking, etc.).

  • Discuss any physical limitations you are concerned about.
  • Do you have a price range in mind? Mention this to the salesperson.
  • Ask to test ride the bikes you are interested in; the shop will likely ask to keep your license during your ride.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and closed-toed shoes if you want to take a test ride.
  • Bring your helmet or ask to borrow one at the shop.
  • Ask what the warranty is and if the first tune up is included when purchasing the bike.
  • Ask if there are any sales coming up.

Where to buy

First, we don’t recommend buying a bike at a big box store or online unless you are very knowledgeable about bikes. It makes a difference to get a bike that has been built by professional bike mechanic and from a place that specializes in bikes and/or outdoor gear. You should be able to test ride bikes to make sure you get the right size and like the bike you are about to purchase. Plus, it’s really nice to have a relationship with a bike shop since you will want a place to go for ongoing maintenance, repair, and support.

Things to consider when buying a bike

  • Like your bike shop, since you’ll want to go back there for future service. Think of them for specialized help and ongoing support.
  • Take a minute to know the warranty.
  • Be cautious of being oversold.

Some of our favorite shops in the Bay Area:

Menlo Park
Menlo Velo
433 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
(650) 327-5137

Palo Alto
Summit Bicycles
392 California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306
(650) 304-0035

Mike’s Bikes
4233 W. Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto
(650) 858-7700

San Francisco
Huckleberry Bicycles
1073 Market St, San Francisco
(415) 484-6575

Mike’s Bikes
1233 Howard Street (between 8th and 9th)
San Francisco
(415) 241-2453

Sports Basement (on Bryant)
1590 Bryant St, San Francisco
(415) 575-3000

Sports Basement (in the Presidio)
610 Old Mason St, San Francisco
(415) 437-0100

San Jose
La Dolce Velo
1280 The Alameda, San Jose
(408) 244-8356

Sunnyvale
Sports Basement
1170 Kern Ave, Sunnyvale
(408) 732-0300

Buying used

  • Craigslist: If you are very knowledgeable about bikes, Craigslist can be a good place to find a used bike.
  • Bike Index.org: Used bikes come with the risk of being stolen. Use this site to check by serial number if a bike you are considering purchasing has been stolen.

Need more help? Email us!

Email anna@bikesmakelifebetter.com a note with your answers to the following questions:

  • What kind of riding would you like to do?
  • Roughly how many miles one-way?
  • Do you currently own a bike, or have you in the past? If so, what kind? What do/did you like/dislike about this bike?

Renate Kempf - Bike Commuter Profile

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